The Syrian Civil War matters to the world, aside from humanitarian reasons, because the conflict has the potential of spreading and enflaming lesser conflicts across the highly unstable, insecure region and beyond. Where European powers, the US, and Russia have vested interests in the conflict due to the threat of globalized terrorism, Europe is also under economic strain due to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Overtaking Al Qaeda and Boko Haram as the face of globalized terrorism, due to its brutality and once rapid expansion, the Islamic State has forced Americans to pay attention to the Syrian Civil War.
It would be logical to conclude rivals should unite in battle against the common threat of the Islamic State, especially with Assad’s near victory in Aleppo, but such a conclusion ignores the fundamental reasons for the Syrian Civil War and US-Russian tensions. With control of Aleppo returning to the government of Bashar al-Assad, thanks largely to Russian military intervention against rebel factions, the Syrian Civil War feels like it is about to end with a victory for the Assad regime. Far from victory, the Assad regime has simply reclaimed the responsibility of securing Aleppo from terrorism and guerrilla warfare with a military on the verge of collapse and an inability to rebuild the nation he led to ruin.
Already devastated by years of fighting, the situation in Aleppo, and Syria as a whole, has been made magnitudes worse by Russia’s heavy-handed, indiscriminate bombing campaign. As a symbol of the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo is a prize the Assad regime cannot secure nor rebuild. In other words, Assad continues to need Russia to defend and rebuild Syria, but Russia needs the US and the rest of NATO to fulfill such a massive commitment. The US took days to invade Iraq then spent more than a decade trying to secure and rebuilt it with lackluster support from Europe. Clearly, Syria is in far worse condition and far bigger with a far more tenuous security situation. Given the blood and treasure the US already poured into Iraq with little to no permanent strategic gains, cooperation with Russia over Syria would be an unbearable liability.
To suppress the most threatening groups, e.g. the Islamic State, Russia and regime forces will need to unite with the opposition against their common enemy in order to create enough stability for a viable political solution to be implemented. The Assad Regime cannot unite the factions in Syria, because the Assad Regime is the main target of the violence in Syria. After nearly six years of fighting Assad, in the wake of a brutal government crackdown intended to crush dissent, it is a matter of life and death for all dissenters. Leaving Assad in power would mean leaving Assad to seek retribution against armed and unarmed dissenters alike. It is important to remember the Free Syrian Army was formed to protect dissenters from Assad.
The Syrian Civil War can only be resolved by addressing the grievances of the Syrian People and by suppressing groups like the Islamic State that undermine the possibility of future peace and stability. Because Bashar Al-Assad has made himself a source of violence, the Syrian People have too many grievances with Assad, and Middle Eastern governments have too many grievances with Assad, he cannot bring peace to Syria or the region. In terms of threat assessment, the Islamic State has been a major threat to peace and stability in Syria, but the Assad regime has been the driving threat. Only once these primary threats are neutralized can a strategy that targets weaker extremist groups be constructive in efforts to rebuilt Syria and safeguard the world from globalized terrorism.
Quick frankly, the Assad Regime will never have victory, because civil unrest and armed resistance will not simply disappear under the rule of the Assad regime. The Arab Spring Revolutions are often blamed for fostering regional violence and instability. The Arab Spring Revolutions happened, however, because the Peoples of the Middle East could no longer tolerate the failure of their unresponsive, egocentric governments to address their needs. It was the unwillingness of people like Assad to even hear the voices of dissent, as well as his instinct to use violence against those who questioned him, that created room for groups like the Islamic State to flourish. The threat of terrorism and instability may have pushed revolution to the sidelines, but the need for change has not disappeared, thus the reasons for the terrorism and instability have been addressed.
The fight against the Islamic State has never been, and will never be, just about subduing the threat of the terrorist group. Any attempt to eliminate, or even suppress, the Islamic State cannot succeed unless it addresses the underlying factors that allowed the Islamic State threat to develop. Failing to do so ensures new threats will arise. Middle East security hinges on the ability of regional powers to overcome traditional and cultural conflicts in order to focus on common threats to the national security of all Middle Eastern nations. What this means is that traditional revivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, must learn to solve conflicts through diplomatic channels instead of relying on proxy wars and fostering terrorism. In addressing dissent and civil unrest, governments must learn to rely on political engagement as an alternative to violent crackdowns. If they do not, they will continue to inspire violence.
