North Africa, West Asia

The paradox of the Syrian conflict and its politics

While the French president has won public approval and international backing for the fight against IS, differences persist about the necessity of coordinating with Russia.

Cristina Casabón
13 December 2015

Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to remain in power throughout nearly five years of civil war, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process. During the last few years, the appearance of Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, ISIL or IS) has thrown the country into further disarray. 

Now all players are determined to defeat the Islamic State and believe in the necessity of boots on the ground. On the one hand there are the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units who oppose Assad’s regime, and on the other hand there are the pro-regime forces backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. 

In the spring of 2015, Assad’s government suffered a string of defeats by various groups. Jabhat al-Nusra particularly played a major role in the seizure of Idlib on 29 March, the biggest anti-Assad victory since the seizure of Raqqa by the rebels two years earlier. 

At the beginning of May, Assad made a rare public acknowledgement of the setbacks. During the summer, the continued and increasing presence of rebel groups, and terrorist organisations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS clearly indicated that the Syrian Arab Army was suffering a serious threat.  

Iran has become the ground army fighting to save its embattled ally Assad, while Russia has become his air force.

Increasingly worried about Assad’s precarious position and the rise of extremist groups, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, launched an air campaign against government opponents in September 2015. Moscow said it was targeting “terrorists”, primarily militants from Daesh, but from the very start civilian areas and western-backed rebels were repeatedly bombed in the raids.

In the meantime, opposition groups have been internally divided—with rival alliances battling for supremacy and control over territory—and a substantial portion of the fighting has been among them. The conflict in the northeastern region has been particularly fuelled by the fight for lucrative resources between jihadists groups, Arab tribes, Kurdish militias and local brigades. In addition to these complications, the Free Syrian Army and other rebel fighters have deserted due to low payments, poor living conditions and the intensification of the conflict.

On 22 September 2014, the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates began to strike targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria, supporting moderate rebels. However the American-led coalition avoided attacks against Assad’s forces as well as battles between Bashar’s army and the rebels. According to experts, the US-led coalition has launched more than 8,000 airstrikes on Islamic State targets but with limited efficacy. Moreover, in October 2015 the Pentagon, due to serious setbacks, cancelled a USD 500 million program to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels on the ground.

During the last few months, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan reallocated their troops to fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and this movement contributed to the ‘failures’ of the US-led coalition. While these forces were relocating to Yemen, Tehran and Moscow continued to deploy their armies in Syria, providing military advisers, weapons, as well as lines of credit. Basically, Iran has become the ground army fighting to save its embattled ally Bashar al-Assad, while Russia has become his air force. 

In that light, the decision to expand US aid to the Kurds has been welcomed by some members of the international coalition, who have long pointed out that Kurdish militias are the only proven pro-western faction to fight against ISIS. The Kurdish-Arab joint alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces launched a military campaign on October 30 that aims to expel ISIS extremist militants. But three days after the deadly attacks that shocked Paris and Europe, French President Francois Hollande pushed to create a broad international coalition between France, the US and Russia, and announced military coordination with the Kremlin in Syria. 

On 20 November 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously called on member states to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed by IS in Syria and Iraq. France and the US incited a new round of airstrikes against IS: the French military dropped 16 bombs in the stronghold of Raqqa, while US strikes hit 116 oil trucks in eastern Syria. Both countries asked other partners to join them.

Even if the Paris attacks shocked France and Europe, Hollande’s calls for a broader coalition are not in the interests of all key parties, which are varied: the Russian attacks are aimed mainly against rebel positions and against the groups supported by the US and its Sunni allies, as well as Syrian citizens, while on the other side, Pentagon officials are reconsidering how to get more aggressive in targeting ISIS without empowering Assad. They reiterated their position with respect to enlarging the coalition, and aggregated that there would be no discussions with Russia until Moscow changes its strategy and stops targeting rebel forces.

At the same time, Hollande and Putin agreed on exchanging intelligence on the Islamic State and other rebel groups to improve the effectiveness of their aerial bombing campaigns, and the French president said they had agreed to target only Islamic State and similar jihadi groups in Syria. 

Deep disagreement with Moscow remains over the future of Assad.

Hollande's difficult task became even more arduous after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border, complicating the approach between both countries. The incident underscored the complex military landscape in Syria, where the movement of one country destabilises the balance of power. It also highlights the grand strategic implications of American policy in Syria. France has been drifting in the direction of cooperating, if not allying with Putin, while Putin aims to disrupt NATO, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

But not all western powers are going in the same direction. Cameron’s 36-page memorandum on Syria airstrikes has stressed the necessity of the coalition’s military action to stop IS’ advance, but has pointed out that “only moderate Sunni Arabs can retake traditionally Sunni Arab areas such as Raqqa” and “without transition [to a post-Assad government] it will continue to be difficult to generate a Sunni force able to fight ISIL and hold ground in eastern Syria”. 

Cameron seems to understand the costs of a hypothetical military alliance with Russia, and insists that British military involvement in Syria will solely be aimed at Daesh. After MPs in the House of Commons voted to authorise the UK’s participation, Britain joined the coalition of nations, conducting airstrikes in Syria against the terrorist group. 

Germany’s parliament has also joined the European campaign, voting with a solid majority in favour of deploying military personnel to Syria in a non-combat role (support staff and reconnaissance jets). They also agreed not to cooperate with troops under the command of Bashar al-Assad.

While the French president has won public approval and international backing for the fight against IS, differences persist about the necessity and convenience of coordinating with Russia. In the political arena, deep disagreement with Moscow remains over the future of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. On the military front, the prospect of a common coalition conducting joint operations or sharing targeting and information with Russia is zero. 

The prospects of the French diplomatic offensive in Syria are not looking up; working with Putin means helping Assad and his allies. Russian air operations continue to preserve the Assad regime. According to the Institute for the Study of War’s last report, “Russian airstrikes continue to punish the local Syrian population through the targeting of key civilian infrastructure in rebel-held territory”. 

In this context, Syria’s political and armed opposition factions have met in Saudi Arabia for a conference aimed at pursuing peace talks during the next month. For the Americans and other outside stakeholders, the Riyadh talks are key in a process that they hope will produce government transition so that all parties will then turn on the Islamic State to eliminate it.

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