Destroyed houses in the Al Dariya neighborhood in western Raqqa. Picture by Morukc Umnaber/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Expelled from Raqqa – or what remains of it - ISIS may be on the way to defeat. Yet with the conditions that gave rise to it still largely in place, the threat could merely recede to emerge in new forms on different fronts. Despite the positive fanfare surrounding the progress of the coalition’s campaign, the dilemmas facing western decision-makers about how to protect Syrians and push for a lasting end to Syria’s bitter war are as acute as ever.
While the ruins of Raqqa have changed hands, the drivers and impacts of the war remain open wounds. The Syrian war will not end with Raqqa, and the Assad regime that nurtured the jihadist threat in order to cling to power is as malignant as ever. Fearful repression remains the norm for people in regime areas, while Russia and Iran will continue to prop up an unrepentant and emboldened regime, using the smokescreen of fighting ‘terrorists’ to attack civilians and hospitals and starve the population in opposition areas into submission. The successor to al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, remains strong in Idlib. Turkey has engaged militarily to temper the ambitions of Kurdish militants. And to compound these challenges, there is increasing evidence to indicate that the US-led coalition is responsible for a significant uptick in civilian casualties since President Trump’s inauguration.
Perception of abandonment has driven many desperate Syrians into the arms of well financed and equipped jihadist groups since early in the war
Even though the vast majority of Syrians despise ISIS, the destruction and killing in Raqqa will add to the grievances of the many Syrians who feel abandoned by the international community. For six years, the international community has persistently failed not only to protect Syrians from the regime, but also to get aid through to besieged and hard to reach areas – past the criminal obstruction of the regime and other problematic actors, and past the rules designed to stop aid being diverted by terror groups. This perception of abandonment has driven many desperate Syrians into the arms of well financed and equipped jihadist groups since early in the war.
These conditions will remain in place as long as western actors focus on combating Syria’s fundamentalists without a more comprehensive strategy for ending the conflict that nourished them. A new report titled ‘Syria: playing into their hands’ authored by David Keen for Saferworld explains significant flaws in the west’s approach to date, and identifies four strategic priorities for ending the war.
It is vital for forward strategy to stop killing civilians
First, move from a ‘war on terror’ focus to a more comprehensive strategy. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, generations of war fighters have found that eliminating ‘evil’ groups without addressing the factors that bred them just doesn’t work. As Joe Biden found in Afghanistan “There’s a balloon effect. We squeeze it, and it pops out somewhere else.” It is vital for forward strategy to stop killing civilians, and focus on alternatives to use of force. Even if ISIS has been beaten back, things like the US-led coalition’s illegal use of white phosphorous in populated urban areas will create blowback.
There must also be focus on the reasons why people joined armed groups. As the Saferworld report explains, many Syrians joined Syria’s fundamentalist groups not because of any ideological affinity, but because they could not live under the most murderous actor in the war: the Assad regime. Others faced starvation, the absence of livelihoods to feed their families and a complete collapse of services other than those offered by fundamentalist groups.
Second, tackle resource scarcity. While the west has been willing to pay for hugely expensive military action, it has failed to provide enough aid or get it past the Assad regime’s obstruction and obfuscation. Those fleeing from Raqqa must be assisted on a far greater scale, or they will continue to feel victimised and betrayed. Indeed, the whole of Syrian society needs more support – not only relief, but also fuel for cooking, development and livelihoods assistance. Obstruction of aid by the regime – and latterly also Turkey – needs to be countered. Overly generalised sanctions, which make aid provision and economic life difficult, also need to be made more targeted. Failure to address scarcity in Syria benefits only the regime, war profiteers, ISIS and HTS.
Third, redouble the search for a diplomatic solution. Western governments must now use every ounce of leverage to guarantee the rights of surrendering populations and push for an acceptable transition. Russia and the regime appear ascendant, but in reality the regime itself is weak, bankrupt, ill-disciplined and faces enormous and virulent public opposition. If its backers, Russia and Iran, can be persuaded to back transition, the regime may have no choice. Russia, no fan of ‘regime change’, is unlikely to cave to demands for Assad to go. But it likely cannot stomach a bloody and costly commitment to uphold a hated and cruel regime indefinitely – nor can it foot the reconstruction bill. By deploying the right carrots and sticks, western actors can play a useful role.
Failure to address scarcity in Syria benefits only the regime, war profiteers, ISIS and HTS
Finally, if peace is possible, it will also require readiness to support the emergence of new governance arrangements. Demanding regime change will not work – but insisting on a credible plan for changing the regime, e.g. though power sharing and decentralisation – is essential. Western actors must not seek to impose their vision – but should look for ways to stop Russia, Iran and the regime from imposing theirs. The key will be to empower and protect Syrians to consider all options openly – assisting civil society, young people and women to play a full and meaningful role in peace and reconstruction processes.
Even if a peace deal can be reached, many dangers lie ahead. In particular, zones dominated by the regime and particular groups could lead to persecution and exploitation of surrendees and minorities, and Kurdish autonomy will become a thorny question for regional stability.
If the west wants to overcome problems like ISIS and Al Nusra/HTS, it urgently needs broader peace strategies that resolve the conflicts that nourish them.
Syria: playing into their hands is available for free download from Saferworld’s website.