THE SYRIAN MESS
By Al Emid
Author Journalist Broadcaster
The Glamourous Life of an Author
A shocking admission in the United States Senate, developments in the battlefield and some artfully-worded diplomatic statements during last week go a long way to pointing up the complexity of the ISIS crisis in Syria, the fractured state of the country and the almost total unlikelihood that the country will likely ever regain its full pre-crisis territory. In the backdrop these events also demonstrate Syria’s usefulness in an international political game.
(It might appear appropriate to include the European refugee/migration crisis in this list of implications but Syrian nationals accounted for roughly 20% of the flow into Europe in the second quarter of the year, according to the European Commission. Many Syrian refugees appear to have fled to closer destinations, typically the case with refugees from war zones. And that crisis merits several separate posts.)
Syria is currently embroiled in two major wars. Syrian forces loyal to the government fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – ISIS — but also the Free Syrian Army and numerous smaller rebel groups. At one time estimates ranged around an astounding 1000 rebel groups but some of them have faded and some have merged with other groups.
Speaking in Washington to the U. S. Senate Armed Services Committee, General Lloyd Austin, who heads the American war effort in the region, updated Senators on the strategy for training what it had termed ‘moderate’ Syrian troops to fight ISIS in the country. The program had not come even close to meeting its much ballyhooed target of 5400 fighters, all of whom would promise to fight ISIS but not the government. “We’re talking four or five,” Austin said, according to The Daily Beast and other publications.
The plan, originally conceived as a part of President Barack Obama’s strategy for retaking Syrian territory from ISIS, had actually produced 54 fighters, but many of them had left and some had been captured or killed. According to The Daily Beast, the program so far has cost $43 million of the $500 million allotted by Congress or ‘roughly $9 million per fighter’.
Perhaps in a very unintentionally ironic remark, Austin summarized the current status of the group. “The new Syrian Force Program has gotten off to slow start,” he said in a masterpiece of understatement. The Daily Beat account did not mention a collective gasp amongst the Senators present but one can reasonably believe that some of them cringed at the update. The Senators, including Sen. John McCain who normally treat military witnesses quite cordially went into overdrive in their criticisms. “One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that (Islamic State) is losing and that we are winning. And if you’re not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing,” McCain said according to Reuters.
Had it worked, this strategy would have complemented American President Obama’s longstanding desire to avoid increasing American involvement but it clearly has not succeeded.
At time of writing the Army has started reviewing other options for fighting ISIS in Syria, according to reports.
Meanwhile Russia has built up its base near Latakia, moved in military equipment and personnel to support the Assad regime, and continues transporting more equipment including fighter jets. At time of writing, Reuters reports that Syrian forces have started using the new air and ground weapons and the Russian Foreign Minstar held out the possibility that Russian troops would fight alongside Syrian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a long-time ally of Syrian President Assad called for joint talks on the Syrian situation. Meanwhile Syrian army jets carried out approximately 25 air strikes on the city of Palmyra, currently held by ISIS and Raqqa, often considered ISIS’s de facto capital.
Russia advocates a broad coalition to fight ISIS and argues that helping Assad’s military would do that. Putin did not refer to Assad’s relentless bombing, torture, and rape of civilians and whether those atrocities had in fact pushed anti-government forces even further than otherwise and horrified outside observers. To be fair, the United Nations Human Rights Council has also accused rebel fighters of systematic torture and inhuman treatment.
Although the U.S. has recently softened its position on ‘regime change’ – that is the removal of Syrian President Bashir al-Asaad in recent months, it still wants Assad to step down eventually, on some kind of negotiated schedule. That marks a change from President Obama’s statement in August 2011 that “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Asaad has shown no sign of accepting this verdict and certainly appears unlikely to give it much consideration. He also called for joint action in an interview with reporters.
On the diplomatic front, American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu and Secretary of State John Kerry made clear to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that if the reports of Russia’s moves were true “it could lead to greater violence and are not helpful at all” to efforts by the international community to end the conflict, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report.
Taken together, these developments rather prove that ISIS will not face defeat in the short –term, that it will do whatever it takes to hold on to the Syrian oilfields, that Assad will not leave office unless pushed and because of the crisis, he has had a reprieve. These events also suggest that Russia intends to assert its role in the region, that the United States continues backing away from its role as the world’s policeman in favor of a local solution and that the instability of the region will continue unabated at least in the short- and medium-term. Add to that combination Obama’s obvious desire to continue limiting America’s role in the region, his lame duck status and the increasing preoccupation with the net federal election.
The stakes in these and other developments in Syria during the past week certainly include implications for the ISIS crisis but they go beyond the unlikely resolution in the short term.
Russia and Putin arguably have more to gain than merely helping Assad. With this week’s military moves Putin has re-staked his claim to burnishing Russia’s place on the world stage, arguably one of the motives that drove his Crimea and Ukraine strategy. In the background, Russia’s moves appear to reflect its own fear of jihadists within its own borders.
With all of these factors in view, peace in Syria remains unlikely in the short term. Whenever a brokered peace does become possible, postwar Syria will need a long and expensive restoration programme and the funds for that will have to come from somewhere. Assad will not go without a strong push and guaranteed asylum. The likelihood that at some future date Syria can restore its original territorial boundaries looks near impossible. ISIS currently controls a huge swath of Syria including many of its oil fields, a set of prizes that it will not easily surrender, given the revenue that the fields pour into its coffers. And the Syrian Kurds likely consider themselves entitled to retain the Syrian territory they have captured in the north of the country.
Al Emid’s fifth book entitled What You Need to Know About ISIS – Terror, Religion, War and the Caliphate and set for release by Quidne Press in early Fall looks behind the news about ISIS and what might lie ahead. He has begun developing a follow-up book set for release in early 2016.