The success of the “broad coalition” to fight ISIS that President Barack Obama announced last week rests on what happens in Syria. For now at least, no one can answer the question of who benefits from any airstrikes — Bashar al-Asad’s regime or the ‘moderate opposition?’ That question would have been easier to answer if we had made a start on the training, support and arming of the moderates more than two years ago when it was first suggested.
I have the same worries as my colleagues about whether the support to Saudi Arabia to help train the moderate Syrian opposition will really materialize. Also, we should not take these Syrian moderates for granted – conversations we have already had with leaders of some armed groups tell us that they will not easily accept a fight that is just focused on ISIS if there is no real resolve to get rid of Asad. That is also the attitude of their regional backers.
As I have said before, there is now a need to get moving on a serious political effort in Syria. Just what that is — especially in the face of continued Russian and Iranian support for Asad — remains to be seen. This is in part a job for the United States, but also the United Nations. For now at least, the new UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is in search of a viable strategy that would create the space for a real political process, as opposed to the stillborn Geneva conferences.
Much here depends on U.S. resolve to focus on Asad, as well as his Russian and Iranian backers. Asad, for his part, still believes that the West will come to his support and that the Syrian army are the only boots on the ground with the ability to defeat ISIS. He is stopping anyone who even hints at political dialogue. He may even make life difficult for the coalition in its fight against ISIS — at least, he may stop doing it any punitive damage until the West turns to him. Many Syrians, particularly those inside Syria who understand the underlying vulnerabilities of the regime, believe he is delusional, but the United States and his allies must do more to shake him out of this conviction.
In my view, the time has come again for the United States along with key European powers such as the UK, France and Germany to eyeball the Iranians and present them with an ultimatum: get Asad to genuinely enter a political dialogue process or we will adopt a strategy which would put increasing pressure on him, including greater efforts to prepare the opposition to fight on two fronts. There could also be further measures targeting his regime’s finances — this is what is driving many inside to criticize the regime — and those who are supporting him.
In regional terms, there is varying enthusiasm for the broad coalition; the Saudis and Emiratis seem to be most supportive while the Qataris and the Turks, are the most cautious. It was interesting to note that the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoğlu, visited Doha recently and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is about to arrive in Doha, presumably to coordinate positions with the Qataris. It would also be interesting to gauge the impact of the Saudi role in providing training bases for the rebels and whether Turkey would join this effort. So far, as the recent Jeddah meeting showed, Ankara is not ready to actively participate in the coalition. Furthermore, the underlying tension between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and those who do not will be somewhere in the background, ready to bubble up at inconvenient times.
Talking to Qataris, there is some skepticism about pursuing U.S. military intervention in the absence of a more comprehensive strategy for Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon. In political terms, that means pushing Iran. Others would also wish to convince Saudi Arabia to reach a compromise on the future of these countries. Whether the United States is able to lead a team of its Arab and Gulf allies and also act as a referee between them and Iran in promoting regional solutions to the region’s problems remains to be seen. The ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program adds a further layer of complexity to the U.S. role and its relationship with the Iranians.
Finally, it would do us well to remember that while key Arab governments may be ‘in’ or even ‘all-in’ with the broad coalition, their publics cannot be taken for granted. Again, there is the residual skepticism toward U.S. military intervention, especially if it is framed as ‘counterterrorism’ — and Yemen, Somalia are certainly not strong selling points in the region. To many, this would be ‘war on terror redux’ even if this U.S. president has really tried to learn the lessons of the past and not make the same mistakes. This underscores that there is work to be done to ensure that Arab publics understand the U.S. public debate, which is more narrowly focused on its own security, especially as we commemorate the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In the end, government support for the broad coalition in the Arab and broader Muslim-majority region and how it is perceived by their citizens will depend on the results. Destroying ISIS and its barbaric practices will need to be accompanied by broader, lasting change in Iraq and Syria. That means the triumph of universal human values, better governance and political inclusivity over ISIS’s primitiveness and elevating these goals over narrower national (even U.S. national) interests. If this does not happen, many would wager the break-up of both Syria and Iraq and that ISIS would one day be replaced by an even more potent threat, as was al-Qaeda.