Obama’s Syrian dilemma

Syria provides no easy answers. This time, IS knows that the U.S. will not send massive troop deployments into Syrian territory and has signalled that it does not care about international norms and western reaction. It recognises that the West has its hands tied

September 17, 2014 12:57 am | Updated April 20, 2016 05:56 am IST

Drawn into a confrontation with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (IS) by the execution of western journalists and aid workers, United States President Barack Obama >asks his bombers to start their engines . Domestic political entanglements make anything more than aerial strikes hard to promote: the U.S. public is exhausted by the long War on Terror. Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. George W. Bush, is too suave for braggadocio. He tried to downgrade the “War on Terror” to “Overseas Contingency Operations,” but this did not have the necessary ring for public opinion. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has sought a Coalition of the Willing, but unlike Mr. Bush he will not involve U.S. ground troops. There will be “boots on the ground,” but the feet in them will be local.

The Iraq campaign is clearer than the Syrian one. Thus far U.S. close air support has assisted the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi military. Political problems in Iraq have been swept under the carpet with the removal of Mr. Nouri al-Maliki and the installation of his Dawa Party comrade, Haider al-Abadi. This is more theatre than actual change, but it provides Mr. Obama with the opportunity to speak of new beginnings.

Little advance Syria provides no easy answers. In Syria, IS faces three adversaries: Kurdish fighters, the Syrian government and an assortment of the Syrian opposition. Of these three, the U.S. will not overtly cooperate with the first two. Mr. Obama’s commitment to the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means that he has rejected the calls from Damascus for a coordinated strategy against the Islamic State. Mr. Assad has mainly ignored the IS, allowing it to fester in the northern reaches as he had recalled his armies to defend Damascus and the western coastline. With the Syrian Army tied down with the defence of Syria’s heartland, the IS has been able to concentrate its firepower against the other rebels.

> Read: Obama tamps down prospect of strikes in Syria

The most capable force to tackle the IS has been the Kurdish fighters of the YPG (Syria) and the PKK (Turkey), the latter considered by the U.S. and Turkey as a terrorist organisation. Turkey is loathe to join the U.S. mission in Syria not because the Islamic State holds Turkish hostages but for two other reasons. First, the anti-IS campaign would strengthen the prestige of the PKK and the YPG. Inside Turkey, the government of Recip Tayyip Erdog˘an has conducted negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan; but this “Imrali Process” has not provided sufficient confidence to allow the PKK a free run in Syria. Second, Turkey’s government remains committed to the overthrow of Mr. Assad. Mr. Erdog˘an’s pan-Islamism is in line with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who also rejected the Obama plan unless “the first bullet is directed at Assad’s head.” Turkey is loathed to close its border. Jihadis continue to stream across the border, while injured IS fighters rush to hospitals in Urfa (Turkey) for free medical care.

The United States’ preferred Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Harakat al-Hazm, do not elicit confidence. The FSA, built mainly of defectors from the Syrian armed forces, is a shadow of its former self. Blocked from any major victory, and squeezed by the much more fierce Islamist rebels and by the Syrian Army, the FSA has gone in two directions — toward extortion and smuggling, and toward coordination with the Islamist rebels for territorial gains. The FSA’s Colonel Riad al-Assad went along the grain of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — no coordination with the U.S. unless they get “assurances on toppling the Assad regime.” In Damascus, the FSA’s Front (Jabhat Thuwar Suriyya) has decided not to target the Islamic State, but to concentrate on the Assad regime. The Harkat al-Hazm, meanwhile, has been fighting alongside al-Qaeda’s official representative in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra. Backed by Qatar and Turkey, as well as the U.S., the Harkat al-Hazm has made little advance in Syria.

