It is said that common foes build strong partnerships. Long before the terrorist army of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham marched into the Iraqi city of Mosul, threatened to exterminate the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, and attacked the country’s Kurds, the Syrian Opposition and the Free Syrian Army were battling ISIS and pushing back this common threat to our people.
Now more than ever, there is a national-security impetus for the United States to support and arm the Syrian opposition to halt and defeat the ISIS campaign. The current U.S. airstrikes in Iraq will slow down these Islamic extremists, but airstrikes are also needed in Syria to hit at the heart of the ISIS. Defeating them requires the inclusion in a broader U.S.-backed effort of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian tribes who already have extensive experience fighting ISIS.
The conflict has crossed borders and now threatens to destabilize the wider Middle East. ISIS could not have reached Iraq and crossed into Jordan and Lebanon had the world heeded our warnings earlier this year—and formed a regional strategy to combat this threat by supporting those of us who have been fighting these terrorists for months with little to no outside support.
We agree with America’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said recently that to effectively handle the ISIS terrorist threat, the U.S. needs a partnership with those who can “reject it from inside out.” The U.S. has that partner with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Opposition.
To achieve this shared goal, we need quality military aid, and fast.
We face an existential battle in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime that is bent on the eradication of all who oppose it. The slaughter—more than 160,000 Syrians have been killed—is being conducted on an industrial scale. Recent evidence presented by defectors has revealed how meticulously the killing has been planned by Assad and his Iranian backers.
Yet we have enemies in common with the U.S. and other potential allies. Before al Qaeda spawned ISIS, Assad’s security services provided a haven for al Qaeda on Syrian territory—long before our revolution against the Assad regime began in 2011. We have fought ISIS and are fighting other al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. In the past few days, the forces of Assad and Iranian-backed Hezbollah have been making dangerous advances on the opposition-held ancient city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. ISIS is trying to aid the advances by pushing deeper into areas in the north that were liberated during our revolution against the regime. This ISIS advance so close to the Turkish border presents a direct threat to us and to U.S. interests.
The Free Syrian Army and tribal leaders have proven to be the most effective force in fighting against ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates. On May 16, Free Syrian Army units in Aleppo province announced the launch of an anti-al Qaeda offensive titled Operation Earthquake of the North. On May 19, five powerful rebel coalitions signed a “Revolutionary Covenant” denouncing “fundamentalism and extremism.” On June 12, the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front Command released a statement reiterating the rebels’ commitment to democratic principles.
We have put forth a blueprint for stabilizing and freeing Syria from the threats that endanger both the Syrian people, regional allies and the West. We have proposed a scalable Syrian Rapid Deployment Force, which would form the nucleus of a larger stabilization force of more than 10,000 vetted and trained fighters—critical to defeating ISIS and Assad’s killing machine. We are also in the process of establishing offices and services in the liberated areas of Syria to support a political framework that will oversee and coordinate with a military chain of command.
We welcome President Obama’s recent initiative to support us as the genuine and vetted Syrian opposition with a proposed package of $500 million for military training and equipment. This military support will be helpful in the battle against ISIS, and it will save lives and prevent further spread of the conflict regionally.
But this support will not be enough if it does not arrive quickly and match the pace of the ISIS advance. Opposition forces will also need to be enabled with an air-defense capability. We need man-portable air-defense systems (Manpads) to defend homes and towns and villages from the incessant air bombardment and regime military assaults. These weapon systems will not fall into extremist hands because our forces are actively fighting those very extremists. We also know this because the Free Syrian Army has already benefited from lethal support from the U.S., demonstrating on the battlefield that it can effectively and responsibly use U.S.-made advanced-weapon systems such as the T.O.W. antitank guided missile. Manpads must be the next step.
The Free Syrian Army is the tip of the spear in the fight against ISIS terrorism. If properly enabled, our opposition forces have the experience and personnel to turn the tide on the ground. Together with the U.S., we can end the suffering in Syria. In partnership, we can deal a mortal blow to the terrorist threat facing both our peoples. But time is of the essence, as ISIS and Assad will exploit any delay to destroy those who stand against them. The U.S. State Department recently referred to ISIS as “worse than al Qaeda.” Given the dire threat, what could be worse than complacency?
*Mr. al-Bahra is president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.