U.S., Assad Both Bombing ISIS, But State Dep’t Disputes ‘We Are on the Same Page’

By Patrick Goodenough | August 19, 2014 | 4:24 AM EDT

Smoke rises during airstrikes targeting ISIS militants at the Mosul Dam outside Mosul, Iraq on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

(CNSNews.com) – With the U.S. carrying out airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL terrorists in Iraq, the Syrian regime has launched an unusually intensive air offensive of its own against the group in its northern Syria stronghold.

But if President Bashar Assad was hoping for even a grudging acknowledgement from the U.S. that he was engaging the same enemy about 200 miles away from the U.S. actions in northern Iraq, he would have been disappointed.

“I think I’m probably going to avoid welcoming that,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday, when asked about the Syrian offensive.

Harf said the Assad regime’s actions were to blame for the growth of ISIS in the first place – both inside Syria and during the Iraq war by encouraging the flow of fighters into Iraq. ISIS’s earlier iteration was al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

“So I would strongly disagree with the notion that we are on the same page here in terms of what we’re doing.”

“Regardless of the cause, you do agree that you share an enemy in common, correct?” a reporter asked.

“I’m not going to say that we share anything in common with the Syrian regime,” she replied.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian air force planes dropped dozens of bombs Sunday and Monday on ISIS positions around Raqqa, a city it has controlled for the past year and calls the capital of its “caliphate” encompassing territory captured on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

Harf agreed that “ISIS needs to be taken out,” its leadership degraded and its funding cut off.

“But I don’t want to give the Assad regime credit for that,” she said. Harf also demurred when asked whether the administration would oppose Hezbollah attacking ISIS, saying “I’m not going to venture to address that hypothetical.”

The Lebanese-based, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite group has been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in the civil war, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said as recently as Friday that his fighters have been battling ISIS in areas of Syria near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah has even raised the possibility of sending fighters to confront ISIS in Iraq, citing the need to defend important Shi’ite sites from the Sunni jihadists.

Both Hezbollah and ISIS/AQI are U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Harf conceded it was “a good thing” when ISIS fighters were being taken off the battlefield.

“However, the Assad regime is the one responsible for their growth in strength, and I also don’t want to come out and say that I think the Assad regime bombing people in its own – who knows who they’re actually hitting? I can’t actually confirm reports about who they hit in Raqqa. So I think it’s just a little more complicated than that.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that jihadists and civilians had been killed in the bombings on Sunday and Monday.

The regime’s official SANA news agency did not report immediately on the Raqqa bombing, except to quote a military official saying that some media reports speculating that U.S. aircraft had carried out airstrikes in Raqqa were “groundless.”

The regime’s failure to mount sustained attacks against ISIS in the past has sparked numerous theories, ranging from suspicions that Assad and ISIS were in collusion to the view that it served his purposes to leave ISIS free to fight against other anti-regime opposition groups, whether jihadist or nationalist in outlook. ISIS’ growth also lent weight to Assad’s assertion that he is facing a foreign-backed enemy.

Irrespective of Assad’s actions and motivation, critics of the administration’s approach to the Syria conflict – including Republican lawmakers and President Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford – have suggested that ISIS has also been able to flourish because the U.S. and its partners were slow in arming moderate rebels fighting to topple the regime.

Harf said Monday she disagreed “strongly” with that contention.

“We have consistently increased our support to the moderate opposition, and I think it is important to remember that in Syria, particularly early on in the conflict, there were a lot of these guys all mixed up together.”

“We are very specific when we vet who we give assistance to and how we do that, because what we don’t want is to rush to give assistance that somehow then ends up with ISIS.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow