GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Since June, hundreds of airstrikes by the United States and its Arab allies have killed thousands of fighters in Syria belonging to the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS. But the strikes have also played into the group’s recruitment strategy, drawing thousands of new militants from other Syrian rebel groups, along with ideologues from around the world. If the U.S. and its allies would like to effectively combat IS, they will need to go beyond just airstrikes and work toward a decisive political solution in Syria while countering the group’s narrative about global jihad.
When the coalition airstrikes expanded into Syria in August, they were welcomed by Syrian Kurds, but Sunni Arab Syrians opposing President Bashar al-Assad were incensed. After having failed to intervene against regime forces in a grinding, nearly four-year civil war that has claimed over 200,000 lives, the U.S. was now targeting the most effective rebel group in the country.
In the first three weeks of airstrikes alone, more than 5,000 fighters from Syria and Iraq joined IS, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain. That spike in recruitment allowed IS to make gains on a number of fronts in the war despite the U.S.-led campaign. Today, activists from the eastern province of Deir el-Zour say IS is close to taking control of an airport there, a victory that would provide it with a large cache of weaponry and almost total control of a region stretching from its effective capital in Raqqa to the Iraqi border. In the northwestern city of Aleppo, meanwhile, IS is poised to become the only major rebel force controlling the principal rebel supply route to Turkey.