Berlin, 06.10.2015

Strategies against IS Need to Address Roots of Syria’s Civil War

Muriel Asseburg
Muriel Asseburg

The conflict in Syria is back on the international agenda, but rivalling coalitions are pursuing conflicting objectives. Muriel Asseburg argues that reducing the flow of refugees and fighting the »Islamic State« will only result in progress if the dynamics of the civil war are addressed.

The refugee crisis in Europe, which has been, first and foremost, fed by Syrians fleeing the fighting in their home country and by the deteriorating conditions in their primary host countries, has prompted a renewed urgency for dealing with the crisis in Syria. A host of actors, among them Russia, Iran and Turkey, have suggested what they have branded as »new approaches«. Yet, none of them has put forward an approach that would at the same time effectively tackle the Islamic State (IS, ISIL or ISIS) phenomenon and end (or at least considerably reduce) the bloodshed – thus addressing one of the root causes of flight and displacement.

Rival coalitions against the IS

To date, the US-led coalition of some 60 states against the IS has not seen success in Syria. Although its resources have been diminished; its supply lines, command-and-control capacities and training bases have been decimated; and although it has been pushed out of the Kurdish town of Kobane, IS advances have not been stopped in other parts of the country. As a result, the IS now controls about a third of the territory, although much of it is sparsely inhabited desert. The group has also continued to successfully recruit personnel, internationally, from other rebel groups and from Syria’s majority Sunni population.

The fight against the IS in Syria has been obstructed because crucial players, above all Turkey, have only half-heartedly joined the struggle. In northern Syria, Ankara’s main goal has been to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Kurdish entity under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), rather than curbing the advances of the jihadists. First and foremost though, the struggle has been hampered because the coalition has not been able to rely on local ground forces. The US »train, assist and equip« programme has not produced more than a few dozen fighters. Moderate rebel formations have been crumbling under the force of jihadists. Moreover, the coalition – lacking international legitimacy for its airstrikes – has had to coordinate its operations, albeit tacitly, with the Assad regime. This has had the side effect of delegitimising the operations in the eyes of the many Syrians who have been suffering under the regime’s shelling and, as a consequence, it has weakened the rebels allied with the United States.

Against this backdrop, Russia has recently established itself as the leader of a new coalition against the IS – a coalition that will closely cooperate with the Assad regime and its allies. Accordingly, Moscow has not only started an air campaign in Syria, but also delivered heavy weapons to the regime that will affect the dynamics on the battlefield and strengthen the regime’s position. Russia has also been upgrading and expanding its bases in Syria, including its air defences, thus creating a situation in which Russia is empowered to grant – or deny – consent for any international presence or overflights. Although the reinforced Russian position has necessitated coordination mechanisms between the different international players fighting the IS, cooperation between the two coalitions will be hampered by the contradictory interpretations of the role that the Assad regime can and should play in this fight. This will also complicate international cooperation with regard to reaching a political compromise.

Necessary elements in the struggle against IS

Yet, the fight against the IS cannot be successful in Syria – and the flow of refugees will hardly be stopped – as long as the dynamics of the civil war are ignored by the competing international coalitions. Through an expansion of the international bombing and other counterterrorism measures, the IS might be pushed back militarily and lose some of its income, and its lure might be diminished. That would be an important first element in the struggle, yet hardly a sufficient approach. A second necessary element would have to be an end of the terror being spread by the regime forces, which are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria. The struggle against the IS will not be embraced by mainstream rebels nor by the broader population as long as the violence exercised by the regime is not addressed at the same time. It is critical to convince Russia to pressure the regime to substantially reduce its bombardment. A third element crucial for success against the IS would be a minimal stabilisation of Syria aimed at providing services and re-establishing a modicum of order, thus eliminating the conditions under which the IS thrives.

Sustainable stabilisation on a national level would, of course, need to build on a compromise between the regime and the opposition that allows for the joining of forces against the IS. Europeans should therefore support the working groups under the umbrella of the UN Syria Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, which will bring together representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition to explore options for ceasefires, humanitarian access, cooperation against the IS, as well as political transition, and to seek agreement on principles and international implementation mechanisms. In parallel, they should pursue stabilisation efforts in areas under the control of the PYD and the mainstream rebels. One of the structures to be supported here would be the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), which began working from the Turkish city of Gaziantep in early 2014 with the task of providing services in areas outside Assad’s control in cooperation with the Local Administration Councils. Yet, although the SIG – with the help of an array of international partners – had evolved into quite an effective service provider during 2014, it has now all but collapsed, mainly due to a lack of sustained funding. These efforts should be linked to making the protection of civilians a priority in all political and military approaches as well as connected to efforts towards considerably increasing humanitarian aid, with a special focus on hard-to-reach areas.

In contrast, to turn towards Bashar al-Assad (as pushed for by Russia and Iran, among others) or to the jihadists of the Nusra Front (as advocated, among others, by former CIA director David Petraeus) as partners in the struggle against the IS would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

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