George Gulino, JHU:
ISIS, or rather Daesh, has come back into focus as a chief international security threat since the attacks in Paris on November 13th. Almost simultaneous suicide bombings/hostage killings at the soccer stadium Stade de France, the Bataclan concert hall and a few bars and restaurants claimed the lives of 130 and injured almost three times as many. The second such terrorist strike on Paris within a year is unavoidably symbolic; Paris is the traditional cultural capital of the modern Western world and a capital of European colonialism. The preeminence of one title over the other is in the eye of the beholder. What is less up for debate is the fact that the anarchy in Iraq and Syria are the root of the problem and must be addressed. The Western response has thus far been inadequate, marked by an inertial lack of will and excessive optimism about a “political solution”, one that seems to be slipping farther and farther away and may require a more radical re-imagination of strategy.
It’s perhaps useful to note that Daesh sprouted in Iraq and not Syria, mainly as a result of simmering sectarian hatred in that country. It was able to exploit the chaos in the aftermath of the Assad government’s exceptionally brutal suppression of the Arab Spring to cross the fluid border and gather steam among certain segments of the Syrian Sunni majority. Meanwhile, the Alawite-backed Damascus regime was quite literally going to war with the peacefully protesting moderate opposition. Fast-forward to 2015, and Iraq has effectively devolved into an effectively autonomous Kurdish state in the north, a region contested by Daesh and others in the Sunni middle, and the continuing Shia Baghdad government in the south. The Syrian state is also effectively dead. While borders have changed at the margins, a glance at a July map outlining territorial borders between the current actors lends insight.
The Kurdish regions along the Turkish border have not grown significantly in the meantime, and the location of most battles show that the courageous Kurdish fight is largely a defensive one. There seems to be a popular misconception, especially in the United States, that Syrian Kurds would continue fighting their way across Syria to shake off Daesh or even the Assad government. This is hardly in the interest of Rojava (de facto autonomous Syrian Kurdistan), barring Western guarantees about independence in the future that have been pointedly missing from the conversation. Meanwhile, in a fashion reminiscent of Chinese Nationalist leader Chang Kaishek’s preference for fighting the Chinese Communist Party more than the occupying Japanese, the Assad government and its Russian ally have shown a preference for attacking more moderate elements of the Sunni opposition rather than Daesh or the similar Al-Nusra front. Stepping into Bashar al-Assad’s shoes for a moment, the reader may understand why someone whose reign is so widely opposed across the world would want to destroy viable alternatives and preserve the monster commonly known as ISIS. Moderate opposition can be found in that small pocket in the southernmost tip of Syria, which is watched closely by Israeli and Jordanian intelligence and not a focal point of the fighting.
Even if moderate Sunni Syrian opposition could be mustered despite having had their ranks decimated by the Assad government, they would not be sufficiently interested in fighting Daesh. Why fight and die against one enemy only to preserve your original enemy, the Assad government; after all, Russia and Iran are firmly opposed to the removal of the Assad family from power, and Russia now has (usually accurate) cruise missiles, dozens of fighter jets, thousands of special forces on the ground, and a base in the city of Tartus backing up this claim. This is the final and perhaps most difficult factor solidifying the terrible equilibrium of anarchy that exists today in predominantly Sunni parts of Syria.
The U.S. strategy of supporting the defensive efforts of the Kurds or the efforts of smaller moderate groups with airstrikes, some special forces and some weapons, all while diplomatically pushing for a “political solution”, seems futile in this analysis. One could argue that the limited military action would contain Daesh and weaken it until the mythical political solution becomes viable, but this theorized alignment of interests now seems farther away than ever. Syrian Kurds are enjoying the greatest autonomy in recent memory, Alawite territory is being protected by Russia, and Daesh thugs are fulfilling their sick fascist fantasies in-between with significant flexibility and propensity to hide leadership from airstrikes. Syria is more polarized than ever, and it’s difficult to foresee real incentive for a change in this status quo anytime in the near future.
Meanwhile, this status quo of absent law and order in huge swaths of two adjacent states in the Middle East is not sustainable to any other actor. The poorest Syrians are stuck in unfortunate conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with these countries scarcely capable of handling either this social and economic cost or the spillover in violence, as seen in the overlooked tragedy in Beirut only the day before the Paris attacks. More fortunate refugees have had the means to pay smugglers for passage into Europe, where a fractured EU is in the process of famously fumbling the need to centralize its intelligence apparatus and relocate a huge plurality of incoming refugees away from Germany and Sweden. This is not to mention the raging Islamophobia sweeping the entire West, which I won’t waste ink on refuting; hopefully our readers can see past this sort of base hatred with ease. Also not to be discounted is the fact that, at the time of the writing of this article, New York City officials are scrambling to prevent panic after a threatening video appeared online, and Brussels is in virtual lockdown amongst fear of an imminent attack.
The public debate tends to focus on all of this spillover and its ugliness, but the problem needs to be dealt with at the source. War-weary Westerners and other non-interventionists must realize that Daesh is not the same threat as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Rather, between eighty- and one-hundred thousand organized criminals have conquered and are administrating villages and cities in two failed states. Syria is likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future due to a rather solid equilibrium in place at the moment. Increased French involvement and cooperation between France, the United States and Russia in the wake of the attacks are promising signs. Perhaps cooperating directly with the greatest contributor to Assad’s continuing hold on power can engender a spirit of compromise which could pave the way for a political solution. Otherwise, an isolated Russia will find itself facing unsustainable casualties while playing into the hands of Daesh propagandists by simultaneously propping up a brutal dictator and making its presence so glaring. The United States will receive diminishing returns to its strategy of incremental involvement as groups hesitate to venture far beyond their own homelands. For Syrians and all of us with whom their fate is linked, the ugliness will persist and intensify.