The announcement that the United States will conclude its combat role in Iraq by the end of 2021 appears to be no more than rebranding the U.S. troops’ current role in Iraq.
The appalling terrorist attacks in Paris by ISIL that killed at least 120 people have drawn strong condemnation from the international community as a whole, including the Arab Gulf states and their leaders. But it’s unclear as to whether the attacks will prove to be a game changer in the international or regional response to the threat posed by the extremist organization.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, “I wanted to express our condolences to the government and people of France for the heinous terrorist attacks that took place yesterday, which are in violation and contravention of all ethics, morals and religions.” UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed sent a telegram of condolence to the French people and pledging support for France. Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah noted that “these criminal acts of terrorism… run counter to all teachings of holy faith and humanitarian values.” He deemed the attack “a brutal and inhuman deed that represents extremism and terrorism at their very worst.” The Qatari foreign ministry condemned the “armed attacks and bombings,” declaring that they “contradict all moral and humanitarian principles and values.”
Gulf civil society and media have also been outspoken and unanimous in their condemnation of the attacks. The Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia said, “Terrorists are not sanctioned by Islam and these acts are contrary to values of mercy it brought to the world.” But reaction in the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world did note the distinction between the heavy global attention paid to the carnage in Paris and the relative inattention to a devastating pair of suicide bombings in Beirut shortly before. The UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, The National, noted, “Just as we have long known the nature of ISIL, so too the nuanced and appropriate response to the events in Paris and Beirut remains unchanged from before. ISIL has to be defeated not just militarily but even more importantly on the ideological battlefield, by offering a compelling counternarrative to the extremist ideology that unfortunately has appeal to disaffected youth across the globe.”
This sentiment and analysis more or less sums up the prevailing reaction among mainstream discourse in the Arab Gulf states, and most of the rest of the Middle East and, indeed, the world at large. However, even with the overwhelming bulk of the human family united in horror and outrage at this spate of attacks, including those in Beirut and culminating in the Paris massacres, there does not yet appear to be a concomitant global or international commitment to adjusting the international approach to dealing with ISIL. It may well be emerging. But if this is, as some have said, a “game changer” for the international community, its response to ISIL remains to be developed.
The rise of ISIL in a vast tract of land snaking through northern and eastern Syria and then deep into Iraq itself is a challenge to the entire regional state system and a threat to many countries. As the Paris attacks clearly demonstrate, many Middle Eastern and Western societies, including the Arab Gulf states, are vulnerable to terrorist attacks by extremists inspired by the group, or, worse, who have gone to fight with ISIL in Syria and then return to their home areas imbued with even greater fanaticism and now in possession of battlefield training and experience.
Two weeks ago, British authorities warned of the prospect of mass casualty attacks in the United Kingdom, saying ISIL cadres are known to be trying to plan them. Almost 800 Britons have been identified as having joined the terrorist group. ISIL is thought to have recruited at least 20,000 foreign fighters from the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia in recent years, making it probably the most successful international volunteer campaign since the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The terrorist organization is also now on record threatening similar carnage in Washington, DC.
All the major actors in the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, share a sincere antipathy towards ISIL, which, for its part, has also attacked and denounced all of them. Yet, somehow, this terrorist organization, multinational criminal enterprise and nascent mini-state has thus far been able to survive an open conflict with all other major parties simultaneously. French scholar Olivier Roy notes in the New York Times, as I have on several occasions in the past, that the key to ISIL’s astonishing survival thus far is that all of its antagonists (now with the exception of France) have other priorities which the terrorist group is able to play off against each other, buying space and time. The key factor in the rise of ISIL in Syria has clearly been its politically symbiotic relationship with the Assad dictatorship in Damascus. On paper, these two entities despise each other and could hardly be more ideologically and politically hostile. Yet in practice, they share an overwhelming interest in ensuring that the conflict in Syria is as brutal and sectarian as possible.
The regime’s rhetoric focused from the outset of the 2011 uprising on what was then a fictional invasion by crazed foreign jihadist terrorists. In reality, at the time, the regime was confronting unarmed “Arab Spring” demonstrators demanding reform. But the regime has been able to ensure that this became an intentionally self-fulfilling prophecy. Within a year, Bashar al-Assad’s own extreme brutality and sectarianism began to give rise to a series of increasingly fanatical rebel groups, culminating in ISIL. The regime relies on presenting Syrians, the region, and the world with a false binary choice between itself and one of the most extreme and reprehensible entities in recent history. This narrative has been taken up by Vladimir Putin to rationalize Russia’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime quite falsely as an international counterterrorism initiative against ISIL. In reality, the overwhelming majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted mainstream rebel groups far from any area of ISIL operation.
