Why is US bombing both the Islamic State and IS's sworn enemy?

WASHINGTON – Let’s say you believe the White House’s argument that bombing the Islamic State, the most serious threat to Bashar Assad’s government, does not mean that the United States is fighting on Assad’s behalf.

Perhaps you also buy that while the U.S. and Iran are fighting the same enemy, the countries are in no sense allies. And maybe you’re even the open-minded sort who has no qualms with the U.S. launching a campaign against violent extremism with the help of countries that are themselves accused of backing violent extremism. After all, though the Middle East seems hopelessly riven by religion, political ideology, and ethnicity, everyone pretty much hates the IS.

But even if you’re on board with all that, there’s something new you need to reckon with: While the U.S. bombs the IS, it’s also attacking one of the most powerful groups fighting against the IS.

Though American spies had apparently been tracking it for months, the vast majority of Americans had never heard of the Khorasan Group until a few days ago. U.S. officials discussed the little-known group with The New York Times last weekend in what now seems to have been something of a preview. The gist: Khorasan is a cell of seasoned al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have embedded with al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and are reportedly planning direct attacks against the United States.

The U.S. targeted the group with airstrikes on early Tuesday morning in tandem with the better-anticipated strikes against the IS. There are unconfirmed rumors that the group’s leader, the Kuwaiti-born, onetime Osama bin Laden associate Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed in those strikes.

It’s unclear whether Khorasan is a distinct entity from al-Nusra, or just a group of high-ranking foreign fighters within the group, which has been fighting against the IS since the Islamic State formally broke away from the global al-Qaida network in February.

Reuters reports that its Islamist sources in Syria “did not seem to consider Khorasan a separate group,” with one saying, “We are not sure what group they are talking about. … They are probably making a distinction between Khorasan leaders and others, but this is only a Western term.” (Khorasan is a term for a region that includes parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.) There’s been some speculation that the U.S. is emphasizing the distinction to avoid alienating local groups that might want to work with al-Nusra against the IS.

It’s not surprising that the U.S. would conduct airstrikes against a group that was reportedly “nearing the execution phase” of a plot to attack an American or European target. The context of the war against the IS, however, makes this all a bit strange.

If, as U.S. intelligence officials have suggested several times to the media, al-Nusra/Khorasan is more likely to attack the U.S. than the IS, it may cause some Americans to wonder why the IS is the group we’re focusing on. If anything, the bombing campaign will likely make the IS, a group that has thus far been mainly concerned with conquering territory in its own region, more likely to attack U.S. targets and kill more U.S. citizens. The IS this week called for attacks on countries supporting the air campaign.

This points up the awkward rationale for attacking the IS in the first place. Most Americans support the strikes because they believe the group is a threat to the United States. By contrast, the White House and military leaders believe the threat’s not all that great, but the IS is still worth attacking to prevent the complete disintegration of the Iraqi state and the formation of a new jihadist bastion.

On the surface, it also seems like an odd strategy to attack two groups dedicated to fighting each other. If the IS, al-Qaida and the Assad government are all intolerable to the United States, why not allow them to fight each other? Just look at Syria, where there have been more than 190,000 deaths and more than 9 million people displaced, to understand why a hands-off approach won’t lead to anything resembling a positive outcome.

And so the U.S. has ended up in a situation where, in tandem with a country it swears is not an ally, it’s bombing one terrorist group, as well as that terror group’s sworn enemy, in a campaign that seems likely to work to the benefit of a government it doesn’t consider legitimate.

It’s possible to understand the logic behind all this, but that doesn’t make it seem any less absurd.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics.