WASHINGTON -- For a group of volunteer rescue workers trying to protect civilians in the Syrian war, the recent escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria is at once a blessing and a curse. While the Syrian Civil Defense is set to receive millions of dollars in additional U.S. assistance, representatives of the group this week criticized the U.S.-led coalition's airstrike campaign as risky and counterproductive.
Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Tuesday, members of the Syrian Civil Defense said they had recently been promised $4.5 million in U.S. funding, on top of $6 million the group has already received. Even as they spoke of receiving substantial financial assistance from the U.S., group members had harsh words about the ongoing military operation against the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. “The suffering of the civilians increased” since the U.S. and its coalition partners began bombing targets within Syria last week, said Raed Salah, the head of the Syrian Civil Defense in Idlib Governorate, a province in northwestern Syria.
Speaking through a translator, Salah cited claims by Syrian activists that U.S.-led airstrikes have resulted in civilian deaths, including one allegation that 15 civilians were killed in a Sept. 23 strike on the village of Kafr Duryan in Idlib. Though the Obama administration has not confirmed the deaths, Yahoo News reported earlier this week that the House Foreign Affairs Committee was briefed by Syrian rebel commanders on alleged civilian casualties following that strike.
Moreover, the administration acknowledged to Yahoo on Wednesday that the Syria strikes will not be held to the same strict standards for protecting civilians that U.S. drone strikes are required to meet.
Salah said it was a "big mistake" to launch strikes that could risk harming civilians, adding that Idlib Governorate, where the Sept. 23 strike took place, was not a stronghold for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
"Everyone knows there is no ISIS in Idlib," Salah said.
The Syrian Civil Defense group, also known as the White Helmets, is comprised of hundreds of volunteer rescue workers who try to aid the victims of bombings within the rebel-held areas of Syria. The workers, who were ordinary civilians before the civil war began, say they have saved over 2,500 lives over the last six months and describe themselves as unaligned with any of the factions in the conflict.
The group's criticism of U.S. strategy in Syria is complicated by the fact that a significant amount of its funding comes from U.S. assistance. Asked for further details about the promised $4.5 million, Syrian Civil Defense spokesman Farouq al-Habib told The Huffington Post that the commitment had been made by Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
“He said that there will be a new trench of equipment … but we are not sure yet if it’s approved finally or not,” al-Habib told HuffPost.
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment, either on its relationship with the Syrian Civil Defense or on the group's criticism of U.S. policy.
Salah also said that the airstrikes threaten the food and fuel supplies for non-jihadist Syrians in Idlib. For instance, coalition airstrikes targeted grain silos in the town of Manbij, which is not in Idlib but provides grain for about half of its population. The silos, Salah added, are not a significant hub for Islamic State militants.
"If the Americans target the other grain silos in Idlib, we will not be able to find a solution," Salah said. "There were maybe five or six fighters from ISIS there, but was it worth it?"
And while airstrikes on Islamic State-controlled oil refineries -- which have been confirmed by U.S. Central Command -- help to starve the extremist group of oil revenue, they have another consequence for civilians and aid groups.
“An oil barrel cost us 10,000 Syrian pounds before the airstrikes. Now it costs 45,000 Syrian pounds and it is very difficult to find," Salah said. "Will the American government compensate us or provide any alternative to get fuel?"
Within Idlib itself, strikes are especially controversial. The province is largely controlled by the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. Yet the U.S. and its partners have angered some within the FSA by reportedly targeting the Jabhat al-Nusra group, an al Qaeda affiliate tactically aligned with some parts of the FSA against both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Khorasan Group, which the U.S. targeted in its first round of airstrikes, is understood to be an element within the Nusra group.
FSA and other rebel leaders charge that by targeting Nusra in rebel-held areas, the U.S. risks damaging the rebels' relationship with the Nusra fighters, weakening opposition forces and alienating sympathetic civilians. While the West considers Nusra an adversary, the non-extremist Syrian rebels believe it to be effective.
In objecting to U.S. policy, the Syrian Civil Defense joins an already significant wave of complaints from non-extremist, anti-government Syrians. Many rebels have already criticized the U.S. decision to strike the Islamic State and not Assad.
"Whether we're talking about rebel groups or humanitarian groups, the one thing that unites them is opposition to the Assad regime ... if the U.S. airstrikes continue as is, the Assad regime is likely to benefit," said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy and the author of a new book on Islamist movements, Temptations of Power. "When they see Jabhat al-Nusra being targeted, it contributes to this perception that the Assad regime is getting a free pass."
Some even believe that the U.S. is coordinating with the Assad regime, according to Hind Kabawat, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and the moderator of the Syrian Civil Defense event. Kabawat said her sources in Syria did not believe her when she told them the air campaign was independent of Assad's campaign against rebel-held areas. For example, Yasir Al-Sayeed, a member of Idlib's local council, told Kabawat he felt constantly under attack. "He says at night America is bombing us, in the day the regime is bombing us—it looks like there's kind of a coordination," Kabawat said.
The U.S. has denied any military coordination with Assad's government. However, the State Department confirmed that it had informed Damascus before the first strikes were carried out, and Assad and his representatives say their government is willing to help the international community battle extremists in Syria. Assad's foreign minister has even said "it's OK" for the U.S. and its partners not to notify the government of all of their strikes, because "we are fighting ISIS, they are fighting ISIS."
Hamid said the question for Washington, following the negative reactions to the first round of strikes, is what it ultimately wants Syria to look like.
"A lot of this flows from what our strategic objectives are. If the objective is to simply degrade ISIS, to make it harder more generally for extremists to operate," the current strikes will fulfill that goal, Hamid said.
"If there's a broader vision of building a coalition of Syrian rebels that can be a third force in society, then our approach doesn’t make sense."