The latest terrorist attack in Paris, together with the refugee influx in Europe have brought the Syrian crisis back into the discussion. The issue is unanimously acknowledged as being the root cause of both the ability of ISIS to recruit and maintain its influence, and of the humanitarian nightmare that those running from the civil war and the terror have been going through over the last years. Despite agreeing on the underlying cause for this tragedy, the powers that be cannot reach the needed compromise for its solution. With the risk of sounding cynical, this is understandable, as the situation on the ground is extremely complicated on any level of analysis, be it international, regional, or even at group level. In this article, we aim to present a brief overview of the conflictual interests leading both to hostile behaviour, and to a lack of meaningful action.
The most important player in this game has to be the United States because it remains the sole global superpower. Its interests are fundamentally three. First, the US administration has repeatedly stated that Assad cannot be part of a future Syrian leadership. According to this view, ‘the dictator’ does not have any legitimacy left in the eyes of the Syrian people, and the next government in Damascus will have to be one for the latter. The second goal of the US is the containment of ISIS in the short-to-medium term. Finally, the third goal is to block any Iranian attempts at spreading its influence in Syrian and Iraq. All three goals are inter-connected, and they are all tied to a resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Regarding the fight against Assad, the United States is desperately seeking for something that could become a local anti-government, and anti-ISIS local military force, as a troops-on-the ground supplement to the American airpower. There have been discussions regarding the deployment of some 10.000 US military Special Forces for the training of what would eventually be a Syrian Army for the Syrian people. The debate is continuing over the training of such an Army, more specifically on whether the Syrian fighters are to be trained on Syrian soil, or abroad. Apart from this, the question remains what is going to happen to these military men once Assad and ISIS disappear. Past experiences have shown that arming rebels have most of the time had negative repercussions in the longer term. Also, where are these military men to be found? Earlier attempts to train the Syrian rebels have miserably failed.
In both supporting the rebels, and in aiming to get rid of Assad, the Obama administration has faced a staunch opposition by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The latter is framing the American objectives as attempts at interfering in the Syrian internal affairs, and as tactics of social engineering that are deemed to make the world a more dangerous place for all the members of the international community. More specifically, Russia’s President has pointed to the rebels-turned-terrorists that have previously had American funding and training. Thus, by investing in the anti-government forces, the US would actually be indirectly investing in ISIS. Russia wants to maintain Assad in a crucial position in a future Syrian regime, both for stability and influence-related reasons.
In addition to the Syrian rebels, the fight against ISIS has been led by the Kurdish forces in Syria, more specifically the armed militias of the Democratic Union Party. This is the ethnic dimension of the conflict. Being affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds have been antagonized by the government in Ankara. Also, this has created tension between Turkey and the United States, as the latter have been supporting the Kurds in military terms. Washington does not want to destroy its relations with Turkey, a reliable and relevant NATO member state both in the Black Sea region, and in the Middle East. Turkey has also had issues with Russia regarding the future of Assad. Turkey has been one of the most vocal partners in the anti-Assad coalition. Moreover, Russia’s recent bombings in Syria have put Ankara in defensive over the danger posed to the Turkmen residing in the border-areas of northern Syria.
The Sunni-Shia divide is also at play in Syria, further complicating the developments on the ground in terms of sectarianism. As Iran-backed Shia militias have been pouring into Syria from Iraq, the United States have been caught in a dilemma. On the one side, any help is welcome for the on-the-ground fight against ISIS, and the help of Shia militias is not less valuable. On the other side, Iran is one of the main supporters of Assad. By welcoming Tehran’s help against ISIS, Washington will have to take the former’s requests in relation to the political future of Syria. Furthermore, the Shia militias’ involvement in the conflict is antagonizing the Sunnis in the country, and in Iraq, thus filling the ranks of ISIS (mostly Sunni Arabs). The oppression of the Iraqi Sunnis has been the main cause of the birth of ISIS in the first place. Finally, the potentially greater role played by Iran in the region is not so well-received in the United States, and definitely a threat for the Gulf States. The latter are already hostile towards the United States for not involving them in the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The acceptance of Iran’s participation in the Syrian/ISIS conflict would push the Americans and their allies in the Gulf further apart. The same goes for US-Israeli relations. At the same time, not taking Iran into consideration would pull the latter and Russia even closer.
As can be seen from the brief analysis above, the web of interests and hostilities is very entrenched, and miscalculation from any side can escalate the civil war in one country into an all-out regional war with disastrous international consequences. Hence the cautious approach taken by the current American administration. Such an approach is criticized by some as being too weak, and by others as being not pragmatic enough, thus too idealistic. The circumstances are extremely delicate, and the humanitarian costs already very high. What to do next is a question that opens evermore dilemmas. More probably than not, a tough compromise will have to be reached by all the parties involved. One goal remains nevertheless certain and able to unite everyone: ISIS must be defeated, as it is enemy number one.