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Arm Moderates to Fight ISIS in Syria, Not Just in IraqCommentary, 20 August 2014
ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq alone. The fight must be joined in Syria and the task falls to the armed members of the mainstream Syrian opposition.
The gruesome beheading of US journalist James Foley by the extremist group the ISIS is just the latest in a series of events that have underscored the necessity of decisively dealing with the ISIS threat.
If the lightning advance across Iraq, the capture of Mosul, the seizure of US-supplied hardware, the wholesale massacre of not just minorities but any who oppose them and the threat to Erbil were not enough, the British accent of Foley’s executioner should underscore the urgency. As the Prime Minister has stated, this is a very real UK national security threat.
How ISIS Grew in Syria and Iraq
The growth of ISIS is a product of four factors. The first is the enabling environment of the Syrian conflict, and the Syrian government’s cynical manipulation of extremists, enabling the latter to fight the regime’s enemies. The Al-Assad regime may intermittently be bombing ISIS now, much as the US are doing in Iraq, but that is simply an attempt to salvage its claim that the regime has been ‘fighting terrorists’ since the outbreak of the popular uprising against its excesses.
The second is the regime’s use of Hizbollah and other Iranian-backed militias to attack its predominantly Sunni Syrian opponents, thus stoking sectarianism that has been exploited by ISIS. The third is the legacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian politics, which drove disaffected and marginalised Sunni, tribal and ex-Baathist groups to make common cause with ISIS in Iraq.
The fourth is the vacuum created by the conflict in Syria and the lack of sustained international support, including militarily, to the Syrian opposition. ISIS in Syria was driven from many areas it controlled in Syria in January as a result of popular rejection and armed opposition activity.
The regime played no part in this roll back, and the failure to consolidate rebel gains against ISIS during the offensive allowed it to maintain a crucial foothold in northeastern Syria. Re-minted as 'Islamic State' and burnished with resources seized in Iraq, ISIS expanded its zone of control from its Syrian base in Raqqa to neighbouring Dayr aw-Zawr and beyond, with ISIS fighters even spilling over to Lebanon. As the Head of the Aleppo Provincial Council, Abdul-Rahman Dedem stated this week, forced to fight on two fronts against the regime and IS, the opposition forces in Aleppo may soon be encircled and then defeated. Some within the international community have suggested that we make common cause with the Syrian regime against IS. This is the dichotomy that Al-Assad has sought to posit from the outset; that the choice is between beheadings, crucifixions, the slaughter of minorities and the imposition of Manichean ISIS rule, and the regime as a bastion of security and a buffer against the worst excesses of the extremists. The majority of Syrians, however, reject this Faustian bargain, instead seeking peace, opportunity and a better future for themselves, their families and their country.
Contain ISIS by Supporting the Syrian Opposition
As the Syrian conflict has ground on, the international community has lacked a coherent, realistic strategy. There now needs to be an acceptance that the Syrian opposition can not defeat either ISIS or the Syrian regime without external military support. This may not and should not involve direct military intervention, but must involve an expansion of military assistance, principally with two aims. The first is to contain ISIS by supporting Syrian rebels willing to take the fight to ISIS. The opposition is already the principal target for ISIS, and is fighting (and losing) as its forces suffer at the hands of better armed ISIS fighters. The ironies are profound here. The international community baulked at providing weapons to the opposition for fear they might fall into the hands of extremists, only for ISIS to rise uncontested and seize US-supplied weapons in Iraq. The opposition has lamented that whilst they must contend with insufficient numbers of Soviet-era Kalashnikovs, ISIS enjoys access to US weaponry, courtesy of the Iraqi Army. The second objective of external military support is to create a military balance in Syria which will bring the regime to the negotiating table and hasten the end of this conflict.
Whilst the US, UK, France and others rushed to militarily support the Peshmerga, a corresponding increase in support to the armed opposition in Syria has not materialised. It has been a common refrain that it is impossible to know who to support within Syria’s opposition. It is not. The moderate groups with which the West can work are well known and are well positioned to contain ISIS and the regime, especially in Aleppo and Idlib where the opposition is now most vulnerable. Another concern has been the close cooperation between moderate groups and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), Al-Qa’ida’s official Syrian affiliate. But these brigades have increasingly reduced their cooperation with JAN over the last several weeks, further mitigating the risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands.
ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq alone. The fight must be joined in Syria and the task falls to the armed members of the Syrian opposition. It is time to accept that in the absence of direct western military intervention, our best hope is to provide the means for communities in both Iraq and Syria to defend themselves, whether it be against dictatorial regimes or repressive extremism.
Alistair Harris is an Associate Fellow at RUSI.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI