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Syria: Rival Powers and Their Second Choice - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft fighter at the Russian Hmeimim air base on the Syrian coast in November (Reuters)

A Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft fighter at the Russian Hmeimim air base on the Syrian coast in November (Reuters)

Heavy American bombers, loaded with a variety of bombs, take off from the NATO base in Incirlik, Turkey for a scheduled “sortie”. Forty minutes later, however, they are back at base, still fully loaded, not having struck any targets.

A few hours later it is the turn of Russian heavy bombers to take off from their base in the Syrian port of Tarsus, southwest of Incirlik. But they, too, soon return to base without dropping any bombs.

American and Russian warplanes are not alone in this puzzling rigmarole. The remnants of President Bashar Al-Assad’s air force, and the token air units dispatched by Great Britain and France also organize what amounts to “make-believe” operations in which warplanes dot the skies over Syria without hitting anyone.

So, what is going on? In every case, the ‘planes engaged in the “make-believe” sorties are supposed to be taking action against the Islamic State, or the self-styled “Caliphate” centered on the Syrian city of Raqqah. Every sortie is, of course, counted at the NATO headquarters in Brussels or by the Russian Air Force in Moscow which also controls the remnants of Assad’s air force.

The statistics are then published, on a weekly basis, creating the impression that ISIS, or “Daesh” in Arabic, is under attack from all directions.

The truth is that none of the dozen or so powers involved in the tragic imbroglio that is Syria today really want to attack ISIS. Detailed maps showing the most sensitive targets in the ISIS territory, notably Raqqah itself, were published in the media on both sides of the Atlantic last November, creating the impression that a knock-out operation was taking shape against ISIS. But nothing happened. Of all the sensitive targets, only one arms depot to the southwest of Raqqah was hit by the French, apparently with little damage. That led a few analysts to wonder what was going on. In fact, some analysts even claimed that they all want to treat ISIS with kid gloves.

Is there, as lovers of conspiracy theories claim, a sinister conspiracy under way? Maybe! But a simpler explanation based on Realpoltik should also be considered.

What if ISIS has emerged as the second choice of all those involved in the struggle over Syria? History is full of examples of second choices being treated with kid gloves or even co-opted as tactical allies.

In the Spanish Civil war, the Western democracies saw the Falangists, initially led by General Mola, as their “second choice” against the pro-Soviet and Communist-dominated Republic in Madrid. At the same time, Hitler and Mussolini also regarded the Falangists as their “second choice” because they didn’t believe that a force that relied on mostly Berber or Black African colonial troops could prevent real “Fascists”, as opposed to tepid ones in the Falange party, from coming to power in Spain. They were to be fooled by General Franco.

In the Second World War, the hated Stalinist regime in Moscow became the “second choice” of the Western powers and, later, even turned into an ally against the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany. The same Stalinist regime had been Hitler’s second choice when he endorsed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

So, why is ISIS everyone’s second choice, even though no one will admit it? Let’s start with Assad whose first choice is himself. He knows that his real opposition, representing the Arab Sunni Muslim majority comes to power, would have no love lost for him and his bitter-ender desperadoes.

A new regime representing a majority of the Syrians would be harder to threaten in the future let alone dislodge. ISIS, however, is a foreign body in Syria, more than half of its 40,000 fighters are outsiders from other Arab countries, Russia, China and even central Asia and Western Europe. If Assad succeeds in wiping out the real opposition, with Iranian and Russian support, ISIS would be an easier enemy to defeat because it lacks popular support in Syria.

Russia regards ISIS as a second choice for an additional reason. A new Syrian regime backed by the majority of people might mobilize broader Arab opinion against Russia as a power that stabbed them in the back. At the very least, such a regime would not grant Russia the geostrategic advantages it seeks in Syria.

Thus, if ISIS can postpone, if not prevent, the coming of such a regime to Damascus, it is in Russia’s interest not to unduly antagonize its “second choice.”

ISIS is also Turkey’s second choice for two reasons. Tactically, it prevents the Kurds from carving out a contiguous geopolitical entity inside Syria that could, in time, translate into a springboard for action against Turkish territorial integrity. Strategically, ISIS, as long as it lasts, would prevent the Moscow-Tehran tandem from imposing some kind of control on all of Syria thus having Turkey sandwiched between hostile powers.

Tehran also loves ISIS for two reasons. First, the mullahs could claim that, compared to the gang of throat-slitters that constitute ISIS, they themselves in Tehran are angels of moderation even if they are masters in hostage holding and exporting terror. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s number-two general Hussein Salami says that ISIS “understands us very well” and has agreed not to move closer than 40 kilometers from Iran’s borders. Tehran boasts that its “volunteers” in Syria, including Afghan recruits and units of the Lebanese and Iraqi branches of Hezbollah, under Iranian command, have been involved in over 30 significant battles in Syria in the past 18 months.

However, not one of those battles was fought against ISIS. If Tehran cannot save its surrogate Assad, ISIS is its second choice.

Finally, the Western powers, including the US also see ISIS as a second choice. They don’t want Assad, having called for his departure since 2012 and are not willing to help the real Syrian people-based opposition to win the war. So, while their first choice is beyond reach, ISIS remains the second choice. This is why those heavy bombers return to Incirlik without emptying their loads.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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