Nobody knows what will happen next in Syria. Syria’s war is unique among its conflicting military strategies, but it is not unique among civil wars generally. Threatening enemy, inflammable religious turf and divided military strategies is making this war very confusing.
War has become more schizophrenic than ever. While the US and it allies Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds make a de-facto international coalition on defeating ISIS in Syria, the strategic war features numerous other overlapping conflicts. Confusion is including the United States, nine countries have participated in US-led air strikes against ISIS in Syria. Russia is conducting its own bombing against ISIS and other rebel groups, in coordination with ground operations by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.
The divide among them raises conflict when Russia and Iran explicitly aim to keep Assad in power and the US-led coalition maintains that he has to go eventually, while both are focusing on defeating the Islamic State at the same time. In that sense, broadly speaking, Russia has intervened on behalf of the loyalists and the United States has intervened on behalf of the rebels, though the U.S. has tried to only help certain rebels, providing arms and training to “vetted” groups.
The US has sought to cooperate only with more moderate insurgents, not with the Syrian government, in fighting ISIS. Russia’s recent moves suggest that it is trying to position itself as the white knight in the Syrian conflict. Just as gravely, the decision to arm the rebels cannot result in the likelihood of a second peace conference taking place in Geneva. It is probable that this plannmay fail largely because rebels would refuse to talk to the Syrian government while President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. The new plan will simply funnel weapons, through rebel leaders who are already in the fight.
The initial plan was dubious. The new one is hallucinatory, since Russia has significantly stepped up its military support of Assad’s forces. If rejuvenated supplies of the US, British and French arms tip the balance, the rebels will surely be encouraged to fight on rather than negotiate. The plan that the Syrian rebels will get just enough arms to keep their territorial gains, but not enough to advance, is conflicting. The US and its allies are sending mixed messages. It would be difficult to say that the US will suddenly accomplish in finding rebel groups that subscribe to its restricted plan of defeating ISIS, but not joining the effort to topple Assad.
This is one of the many contradictions in the Syrian war military strategy that the US wants Assad to go but is also fighting ISIS, one of the strongest anti-Assad forces in Syria, in defiance of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle. Russia’s approach is less conflicting and it opposes all the rebel groups.
At present, ISIS is benefiting greatly from the strategic confusion among its opponents. Saudi Arabia appears more concerned with removing Assad and checking Iran’s influence in the region than with defeating ISIS. Turkey, likewise, seems more intent on removing Assad and putting down separatist Kurds than in defeating the terrorists on its doorstep. Russia and Iran remain intentionally blind to ISIS’s pillaging, in their avidity to ensure Assad’s hold on power, while Iraq refuses to arm its Sunni tribes against the group for fear they may intimidate the Shiite dominated government in Baghdad.
The U.S. and Europe want to remove Assad and have made defeating ISIS their most important consideration, but that has put them at odds with all their potential allies and their conflicting agendas.
The political question is what do Syrian people want from this War? When does this end? With foreign involvement increasing on both sides, neither is likely to win or lose, any time soon. The Syrian Civil War is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with over a quarter million killed, roughly the same number wounded or missing, and half of Syria’s 22 million population displaced from their homes. But more than that, Syria today is the largest battlefield and generator of Sunni-Shia sectarianism the world has ever seen, with serious terrorism implications for the Middle Eastern countries and inevitable spread of ethnic conflict.
Getting out of the imbroglio in Syria may appear harder than it has ever been. But the only tenable solution remains a diplomatic breakthrough that leads to a shift of power in Damascus and paves the way for a consolidated campaign against ISIS. That will require resolving the differences between the US and Assad’s chief backers, Russia and Iran. Until then, they are unlikely to accomplish much beyond moving the front lines back and forth, adding to Syria’s misery and despair.
Frustrated by the resistance of ISIS, the military campaign against it remains untethered to any coherent strategy. By gradually increasing its combat role in an expansive, complicated battleground, all the countries are being sucked into a schizophrenic war. The US and its allies lack any real strategy. How to defeat ISIS, which for more than a year has been withstanding heavy bombing from the air? How will just enlarging these attacks render ISIS incapable of launching more terror attacks? Is it possible to take on ISIS without supporting Assad? The US and its allies continue to oppose Assad remaining in power in Damascus. But on the very day that French President Hollande was visiting Assad’s main supporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to coordinate the fighting against ISIS, that assurance sounded rather void.
Public opinion and lack of political consensus continues to tie the hands of US and its allies. ISIS won’t be decisively defeated until significant ground forces confront it in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds. No country is currently prepared to send forces due to the “boots on the ground” anathema hanging from the last decade’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The expansion of British air strikes in Syria, better coordination and cooperation between the west and Russia, more forceful US and allies action against ISIS’s sources of funding are all strategies that will weaken it but won’t prevent it from continuing to hold large areas in insurgent regions of Syria and Iraq and using them as fertile grounds for terror attacks in the world.
Maybe it needs thinking outside the box but politics in war disapproves any compromises.