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The Intervention in Syria Has Begun

September 23, 2014

by Andrew Parker

“Raqqa the Casbah” was in poor taste

The US intervention in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS) has begun. Bombs struck targets in their de facto capital city of Raqqa, just as they are threatening to wipe out minority Kurds in the city of Kobane just north of there. This seems to follow a similar formula to Iraq; just when it seemed ISIS were going to extinguish the Yazidis in northern Iraq, US bombing and aid drops and coordination with the Peshmerga prevented a much worse outcome. While it is regrettable that intervention is so reactionary rather than proactive, at least something is finally being done to address the problem of ISIS in both of the countries it has cannibalized. Be cautious in your outlook, though. Here’s what needs to happen going forward:

1) Get Turkey on Board

There are a number of Arab countries actively participating in this intervention, which adds to its legitimacy. But it is understandable why Turkey has been reluctant to crack down on ISIS. Up until recently, they held many Turkish hostages, and could easily take more. Thousands of ISIS fighters from around the world travel across the border, either illicitly or with help from sympathetic Turkish security forces. It would not be hard for them to retaliate in a number of ways if Turkey decided to act against them. While these are all difficult situations, it is crucial for Turkey – as a member of NATO and as a self-styled moderate Muslim country – to take a firm stance against ISIS. Without access to Syria through Turkey, they would have a much harder time resupplying fighters and funds (though sadly, they already have a surfeit of weapons).

To do this, the Turks need to understand that continued indifference to ISIS will be consequential. Reconciliation with all Kurdish groups is critical. Already, some groups like the PKK are accusing Turkey of facilitating genocide against Kurds in Syria. This will inflame a conflict that once looked to be winding down. Another Turkish-Kurdish conflict will ruin the country, which has such high aspirations.

2) Never Accept a Syria in Which Assad Remains

Congress included in the recent funding bill a provision to materially support and train Syrian rebels. This would have been extremely helpful two years ago; alas they are forced to take what they can get. What must be absolutely clear is that ISIS was first and foremost allowed to flourish by the Assad regime. So long as such barbarians exist, the narrative his government repeats is one of a choice between him and extremism. In reality, there is a massive movement for a free and democratic Syria. Assad has deliberately refrained from fighting ISIS so that their forces combined might wipe out any alternative futures for Syria. Even as this US-led coalition bombs ISIS, Assad is concurrently bombing civilians. Therefore, as if this fact and his use of chemical weapons weren’t reason enough to discount him as a partner in fighting terrorism, it must be clear that his removal from power is a goal tantamount to the defeat of ISIS.

It is wrong to expect our select moderates of Syria’s rebels to act as our boots on the ground against ISIS. Make no mistake, they will fight them after getting US assistance, just as they have for an entire year alone. Their goal is to liberate all of Syria. But Assad is their main enemy, and rightly so. Trying to direct them to focus on one and not the other will only weaken them, as neither will ever relent on them. They will not abandon the cause of a free Syria. This intervention cannot be just against the Islamic extremists in Syria. It must apply to the extremist Assad regime as well; all it’s air bases, front lines, and command structures. Otherwise, the intervention will be for naught. Defeat ISIS now, and Assad will welcome their next incarnation as long as it keeps him in power another day.

This leads us to another point…

3) Which Model to Use? The Successes and Failures of Iraq Yemen Libya

Regardless of all statements that ‘Assad must go’ by the Obama administration, there have never been any serious steps to do so, even now. But let’s pretend this was the intended goal for a minute, and see what guidance recent history can provide. By all accounts, the NATO intervention in Libya that led to the end of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 was a military success. Of course, that was a significantly less muddied conflict. But it all unraveled when the democratic state that replaced him failed to disarm or integrate the militias that now fight each other for influence.

From a military perspective, this intervention in Syria, if sustained over the course of the next year or so, could lead to the complete removal of both ISIS and Assad. It is what comes after, however, that will determine the success of any operation. This will require sustained state-building support of unprecedented intensity. The main objectives of the non-military mission must be:

  • Creation of strong democratic state institutions, including relocating the opposition government to within Syrian borders so that it might develop legitimacy
  • Support to rebuilding civil infrastructure and economic output
  • Allowing for the return of refugees
  • Reconciliation between all minority and sectarian groups in Syria (Arabs; Kurds; Druze; and crucially Alawites, who have grown increasingly sick of Assad)
  • The creation of a new unified national army, to counter the threats of factionalism, lingering terrorism, and external threats

Questions about whether the country could even be unified at this point are legitimate. There is great bitterness between Sunni Arabs and Alawites, and Kurds have their own aspirations of statehood. Whereas Iraq was bundled together, and so tore itself apart, Syria should be allowed some room for experimentation. Federalism and degrees of autonomy may wind up being necessary to prevent later bloodshed, but the next Syrian government must strive for reconciliation and inclusion. It should drop ‘Arab’ from the official country name so as to include minorities. It should seek normalized relations with its neighbors. It should uphold international conventions and stay true to the goals of the Syrian revolution.

This is all very uncertain. Having been let down so many times before – and perhaps yet again if this intervention fails to make Assad a priority – Syria watching is an exercise in frustration and world weariness. The fact that I can even consider such future prospects of a free Syria is quite amazing, however. Whatever the outcome of this, prior to intervention, Syria was guaranteed to slide ever towards having no future at all.

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