The previous column in this series examined recent developments in Syria and emphasised the increasing significance of the Islamist elements in the rebellion. It concluded that for different reasons Washington and Moscow each now have an interest in seeing the war come to a negotiated end, even if that involves the survival of the current regime in some form (see "Syria, realigning the war", 10 October 2013)..
For the Americans, the alternative prospect is of an Islamist entity occupying territory in the heart of the middle east (and not, say, in rural Yemen or Somalia); for the Russians, the risk to avert is supporting an ally in a way that fuels well-organised Islamist dissent at home. Russia’s problems with the Caucasus Emirate organisation - especially in the run-up to the winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014 - underline the need to deflect the Islamist narrative that puts Moscow in the same category as the “far enemy” of the United States.
For both states, then, the diplomatic steps that led to agreement over Syria's chemical weapons could be the start of a process that leads towards a negotiated settlement of the war - even if that proves messy, and does little or nothing to recognise the immense human cost of the conflict.
The Syria trap
Such a prognosis may be plausible in the medium term. In the longer term, however, another vital aspect of the Syrian imbroglio comes into play: the extent to which Islamist paramilitaries already control territory in northern Syria. There are many such militias active on the ground, often quite localised and working in loose cooperation; but two wider groupings capable of maintaining high degrees of internal coordination have become especially influential. These are the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS). Each now coordinates many thousands of paramilitaries.
Both owe some allegiance to the al-Qaida vision and maintain links with insurgents in Iraq. Al-Nusra has proved to be rather less extreme in its behaviour and level of violence against opponents than ISIS, which has been more successful in attracting young men from abroad. There are signs that ISIS has recently tried to improve its image of brutality within the country; this reflects awareness of the alienation caused by some of its extreme actions among Syrians who might otherwise acknowledge the rigorous order that it brings to areas under its control.
Al Nusra is also aware of the importance of image. But in strategic terms the power of these groups comes from their establishment of control of substantial parts of northern and north-eastern Syria, including access to oilfields and control of hydroelectric plants. They are therefore able to consolidate their hold on territory, “digging in” for the long term while still vowing to bring down Bashar al-Assad's regime (see Loveday Morris, Joby Warrick & Souad Mekhennet, “Rival al-Qaeda-linked groups fortifying in Syria with mix of pragmatism and militancy”, Washington Post, 14 October 2013).
Their ambitions are strengthened by the continuing support they are receiving from influential sectors in the western Gulf states. The latter see the Syrian opposition as valuable allies in preventing the outcome they most fear: the creation of a ”Shi’a crescent” from the Mediterranean through Syria, Iraq and Iran to the Indian Ocean.
In short, even a settlement that brings Syria's war to an end will leave unresolved an issue with potential longer-term reverberations: the existence of a new Islamist entity in Syria, with ambitions to stretch into Iraq and elsewhere. In an equivalent situation in 2003, the George W Bush administration would have sought at an early stage to take military action against Syria's Islamists. A decade on, though, three factors now make armed confrontation less feasible.
First, the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq scarred the United States; in both cases, small-scale interventions expected to achieve their aims in weeks resulted in full-scale military occupations that lasted years.
Second, the existence of a regime still in place in Damascus inhibits military action, in part because Washington would not want to be seen as in effect allying with the Assad regime. This contrasts with its greater freedom in Somalia, where there is little central control, and Yemen, where the regime tacitly approves shadowy US operations.
Third, assaults on Islamists from outside have repeatedly proved to be a gift to their wider movement. In Syria, this would be the case even if intervention were limited primarily to armed-drones, special forces, private military companies and the use of surrogates, and undertaken after some form of compromise agreement involving "moderate" rebels and the regime.
The Iraq factor
The United States occupation of Iraq in 2003 constituted a great asset to Islamist propagandists, who skilfully portrayed the war as a crusader assault at the centre of the Arab Islamic world - a position reinforced by Iraq's proximity to Saudi Arabia, the land of the "two holy places". Syria's own closeness to Palestine and Jerusalem, both controlled by the Zionist arch-enemy, gives it almost equal significance; any future western intervention there would raise its status still further.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is still driven by the view that the Islamist elements in Syria are central to the blocking of a Shi’a crescent - and this notwithstanding its close relationship with the United States. If Washington became involved in any attempt to suppress them, whether on its own or in coalition, Riyadh would probably increase support for the rebels. A fresh influx of young dedicated paramilitaries from across the middle east and beyond would also ensue.
The choice for the United States and its allies is thus beginning to take shape, and it is unpalatable: between military action in some form, with all its dangerous consequences, and effective assent to an Islamist entity evolving inside Syria. Either option presents great challenges to policy-makers. There is little sign of recognition, however, that the dilemma they face in Syria arises not just from the war there but from western policy in the region over a decade and more.
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