West to join forces with Assad in dramatic u-turn
Islamist forces are fighting their way into western Syria from bases further east, bringing forward the prospect of US military intervention to stop their advance.
If Isis, which styles itself Islamic State, threatens to take all or part of Aleppo, establishing complete dominance over the anti-government rebels, the US may be compelled to act publicly or secretly in concert with President Bashar al-Assad, whom it has been trying to displace.
The US has already covertly assisted the Assad government by passing on intelligence about the exact location of jihadi leaders through the BND, the German intelligence service, a source has said. This may explain why Syrian aircraft and artillery have been able on occasion to target accurately rebel commanders and headquarters.
Syrian army troops are engaged in a fierce battle to hold Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province, the fall of which would open the way to Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city. Further north, Isis has captured crucial territory that brings it close to cutting rebel supply lines between Aleppo and the Turkish border. The caliphate declared by Isis on June 29 already covers the eastern third of Syria in addition to a quarter of Iraq. It stretches from Jalawla, a town 30km from Iran, which the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga are trying to recapture, to towns 40km north of Aleppo.
The question of possible US military action in Syria, such as air strikes, jumped to the top of the political agenda on Thursday when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, General Martin Dempsey, said: "Can they [Isis] be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no." He stressed that he was not predicting that the US was intending to take military action in Syria, but the US is very conscious that Isis can survive indefinitely if it has a large safe haven in Syria.
Chas Freeman, ex-US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that General Dempsey was pointing out that Isis straddles the Iraq-Syrian border and there should be a consistent policy towards it on both sides of the divide. General Dempsey "did not spell out the implications of that but, to me, they point in the direction of calling it off with Assad. It might also imply sharing intelligence with Isis opponents, even those from whom we are estranged. Odder things have happened."
Mr Freeman, who is retired, said he had no knowledge about whether intelligence-sharing with Mr Assad's government was being considered.
For the moment, the most pressing issue in Syria is not the elimination of Isis, but preventing its expansion after a series of victories in July and August. The policy of the US, Britain and their allies in the region over the last three years has been to support "moderate" Syrian rebels who are supposed to fight Isis and other jihadists as well as the Assad government in Damascus. But the Western-backed Free Syrian Army is increasingly weak and marginalised while jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front have been unable to halt the Isis assault.
Overall, the Syrian army has shown itself much more effective in combat with Isis than the Iraqi army that has yet to score a single success. A series of Iraqi army attacks against Tikrit have all failed.
Air strikes are not the only way in which the US, Britain and their allies among neighbouring states could weaken and isolate Isis, but in doing so they would necessarily undermine other rebel groups. Key to the growth of Isis and the import of thousands of foreign fighters, has been the use of Turkey as a point of entry.
Determined to get rid of President Assad, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has kept Turkey's 550-mile border with Syria open, giving the jihadists, including Isis, a safe haven over the last three years. The Turks are now saying Isis is no longer welcome, but Ankara has not moved seriously to close the border by deploying troops in large numbers.
An unqualified volte face by the US, Britain and their allies in their relations with the Assad government is unlikely because it would mean admitting that past support for the Sunni rebellion had contributed to the growth of the caliphate. (Independent News Service)