Raqqa: to appease Iran, Obama gives Assad’s air force a free pass for slaughter

The term appeasement is often overused, but that's what Obama’s free pass to Assad’s air force in exchange for a hoped-for nuclear deal with Iran is.

The term appeasement is often overused, but that’s what Obama’s free pass to Assad’s air force in exchange for a hoped-for nuclear deal with Iran is

Along with barrel bombings in towns and cities across Syria, this last week saw a series of attacks by Assad’s air force on civilian targets in the northern town of Raqqa. These regime air attacks were sandwiched between two weekends of airstrikes by the US-led coalition on ISIS targets in Raqqa.

When US and allied air forces first began strikes in Syria, there was speculation that their presence would deter attacks by Assad’s air force against civilians, at least in the US area of operations. This past week’s events demonstrates that any such deterrent effect is fading if not over. The taking of turns in Raqqa’s airspace by Assad’s air force and US-led forces further undermines US claims of concern for the fate of Syrian civilians.


On Sunday 23 November, US warplanes carried out two strikes against an ISIS-occupied building in the city of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria. No civilian casualties were reported.

On Tuesday 25 November, Assad’s air force carried out ten air attacks on Raqqa, reportedly killing as many as 209 people, most if not all civilians. Targets were reported to include a busy marketplace, a bus depot, and a mosque where dozens of people were gathered for prayers.

On Thursday 27 November, Assad’s air force carried out between seven and ten further attacks, including one at the city’s National Hospital, reportedly killing at least seven more people.

On Friday 28 November, Assad’s air force carried out three attacks in Raqqa, killing at least five people including three children.

On Saturday 29 November, Assad’s air force again attacked Raqqa’s National Hospital. LCC Syria named five people killed.

In the evening of Saturday 29 November, US-led coalition aircraft were reported to have carried out at least 15 airstrikes. Later reports said the total had exceeded 30 airstrikes. The activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that all the targets of the US-led coalition were ISIS bases, hitting a high number of ISIS fighters.


The following are press reports of casualties from Tuesday’s attacks in Raqqa. Numbers given for people killed rose over time. No press reports gave precise numbers for people maimed and injured.


State Departmentj

The above tweet from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations was widely retweeted, reproduced, and criticised for characterising the Assad air force attacks as a misfired attempt to target ISIS when there was no evidence given in the linked story or elsewhere that the intended target was ISIS rather than the civilian victims.

The next day State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki did her best to convince the world that the US opposed the strikes:

Unsurprisingly, words without action did little to stem criticism.


Officials note, for example, that the American-led coalition, with its heavy rotation of flights and airstrikes, has effectively imposed a no-fly zone over northern Syria already…

The above assertion by un-named Obama administration officials reported October 7 was refuted the following day by New York Times journalist Anne Barnard in an article titled US Focus on ISIS Frees Syria to Battle Rebels, where she gave a taste of the ongoing air attacks being carried out by Assad’s air force from the same air space being flown by US and allied air forces.

There is some evidence that Assad scaled back air attacks following the start of US strikes within Syria. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, recorded numbers of people confirmed killed by air attacks in the first twelve days from 23 September showed a dramatic drop compared to the period before US strikes began. In the weeks following the recorded numbers of daily deaths rose again, but the number confirmed killed in October was still lower than in September.

It should be noted that VDC figures are minimum counts of confirmed violent deaths, and are by their nature most likely to be an undercount of the true total killed. For details see two posts by @lopforum:

Numbers of people recorded killed by ground forces (shelling and shooting) also fell in this period, suggesting that the drop in killing by Assad’s air force wasn’t purely because of it operating in a restricted space to avoid US and allied air forces, but may have been part of a wider strategic decision by the Assad regime to reduce the level of violence following the start of the US-led intervention.

It’s hard to draw clear conclusions on regime intentions from numbers of violent deaths alone. Since the peak number for violent deaths recorded in August 2012, vast numbers of Syrians have fled the country, consequently reducing the number at risk of being killed in any attack. Also, since that 2012 peak in killing, Syrian ground forces and militia have been reinforced by Iranian and Hezbollah forces, who may be more professional and militarily focused in their approach.

