November 03, 2015

The Reality in Syria Casts a Shadow Over Vienna

By Nicholas Heras

Hope is fleeting in Syria. The civil war has killed approximately 250,000 people, displaced more than 11 million (which is more than half of Syria’s pre-war population), caused hundreds of billions of dollars of destruction to the country’s infrastructure, and has been a beacon for jihadist fighters—Sunni and Shia—from across the Middle East and around the world. While the recently convened Vienna Conference to end the Syrian conflict concluded on a hopeful note—the nations gathered in the Austrian capital agreed to continue their talks over the coming weeks—the reality on the ground indicates that stopping the fighting, and putting Syria back together again, may only be possible over the course of decades.

Further, out of the Syrian conflict has emerged the would-be caliphate of the Islamic State, which controls large areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq; the ongoing development of an al-Qaeda influenced proto-state in northwestern Syria’s Idlib governorate; and a Kurdish-dominated, autonomous canton in northeastern Syria that in its governing structures maintains ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Throughout Syria, where the armed opposition has seized territory from the Assad government, its rule is fragmented. Pro-opposition allies, particularly the Arab Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, have since 2011 disagreed over the best approach to take to leverage their financial and military influence to build a unified and coordinated opposition force.

Moreover, the Saudi and Emirati-led military campaign in Yemen is further distracting these countries from Syria, and in many ways Yemen has become—for them—a more important venue of competition with Iran.

The Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition, which is heavily influenced by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, has lost the initiative in its campaign in northwestern Syria to strike at the demographic core of the Alawi community in Latakia. Jaysh al-Fateh was supposed to serve as a model for how Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could coordinate an effective—albeit strongly influenced by more extremist Sunni groups—rebel army that could threaten the Assad regime enough to bring it to the negotiating table. Instead, it contributed to Russia’s military escalation in Syria.

Russia’s military intervention—supplemented by an escalation in the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) proxy network, which is led by Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and Iranian Afghan refugee-recruited forces—is solidifying President Bashar al-Assad’s statelet in western Syria.
The Assad Statelet
Further, the solidification of Assad’s statelet presents pro-opposition actors with a dilemma: In the near future, they are not likely to remove the statelet, and the Syrian president does not appear to have any intention to stop ruling his territory. While the loyalist forces are unlikely to restore Assad’s rule throughout all of Syria in the foreseeable future, the Syrian government’s rule over its western statelet is the most important bargaining chip that any of the players in the Vienna talks could hope to have.
For its part, the United States seems to be in the process of a strategic reassessment of its options to influence the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Since August 2011, America’s top priority has been a negotiated conclusion to the conflict, with the removal of President Assad from power, and a post-conflict Syria that is inclusive (i.e. pluralistic and respects ethnic and sectarian minority rights and gives them full political participation) and which is building toward democracy.
Both the US and Russia appear to agree that a post-conflict Syria will need to be inclusive and democratic. However, the sad irony of the Syrian War is that the most “inclusive” governance structures remain in Assad’s statelet (and the Kurdish-led canton in northeastern Syria), as rebel rule throughout the country has not been distinguished by its acceptance of pluralism.
The continuation of an Assad-led statelet is unacceptable to the Syrian armed opposition, including groups within it from across the ideological spectrum, and by regional backers of Syria’s rebel groups. The fact of the matter is that “post-Assad Syria” exists throughout the country. In Idlib, the eastern suburbs of Damascus, areas of Aleppo and in the Islamic State’s caliphate, the post-Assad Syria resembles a developing sharia state, which is the end goal of influential jihadist theorists such as Abu Bakr al-Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri.
On the ground in Syria, however, the US does not have the influence, particularly in the north, to leverage into the development of a cohesive armed opposition force that can militarily pressure the Assad government.

Moving forward, if Washington hopes to achieve this influence, it will need to take a region-by-region approach to the Syrian conflict, and work more aggressively to bolster moderate rebel forces on the ground that can provide the US leverage, particularly against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons.

The emergence of the Islamic State has added a counterterrorism component to this policy. As the reality on the ground stands, the anti-Islamic State and counterterrorism component of US strategy appears to be the most accomplishable. Working toward this goal will require expanding support for an emerging, multiethnic Syrian rebel coalition of moderate Arab militias and the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria.

Expanding support for the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition promises to provide the US with greater leverage in eastern Syria against the Islamic State, while setting the conditions to displace the group from its rule in northern and eastern Syria.

The announcement on October 30 that the US will send upward of 50 Special Forces to eastern Syria, likely to the country’s northeastern al-Hasakah governorate, to work with local Sunni Arab militias, fits within this strategy. If the United States continues to build out its influence on the ground in eastern Syria, constructing a multiethnic, civil-military coalition in the process, and demonstrates ongoing success in its counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State, it will build a reality on the ground in the conflict that can, over time, be translated into leverage in the Vienna process.

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