With a caucus of the Syrian opposition just finished in Vienna, with further talks due soon in Riyadh, its becoming obvious that there is a growing disconnect between the “plans” of the West and the actual situation on the ground.
While trying to sell the idea of air strikes in Syria, Cameron made a claim of there being 70,000 fighters on the ground ready to run in after air strikes and destroy ISIS. However the reality is that the Syrian opposition are, for the most part, not fighting IS and have no intention of doing so any time soon. While they are as horrified by IS as much as the rest of the world, the fact is that IS isn’t shelling their towns, and it is Assad and his Russian allies who are bombing them. Life is about priorities and their priority right now is taking down Assad.
On the other hand, Assad’s forces are also not fighting IS, nor are they likely to start any time soon. Certainly IS has pushed them out of large parts of Eastern Syria, something they would like to reverse. But at present, the main threat to Assad’s rule is not a bunch of IS bandits out in the desert, but the rebels knocking on his door in the west of the country, including the very hills overlooking Damascus.
The only group who could conceivably defeat IS are the Kurds. However they are reluctant to move beyond non-Kurdish areas. And the Kurds ending up in control of large swades of Syria or Iraq is unacceptable to the Turk’s or Iranians who would see that as a threat to their rule. Indeed, the Kurds haven’t been invited to the talks in Riyadh. This would be like hold the Yalta conference without inviting the US.
So in short the West can drop all the smart bombs they want but it isn’t going to change diddly squat. There are only three possible end states for Syria that I can see, none of which the West will find appealing. The Assad regime collapses and ISIS eventually overwhelm the other groups and takes over. Or Assad succeeds in finally winning back control of a ruined and impoverished country.
Or, as I suspect is more likely, the current status quo will become the final end state, with Assad in control in the West (his position harassed by rebel groups who become gradually more radical and “ISIS” like as time goes on) and ISIS in control in the East, devoting much of their time to attacks against the West or the Kurds.
There are a number of ways the west could change things, but none of them are easy. Firstly confronting Russia. The Serb’s, allies of the Russians in the Yugoslav war, only came to the peace table after NATO bomb attacks. Similarly threatening that for every bomb that falls on the rebels ten will fall on Assad’s forces and its possible Assad and the Russians can be forced to the bargaining table. Of course, there is a risk of conflict between Russia and America in this scenario. Although using drones and cruise missiles would avoid any direct confrontation between Russia and the US.
Alternatively, a policy of containment. Isolate ISIS, close the borders and wait them out. Most notably ending the trade in oil and stopping the flow of fighters into (or out of) the country. However that would mean America standing up to the Saudi’s, who are one of the main supporters of IS. Without their support and without the flow of cash and fighters the regime will collapse. However, America and the West’s addiction to oil largely prevents this. And such a blockade would also require the Turks, Iraq’s, the Assad regime and Jordanians to all co-operate, which is a pretty unlikely scenario.
This leaves the option of a ground invasion, either by a Western Army or a coalition of local armies. The Turks and Jordanians could easily mop up IS in short order. However, there’s the small matter of what happens next. Occupying such a large area for who knows how long, likely in the face of opposition from the rest of Syria.
Ultimately there are three approaches to war. The Corbyn strategy – don’t fight in the first place if you know your going to lose anyway. The fight to win strategy – whereby you go in with all the firepower, ground troops and resources needed to both defeat and then hold the territory for however long it takes and regardless of cost or casualties. Or option three, the west (and Russia’s) current strategy – the half-baked approach of chucking a couple of bombs at random out the back of a plane, cross your fingers and hope it does some good.