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Syrian opposition chief: U.S. assistance will be used against Assad forces, not just Islamic State fighters

NEW YORK — The president of the Syrian National Coalition — whose “moderate rebel forces” President Barack Obama and Congress have committed to help — told me bluntly this morning his fighters will use those stepped-up resources against President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, not just the Islamic State extremists that the U.S. is targeting.

“We don’t always have freedom of choice or options.” Hadi al-Bahra said in a late morning interview during the United Nations General Assembly week. “You fight and defend yourself against whomever is waging an offensive against you. So we will be for sure fighting on the two fronts.”

This can’t be welcome news in Washington. President Obama has resisted getting drawn into the civil war between the moderate opposition in Syria and the Assad government, despite entreaties for nearly three years for him do so.

But pressed on whether he’s made any commitment to Washington to devote the new U.S. training, weapons and equipment solely against Islamic State extremists, al-Bahra gave no ground.

He insisted the Assad government is responsible for the growth of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) militants in Syria, deliberately helping them flourish as a way to squeeze the moderate opposition. “You need to go back to the root of the issue.” he said. Failing to continue the fight against Assad will only perpetuate the conditions that “will produce more terrorist organizations.”

In short, al-Bahra’s message was, try as President Obama might to stay out of the Syrian civil war, there’s no separating the two battles.

He addressed another controversial point — whether U.S. airstrikes will end up helping other extremist anti-Assad elements like the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front, which does include the U.S. and Europe in its targets. The opposition leader maintained that the Free Syrian Army forces, not al-Nusra, are best positioned to seize Islamic State group-held territory in Syria, if the Islamists are softened up by U.S. air strikes first.

But he conceded that for now, the FSA and al-Nusra are on the same side, dividing up the battlefield against Assad’s army and not fighting each other. “It’s not coordination or cooperation,” he said, “but it’s facts on the ground … You make decision on the battlefield.”

The opposition chief ended with a final sobering thought. Asked how long the U.S. commitment would have to last to do the job, even just against Islamic State, he offered a range of one-to-three years at least. “Al-Qaida, you’ve been fighting it since 15 years ago. But they still exist right now, because the approach was wrong.”

The question for the U.S. is — will the fight President Obama has undertaken against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq be a more effective one?

You can watch Margaret Warner’s interview with Syrian National Coalition President Hadi al-Bahra on Monday’s PBS NewsHour broadcast.

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