‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater.

Most of all, it’s becoming clear that all of the major actors are engaged in Syria for reasons that have as much to do with advancing their own domestic and foreign policy goals as with defeating ISIS (or even ending the horrific violence in Syria). That, more than anything else, should be a warning sign that further chaos could result from scattered international efforts. Accordingly, understanding each actor’s motivations is vital for policymakers to avoid future clashes in the Syrian theater.

France. Not even a weekend had passed after the Paris attacks before French military forces were already bombing Raqqa, the Syrian city that ISIS forces established as its capital in early 2014. It was understandable when French president François Hollande declared the Paris attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ and that the French response would be ‘pitiless.’ No leader wants to be seen as impotent in the face of such a horrific attack, especially one whose popularity has lingered in the low 20s or 10s throughout his presidency.

Moreover, after January’s Charlie Hebdo assassinations, Hollande faced a country weary of Muslim jihadists and less willing to unite behind Hollande’s leadership. That became even more clear with Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, far-right Front national set to make historic gains in France’s regional elections — her party led in six of France’s 13 regions after the first-round vote yesterday. Le Pen and a resurgent Nicolas Sarkozy could push Hollande and the governing Socialists into third place in the presidential election due in just 18 months.

Conceivably, Hollande has the best record of any world leader after eliminating the jihadist threat in Mali and pacifying the Central Africa Republic. Nevertheless, Mali and the CAR are still far from model levels of stability, and Syria’s problems are even more intractable than in Mali or the CAR.

United Kingdom. With France and the United States now joining the effort against ISIS in Syria, Cameron risked being left behind without parliamentary authorization for airstrikes there. Cameron’s chief geopolitical goal is not to allow France to outpace the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Time and again on Wednesday, both Conservative and Labour MPs implored the need for Britain to ‘do its full part’ to defeat ISIS. With British forces already involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, there’s a rational case that it might as well be involved in the fight in Syria, too, given the breakdown of national borders in both countries.

But there’s a political calculus running through the House vote as well. Cameron saw the vote as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s pacifist hard-left leader, and the more moderate members of the Labour parliamentary caucus, and Labour’s moderates duly saw the vote as an opportunity to undermine Corbyn. It worked, and the debate gave Corbyn fits over the past two weeks over whether to allow Labour’s MPs a ‘free vote’ on Syria. A majority of Labour MPs voted against authorization, Corbyn visibly shrank last week during the parliamentary session as his own shadow foreign minister Hilary Benn delivered perhaps the most magnificent speech in the Commons in years in support of Syrian airstrikes.

Russia. Since September, Russian fighters have been bombing Syria, ostensibly to attack ISIS, but mostly to bolster the Assad regime at the expense of those ‘moderate’ Sunni rebels that have held off Assad in western Syria. Russia is certainly concerned about the ISIS threat. It’s only around 1,500 kilometers from the Syrian border to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s waging an Islamic nationalist challenge to Moscow. Those concerns must be even graver after ISIS recently downed a Russian commercial flight over the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.

Nevertheless, Russia’s motives are primarily about enshrining the Assad regime’s power. An Assad-led Syria remains Russia’s sole client state outside the former Soviet Union, and Russian president Vladimir Putin has made it clear that keeping Assad in office is a primary goal of his intervention there. It’s also true, however, that Putin is using the Syrian campaign to make Russia a key player in what has become the world’s most pressing foreign policy challenge. Despite a nadir in post-Cold War relations with the United States and Europe, diplomacy with Putin is now vital, as talks between Putin and U.S. president Barack Obama demonstrate. That, increasingly, will marginalize criticism of his annexation of Crimea last year and the ongoing support for anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast.

Turkey. After ISIS attacked the southern Turkish city of Suruç in July, killing 33 people (mostly Kurds), Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the Turkish military to join the fight against ISIS. But Erdoğan simultaneously used the attack to turn fire against Kurdish militants as well, after angry Kurds attacked Turkish police for failing to protect them against the ISIS threat.

