U.S. strikes in Syria ease Islamic State pressure on moderate rebels

Assisted by intelligence from moderate rebel fighters on the ground, the U.S. carried out remarkably accurate airstrikes against Islamic State targets north of Aleppo over the weekend that destroyed bases hidden in farm buildings and killed dozens of militants, rebel officials and local activists said Tuesday.

But because the airstrikes were not coordinated with the U.S.-backed rebels and caught them by surprise, the rebels were unable to advance on the ground, the officials and activists said.

“The rebels didn’t advance,” said one rebel official. “Each party remains where it is.”

“Had there been coordination, there could have been an advance,” a second rebel official told McClatchy. He added: “We’re still wondering what is U.S. strategy against the Islamic State in Syria. They seem in no rush to solve the problem.”

These and other rebel officials insisted on anonymity so as not to jeopardize their relationship with the U.S. government.

There was no question, however, that the airstrikes – the U.S. Central Command said three airstrikes were carried out against 10 targets – also benefited rebel forces.

In the village of Dabiq, north of Aleppo, the airstrikes leveled a large chicken coop that was being used as a headquarters for Islamic State fighters and severely damaged a house that fighters used as a dormitory, local activists said.

In the village of Tel Male, near the city of Mari’e, airstrikes severely damaged buildings near an Islamic State base, they said. They said many fighters were killed, and the wounded filled hospitals in Al Bab and Minbij, both occupied by the Islamic State.

The first rebel official, who has an overview of the entire battlefield in northern Syria, estimated that 30 Islamic State fighters were killed in the airstrikes, 10 of them in the chicken coop. He said the Islamic State, wary of U.S. airstrikes, now houses no more than 10 people in any front-line position.

The rebel official said the strikes limited the Islamic State’s ability to move in the area and may head off what commanders fear are synchronized offensives by the Islamic State and the Syrian government.

He said the Islamic State had brought reinforcements into the area in apparent preparation for an attack. The airstrikes sent the message that “advancing is not allowed,” the official said.

“There were positive results,” said Gen. Abduljabbar al Akidi, a former head of the Aleppo Military Council who now leads rebel units fighting in the Kurdish enclave of Kobani, a different theater. “We welcome strikes against IS anywhere. Our reservation is that they aren’t hitting the regime at the same time.”

Government aircraft Tuesday intensified the air assault on civilian targets, including schools in almost all parts of Syria, media activists said. According to their reports, seven children died at a school in Douma, in the countryside near Damascus, and seven children were killed in the village of Sfuhan, near Idlib in northern Syria. Syrian government aircraft also bombed Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the Islamic State, and killed 20 people, all civilians, the Al Jazeera television network reported.

Rancor over the U.S. failure to coordinate with pro-Western forces on the ground dates back to late September, when the U.S. mounted airstrikes in northern Syria against the Nusra Front, the al Qaida affiliate in Syria that moderate rebels see as an ally in their battle against the Syrian government.

Moderate rebel commanders warned then that the strikes against Nusra would win it sympathy from Syrian fighters and the public. Last month, Nusra took advantage of the backlash and ousted two pro-Western forces from Idlib province and captured their U.S.-provided weapons.

Last week, Nusra led the charge to seize two regime military bases in Hama province, another advance for a radical force that now appears to be on a roll.