Foreign Affairs: What after ISIS?

Foreign-led diplomacy in the face of Syria’s renewed fighting will be futile until Arab powers produce a deal for Sunnis on both sides of the Euphrates

Islamic State video threatens Britain (photo credit: screenshot)
Islamic State video threatens Britain
(photo credit: screenshot)
Huddled around the smoldering remains of a Syrian warplane, anti-Assad rebels were cheering this week as though their fiveyear- old war had finally been won.
In fact, the decade’s worst war anywhere in the world had just been resumed, as its first cease-fire gradually unraveled, from Aleppo in the north to Deraa in the south.
Now, as the war assumes a more coherent military direction, foreign diplomats resume their brave efforts to herald peace, failing to acknowledge that only Arab leaders can bring this intra-Arab war to its end.
The fighting’s first years had three basic phases: the rebel offensive, the regime’s counteroffensive, and the foreign military intrusions.
Though chaotic, disjointed and also conflicted, the original rebel offensive was initially successful because it hammered at President Bashar Assad’s army, which was losing defectors in droves while failing to recruit fresh conscripts and to replace damaged matériel.
Assad’s military setbacks became political fiascoes when entire swathes of his land became de facto autonomies, in the Kurdish north and in the Sunni east.
On the face of it, the military turning point came last year, when Russian jets joined the fighting, immediately dealing the rebels devastating blows. However, by then Assad had already successfully contained the revolt, albeit at an exorbitant price.
Back then, the rebels’ military failure stemmed from their political failure to do what Assad had done, if even in ways disagreeable to most of his citizens: govern.
The Kurds up north, though also divided, are exceptional in this regard, as they have begun to create what may in due course become a viable autonomy. Yet the Syrian Kurds are geographically and demographically marginal, estimated at hardly two million. The rest of the rebels have failed to produce efficient leadership and effective rule.
This failure became Assad’s main asset as he entrenched along the coastline and set out to restore his grip along the Damascus- Homs-Aleppo axis.
The rebels along this front remain a serious challenge, backed by Saudi and Turkish funds and arms, though they lack Assad’s heavy arms. The warplane’s downing this week raised suspicions that some rebels got hold of surface-to-air missiles. If true, this might pose a new challenge to the regime, and also to its Russian ally.
Yet even so, Assad evidently feels that militarily the worst is behind him and he can now turn his gun sights in new directions.
As long as his focus was on his western realms, Assad consciously ignored the challenge in his east, where Islamic State built its own autonomy.
Now, with his western rear safe and pressure on his central front easing, Assad is turning to ISIS. This new focus was made plain with last month’s recapture of Palmyra, the ancient oasis that constituted the Sunni Islamists’ most brazen presence in the Syrian heartland.
Assad will continue to pound the rest of the rebels, as the plane downed this week outside Aleppo was trying to do. However, he will look to gradually hone in on ISIS, because that is the front where he thinks he can regain some of the diplomatic capital he has lost while fighting his own people.
The war on ISIS is indeed where global attention is shifting as the fighting in Syria resumes.
ISIS is now as embattled as it hasn’t been since its emergence last decade from the rubble of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Inhabiting a flatland sliced by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, its unfolding failure to possess it is different from the rest of the Syrian rebels’ failures. ISIS did unite and produce leadership. Yet that leadership has made other mistakes which now put ISIS on the defensive on all possible fronts: politically, militarily and internationally.
Politically, ISIS antagonized its core constituency.
Failing to deliver stability, jobs and some semblance of justice, it is losing the support of populations that were originally prepared to accept its rule. In this regard, this group’s resolve to establish a state was its undoing. This political quest was beyond its abilities, and only served to alienate its natural power base, some 25 million Sunnis on both sides of the theoretical Syrian-Iraqi border.
Militarily, ISIS inherited much matériel from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded military, but its ability to properly activate and maneuver this hardware is even poorer than was Saddam’s. Its units’ performance in bouts with Kurdish units was unimpressive at best, and its continuous loss of ground is steadily adding up to a grand retreat.
Lastly, ISIS has provoked literally the entire world: from Russia, which it now threatens, to Belgium, where it has just struck; and from Iran, whose Shi’ite Islam it detests, to Japan, whose citizens it beheaded despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pleas.
The group’s warning this week that last month’s attack in Brussels will be followed by attacks in Berlin, London and Rome was taken at face value by intelligence organizations and underscores the organization’s status as the rest of the world’s common enemy.
Most absurdly, ISIS has now also provoked Turkey, once its potential and willing ally. By unleashing suicide bombers on Turkish cities, ISIS has sealed the diplomatic siege that now rings the military noose that is slowly tightening around its territorial possessions.
The defeat of ISIS has become a supreme global quest. That is how the Syrian civil war was originally internationalized, when Western air forces began bombing ISIS targets, well before Russian warplanes began bombing other rebels last fall. Now these efforts are beginning to converge into a major international assault.
This does not mean ISIS will be defeated quickly or easily. Its two major strongholds, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, face either long sieges or massive attacks whose costs, for both sides, are unpredictable.
The relative ease with which Palmyra was liberated might be a sign of things to come, but it might also prove misleading. Premature ground assaults on Islamic State’s two densely populated centers might result in major bloodbaths.
Tactical dilemmas notwithstanding, the coalescing assault on ISIS is where the rest of the world’s strategic concern merges with Assad’s personal interest.
For the Syrian strongman, defeating ISIS will not only mean a vast territorial recovery, it will also, he hopes, make him useful for the rest of the world, the way his father, back in 1991, earned Western legitimacy by joining the American-led war on Saddam Hussein.
That is what the diplomats scheduled to resume peace talks next Monday in Geneva will have to bear in mind.
LED BY Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura, the UN-brokered talks are an attempt to bring together Assad, through his Russian patrons, and parts of the opposition, through their American backers.
This structure, along with the involvement of Russian, American and European air forces in the Syrian theater, both reflect and nourish the assumption that postwar Syria will be crafted by foreigners, much the way prewar Syria was born a century ago.
That is why so much attention is being paid to Assad’s personal fate, an attitude that ascribes much importance to the role of the individual in history. In Western diplomatic thinking, if Assad leaves and his successor is produced by a free election, then the Syrian situation will be rebooted, and happily so.
Incredibly, this thinking ignores recent empirical experience, both in Iraq, where free elections produced a Shi’ite domination of the Sunni minority, and in Egypt, where free elections produced an Islamist assault on secularists and Christians.
What the civil wars in Syria and Iraq have taught the world is that some 25 million Sunnis on both sides of the Euphrates need a new deal, one that will undo their marginalization by Iraq’s Shi’ites and Syria’s Alawites.
This population’s mistreatment is what gave rise in the first place to ISIS, whose impending defeat will not in itself undo the hostility between local Sunnis and their neighbors.
Western diplomats can offer their cartographic thoughts about the reconfiguration this anomaly demands, but they cannot deliver the popular consent it will require. Only Arab leaders can do that.
That is how Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1989 after the Taif Agreement was crafted jointly by Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that, roughly, is how postwar Iraq and Syria will someday be redone.