The Syrian conflict has quickly jumped back into the Western geopolitical conversation. ISIS, though failing to grab as many headlines as before, remains a focus of Western military intelligence. As civil war continues to destroy the country, millions of Syrians have fled, with hundreds of thousands of refugees making their way to Europe this year. While Europe has not borne the brunt of the refugee burden, xenophobia and the legitimate logistical issues of managing the inflow have brought the crisis onto the political agenda. Additionally, Syria has recently become an increasingly heated nexus of global tensions, with Russia throwing its own air force into the fray.
Last year Barack Obama told the world that whilst aiming for peace in Syria, the US and its coalition – which includes Britain, France, Canada, and Australia – would use air power to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. Thousands of airstrikes have since been performed on ISIS targets. Millions of dollars have been spent to provide training and support for moderate fighters. Countries have attempted to stop extremists from travelling abroad to join ISIS. While these plans may have had some impact, they make little sense in the broader context of the war, and are not likely to succeed. Assad, financially and militarily supported by his allies, continues to cling to power four years on. ISIS, while not expanding at as fast a rate as it once was, is holding strong, and has welcomed 20,000-30,000 foreign fighters into Syria. As the war has raged on, the refugee crisis has continued to expand in scale and impact; Western governments have been caught off-guard by the outpouring of refugees from Syria.
Now, with Russian airstrikes adding further complexity to the situation, and many coming to the realisation that efforts to unseat ISIS have been unsuccessful, coalition countries are at an impasse. The goals most often referenced by Western leaders – destruction of ISIS, Assad’s removal, avoidance of military casualties, and standing up to Russia without inciting direct conflict – now all seem to be either unachievable or incompatible with one another.
One response might be to continue to focus on these large goals, but sacrifice one or more of them for the sake of the others. The US and its partners could ignore Russia, and test the limits of their air forces by crushing Assad and ISIS, potentially leaving Syria more of a wreck than it already is. Alternatively, we could accept that Assad has to stay in power, keep Russia content, and adopt only the long-term goal of destroying ISIS.
I doubt that I am the only onlooker left unsatisfied by these strategies. Simply put, the conversation about the Syrian conflict is being undertaken with the wrong mindset and aims.
While the stated goals of resolving the conflict, destroying ISIS etc. are good in themselves, together they represent the wrong strategy. They are very long-term, and fail to appreciate the complexity of the situation and our limited understanding of it. They are the geopolitical equivalent of living one’s life with the sole aim of making sure that one’s great-grandchildren are as happy and successful as possible.
Focusing on the conflict’s end-game leads to a dangerous far-sightedness that distracts from taking the right steps in the here and now. ISIS has built up enough strength and infrastructure, and attracted enough fanatics, that even if they suffer some degree of military defeat the organisation will not be degraded or destroyed in the near future. Bolstered by Hezbollah, Russia and Iran, Assad appears unwilling to negotiate his presidency, and the history of his regime indicates that it will be a challenge to unseat him.
Not only are these extremely challenging and long-term goals, but the West’s understanding of the complex situation in Syria is extremely limited. As previous attempts to implant “moderates” in Middle-Eastern countries and the abject failure of efforts to train Syrian militias have demonstrated, our political and military intelligence is severely handicapped.
The best strategy for now is to all but ignore the long-term goals and focus on those that are both clear and achievable in the short-run. First of all, adequate resources and attention must be devoted to the refugee crisis, providing stability for those who remain in Syria and surrounding countries, and opportunity for those willing and able to migrate to countries farther away.
Secondly, while we are unlikely to defeat ISIS, there may still be a role for carefully targeted and executed airstrikes that will limit the organisation’s capacity to expand and do more harm.
Finally, clear steps must be taken, whenever available, to work towards the small political victories that might prove necessary for an eventual end to the war and the Assad regime. These should include establishing clear channels of military and political communication with Russia and Iran, and beginning conversations with the many stakeholders in Syria so as to understand better what an end-game for the conflict might look like.
These short-term efforts to stabilize the refugee crisis, limit ISIS’ capacity, and engage politically both within Syria and internationally, are unlikely on their own to result in the cessation of civil war or the downfall of Assad. The situation in Syria may, despite all our best efforts, remain helpless for years to come. However, when compared with the lofty yet unclear long-term plan that dominates rhetoric around the issue, these non-trivial tasks are more likely to result in a better situation in the near-term, and to lay the groundwork for longer-term solutions.