The Syrian crisis, at its current juncture, looks set for a prolonged battle.
By Kabir Taneja
With the disintegration of the Islamic State’s territorial control in both Iraq and Syria, the ground situation in both countries remains precarious despite narratives suggesting otherwise. While it is true that the IS has lost control nearly all of its geographical strongholds, the organisation and the jihadists that constitute it are still very much there, and in what shape and form they reemerge will prove to be a pivotal factor on how the political landscape of Iraq and Syria will look like in future.
The social and political fractures in Syria today are larger and more ingrained than ever before. Over the past four years, the juggernaut of violence and chaos orchestrated by the Islamic State has both brought together and disintegrated global order simultaneously. The war against the IS, and the potentials of its success and failure could be divided into two main fronts, global diplomacy and local sectarian and ideological divisions prevailing Syria and Iraq. Somewhere in the middle of the global anti-IS discourse, diplomacy’s failures have managed to reflect negatively on the prospects of what a post-IS region would look like. To put this in perspective, we can observe two outcomes, that of the multiple Syria negotiation processes in Astana, Riyadh and Geneva and the developing situation in northern Syria, around the region of Idlib, to highlight how a post-IS regional dynamic is not going to be any easier than the battle against the IS itself.
Over the month of November, diplomacy around the attempts to come to a reconciliation on the Syrian crisis was in overdrive, almost exclusively led by Russia. On 19 November, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the Turkish coastal town of Antalya to lay the groundwork for the leaders of the three countries to meet on discussions over the future of Syria. A day later, in a rare event (which, is expected to become normal in the near future) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Sochi, Russia, to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two days later, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and President of Turkey Recep Erdogan met with Putin to chalk out the future of the conflict after the trio had orchestrated a ceasefire in December 2016 (followed by the Astana peace talks in January along with twelve Syrian rebel factions), success of which remains questionable.
Meanwhile, as the three leaders met, Syrian opposition leaders, looking to dislodge the Assad government from Damascus and posing a defiant counter to Russia and Iran’s plans, met in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, where they reiterated their demand for the Syrian leader to abdicate his position. On the other end of global diplomacy spectrum, the longstanding and increasingly irrelevant Geneva round of talks on Syria, largely narrated by the West and United Nations with feeble support from both the Syrian government and opposition leaders headed towards another stalemate.
This multi-diplomacy approach where vested interests launch their own respective peace talks with little to no sense of universal urgency to bring the conflict to an end can only be seen as geopolitical tactics to serve what researchers Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman of the International Peace Institute (IPI) describe as a “soft, stable, self-serving stalemate.” Throughout former US President Barack Obama’s presidency, under whose leadership much of the crisis unfolded, America’s commitment-via-distance by providing limited number of military personal under the guise of “advisors” only added to confusion, not just over America’s long-term policy on the crisis, but its long-term military commitment towards the region as well. The transition in Washington from Obama to the new administration of president Donald Trump has not aided the policy vacuum, and in fact has magnified the challenges as an already confused approach gets more muddled, with America grapples with its own domestic political questions.
The fact that recent reports suggest the Pentagon may start withdrawing support from Kurdish fighters, buying into a false-pretext that the ground situation in Syria is amicably in favour of the anti-IS coalitions, showcases a longstanding strategic flow in American thinking, one that repeats itself, and fails, repeatedly, pushing military operations against adversaries in a cycle of apathy. This longstanding anomaly is correctly highlighted by Mara Karlin, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution as “ad-hoc assistance programmes,” that are often devoid of long-term solutions that emit from the ground of the conflict zone, and not parachuted from above as temporary fixes. This may be difficult for the West to comprehend, as it would have to acknowledge that the IS was ‘defeated’ by a mix of their own air campaign, Russian air campaign and Iranian-backed Shiite militias on the ground that did much of the legwork and now themselves control sizeable amounts of territory and political influence.
The battle against the IS and the premature victory dance that is now unfolding is already ignoring the sectarian fractures that are ready to take over in parts of Iraq and Syria. One of the most glaring examples of the same is visible in northwestern Syria, around the region of Idlib where former Al Qaeda-backed jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra broke ranks to create Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and setup their own proto-state. With the IS in retreat, other jihadi groups are now elbowing for territory and narrative, with intra-insurgency rivalry and friction within groups amounting to a greater civil war narrative, one that the US may find to become a quagmire for international terrorist movements.
The region of Idlib and HTS’s hold on it is not without foreign influence, but one without an American hand. Turkey has played a critical part in the Idlib area, looking to prop up the likes of HTS in order to make sure a larger, and stronger Kurdish narrative, specifically one backed by the PKK and Kurdish PYD, is not allowed to flourish. In an event that would create ruffles both in the HTS and other players in the regional, Turkish troops were photographed in the Idlib region accompanied by HTS in return for Ankara to agree that members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) within the Euphrates Shield, an alliance of Turkish military and militias aligned with Turkey, will not be allowed into the province.
However, during this period, the leader of HTS, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, started to face heat from Al Qaeda’s top brass along with other hardline jihadist groups that had joined HTS over the past months. Jolani’s deal with Turkey was seen as a betrayal of core jihadist dictates. Meanwhile, Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda who had come out of hiding after months, released an audio clip damning HTS and its breakaway from Al Qaeda. Zawahiri denounced the group, and in return, HTS arrested a host of Al Qaeda operatives creating further divide for Jolani to handle. For now, HTS in Idlib viewed Turkish mission in northern Syria with more of a threat than internal rivalries, viewing the latter as fixable within the jihadist discourse. However, Russia, Iran and Turkey, as part of the Astana process, had by this time gained significant leverage over northern Syria (important to remember here Ankara has repeatedly called for Assad’s ouster), threatening military action against a host of groups if they did not conform to their immediate agendas.
These various negotiation processes on the Syrian crisis are in fact working on different trajectories all together, with each farther away from before to achieve some sort of solution that bring the civil conflict to an end, or at least, implements a lasting ceasefire. While the US looks to recede its influence, the rise of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in both Syria and Iraq may force it back into significant play with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel ready to cooperate with each other to counter Tehran’s clout. A Saudi-led counter to Iran will most likely come from Sunni-Wahhabi groups that ideologically are not too far from what ISIS preached. In the meantime, ISIS itself, may look to seep into these political uncertainties to regroup and relaunch.
Despite the available multilateral forums for conflict resolution available, none have come through for the common people stuck in the mores of this war. The various peace processes have become promotional utilities for vested interests looking for a solution for millions of people that have no direct representation over the course of their own fate.
The Syrian crisis, at its current juncture, looks set for a prolonged battle, with Assad almost entirely dependent on his allies, Russia and Iran. This, however, gives Moscow and Tehran the precedence to fast-forward towards a lasting solution, one if orchestrated, will in most certainty not sell with Western powers. With alliances in the Middle East shifting at a faster pace that one can keep up, predicting political future of the region and its states is fast becoming more of a guessing game than trends based political predictions, and this is puncturing holes in the very backbone of multilateral diplomacy that has been preached in the post-World War II era.