US planes begin bombing ISIS in Syria from bases in Turkey

F-16 Fighting Falcons © Agencja Gazeta
US fighter jets struck Syrian targets in an operation launched against Islamic State militants from the Incirlik airbase in Turkey, the US military confirmed Wednesday. This news comes amid reports of a renewed rebel offensive on Syrian government forces.

Six F-16 strike fighters were deployed to Incirlik Airbase near Adana in southeastern Turkey earlier this week. The US forces stationed there have already been conducting drone operations against Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL), but Wednesday’s strikes were the first manned missions staged from Turkey under an arrangement reached with the government of President Erdogan in July.

“The United States and Turkey, as members of the 60-plus nation coalition, are committed to the fight against ISIL in the pursuit of peace and stability in the region,” said a statement from the US mission to NATO announcing the fighters’ deployment on August 9.

No Turkish fighter jets were involved in the strikes, security sources told Reuters. Ankara has been reluctant to take part in the campaign against Islamic State militants, citing “fears of backlash.”

Western critics have slammed Ankara’s stance, considering that Turkish planes are currently flying bombing sorties against the Kurdish militias based in Syria and Iraq, but not against IS militants on the same territory. Ankara considers the Kurds to be a threat to Turkey’s integrity, labeling them as terrorists. However, they have been the only ground force in the region to have any success fighting Islamic State.

Covering rebel offensive on Assad?

Meanwhile in Damascus, at least five people have been killed and dozens wounded in the latest shelling by rebel militants. Noting that this is the second such incident in less than a week since 9 people died in a similar attack on Sunday, RT’s Middle East correspondent Paula Slier reports that the timing of the latest attacks coincides with a US promise of air cover for the so-called “moderate” rebels it is training and supporting.

For the first time in months, the Syrian government admitted Tuesday that its troops were on the defensive and retreating from various parts of the country, Slier noted, adding that the rebels had not shown this kind of offensive capability since at least June.

The developments come amid a new wave of statements by US officials pinning all the blame for the situation in Syria on President Bashar Assad.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said during an August 3 briefing that “we believe that Assad regime long ago lost legitimacy,” while the State Department issued a statement claiming that “the Assad regime frankly is the root of all evil here … and has been instrumental in creating the kind of lawless area to the north where ISIL has been able to get purchase and extend its roots.”

READ MORE: Ousting Assad militarily would enable ISIS to seize Syria – Lavrov

But while the US-supported rebels aim to topple Assad, the reality today is that the only force that would replace the Syrian government in such an event is Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out on Tuesday after talks with his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir.

“I would not want any powerful state involved in attempts to solve the Syrian crisis to believe that Assad issue may be solved militarily, because the only way of such a military solution is the seizure of power [in Syria] by Islamic State and other terrorists,” Lavrov said, adding: “I don’t think anybody wants that.”

Despite the Assad government’s seemingly calm reaction for now, people in the Syrian capital are becoming increasingly concerned over the launch of US airstrikes from a Turkish air base. Local journalist Alaa Ibrahim told RT that US warplanes are authorized to target anyone threatening Pentagon-trained rebels, including Syrian state troops.

READ MORE: Damascus wary as US launches air strike against ISIS in Syria

‘Moderate’ rebel training fail

The latest reports suggest that US plans to recruit and train purportedly moderate Syrian rebels are failing. Anonymous officials talking to the Daily Beast described the program as a “disaster.” While sharing their frustration with the results, they also admitted that the Kurdish militia known as the YPG has actually proven to be “the most effective fighting force in Syria” opposing Islamic State –superior to the rebels the Pentagon has been training by far.

READ MORE: ‘Complete disaster:’ US training of Syrian rebels falters as Kurds prove combat superiority – report 

The problem is reportedly the failure of the US to find enough suitable rebel candidates to form a sufficient New Syrian Force. Congress has already set aside $500 million to build this “moderate Syrian opposition,” but the US has only been able to train 54 individuals in total so far – a far cry from the 15,000-strong force it initially wanted.

US begins bombing #ISIS in Syria from bases in Turkey

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According to Ibrahim, the very notion of a ‘moderate rebel force’ is “out of context” given the situation on the ground in Syria, where Islamist groups have proven to be far better at attracting rebel fighters.

“The factions with an Islamist ideology are the factions capable of recruiting… of having better organizational and combat skills, and as a result, they will attract the new fighters and they’ll be able to gather more fighters with them. And no matter how much you train fighters abroad and send them in… they will eventually join these factions,” the Syrian journalist explained.

So who helped IS rise?

The US’ commitment to fighting Islamic State has come into question after recent revelations that Washington chose not to interfere with the rise of anti-government jihadist groups in Syria that eventually ended up turning into IS fighters.  

The former head of America’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, made the claims during an interview given to Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan. He cited a secret 2012 memo, which predicted the rise of extremist groups and the threat of a “Salafist principality” forming in eastern Syria, to support his statement.

The DIA report stated “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” supported by “the West, Gulf countries and Turkey.”

Flynn argued that the US government intentionally ignored his agency’s warnings. “I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision,” he said.

Meanwhile State Department spokesperson John Kirby told RT’s Gayane Chichakyan that they consider the “Assad regime’s lack of legitimacy to govern effectively its own people and its own territory” responsible for the rise of IS. Kirby refused to comment on Flynn’s claims.

Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Quds, Said Arikat, told RT that Washington’s approach to Syria, which exclusively presents Syria’s president as a leader who has ‘lost’ legitimacy, only serves to further destabilize the situation.

“To continue to adhere to the stubborn line that Assad has lost his legitimacy is basically agitating for more of these groups to emerge. Today we have ISIS, tomorrow we might have something else,” Arikat said.