Soon, soon, you will see a wondrous sight,’ says the Isis anthem, ‘for your destruction, my sword has been sharpened. We march by night, to cut and behead… We make the streets run red with blood, from the stabbing of the bayonets, from the striking of the necks, on the assembly of the dogs.’ The people of the Syrian town of Deir Ezzor were left in no doubt that they were the dogs in question. This nasheed — or chant — was posted on the internet, played over video from Syrian state TV of Deir Ezzor residents criticising the Isis siege. The message was clear.
That was at the beginning of this year, when fighters from Islamic State were closing on the city and seemed about to storm it. But Deir Ezzor held out: 100,000 people cut off and existing on the brink of starvation, sustained by airdrops from the regime, the Russians and the UN. Deir Ezzor survived for so long as the only government-held town in Syria’s east because the regime sent its elite Republican Guard to defend it. The bloody stalemate went on until last weekend, when there was a development so unlikely that Isis might have considered it a miracle.
It was an intervention not by God but by the ‘Crusader air force’: two American F-16s, two A-10 ‘tankbusters’, a British RAF Reaper drone and some unspecified Australian warplanes. They were sent on a mission against Isis but somehow attacked the Syrian army instead. The F-16s drop 500lb laser-guided bombs, the Reaper drones have Hellfire missiles and the A-10s fire 50 rounds a second from a seven-barrel Gatling gun capable of punching through tank armour. Some 80 Syrian soldiers — perhaps more — were killed.
Isis fighters surged forward and the Syrian army lost the strategic mountain overlooking the airbase that stands between Deir Ezzor and the jihadis’ ‘sharpened swords’. The government may already have retaken the mountain — the situation is unclear at the time of writing — but the bombing has exposed the confusion at the heart of America’s Syria policy. In 2011, the US called for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to go. That policy, however weakly pursued, has never changed. Now the priority is fighting Isis — but in Deir Ezzor, the most effective forces doing this are the regime’s.
Deir Ezzor is vital for Isis, sitting in the centre of its self-declared ‘Caliphate’. Losing here would leave their ‘capital’ Raqqa almost encircled, and cut off the retreat from Mosul to the east, which is about to be assaulted by the Iraqi army. So in Deir Ezzor, President Assad is doing the Americans’ work.
The confusion in American policy is less a flat contradiction than a failure to carry things through to their conclusion. The Russians support the regime with airstrikes, and every time the Americans carry out a mission they phone the Russians to make sure the planes don’t fly into one another. This co-ordination does not extend to the Syrian forces on the ground, though in Deir Ezzor they certainly share the same aims. The bombing was simply an accident, a Pentagon spokesman told me. ‘We will not change our approach.’
Syrian propaganda said the attack was proof that the US and Isis had been in alliance all along, a fantastical suggestion taken up by the Russian foreign ministry. Russia and America had recently reached an accord on Syria, which led to a fragile ceasefire between the regime and ‘moderate’ rebels. Days after the American ‘mistake’, the truce collapsed. Syrian jets were stacked up over Aleppo, the bombs ‘falling like rain’, according to residents of opposition-held areas. The Americans blamed the Russians after an aid convoy was hit, laying bare another contradiction, this time between humanitarian aims and the requirements of war with Isis.
The very idea of a US-Russian alliance in Syria can also be seen as a contradiction — one half of the alliance wants to topple the regime, the other supports it. That was the argument this week in America’s leading neocon journal, Commentary, which celebrated the US bombing under the headline ‘America’s Accidental Moral Victory’. Some US officials believe that. They hope that getting rid of Assad would let ‘moderate’ rebels negotiate a peace deal with a reformed government. But the Alawite minority that underpins the regime sees the conflict as existential — victory or death — while many rebels, even excluding Isis, are Islamists who disdain the stuttering peace process.
It is, as I wrote here last month, a complicated battlefield. Even without the Russian alliance, the Americans are literally backing both sides in the war. In the battle against Isis in the north, they supply airstrikes and weapons to a Kurdish force that is in tacit alliance with the regime and involved in skirmishes with Arab rebels also backed by the US. Since the regular US military is helping the Kurds and the CIA is helping the rebels, American commentators gleefully point out that Syria can also be understood as a CIA proxy war against the Pentagon.
Barack Obama’s presidency is in its last days — would his successor do anything differently? Donald Trump began his campaign saying he had a ‘secret, foolproof’ plan to beat Isis quickly, but later announced that he would give his generals 30 days to come up with a new plan. Hillary Clinton says she supports a no-fly zone and a safe area for civilians in northern Syria. But a safe area would shelter armed groups, too, some of which the US says are part of the global jihad.
At least the short, evil reign of Isis may be coming to a close. They committed what may be Syria’s worst massacre — near Deir Ezzor, as it happens — killing 700 members of the Shaitat tribe, who stood in the way of Isis getting a lucrative oil pipeline. The man behind this was said to be Saddam Jammal, a former hashish smuggler who — a witness told me — marched into a village and executed the tribal chief’s five sons, in descending order of height, before hanging their heads on a fence. But it is as well to remember that in other parts of Syria, the regime has seemed content to collaborate with Isis against the rebel groups who are their common enemy. It has also funded Isis by buying the oil that the jihadis obtain from territory they have conquered.
And the regime helped to create this phenomenon by releasing its jihadi prisoners at the start of the uprising, providing — with breathtaking cynicism — an enemy to terrify its own supporters and the international community. Even as the regime counts its dead from the US bombing in Deir Ezzor, the US expression of ‘regret’ can be seen as a victory for President Assad’s gamble and a harbinger of the regime’s survival.
Paul Wood spent four years covering Syria’s civil war for the BBC and is a fellow at the New America foundation in Washington.