Analysis: The big Syrian bluff

Despite attempts to create a different impression, the West has conceded the continued existence of both Assad and Islamic State.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Talks in Vienna last Friday intended to relaunch the diplomatic process on Syria produced predictably little.
Meanwhile, the latest announcement from the US of its intention to send a small number of special forces operatives to northeast Syria represents an undoubted improvement on the previous disastrous and now abandoned “train and equip” program.
But the presence of the US “advisers” is unlikely to lead to major changes on the ground.
Both the fruitless Vienna meeting and the limited dimensions of the latest US engagement in Syria indicate that whatever its stated policy, the West has effectively conceded both the continued incumbency of President Bashar Assad and the continued existence of Islamic State for the foreseeable future. What is being pursued today is a policy of containment. The attempt to create an impression that anything beyond this is being conducted is a bluff.
The talks in Vienna brought together 20 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to discuss ways to end the civil war in Syria. No common ground was in evidence. Indeed, the single point of commonality on which all participants could agree – the joint commitment that Syria’s “territorial integrity” should be preserved – was itself devoid of connection to reality.
Given that Syria is divided into four distinct entities (the government enclave in Damascus and the western coastal area, the Kurdish autonomous area in the north, the areas controlled by the Sunni rebels and the Islamic State area, which itself stretches deep into Iraq), this is a commitment to “preserve” a state of affairs that no longer exists.
The participants in the Vienna talks also managed to agree that they should reconvene within a few weeks.
Later, however, even this achievement appeared to be in doubt. Iran on Monday announced that it was considering not participating in future talks, because of what it described as the “unconstructive” role being played by Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement detailing his impression of the Vienna talks, described them as “very effective.”
In a way, Kerry was right. The Vienna talks were effective in demonstrating once again the irreconcilable positions of, on the one hand, the Sunni backers of the rebellion (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar chief among them) and, on the other hand, the supporters of the Assad regime (Iran and Russia chief among them).
There has been much speculation in the media in recent days regarding supposed differences between Moscow and Tehran concerning Syria’s future. But while there are genuine and important differences between the two on both broader regional strategy and on how best to help Assad, the bottom line commitment of both countries to the survival of the regime is not in doubt.
So given that none of the combatant sides appear close to victory, and given the pitiful state of the diplomacy around the conflict as evidenced in Vienna, it appears that the wars in Syria are set to continue.
Where does this leave Western policy vis-à-vis Islamic State, which President Barack Obama has vowed to “degrade and eventually destroy”? Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 27, described US policy vis-à-vis Islamic State as consisting of “three R’s” – namely, Raqqa, Ramadi and raids.
Carter’s statement preceded a US announcement that 50 special forces operatives were to be deployed in northern Syria to advise and assist fighters engaged in the battle against Islamic State.
What this means is that the US supports a slow battle of attrition against Islamic State, designed to chip away at its holdings rather than seriously threaten its existence.
Regarding Raqqa, Washington supports a new coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces. This consists of the redoubtable Kurdish YPG, which has partnered successfully with US air power in northern Syria since October, along with a number of small non-jihadist Arab rebel groups. There are no signs of this formation launching a large-scale assault on the Islamic State capital in Raqqa any time soon.
The Kurds, who are the main component, are clearly not interested in adding Sunni Arab Raqqa to their canton system. It has already become clear to them that any attempt to integrate Arab majority areas into their area of control will produce protests and claims of ethnic cleansing from supporters of the Syrian rebellion – as took place after their conquest of Tel Abyad.
Rather, these Kurdish and Arab rebel forces are presently engaged in a campaign to push Islamic State back in the countryside of southeast Hasaka province.
Their intentions toward Raqqa city at present appear to be to isolate it rather than conquer it.
Similarly, regarding Ramadi, Carter’s naming of this Islamic State-controlled city west of Baghdad indicates that the US has abandoned any hopes of an early reconquest of Mosul, the main urban holding of Islamic State in Iraq.
Instead, the Iraqi government’s preferred approach of concentrating on challenging Islamic State in Anbar province is to be followed.
But here, too, the Iraqi armed forces and the Shi’ite militias appear to be in no particular hurry to reconquer majority- Sunni Ramadi. A US-backed government offensive has been under way since early October and has made some headway. The presence of Sunni tribal fighters among those fighting Islamic State in the area indicates US desires to avoid the battle turning into a straight sectarian fight.
But as of now, despite some gains in the surrounding area, the city remains in the hands of Islamic State.
As for the third “R” – raids – it appears that behind the scenes, US personnel in Iraq will continue to observe and sometimes participate in targeted actions against Islamic State facilities, as in the Hawija raid on October 22. But no one is under the impression that such raids pose any threat to the continued existence of Islamic State.
So the US and allied war against Islamic State effectively consists of support for those elements to the north, east and south of the borders of the jihadi entity, to prevent further advances by Islamic State, and to chip away at its edges. That is, a war of containment.
Even in these terms, Islamic State has been left free to continue to advance in a western direction, because there its enemy is the Assad regime, which is not part of the coalition. Islamic State this week captured the town of Maheen from Assad’s forces, in southwest Homs province.
The US administration has tacitly accepted the continued existence of Islamic State and is engaged in trying to contain it.
Russia, too, constitutes no apparent great danger for the jihadists.
Moscow’s intervention as presently constituted is directed against the rebels, and even then mainly to preserve the regime enclave rather than to embark on a major reconquest of territory for Assad.
What all this means is that the conflict systems taking in what used to be Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon) remain at stalemate.
The de facto partition of these countries is therefore set to remain for the foreseeable future. The diplomatic and military noise suggesting otherwise is a bluff.