Commentary

Greater Coordination Needed to Fight ISIS

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

A possibly ISIS-inspired mass shooting in California, the bloody attacks in Paris and the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt have all shown the deadly reach of a terror previously confined to Syria, Iraq and their neighbors. Just as these atrocities seemed to be pushing the international community into consensus on fighting ISIS, Turkey downed a Russian jet that had allegedly strayed into its territory, adding another layer of rivalry to an already complicated situation. Meanwhile, with Germany and the UK joining the fight against ISIS, many observers have expressed concern that the growing number of international actors, with their disparate objectives and policies, are hindering rather than helping the campaign. But for other observers, the only two vital actors are the United States and Russia, and it is these two countries that must be brought together in the fight against ISIS and made to agree on the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Discussing the ongoing strength of ISIS despite the air campaign by the West and Russia, Al Arabiya’s Azeem Ibrahim suggests that ISIS’s success hinges on the diverging paths the various countries are pursuing: “But ISIS is benefiting from a rather peculiar confluence of circumstances that is keeping it afloat: the fact that no Western power wants to put boots on the ground. The fact that the Assad regime would rather fight the Free Syrian Army, or indeed any other moderate rebel group, than fight ISIS. And Russia is doing the exact same thing. The fact that Turkey would rather fight the Kurds, so the Kurds now have to fight on two fronts.”

Focusing on the recent spat between Russia and Turkey and its implications for the Syrian crisis, Arab Times editor in chief Ahmed al-Jarallah argues that Turkish stubbornness is complicating the already complex security dilemma in the region: “Terrorist groups might take advantage of such conflicts to encourage their members by showing them how the ‘enemy’ crumbles internally in order to instill jubilation, strength and enthusiasm in terrorists....Furthermore, the unity of Turkey is under threat by separatist groups in its territories, and Iran, through the presence of its revolutionary guards in Syria and attempts to surround Turkey. This is a serious threat for Turkey and the entire region. It would have been wise for the Turkish command to act more appropriately rather than what we witnessed a few days after the incident....Indeed, the priority should be ending the Syrian crisis based on any initiative for the Syrian refugees to return to their country, to help broaden security, and to allow the Syrians to determine their destiny by choosing their president without foreign pressure.”

According to Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin, the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey has also increased the risk of a larger conflict: “As the war of words between the Turkish and Russian leaders continues, the military build-up in the region has further increased over the past two days....All this adds up to an unusually serious military build-up in an already explosively tense region. The common assumption is that neither the U.S. nor Russia want to get into a direct fight over the crisis in Syria or the one in Ukraine. But historical experience shows us that conflicts - even wars - can sometimes start over unintended or even unimportant incidents, like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As such, the need for a diplomatic solution to the tension between Turkey and Russia over the crisis in Syria is vital, in order to prevent tension from further escalating into open conflict.”

Knee-jerk reaction in the aftermath of the Paris attacks might actually not be helping to resolve the Syrian crisis, writes Lina Khatib, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, urging for greater coordination among the concerned actors: “the global reaction to the Paris attacks is playing right into ISIS’s hands....Countries feel pressured to show their people that they are doing something about the group, either to avenge them or defend them. They turn inward, driving their attention to domestic security, while also feeling the pressure to act externally. This translates into the kind of external military action that is at best symbolic and at worst not thought through....It is tempting to see the group as the problem, but it is in fact the symptom. The underlying problem is the continuation of the Syrian conflict....Military action alone will not defeat ISIS. It must be coupled with a political plan that addresses the root cause behind its existence. Otherwise the international community’s well-meaning reactions and interventions will only to serve to feed the beast.”

But according to Arab News’ Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the disagreement over Syria might not be just a result of a lack of coordination or cooperation, noting that the problem is that many countries are unsure about what their policy ought to be: “Due to the Syrian situation, the region is witnessing new political blocs and alliances. I believe that Gulf states are facing one of the most difficult challenges right now because Iran, Syria and Iraq are all in line with the Russian camp. Meanwhile, Turkey has the protection of NATO. As for Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it is a period of uncertainty, because not all members of the bloc have decided on a stance yet. Historically, they are siding with the western camp and are still associated to it on the military front. But at the same time, they do not see in the United States a reliable ally if the conflict expands and reaches the Gulf region.”

Another big unknown that adds to the overall uncertainty in the region is the future of the Russian-Iranian relationship, which according to Hassan Barari is unlikely to continue undisturbed for too long in the future: “The apparent agreement between Putin and his Iranian counterpart on Syria may conceal the fact that their coalition will most likely be short-lived. Obviously, the two sides are as much competitors as allies....Though they work together to keep Assad in the saddle, their cooperation is driven by different objectives and indeed by a lack of mutual trust. Unlike Iran who views Hezbollah as the ultimate objective in its support for Assad, Russia does not really care about Hezbollah....In brief, that Assad should remain in the saddle is an agreed upon objective between the Russians and the Iranians. And yet, beyond this objective, it is hardly possible for Iran and Russia to see eye to eye on many issues in Syria.”

There is a general sense though that, as a recent Jordan Times editorial puts it, in the end, the Syrian question will likely be resolved by greater cooperation between Russia and the United States: “Syria has become the theatre for both direct and proxy fights. Two coalitions of powers seem to be working at opposite poles: one led by the US and including some 65 nations, and one made up of Russia, Iran and Hizbollah, with each waging its own war against Daesh. Internationally, the Western alliance appears to enjoy wider support, but this is not a popularity competition. It is counterproductive, to say the least, to work from differing sides of the fence....If they indeed want to be effective, all those involved in the fight against Daesh should pool their resources, including their air power. As long as the two coalitions are at loggerheads, Daesh could emerge the winner. The fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad must not stand in the way of efforts to reach a compromise, indeed an agreement, on how to defeat Daesh. Surely both Washington and Moscow have this as the overriding goal of their involvement in Syria.”


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