Syria airstrikesj

However, looking just at deaths from air attacks, one can see that a rise up to August 2013 seems to have been interrupted by the threat of an international response to the Ghouta chemical weapons attack, only to be resumed with increased ferocity once that threat had clearly passed in December 2013. Killings by air attacks peaked in February 2014, but dropped following the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2139 which explicitly demanded an end to barrel bombing and threatened further action in the event of non-compliance.

As that threat of UN Security Council action faded, the rate of killing by air was again rising in September 2014 before the US-led Coalition action against ISIS in Syria began. It was reasonable then to expect the post-intervention lull in killing to be short-lived—for it to be followed by a tentative escalation to test the risk of a US response, then greater escalation as no US substantial response came—and short-lived it now seems to have been.

Targeting civilians is the rule rather than the exception for Assad’s air force. Most attacks are too inaccurate for the regime to risk striking front-line rebel fighters as they could just as easily hit Assad’s own forces, so instead air attacks are used to terrorise, destabilise, and depopulate areas outside of regime control.

Historically Assad’s air force has focused these attacks on areas under rebel control, not areas under ISIS control, as the regime apparently sees ISIS as less of a threat to its rule, and according to many reports actively colludes with ISIS to weaken rebel forces. As ISIS in Raqqa has come under US attack, it may be that the Assad regime sees a danger of Raqqa again becoming independent of both ISIS and the regime, and has therefore decided to target the city with increased ferocity.

For an analysis of the Assad regime’s air bombardment strategy see Barrel Bombs: A tool to force displacement in Eastern Aleppo, by Ryan O’Farrell, Tahrir Souri, via EA WorldView.


Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama, points to two reasons the Obama Administration does not want to strike Assad’s air force, both related to Iran.

One reason is the fear, voiced to him by “a senior administration official” that any direct attack on Assad by the US would be met with retaliation by Iran’s militia proxies against US forces in Iraq.

The other reason is Obama’s desire to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. According to leaked accounts, a recent letter from President Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the nuclear negotiations included an assurance that the US didn’t intend to strike Assad’s forces in Syria. When those negotiations, supposed to conclude on Monday 24 November, were instead extended to a completion deadline of 1 June 2015, Assad would have had good reason to believe that Obama’s assurance not to use direct military force against him was now similarly extended.

Such a belief would no doubt have been reinforced by the dismissal of Chuck Hagel, US Defense Secretary, which also came on Monday 24 November. This was generally believed to be linked to Hagel’s criticism of Obama’s hands-off policy towards Assad. With the reassurance of these two events, it seems Assad felt safe to proceed the next day with his wave of attacks against Raqqa’s population.

The term appeasement is often overused. To negotiate with an enemy, to try and reach a peaceful settlement, is not in itself appeasement. But to trade the life and liberty of another country’s citizens in the pursuit of a hoped-for settlement that doesn’t serve their interests, that is a trade-off that deserves the name appeasement.

Obama’s free pass to Assad’s air force in exchange for a hoped-for nuclear deal with Iran is appeasement, and no form of public relations statement from the State Department’s spokesperson can alter that harsh fact.

Kellie Strom blogs at Air Force Amazons and tweets here

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24 Responses to “Raqqa: to appease Iran, Obama gives Assad’s air force a free pass for slaughter”

  1. JoeDM

    Seems to me that he is dammed if he does and dammed if he doesn’t.

    Between the islamofascism of IS and the brutal dictatorship of Assad, Assad is the least worst option. With the least long-term threat to western civilisation.

  2. Ian Brannan

    Assad is by far a better option that allowing the Islamic State and their ilk to take over Syria, in WW2 the allies fought alongside Stalin because it was better than the alternative. In regards to bombing rebel held areas, I would note that The Syrian Air Force is fighting a war, there are no rules you do what it takes to win victory whatveer the cost.

    ” according to many reports actively colludes with ISIS to weaken rebel forces.”

    Propoganda, there is not one shred of evidence in this article to back this assertion up.

  3. Guest

    Keep arguing for your beloved Assad.

