A Workable Coalition In Syria – Aasim Zafar Khan

First the good news. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the US-led airstrikes over Syria have killed 553 people, of which 464 are fighters for the Islamic State (IS), 57 other militants and 32 civilians.

The bad news, however, is that this has played directly into the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As the world’s attention focuses on the atrocities of the IS, and the air assault by the United States and its allies, the pressure has sort of lifted from Assad, who has launched ferocious attacks on ‘the other rebels’.

This news is corroborated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports that Syrian ground and air forces have dramatically stepped up their attacks on rebels positions, with the city of Aleppo bearing the brunt of the latest offensive. Today, if one is to believe reports from the ground, the city is virtually surrounded. But more importantly, in sight of a major road which is used by the rebels for reinforcements.

If the city falls, it would be a major flow. Much bigger than Kobane. A double whammy if there ever was one. It is abundantly clear that for now, as things stand, enemy number one is the Baghdadi-led IS, all other despots come later.

Can anyone remember how long the air war over Germany lasted in World War 2? Four years, five years? How instrumental was it in the eventual downfall of the Third Reich? Apparently, this matter is still being debated. Air raids are great for softening the ground, as long as they are followed by troops on the ground to take over and secure the area in question.

Secondly, the IS can very easily resort to using civilian shields, and using their inevitable deaths as propaganda. This would, in turn, sway global public opinion, and make the continuation of the air offensive that much harder to sell at home and abroad.

The solution?

Boots on the ground, baby! Send in the cavalry! Forward march!

Uh, easier said than done of course. But there are options, the most obvious one being the United States. Is the US willing to commit troops inside Syria? Not at the moment.

Will Assad and his principal backer, Iran, be okay with US troops entering Syrian territory? Not at all. (Assad’s doing all he can at the moment, by allowing air offensives against IS positions – and that too only because it serves his purpose). Is the US already stretched in numerous theatres of war across the globe? Yes.

What the US can do, is create yet another incarnation of the coalition of the willing. Not the puny one it has today. But with the real power brokers in the region. Sure, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are important, but militarily, they’re not much to talk about. The real military power houses in the region are 1) Turkey and 2) Iran. Not to mention Syria itself.

Turkey, as discussed last week, is playing a dirty game. It’s using the situation to not only drag the US deeper into the conflict, but at the same time it is also using the IS to deal with the Kurdish headache. The only time Erdogan will step in, is when the Kurds, facing total extermination, agree to forgo all their rhetoric about independence, and ask the Turks to intervene. And knowing their conservative Islamic roots, Turkey will only go that far.

Now to Syria. Assad’s army is best located to deal with the threat posed by the IS. However, Assad himself is currently focused more on dealing with the moderate jihadists and opposition armies which are hell bent on removing him from power. (The IS ultimately also wants that, but not at the moment, currently satisfied with using Syria as a base for operations elsewhere in the region).

The only way to get Assad to turn his guns on the IS will be if certain assurances, about him staying on, are given. Things are slowly moving in that direction, although Assad has not yet committed.

And then we have good old Tehran. While its precise role in the Syrian conflict is limited to providing weapons and money to the beleaguered Syrian regime, it has a much more active role to play in Iraq, where Iran has seen a major revival of its influence, and where the IS has also made tremendous gains.

In fact, the Iranian involvement in Iraq is so direct a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is on record saying that if it hadn’t been for them (the IGRC), the Iraqi city of Erbil would have fallen to the IS. And earlier, speaking at the United Nations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted at greater cooperation and collaboration in the right against the IS, once a nuclear deal is reached.

And if, and this is wide generalisation, the US and Iran can talk about fixing Syria, perhaps this can lead to a discussion on the real thorn in the side – Hezbollah.

It stands to reason then, that is why recently we have seen two traditional Islamic opponents, Riyadh and Tehran, inch closer. Both are threatened by the IS, albeit for their own reasons. And the US can, if it is ultimately willing to accept a nuclear Iran, create a tremendous regional counter-terrorism force.

Saudi Arabia backing moderate jihadis. Iran, working with local Iraqis to not only defend against the IS, but also pushing back into areas currently lost to the terrorists. Assad agreeing to train his guns on the IS, in return for assurances for him staying in power, and the US, crippling the IS from the air.

Who will take the most convincing though? It won’t be Assad, and it won’t be Tehran.