Similarly, ISIL relies, for its own appeal to its primary constituency on the ground in Syria – the local Sunni population – on presenting itself as the last and only hope of rescuing the Syrian Sunnis from an existential threat by the sectarian regime and its barrel bombs and chemical weapons. ISIL’s apocalyptic, millennialist, and redemptionist rhetoric is designed to appeal to ISIL’s extremist international foreign fighters and financial backers. But to the population in the areas of Syria they control, they present themselves as providing protection and bringing order, however strict, to otherwise lawless and ungoverned areas. This is the same basic appeal that many other successful extremist movements, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, have deployed in order to gain initial acceptance in areas under their control. Their rise and expansion in Syria craftily focused on taking territories from the rebel groups, not the regime. And Assad, for his part, did not immediately bomb those territories that came under ISIL control, which has been the regime’s primary and preferred response to territorial gains by all other opposition groups.
Having faced the reality that he could not keep control of all of what used to be his country, Assad has chosen carefully, when possible, to try to turn territorial losses into political gains. Strategically ceding what it considers to be remote areas has been a key tactic of the regime. Assad facilitated the rise of Kurdish groups associated with the PKK in northern Syria in order to bedevil Turkey, and in effect encouraged the rise of ISIL in order to discredit the rebel movement and paint the entire opposition as a gang of crazed terrorists. Neither the Kurdish areas in northern Syria nor the territories controlled by ISIL in the east are crucial to the regime’s most elemental interests, once the ambition to retain control of the entire country is accepted to be futile.
While ISIL and the Syrian regime constitute opposite sides of the same coin of vicious and sectarian conflict in Syria, as noted above, all other major actors, and many minor ones, find themselves in direct conflict with ISIL. The reason that this vicious terrorist organization has been able to survive open conflict with virtually all other parties simultaneously is that none of its antagonists prioritize its destruction over all other goals. On the contrary, all major actors in Syria may agree that ISIL is a dangerous menace that needs to be destroyed, but all of them also have other goals that are given much greater priority.
Under such circumstances, it is possible – and all too often a fairly simple matter – for ISIL to play one enemy off against another, and ensure that these other priorities trump confronting them time and again. Thus, as its mantra boasts, ISIL could very well “continue and expand,” and it’s not clear whether mass casualty attacks in the West are going to change that fundamental equation. These alternative priorities naturally vary from actor to actor. What each group – whether global, regional, and local – engaged in Syria really prioritizes and what they consider to be their minimum political requirements, is at every stage the key to the potential for some sort of political accommodation or any other outcome, including continued, open-ended conflict.
The United States has maintained from a fairly early period in the Syrian uprising that Assad has “lost all legitimacy” and that he should step aside. But the essential American concern in Syria does not have to do with regime change. Nor does U.S. policy in Syria focus primarily on the struggle to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. Instead, driven by lessons drawn primarily from the American experience in Iraq in the past decade, the Obama administration has long prioritized the maintenance of administrative and social institutions in Syria. The most important American priority is avoiding the prospect of a total national meltdown and chaos throughout the country, which has not occurred thus far. Obviously, there is great difficulty in separating such institutions from the government infrastructure which created most and supports all of them. Indeed, under current circumstances, they really can not be separated.
Therefore, an even deeper problem is that these two core positions – that Syria requires a new government because the current one has lost all legitimacy and that the most important thing in Syria is avoiding the collapse of public and administrative institutions – are in strict contradiction with each other. This contradiction produces the kind of policy statement recently expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he reiterated that “Assad has to go,” but that “it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever.”
The American position requires a more careful elucidation because it is more nuanced and complex than most. Certainly Russia’s priority is clear: to defend the control of the core areas required to secure its precious warm water port in Tartus and new military bases near Latakia. A secondary Russian ambition is to consolidate a new regional alliance under Moscow’s tutelage, guidance and protection involving Iran, Iraq, Syria (or what is left of it under Assad’s control), Hezbollah, and others.
In this sense, Russia faces an all or nothing gamble in Syria. It stands to either seize the strongest role it has played in the Middle East since the 1970s or lose its last major Arab ally, the current Syrian regime. At any rate, ISIL is at most a wildcard spoiler in these calculations. It is not a central factor in either Russia’s minimal or maximal goals and operates mainly as an excuse for Russian intervention.