Ultimately, Middle Eastern powers would prefer the US, its Western allies, and Russia to launch a massive military campaign to eliminate the Islamic State. Unfortunately, over subsidizing the regional security by defeating the common enemy of all Middle Eastern nations and Peoples for them would be counterproductive in the long-term. Relying on the West to defeat the Islamic States leaves regional powers the room to continue their traditional rivalries and their destabilizing support of militant groups. It also allows Middle Eastern governments to avoid civil engagement in favor of crackdowns against civil discontent under the guise of anti-terrorism initiatives.
The Middle East is much like pre-World War I Europe in that revival powers exist in a perpetual state of hostility where grievances against each other are expressed through armed conflict. Like post-World War II Europe, America has tried to militarily neuter the Middle East by securing the region with US forces and subsidizing their security forces in order to suppress internal instability. Where Europe learned to substitute armed conflict with diplomatic and political conflict, the Middle East learned to substitute open conflict with proxy wars by supporting military groups that undermine their revivals, which is a practice they learned, in part, from the US.
That said, Middle Eastern nations have a history of successful cooperation when it comes to economic matters thanks to their OPEC memberships, but that cooperation does not extend beyond economic matters. What Middle East lacks is the proper mindset. What US leadership did for post-World War II Europe was change the mindset of Europeans. Pre-liberal, pre-democratic European powers viewed war as an inevitability and the human cost of violence as a duty to one’s country while government existed to be served, not to serve, so questioning government was treated as an act of sedition.
When the cultures of Europeans and their leadership moved away from these traditional views, the value of individual lives started to outweigh the ease of violence, thus diplomacy and politics became the priority of European governments. Where violence became thoroughly unacceptable in the West to the point touching someone can be considered assault, violence is still how problems are solved in the Middle East. With the Peoples of the Middle East globalizing and democratizing, national and, even, cultural boundaries no longer divide Middle Easterners, thus the bulk of the population is learning to forgo petty differences in order to achieve their common interests of peace and stability.
The Arab Spring Revolutions gave way to instability, because regional governments decided to respond to protesters with violence. It is hardliner governments and extremists, who use violence to assert their influence that is driving regional instability. In order to address terrorism, governments, and other community leaders must overcome their impulse to use violence to solve their problems. The Syrian Civil War and the Islamic State threat provide Middle Eastern leaders the opportunity to learn how to do just that. Politics and diplomacy exist as an alternative to armed conflict. The leaders of the Middle East need to stop using violence to settle differences and make civil engage a top priority in order to stabilize their region, so they can eventually defeat terrorism.
Furthermore, ground forces are the backbone of any anti-insurgent campaign, which is why Middle Eastern powers need to be committed to their own regional security. Unless native security forces are committed to defending their own homeland against threats, unless governments are committed to resolving conflicts with their neighbors and address the grievances of their own discontented Peoples, no counter-insurgency campaign can be successful. The blunt truth is that a failure to meet these conditions means foreign intervention will simply perpetuate the status quo at the cost of taxpayer dollars and national security. This is exactly why the Iraq War ended with tenuous instability that quickly degraded once US forces withdrew.
In regards to the role of world powers like the United States and Russia, air support can give ground forces the edge needed to defeat insurgents. Strategic missions to free hostages, gather intelligence, and eliminate leadership can reduce the effectiveness of a terrorist group. Providing nonlethal aid and reluctantly supplying well-controlled arms is a way of ensuring a solid anti-insurgent campaign has what it needs to be successful. All of these services, however, are components of a support role. As demonstrated by the inability of the Iraqi army to function without the guidance and support of the US military, an overreliance on foreign assistance will lead to disaster when the long drawn out commitment of foreign blood and treasure is exhausted.
It is important to remember the Islamic State is a far more pressing concern for those in Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. The ongoing threat of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War has been framed as a failure of the Obama Administration, but it is not the role of the US to win this conflict nor is this conflict going to end quickly. The United States does have interests in Iraq and Syria, specially ensuring the Islamic State does not become a far more serious threat to the US. The world is eager to see the end of violence in Syria, but victory takes commitments and the International Community has truly done very little to actually resolve the Syrian Civil War until recently. In turn, the Trump Administration cannot allow itself to be pulled into another unwinnable war.
Read old posts