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Remember When Syria Was About Assad?

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTX242XG

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX242XG

You could probably be forgiven for being unable to remember the origins of the Syrian conflict. It was all a long time ago, involving factions which have long since been overshadowed, over issues which seem irrelevant in the face of the current situation. Many of the details have probably become quite hazy over time – blotted out by the insanity of Islamic State atrocities, major power involvement and the rapid and increasing fragmentation of the factional make-up of the region. Now that Mosul is probably due to fall in the next few months, and the encirclement of Raqqa, due to start any second now, is likely to follow a similar trajectory, the imminent destruction of Islamic State in its current form and, more importantly, the means by which this fall is being engineered, is almost certainly going to bring the seed of the conflict rushing back to the forefront. All this being the case, it’s probably worth examining the state of play a new POTUS is likely to be confronted with.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that this all really started out as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime. The FSA were (and possibly still are) pro-democracy secularist military defectors from Assad’s own forces, who largely concentrated their operations around Aleppo. While the world was fixated on this conflict and wondering why we weren’t intervening, an organisation based on the surviving rump of Al Qaeda in Iraq was completing their integration of an influx of Baathist military officers who had been seriously disaffected by some frankly disastrous US decisions in the aftermath of the second Iraq war. Many people also believe that around this time, Islamist insurgents being rather co-operatively held by Assad’s regime were quietly released into the wild in a dramatically high risk ploy to fragment the opposition. When I first heard about this possible tactic, I called it insane. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I call it insane and somewhat effective. In any case, with a perfection of timing which seems deeply suspicious to paranoid types like me, the organisation which we now know by several equally inaccurate names and acronyms formed into a sort of flying light armoured column (strongly reminiscent of Baathist tactical columns) and took swathes of territory, materiel and cash from the ineffectual Iraqi authorities, as well as the (possibly deliberately?) absent Syrian ones. Rather embarrassingly for the US led coalition members who had invaded and then attempted to stabilise Iraq, they also took some major cities and a whole bunch of NATO gear.

We mostly know, or think we know, the rest of this story, largely because of its direct effect on us. The Paris attacks, as well as the wave of lone wolf incidents all over the world, refugees, pictures of injured or dead children, and then Russia’s blustery, propaganda-heavy intervention which made louder and louder claims to be anti-IS the more apparent it became that they’d barely hit a single target which wasn’t FSA. But now that the end of this phase is in sight, various factors which haven’t so far seemed to catch our interest are likely to become all-important. The fact that the real achievers in the fight against Islamic State have been Kurdish militia will prove to be a major sticking point in any future settlement. The US, always ready to back a winner, has cleverly and quietly folded these groups together into something called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), presumably as a workaround to avoid being seen to be arming and training members of proscribed terrorist organisations. The major problem here is that these organisations are in direct opposition to Turkey, a NATO member, and Iraq, one of the USA’s newest proxies. On top of this, Russia’s actions to defend its strongest ally in the Middle East have put them in a position where it’s very hard to see them acceding to the toppling of the current regime, especially if the replacement is US backed. There’s also the problem of what is to be done with organisations like Jabaht el Fatr al Sham, openly linked to Al Qaeda but also instrumental in reclaiming territory from IS. How can any lasting settlement exclude them? And if they are included, how to avoid the problem of negotiating with terrorists? And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that Turkey is backing and arming the FSA and operating openly on Syrian soil, in near-direct opposition to the major thrust of US policy. How to deal with the fact of their insulting and provocative exclusion from the final push against the last of Islamic State’s strongholds? And how much longer can everyone go on ignoring the added complication of Iranian militia operating on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

As we can see, the whole situation is a kind of horrible Gordian knot. Neutralising Islamic State as a force is not so much the end of the campaign, as it is the ending of a bloody and horrific sideshow which, once over, will put us firmly back on a heavily compromised square one. When the dust has settled on Raqqa and Mosul, it’s going to take very careful management to prevent a kind of backdraft effect from re-igniting and re-escalating the original conflicts. While the tortuous network of factions and alliances might be as clear as mud, what is very clear is that the destruction of IS in its current form is merely the end of a phase of this conflict. There’s a great deal more work yet to be done if the great powers are to fulfil their commitment to help the region return to stability.

Category: Politics, Terrorism, Violence

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