Iran and Hezbollah are much more committed to the personal political survival of Assad himself than Russia is, but they broadly share the same aim of consolidating the government’s control in the territory it has managed to preserve. This chunk of Syria runs from the Lebanese border area through Qalamoun, up into Damascus and into the Alawite coastal area and regime stronghold. The preservation of this part of Syria under regime control is sufficient for the essential interests of Iran and Hezbollah. Again, ISIL is not a strong factor. It is unlikely to be able to extend its control into these areas because it faces resistance not only from the regime and its external supporters – Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and even some Iraqi Shia militias – but also from mainstream rebel groups.
The Arab Gulf states and Turkey share the goal of removing Assad and his regime from power. For them, regime change in Damascus is non-negotiable, just as regime survival has been, until now anyway, non-negotiable for Iran and Hezbollah (and probably Russia). Turkey has an additional, and even stronger, priority, which is preventing control by PKK-allied Kurdish militias of the border area in the north. As noted, early on in the conflict Assad ceded control willingly of much of this territory to such Kurdish groups in order to bedevil Ankara. Turkey’s own intervention in Syria earlier this year, much like Russia’s, was presented to the world as an anti-ISIL campaign, but it too focused on very different priorities. Most of the Turkish military engagement has, predictably, focused on battling Kurdish groups and not ISIL.
For their part, the Arab Gulf states have been urging that the battle against the Assad regime and ISIL be pursued in tandem, simultaneously, and given equal weight. But their own policies suggest that their hierarchy of priorities emphasizes regime change over destroying ISIL. Until now, Saudi Arabia and Qatar strongly give the impression of believing that countering Iranian hegemony, most dangerously expressed in the form of the Assad regime, is essential and existential, whereas containing and controlling ISIL is a more manageable threat that can be dealt with in due course.
None of these observations diminish the magnitude of the setbacks ISIL has suffered in recent months due to international pressure. Indeed, the Russian intervention in Syria was prompted by increased Saudi, Qatari, and probably Turkish aid to mainstream rebel groups whose advances came at the expense of the regime and ISIL alike. The loss of the highly strategic town of Sinjar to Kurdish forces and the apparent killing by an American air attack of Mohammed Emwazi – also known as “Jihadi John,” a British extremist who was ISIL’s most prominent executioner – all contributed to the growing impression that ISIL is suffering a grinding series of setbacks that contradict its message of divinely sanctioned victories. Moreover, ISIL’s territorial expansion in both Syria and Iraq seems to be stalled by geography and demographics: the political, cultural, and religious resistance to the group in most areas adjacent to its self-declared “caliphate” in eastern Syria and western Iraq mean that it has few hopes of gaining more ground even as it is being slowly rolled back on the margins of the territories it has occupied.
Sadly, none of this signals the death-knell of ISIL. Its brand remains strong in extremist circles around the Islamic world. But it does help to explain why the group has felt forced to adopt the approach of directly attacking Western targets, a strategy that it openly said it wished to postpone in favor of building a “state.” Indeed, disagreement over this issue was one of the main reasons for ISIL’s break with Al Qaeda over three years ago. It’s not that ISIL has been suddenly won over by Al Qeada’s arguments but rather that the group has run out of options for ways of asserting itself, given the setbacks and difficulties it has faced in its primary mission of acquiring and ruling territory and building its twisted and dystopian “Islamic state.” As I noted elsewhere, however, these developments raise the alarming prospect of a potential rapprochement between the two terrorist groups. Perhaps organizational and personal rivalries will be enough to keep them at loggerheads. But their tactical and even strategic disputes are quickly withering away, making a reunification in the self-described “salafist-jihadist” camp a disturbing possibility.
Olivier Roy argues in the New York Times that France has now, uniquely, accepted that the battle against ISIL is a paramount priority. This may be true, but until more powerful global players like the United States and Russia, or more immediately engaged regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, similarly identify defeating and destroying ISIL as the overriding priority in Syria and Iraq, and regionally throughout the Middle East, the terrorist organization is likely to continue to be able to play one side off against the other and at least survive. If these core calculations have changed, there is, as yet, no clear policy expressing that. For the meanwhile, ISIL remains protected by being, at most, the second item on everyone’s hierarchy of priorities.
The downing of the Russian civilian airliner over Sinai, the Beirut suicide bombings, and the Paris massacres, all coming in quick succession, ought to be enough to bring most, if not all, parties together in forming a clear and urgent coordinated international strategy against this extraordinary menace. There are signs that this could well develop in the coming days and weeks, and that for ISIL the “game” has indeed been changed by dint of its own uncontrolled savagery. But as long as it is not a clear international and regional priority, ISIL might well be able to continue the astonishing feat of surviving being at war with everybody else simultaneously.
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