After years of gradually ceding more cultural and political rights to Turkey’s Kurdish minority and despite ongoing peace talks with the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), Erdoğan escalated tensions with the Kurds in a bid to scramble Turkish domestic politics. His explicit goal was winning in November’s elections what eluded him in June’s — an absolute majority for his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), made increasingly difficult by the sudden rise of  peaceful, Kurdish-interest, secular and left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş, a 42-year-old Kurdish human rights attorney.

Erdoğan’s ploy worked, and the AKP won its majority, but at a terrible cost. The military attacks on the PKK alienated Kurds and destroyed what had been one of the pillars of Erdoğan’s legacy. Meanwhile, the attacks against ISIS led to two suicide bombings in Ankara, the Turkish capital, killing 105 people in the worst terrorist attack in the modern Turkish republic’s history.

Germany. Last week, Germany’s government also decided to join the growing coalition against ISIS, not in a direct role dropping bombs, but in an indirect role to provide refueling support and reconnaissance.

It’s a welcome pivot for a government divided between chancellor Angela Merkel, who remains committed in principle to welcoming hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on German soil, and conservatives like Bavaria’s minister-president Horst Seehofer, who want to stop the migration flow and reintroduce national borders. The split could drive a wedge between moderates in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the conservatives in the CDU and in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party.

United States. Last, but not least, is the United States, which has bombed ISIS positions for over a year. Obama made it very clear last night that he will not send US ground forces to Syria, even as his administration (with the United Kingdom and France) intensifies its bombing campaign.

Initially, U.S. attacks focused on Iraq, where ISIS forces threatened the Yazidi minority. Over time, however, that campaign has broadened to the point of providing air cover to Kurdish peshmerga in both northern Syria and northern Iraq to hold off further ISIS gains — and even to retake the Syrian city of Kobani. There’s a sense that ISIS emerged as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, so U.S. policymakers feel an obligation to destroy a monster that they may have helped create, however inadvertently.

But ISIS’s emergence is just as much a result of the highly sectarian turn of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who alienated even moderate Sunnis from the Iraqi government after 2010. Faced with pressure from Republican opponents and hawkish Democrats to ‘do something,’ the Obama administration has increasingly become embroiled in the fight against ISIS on both Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border, four years after he fulfilled his defining 2008 campaign pledge of ending the U.S. presence in Iraq. Nevertheless, without a credible ground force of anti-ISIS Sunni fighters (and not just Kurdish peshmerga), the ISIS threat cannot be effectively eliminated. Obama has echoed the British government’s hope that moderate Sunni forces can coalesce and work in tandem with US-led airstrikes to destroy ISIS, but that’s still more of a hopeful aspiration than an effective plan.

None of this analysis even begins to contemplate the odd political dynamics that the Syrian conflict means for the other countries in the Middle East and their corresponding relationships with Russia, the United States, Turkey and the European governments. The U.S.-led campaign has support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. That’s even though Saudi Arabia and Qatar initially backed the anti-Assad rebels and provided material support to many of the Sunni militants who now constitute Nusra and ISIS radicals. For what it’s worth, precious few of those Middle Eastern allies have opened their borders to the millions of refugees (both from Syria and Iraq) that have flooded Turkey and Lebanon and have caused the greatest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II.

Iran and Lebanon’s dominant Shiite militia, Hezbollah, are wholeheartedly supporting Assad, and Iran has an interest in bolstering the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which gives them a common purpose on the theory of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ (That’s even though Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in their own proxy war over Yemen). Lebanon’s government, excepting Hezbollah, seems mostly concerned with keeping Lebanon out of Syria’s civil war. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey nor Iran have an interest in a Kurdish nationalist movement of growing confidence and autonomous governments of Syrian Kurdistan or in the nominally democratic Iraqi Kurdistan.

So where does that leave Syrians and the chances for peace after four years of brutal civil war?

It’s not clear, but the growing international circus could easily cost more lives than it saves.

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