American airstrikes on Jabhat al Nusra in northwest Syria on Wednesday will serve to alienate a region of Syria that was among the last holding out hope for America to do the right thing.  Al Nusra is, in fact, an Islamist extremist group. In peacetime, the way they treat local populations would be wholly unacceptable. However, striking Al Nusra now reveals that the United States is already in over its head in the Syrian conflict, and that it cannot understand the complex nature of what’s at stake for American interests.

There is one (and only one) very simple reason why Al Nusra has local support: it fights the regime of Bashar al Assad. They are relatively effective at doing so. The Assad regime continues to drop barrel bombs on Syrian children in the region every single day. These bombs shred through walls, vehicles, children, and mothers. Local populations are tolerant, and even supportive, of any group that will fend off Assad’s ground forces and take efforts to keep his helicopters out of the sky.


The Obama administration’s policy to completely ignore the Assad regime’s ongoing terrorization of his people has been negligently counterproductive, particularly while American jets fly in his airspace. The Administration’s catastrophic failure to coordinate with the moderate opposition on anti-ISIS strikes, and its failure to provide them sufficient weapons and supplies, has alienated them in the battle for local public support against extremist groups.  In the first week of the airstrikes, and again on Wednesday, the US hit Al Nusra targets.  When this happens, the Syrian people and fighters draw conclusions based the facts that they see and feel.  

First, the U.S. strikes have given Syrians no relief from daily barrel bombs and other Assad attacks. Second, the U.S. strikes hit Al Nusra, a group that does work to give that relief. Third, moderate opposition groups receive weapons and modest support from the United States. Fourth, the President of the United States keeps saying that the fight against Assad and solving Syria’s problems is not a priority.  With these fact inputs, Al Nusra is able to convince the people that the moderate opposition is part of an American conspiracy to keep Assad in power and terrorize the local population.  Last weekend, Al Nusra capitalized on this narrative by successfully attacking the moderate battalions of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm Movement.  The US clumsily responded by hitting Al Nusra on Wednesday, with local reports of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Assad’s bombs continue to fall on children.

Take note that ISIS does not play a role. The people of Syria hate ISIS because of their brutality and because ending Assad’s reign has never been its priority. ISIS was driven out of the northwest in the course of several days by moderate opposition forces in January of 2014.  They have slowly made progress back into the region, boosted by their victories and American weapons secured in Iraq. 

Predictably, the President said on Wednesday that Syria is “not going to be solved any time soon.” He said that his priority is to push ISIS out of Iraq and to limit their movement in Syria.  This solution-averse and ISIS-obsessed mentality ignores the serious inroads that other terrorist groups with smarter public diplomacy have made in Syria.  This mentality ignores the message that our current air campaign sends to the millions of Syrian children who were bombed out of their classrooms by Assad. Our current approach is the exact kind of strategy that created anti-American Islamist extremism in the first place. Syrians view the American campaign as a reckless occupation and bombing of all sorts of Sunni Muslims with no logic or effectiveness on the ground. Most importantly, the approach does not provide any relief to Syrians who have been suffering for years under multiple torturers.

The United States cannot defeat Islamist extremism by bombing groups like Al Nusra in northwest Syria. These groups have been endorsed by Syrians as a last resort. The moderates are under-funded and under-armed in their quest to prevent Assad’s killing and to combat extremists. The restrictions placed on America’s allies in the moderate opposition are almost comical compared to the treasure trove of weapons that Assad, ISIS, and Al Nusra have. Defections and allegiances to terrorist groups will continue to grow under the current state of affairs.

The door is closing on America’s opportunity to prevent a generation of terrorists from emerging in Syria. President Obama’s steadfast neglect of the root cause of Syrian extremism will spell defeat for the United States. We must empower moderates to win territory and we must take clear action to end the onslaught of Bashar al Assad against civilians.  Secretary of Defense Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack Trump Afghan pullout deal unachievable, says ex-Pentagon leader MORE has come to the same conclusion in a memo criticizing the policy. Without showing the Syrian people that America will lead them to security, stability, and self-governance, our vastly expensive cosmetic bombing will create a nation of terrorists that American soldiers will have to face for decades to come. 

Thompson is an international lawyer, policy director for United for a Free Syria, and policy adviser for the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. His Twitter handle is @TylerThompsonDC