Over the weekend, Paris hosted an international conference to discuss military measures against ISIS militants who are now embedded from Aleppo to Baghdad.
The talks were attended by European and Arab states, the five UN Security Council permanent members, and representatives of the EU, Arab League, and United Nations. All of the guests pledged to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS.
Reuters notes, “a statement after Monday’s conference made no mention at all of Syria.”
Meanwhile, the allies of Bashar al-Assad are exploiting the lack of clarity to protect the Syrian regime.
“The best way of fighting ISIS and terrorism in the region is to help and strengthen the Iraqi and Syrian governments, which have been engaged in a serious struggle against terrorism,” Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told a visiting French lawmaker.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said that the U.S. “will regret an attack on Syria.” And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Assad must be included.
“One cannot but feel concerned by publicly stated intentions to attack the [Islamic State] positions in Syria’s territory without interaction with the Syrian government,” Lavrov said in Paris. “Syria, as well as Iran, are our natural allies in the fight.”
For more than three years, Assad has argued that he is fighting terrorism while facilitating the rise of extremist groups, the most powerful of which is now ISIS.
“The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged as one of those facts created to ensure Assad’s survival as he and his Iranian backers seek to frame this conflict as a regional sectarian issue, with a classical choice between military powers and Sunni extremists,” Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who spent several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, wrote in the Atlantic Council.
“Now that ISIS has fully matured, the Assad regime and Iran offer themselves as partners to the United States.”
What’s clear is that the fight against ISIS must involve actions in Syria.
“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no,” Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters at the Pentagon last month.
The U.S. has expanded its air war agaisnt ISIS in Iraq. But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to have a unified position on what to do about Assad, who is widely viewed as part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Obama reportedly said privately that Syria shooting at U.S. planes would lead to Assad’s overthrow, although Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. would “communicate” with Assad’s government to avoid any potential clashes. The administration also says it wants to bolster the nationalist Syrian opposition, but has given no indication that the U.S. would help them in the crucial battle of Aleppo.
“It is Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolitan area, that presents ISIS’ best opportunity for expanding its claimed caliphate,” Jean-Marie Guéhenno and Noah Bonsey of the International Crisis Group wrote in The New York Times. “An effective strategy for halting, and eventually reversing, ISIS’ expansion should begin there, and soon.”
The administration says it won’t cooperate militarily with Iran, but has established “back channels” to discuss the fight against ISIS. Whether those discussions have involved Syria is unknown.
The Wall Street Journal notes that U.S. officials are concerned that Iranian proxies could target U.S. interests “if [the Iranians] view American military operations in Iraq and Syria as posing a threat to Iran’s core objectives and the rule of Mr. Assad.”
And any U.S. action against Tehran’s interests would hinder the Obama administration’s overarching goal of a nuclear deal and reconciliation with Iran.
Nevertheless, as it stands, vetted rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — who are primarily focused on ousting Assad — are America’s only potential partner on the ground in Syria.
“An enhanced train-and-equip program [for the FSA] constitutes a middle way that would avoid direct military intervention,” The Washington Institute wrote in a presentation. “Whatever risks it might entail likely pale in comparison to the demonstrable costs of the policy the administration has pursued until now.”
Alternatively, if the U.S.does not significantly supporting the national Syrian opposition and the FSA loses its last stronghold in Aleppo, then the only potential partners left would be Assad and his allies.
“U.S. coordination with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, or the Assad government in the fight against ISIS will play directly into the Assad plan,” Barabandi warned. “It will prove to Assad that his manipulation of time and terror has once again worked.”
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