Given the media’s focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some “experts” claim that the crisis in Syria, now heading into its fourth year, has become a sideshow. The truth, however, is that Syria remains at the center of the crisis shaking the political architecture of the Middle East. Unless Western democracies and regional allies develop a policy on Syria, hopes of a return to even a semblance of stability will remain forlorn.
ISIS is an effect, Syria is the cause.
Even from a narrow military perspective, the war against ISIS makes little sense outside the broader context of the Syrian quagmire. The reason is simple: Either directly or in conjunction with jihadist allies, ISIS has taken control of some 40 percent of Syrian territory, starting from Al-Bukamal in the south, on the border with Iraq, to the Syrian–Turkish border passing by Mayadin, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Manbij. If Kobani falls, ISIS will secure a band of contiguous territory between Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Unlike other jihadist groups, for example Al-Qaeda, ISIS is trying to morph into a state with its own territory. Thus, defeating it can only mean driving it out of territories it controls. In military terms, this is expressed through the mantra of the “3 Cs”: capture, cleanse, control.
At some point, someone, maybe the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces, the Turkish army, or even US and allied troops, would have to capture territory seized by ISIS. They would then proceed to cleanse it of any ISIS presence.
But what do they do once they reach the third “C”: control? Such control cannot be handed over to other jihadist groups. Even those that are not as nasty as ISIS would still be bad news for the people living in the areas affected.
It would also be impossible to let ethnic Kurds seize control since that could mean the emergence of a statelet controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) right on Turkey’s border, something no government in Ankara would tolerate.
The other option, handing territories back to what is left of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, could be even more problematic.
Today, Assad controls about 40 percent of Syria’s territory, including Damascus and parts of its environs plus the coastline, with around 50 percent of the country’s pre-war population. A further 20 percent is controlled by forces opposed to Assad while almost a quarter of the population is now displaced in neighboring countries or inside Syria itself.
Some in Washington and Israel suggest a deal with Assad to help him re-impose control in territories recaptured from ISIS. The trouble is that it is unlikely those who have shaken off Assad’s yoke would want to resubmit to it. More importantly, Assad no longer has the wherewithal to re-impose effective control over the entire country.
Right now, no one has the coercive clout or the persuasive appeal to claim effective power in Syria. Whichever of the participants in this deadly game comes on top, for whatever reason, is sure to be challenged by others.
Some experts suggest that Syria is a dead state with no hope of Lazarus-like resuscitation. The argument is that Syria, like other states in the Levant, were put on the map by Western “imperialists” and do not reflect the ethnic, religious and ideological diversity of a complex region. A decade ago, Joe Biden, now US vice-president, suggested that Iraq be carved into three states. Today, his buddies fly a similar kite about Syria.
It is true that a war is best fought on the basis of accomplishing immediate goals with focus kept on the defeat and destruction of the enemy. However, war is only useful if it changes an intolerable status quo by creating a new one in the interests of the victors.
Prudent warriors, while not distracted by “what-happens-afterwards” concerns, nevertheless, give some thought to the possible shape of a post-war balance of power. Today, none of the options being discussed is likely to prove helpful.
You can’t leave ISIS in control, or hand power to “ISIS-lite” groups either. Replacing a jihadist regime with a Marxist–Leninist one under the PKK would be a surrealistic jump from the frying pan into the fire. Inviting the genocidal Assad to regain control is indecent, to say the least.
The idea of carving up Syria, and for that matter other states of the region, is one underpinned by cynicism, and the entrenched belief in some Western quarters that Arabs are incapable of governing themselves without violence and terror. To suggest that Syria is an artificial state is to say nothing, if only because every state under the sun is artificial, starting with the United States and Russia, and passing by Australia and India. No nation-state simply fell from the heavens fully-formed.
The only realistic option is to envisage the revival of the Syrian state in a new context. One way would be to create UN-supervised “safe havens” adjacent to the borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That could provide a basis from which to promote a national dialogue aimed at power-sharing with the goal of restoring the Syrian state. Those in the Assad camp who still believe in a united Syria would be invited to attend. The permanent members of the UN Security Council would act as brokers for a national compromise.
It is only as a war to liberate Syria and restore its status as a nation-state that the campaign against ISIS might make sense.
Without solving the Syrian problem, no amount of bombing, or even a ground invasion, would bring the Middle East back from the edge of disaster.
In other words, it’s Syria, stupid!