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Syrian Rebels Fear Assad Will Benefit From ISIS Airstrikes

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

With its air campaign in Syria, the U.S. says it's coming to the aid of rebels in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. But some Syrian rebels are worried. They fear the airstrikes will benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they say that he should be the primary target. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: As the airstrikes against ISIS gain momentum, so do the protests in Syrian cities under rebel control with videos posted on YouTube.

(CHEERING)

AMOS: Rebel commanders who fight under the name The Free Syrian Army publicly welcome the strikes. Privately, they fear the Assad regime will gain at their expense. Regime aircraft continue to drop devastating barrel bombs on rebel positions and civilian neighborhoods around the northern city of Aleppo.

One activist posted this comment. (Reading) The U.S. is going to war against a barbaric enemy, but no one is talking about the barbarism that helped create it.

AIAD KOUDSI: What they want is to see some action against the regime - the Assad regime.

AMOS: That's Aiad Koudsi, a top official in Syria's political opposition. He agrees the main enemy is the regime. In recent days Washington officials have been on the offensive, speaking on Arabic-language satellite channels insisting the U.S. backs rebel goals. But Koudsi says the Assad regime has also launched a savvy media campaign claiming to be a crucial partner in the U.S. strategy.

KOUDSI: Assad is like a joker in the Batman movies, you know? He will play it the way he would like to, and he will use it for his benefit every single time. So I give him credit for being a good liar, and unfortunately people believe him.

AMOS: But it's hard to beat perceptions on the ground. The U.S. says is not cooperating with Damascus, but the regime does seem to be benefiting. Last week, government troops regained new territory around the capital, routing the rebels after a year-long fight. And the U.S.-led strikes have failed to stop an ISIS advance on the Syrian border town of Kobani, sending even more refugees fleeing across the Turkish frontier.

Resentment is building. Many Syrian activists say 200,000 deaths didn't move Washington. The Obama administration only stepped in to strike at ISIS radicals seen as a threat back home. Yassin Haj Saleh, a leading writer in Syria's uprising, talks about reactions to airstrikes in Raqqa, his home town. He refers to ISIS by the Arabic name of Da'ash.

YASSIN HAJ SALEH: No one of them is sorry that Da'ash being bombed, but no one of them is happy that the U.S. is now doing this.

AMOS: Haj Saleh is often called the conscience of the revolution. He wrote from Damascus while in hiding and escaped to Raqqa, where he had to hide again when ISIS militants took control. In his latest essay he names the three monsters he says are treading on Syria's exhausted body - the regime, the militants and the West. I don't trust American intentions, he tells me - our cause to change Syria is now a footnote to a war on ISIS. The right thing to do, he claims, is to build a coalition against the militants and the regime. The Syrian president is responsible for more Syrian deaths than ISIS.

HAJ SALEH: We have a bad guy that was doing his job in killing his subjects for 42 months. And he's seeing that another bad guy who is new in the killing business and who killed only thousands, perhaps, being beaten. So I think he's happy.

AMOS: The U.S. insists the air campaign is designed to strengthen the moderate opposition and lead to a political transition in Syria. But the rebels who've been fighting ISIS for more than a year say they haven't been given any role in the new U.S. strategy. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.