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ICG: What the War on Islamic State means for Syria

ICG: What the War on Islamic State means for Syria

Over the past few weeks, the Islamic State (IS) militant group has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Egypt, Lebanon, France, and Tunisia. In response, France, Russia, and the United States of America have escalated airstrikes ostensibly aimed at IS targets. The growing internationalisation of the conflict presents higher costs and risks for all, as was made dramatically evident when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet earlier this week. Meanwhile, renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria face long odds. At a second round of international talks in Vienna on 14 November, just one day after the Paris attacks, members of the International Syria Support Group agreed to convene talks with Syrian government and opposition representatives by 1 January. The peace talks are to be held under the auspices of the UN. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Syria, NOAH BONSEY, looks at the complex military and political dynamics at play. By the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.

First published by the International Crisis Group.

Crisis Group: What has been the impact so far of the escalating campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria?

Noah Bonsey: It’s too early to speak in precise terms about impact, but the Islamic State (IS) is an organisation that has learned to adapt to airstrikes. They control a broad swathe of territory spanning much of Syria and Iraq. They can move equipment and personnel across this territory. They can use human shields, and co-locate military facilities in civilian areas. They have taken steps to raise the risk of collateral damage in order to deter airstrikes. Large numbers of civilian casualties can stoke anger and thus contribute to IS’s recruitment.

The capacity of airstrikes to fundamentally alter the situation is limited. This is true for Western strikes against IS just as it is for regime and Russian strikes against rebel groups that oppose IS. If airstrikes were the key to crippling armed groups in Syria, the Assad government would have declared victory long ago. Regime forces have been pounding the Syrian armed opposition relentlessly for years. For Western countries to escalate airstrikes against IS now may make sense emotionally or psychologically. It may be good domestic politics. But it is a tactical move with little positive potential so long as these actors lack a coherent strategy that addresses the reality of the Syrian conflict as a whole.

Do Western countries have a viable strategy for combatting IS?

Let’s focus on Washington’s approach. The U.S. finds it much easier, politically and militarily, to focus on “degrading” IS rather than on seriously pursuing its other stated goal of achieving a transition from the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The problem, however, is that the former is practically impossible without the latter, for two reasons: First, Assad’s dependence upon brutal collective punishment tactics and sectarian militias is a key factor driving radicalisation in Syria, and thus jihadi recruitment. Second, taking and holding significant territory from IS requires credible local ground forces – in Sunni Arab areas, that means Sunni Arab forces. There are plenty of anti-IS rebel groups up to the job, but they cannot afford to dedicate sufficient resources toward IS so long as the regime is killing them and their families in far higher numbers, and most will not focus on IS exclusively unless they see Assad on his way out the door.

Does the IS attack in Paris signal a new strategy for the organisation?

Paris might be the first time that IS has succeeded in a big attack in the West, but that doesn’t mean that this is the first time it tried. Indeed, threats to strike Western targets have featured prominently in its propaganda for more than a year. It is true that, for the past several years, the group has prioritised consolidating a base in Iraq and Syria and establishing satellites in the Islamic world. Yet it appears that IS views attacks on what jihadis sometimes refer to as the “far enemy” – countries, usually Western, that strike them or support their local enemies – as complementary to efforts to expand its footprint within the Islamic world.

What will be the impact of UN Security Council Resolution 2249, adopted on 20 November, which held that IS constitutes an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security” and called on member states to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress its terrorist acts?

We at Crisis Group see the resolution condemning recent attacks mostly as a show of support for France and other victims of IS from Tunisia, Turkey, Russia, and Lebanon. It echoes previous resolutions condemning IS and affirming the obligation of states to help tackle the group.

The latest resolution supports the general goal of ousting IS – in the words of the resolution, “to eradicate the safe havens they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”. But it gives no indication about how this might happen. This perhaps reflects Council members’ own disagreement, particularly on the role that President Assad’s regime should play.

Overall, the resolution is ambiguous. It is not adopted under Chapter VII, which would authorise force, but uses the language “all necessary measures”, which is usually reserved for Chapter VII resolutions. Also, in an echo of the resolutions adopted after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. in 2001, it recognises states’ right to use force, even if not explicitly authorising it. Some Council members reportedly view its reference to the UN Charter as evoking either Article 51, on self-defence, or the principle of state sovereignty. That Council members arrived at a consensus on the resolution fairly quickly suggests that they feel able to interpret it in different ways. At least for now, the resolution does not in itself appear to mark a dramatic shift in the Council’s approach or to represent a new consensus on how to tackle IS in Syria and Iraq.

What are the current prospects for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, either through the Vienna process or some other means?

The Vienna process, which was kicked off in October and has seen two meetings so far, is at risk of being undermined by fundamental disagreements over the need to achieve a political transition in Syria. Like the failed 2014 Geneva II process before it, Vienna is based on a fragile, narrow consensus between state backers of each side, and in particular between the U.S. and Russia. That consensus, however, does not include the key political question in Syria – whether a transition will result in an end to Assad rule. That is a gaping hole around which it will be very difficult to build a viable political process, and there is no sign of it narrowing. The regime and opposition camps, along with their respective regional backers, have come to view this as a proxy war of attrition, and each calculates the cost of continuing the war as preferable to conceding on the Assad question. Even if the U.S. and Russia could reach a deal, that doesn’t mean they can deliver Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – on the opposition side – and Iran, which supports the regime.

Another missing component in this process is a vehicle capable of representing the opposition on the ground. I’m not referring here to Salafi-jihadi groups such as IS or Jabhat al-Nusra – they reject any political track to resolve the conflict and can be expected to act as spoilers. There is however a range of armed opposition factions, including leading Islamists, which express commitment to a pluralistic Syrian future, are interested in engaging in a political process, and enjoy significant power on the ground. Their weight and interests are not currently reflected in any opposition political body. That is a critical shortcoming, because reaching a viable political resolution requires an opposition coalition capable of credibly negotiating a deal, implementing it on the ground, and protecting it from jihadi spoilers. The Syrian opposition and its state backers should accelerate their efforts to address this problem and organise a coherent means of representation – negotiations cannot achieve much without this. An upcoming opposition summit in Saudi Arabia provides a fresh opportunity to address the issue. DM

Photo: A file photo dated 15 May 2014 showing a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet taking off from the Air Force airfield in Wittmund, Germany. Reports 24 November 2015 state Turkish air force F-16 jets fired at a foreign fighter jet after giving a warning it was violating Turkey’s airspace. The foreign warplane then crashed at mountains near Hatay province, bordered by Syria. EPA/INGO WAGNER.

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