  4. Guest

    Except the facts he links, right.

    Chlorine bombs, whitewashing thereof, you.

  5. Guest

    Good work Obama. Keep upsetting the ISIS groupies.

  6. Charbel Baroud

    ISIS and Assad are the same trash. ISIS is a re-brand of the militants that Assad himself trained and funded in 2003 before pouring them into Iraq in order to occupy US troops.

  7. Charbel Baroud

    Bollocks. Assad and ISIS are both battling the FSA and other Syrian revolutionary groups. The choice is either tyranny or justice. Assad/ISIS are tyranny. Justice is the Syrian majority and the FSA. But hey, you can continue buying into the propaganda of Russian and Iranian state-run media. You’re only fooling yourself after all.

  8. Charbel Baroud

    Except that it’s not a binary decision of Assad or ISIS. You’ve totally ignored Syrian civil society and the FSA who still comprise an overwhelming majority of the population and the armed presence, even though Assad is doing all he to exterminate all opposition to his fascist system.

    Also, what planet are you on exactly? Assad the least worst option? Mate, Assad was the one who financed and trained Islamist militants in 2003, the same ones that re-branded themselves as ISIS in 2013. Do your homework before you make foolish statements.

    I’m guessing you’ve never actually been in contact with any Syrian civil society activists have you? If you had, you wouldn’t be so utterly clueless.

  9. Charbel Baroud

    “least long-term threat to western civilisation.”

    LOL! are you for real? Do you seriously believe that propping up a savage dictatorship and allowing Assad to commit a genocide with total impunity is going to create new friends for the Western world? Do you not understand that ideologies harboured by groups such as ISIS are a result of the repression and desperation experienced under the brutality of decades-old dictatorships like that of the Assads? You clearly have no understanding of human society.

  10. DanielM

    sounds like your confused.

  11. DanielM

    says the one cheering for al-baghdadi

  12. Ian Brannan

    Not according to the UN, they think it was the rebels that used chemical weapons – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10039672/UN-accuses-Syrian-rebels-of-chemical-weapons-use.html

  13. Ian Brannan

    The choice is between Assad or Islamic Terrorists, Assad is the lesser of two evils. Look no further than Libya where Gaddaffi was toppled and the country is rife with Islamist terrorists and is a failed state akin to Somalia. If the Syrian Government falls the same will happen in Syria.

  14. swat

    I’m not too concerned about appeasement, but we’ed all apreciate a bit more isolationism from America and Britain. America is not the Worlds policeman or Arbitrator. My view is that if a Nation disintegrates into a civil war and conflict then let them kill themselves; particularly so if that conflict is confined to its own borders., and does not spill out, as happened in Afghanistan. Who am I to tell which of the dozens of militia forces fighting it out in Syria has the legitimate claim; all I can say is that its not ISIS with its brutal sadisic murderous approach, which wants to suppress freedoms. I would welcome complete withdrawal of all action in Syria plus the supplyof arms and equipment instantly and freezing of all foreign assets. And possibly interning or expelling all Syrian exiles abroad, just to bring the point home that its their fight and they’d better get down to doing something about it. Lets see a bit more isolationist policy.

  15. Lamia

    I suggest reading this article. It’s detailed and rather damning on the degree of the Assad regime’s involvement with helping to create ISIS. It’s more to blame than any other third party:


  16. Lamia

    Absolutely. As Peter Neumann has extensively researched. And it was no secret during the last decade that the Syrian regime was allowing ‘Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’ to operate from over its boundaries. Until very recently, too, the regime was focusing on attacking other rebels and avoiding confrontation with its ISIS friends.

    As these recent events show, the Syrian air force in one raid on Raqqa has killed many more civilians than the US in several months of airstrikes. While the US – contrary to Guardianista orthodoxy – takes care to try and avoid civilian casualties, the favourite regime of Galloway, Seumas Milne and other ‘progressives’ just does not give a damn.

    It is both bad and mad to form a de facto alliance with Assad. After Bush’s disastrous policy in the Middle East, Obama is still under the mistaken impression that trying to do simply the opposite – e.g. allying with Iran and Syria – must be a better solution. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. You can do the opposite of what GW Bush would have done… and still be wrong.

