A year ago, President Obama unsuccessfully sought the approval of Congress and the U.N. to launch a military campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces. Now, essentially circumventing the typical approval process, Obama's administration has ordered attacks in Syria targeting al-Assad’s enemies. The U.S. has remained firm that it doesn’t support al-Assad and is merely attempting to contain ISIS and other rebel groups that pose a threat both within and outside the region, but any involvement in the ongoing civil war is likely to have serious consequences. The U.S. is involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict, and this one may be more complex than any other.
The shift in focus from the Syrian government to the rebel factions fighting against it occurred largely due to ISIS’s advances in Iraq and across the Syrian border. The U.S. has been targeting the group with airstrikes in Iraq since early August, and in the midst of a prolonged civil war diplomatic borders mean less and less.
In the hours following the U.S.’s first official foray into the Syrian civil war, however, it wasn’t ISIS that caught the attention of the American public. The U.S. also announced that it had executed airstrikes against a militant faction called the Khorasan Group, a name which had not been mentioned in the administration’s rhetoric leading up to the airstrikes. Speaking to Yahoo News, Attorney General Eric Holder explained that the U.S. government has been aware of the group and their plans to attack the West.
“This is a group that has been known to us for two years,” Holder said. “We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen. And the hitting that we did last night, I think, will probably continue until we are at a stage where we think we have degraded their ability to get at our allies or to the homeland.”
According to the BBC, the group consists of about 50 al-Qaeda veteran militants from areas such as Afghanistan, Palestine, North Africa and Chechnya. The group is linked to the al-Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group that operates out of Syria. The Khorasan Group’s leader Muhsin al-Fadhli allegedly had close ties to Osama Bin Laden, and was one of the few who was aware of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. before they occurred. According to The Hill, al-Fadhli may have died in the airstrikes on Monday. His death would be a significant advancement for the American campaign, but likely will do little to stifle future attacks from the group.
The targeted Khorasan control centers were located west of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The airstrikes were relatively unexpected by the American public as well as those on the ground in Syria, especially considering ISIS’s strongholds are largely located in the eastern portion of the country. The U.S.’s expansion of its attacks only deepens its role in the complicated conflict.
Despite the media attention — both traditional and through social media platforms — commanded by ISIS, the U.S.’s targeting of the Khorasan Group is a reminder that al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain a significant threat to the United States. Although there have been reports that ISIS fighters have snuck across the Mexican border to launch attacks on American soil, those have largely been discredited by those with inside knowledge on the topic. As brutal as it may be, ISIS’s mission thus far appears to have strictly local ambitions — to establish a caliphate across the Syrian and Iraqi border.
The U.S.’s involvement in Syria is already complex, and it will only grow more conflicting when the country begins arming and training rebel groups in the region. Given the amount of rebel groups — each with different intentions, religious backgrounds, and desires for the nation’s future — this portion of the plan should be executed with extreme caution. The U.S. should also proceed with caution when targeting additional groups like the Khorasan in Syria and elsewhere — as the expansion of military action only deepens the complex conflict taking place in the Middle East.