The tentacles of al-Qaeda

On the less “moderate” front are groups with close connections to the al-Qaeda. In January 2012, the Islamic State set up the Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front), which has had a fraught relationship with its mentor. As the IS became more publicly brutal, al-Nusra distanced itself. Comically, the al-Nusra suggested that it would release abducted U.N. peacekeepers if the U.S. removed them from the terrorist list (the feint did not work). Alongside them is the Khorasan Group sent by the al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit among the foreign fighters for missions in the West.

The largest group of fighters is in Ahrar as-Sham, the leading section in the Islamic Front. Its principal leadership — including its charismatic leader Hassan Abboud — was wiped out in early September in a huge suffocation bomb. Abboud had tried to fashion himself as a moderate. He was the protégé of Abu Khaled al-Suri, who was killed earlier this year. Al-Suri had a close relationship with the al-Qaeda, having been chosen to mediate between the Jabhat al-Nusra and the IS during their 2013 conflict. Abu Jaber, the new leader, has a less broad-minded reputation than Abboud. The strange alliances and routes are clear in Abu Jaber’s itinerary. He went from the FSA to the al-Fajr Islamic Movement, and now to leadership of Ahrar and the Islamic Front. Qatar wants the U.S. to adopt Ahrar as its moderate entity. All the Islamist groups have turned to the camouflage of moderation. A new front, the al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion) has claimed to be nationalist, with the Syrian flag on its materials rather than the pennants of jihad . But its leadership had been Islamist just before it decided to hide its beards under a balaclava.

Obama turns to Saudi Arabia Strangely, Mr. Obama’s team has > reached out to Saudi Arabia to help create a “moderate” rebel force. Confidence that Saudi Arabia, which does not have a reputation for moderation in its support of jihadis , would be able to deliver is low. Saudi Arabia’s own proxy in Syria is the Jaysh al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush (whose father, Abdullah is a Syrian cleric in Saudi exile). Alloush’s speeches bristle with sectarianism. It is little wonder then that on December 11, 2013, his fighters (along with the al-Nusra) conducted a massacre of Alawites, Christians, Ismailis and Druze in Adra (north-east of Damascus).

A few days before Mr. Obama’s speech, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described the Islamic State as takfiris — those who want to kill infidels. The Islamic State reveals “only what a Takfiri state would look like: it would be harsh, mean-spirited, house of blood, where no shade would be offered, nor shelter given, to any non-Takfiri in their midst.” Such a statement, with some modulation, would not be an inappropriate description of the other Islamist groups — although they do their atrocities in the dark and do not like to confront the West.

Public atrocities by the Islamic State are a curious business. Brutality by the IS has been commonplace. They have used YouTube videos of mass executions to cower their enemies into surrender or flight. This is precisely what happened in Mosul, when Iraqi troops fled in fear of the consequences of capture. But the beheadings of western journalists and aid workers are of a different quality. These are not to scare the Iraqi troops or the other Syrian rebels. The new killings are a message to the West. Osama bin Laden’s attack on the U.S. on 9/11 had been calculated to draw the West to Afghanistan. That is the reason why the al-Qaeda assassinated the Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud a little before the 9/11 attacks. But this time, IS knows that the U.S. will not send massive troop deployments into Syria. IS has signalled that it simply does not care about international norms and western reaction. It recognises that the West has its hands tied. It will bomb from the air, but this is as likely as not to bring recruits to the side of the Islamic State. Among the takfiri fighters, the animosity to the U.S. is great. By staking out a position as the pre-eminent group that stands against the West, the IS might be trying to draw in fighters from other groups.

No easy political agreement can come in Syria. The rebels remain obdurate that Mr. Assad must go, even if this means delivery of Syria to the Islamic State. Mr. Assad will not throw his troops at the IS unless he has an assurance that the rebellion against him is over. Regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain on a boil. Mr. Obama’s gesture appears resolute, but empty (as idle as the speeches at the Paris conference of September 15). Confidence fell even lower when a senior Obama aide noted, “Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.” Such geographical gaffes dampen faith in the Obama strategy.

(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South , LeftWord Books, 2013.)

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