    Obama doesn’t have many cards to play, but it is very unwise to keep gambling on former enemies becoming firm friends, and to ally with an obvious war criminal is not going to help the US itself in the future. I am not arguing for confrontation with Iran, just that it is better to keep its regime firmly at arm’s length for the forseeable future.

  17. Charbel Baroud

    How old are you? 14? Have you heard of the UN Security Council? Do you know why it exists? Do you know what being a member state of this council entails? Are you aware that we live in a global economy? And above all, are you a psychopath? You seem to lack empathy for human beings. Or are you merely a good old fashioned racist?

  18. Charbel Baroud

    Oh do they now? del ponte’s baseless personal opinion didn’t last three hours before the UN dismissed it as…just that, the personal opinion of an ignoramus.

  19. Guest

    Oh dear. You just don’t get it do you. Assad created ISIS. He created them for a purpose. The purpose of 1) undermining the Syrian revolution, and 2) presenting himself as a necessary presence in the war against terror, so as to avert any potential Western military intervention against him and his regime.

  20. Ian Brannan

    Wrong Isis could not have emerged without support from western powers and their regional allies. They facilitated the travel of jihadis from 80 countries into Syria, funded them, and then trained and armed them. So long as these jihadis were committing crimes in Syria against Syrians and Assad’s regime, western governments turned a blind eye. After all, at the time Isis was doing the bidding of the same neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who had decided that the overthrow of Libya’s, Qaddaffi should be followed by the overthrow of Assad. This would then enable them to go for the main prize, the Iranian regime. However, Isis became a problem for the west when, following the pattern established by al-Qaida and the Taliban, they turned their guns against western interests in the region.

    Like it or not if Assad falls Syria will almost certainly become a failed state torn apart by infighting between militais and islamists as we can see in Libya.

  21. Charbel Baroud

    Wrong. After US forces entered Iraq in 2003, Assad’s regime trained and financed jihadists and sent them over to Iraq to battle American troops. Those jihadists were responsible for the insurgency in Iraq. Those very same jihadists re-named themselves ISIS in 2013 and entered Syria. Assad turned a blind eye to ISIS and allowed them to grow militarily. He did this because he knew they would undermine the advance of the FSA and because he knew he could later use ISIS to provide him with the Islamist threat that he needed in order to present himself as a necessary partner to a US-led war on terror, thus averting any potential attempts by Western powers to intervene against his regime. Those are the facts.

    If you believe that ‘Western’ powers wanted to overthrow Assad, these powers would have taken action against Assad back in 2011 immediately after Assad’s forces started gunning down and torturing to death pro-democracy protesters en masse. As you can see, no Western power has intervened to stop Assad in his genocide of the civilian population of Syria.

    Finally, your bigoted view of Arabic-speaking people sounds like it’s come out of a 19th century colonialist’s pamphlet. Like a true Orientalist, you deny Libyans and Syrians any agency in the events of their own countries, choosing instead to claim that the popular revolutions against brutal dictatorships are ‘western conspiracies’. You also view Syria through a childish binary of dictator VS jihadist, whilst totally ignoring the majority of Syrians, the FSA and a civil society movement. Your analysis of Syria is typical of an ignorant racist. Furthermore, the fact that you believe the overthrowing of dictatorships is an act of immorality, reveals your own ideological belief in totalitarianism.

    Let me ask you a question: Do you acknowledge the fact that Assad has been dropping bombs on civilians every single day since 2012?

  22. Paul J

    You must be loving the al qeada/Israel co-ordination in the Golan Lamia. How are your Harry’s place chums dealing with it?

  23. Comrade Darling

    The US bombed a 113 road fuel tankers in the last few days in order to disrupt the sale of oil and thus reduce the income for ISIL. The US had avoided doing this until now because of the high number of civilian casualties it would cause but the terrorism in Paris appears to have made this politically possible. They want to leave the oil installations intact so that the new regime (whatever that is) is able to make use of them and keep down the price of oil no doubt.
    Not sure how that balances out the kill rate, but thought I’d throw it in.

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