Belying contenders, Assad or ISIS

Dr Musarat Amin

Syrian plight seems inextricable because of the ongoing massive turmoil in it. Syrian conflict has claimed massive lives, estimatedly 300,000 people have died and 9 million have fled their homes since the outbreak of war. Devastation of infrastructure and shortage of food and water has made lives of its inhabitants worst ever. This war has created a grievous humanitarian crisis and poses serious security challenges to regional and global powers. Penetration of ISIS to Turkey, European Countries and even in Pakistan reflects grand designs of this terrorist organisation.
In the beginning this conflict was mere belligerency between Assad and anti-Assad forces but involvement of US and later Russia complicated this conflict, now there’s a stalemate over how to stabilise the country. US wants to oust Assad whereas Russia want to protect Assad. Such a conflict of interest favours grand designs of ISIS which are deadly and devastating. Considering structure and intrinsic aims, ISIS does not have the capacity to establish government in any country but it certainly has sympathizers who can sabotage peace and stability in fragile states.
Simon Saradzhyan of Belfer Centre quotes Winston Churchill in 1939: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Vladimir Putin’s decision to scale down Russian military campaign in Syria has been quite surprising for leaders of the world. Based on this policy, two diametrically opposing scenarios can be thought of. Either Russia has accomplished its short term objectives in Syria or Russia failed to make any gains by ramping up military campaign therefore, decided to retreat.
A corollary to this framework is the belief that Russian policies not only promote Russian interests but also retard US interests, and that a similar inverse relationship applies to U.S as well. If Assad still incumbent is because of the unrelenting Russian support for him. Assad met with multitude of opposition from ISIS and United States. The question is that which Syria is more stable, better and acceptable for region as well as the people of Syria, a Syria without Assad or a Syria under Assad? The answer certainly should be “not without Assad”. Russian objective to prop up Assad’s regime was avoiding state failure.
After the collapse of Assad the power vacuum most likely would have been filled by, warring faction in the country as has been the case with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. All of these countries have not been stabilised yet. Russian intervention in Syrian conflict has greatly minimised the chances of ISIS and Nusra front to take complete control of the country. Because of Russian support for Assad Pentagon spokeswoman Michelle Baldanza few months ago said that “US would not cooperate with Russia on Syria until they change their strategy of supporting Assad and instead focus on ISIL.”
Russian policy for Syria is to design and implement more assertive Russian role in determining future of Syria. Even after reconstruction of it the risk of immersion in a prolonged quagmire still persists. Loss of lives and mass migration of Syrian refugees has become a major concern for International community. Russia did not want to take the blame of exacerbation of conflict. Therefore, carefully calculated costs and benefits and ultimately declared to draw down Russian forces operating in Syria. Annexation of Crimea in Ukrain demonstrated that Russia is back to power politics again. Military strategists attach due importance to Naval base of Tartus in Syria.
Reuters reported in 2011 that Russian flotilla was sailing to reinforce Assad regime but later reports surfaced that after replenishing supplies it returned back. Besides Tartus Russia has added airbase to its military facilities in Syria. Given its regional interests, by establishing and wielding Tartus, Russian may have greater geopolitical advantage in Mediterranean. As Vice Admiral of Russian navy Viktor Chirkov, has also underlined significance of port by saying, “This base is essential to our interests”. Russian geographic deficiencies are recovered mainly by Sevastopol and Tartus.
Conflict-ridden nations are normally better markets for arms industry. Similarly, Moscow has got high stakes in Syrian shattered country. Moscow wants keep Syria open to Russian goods, particularly machinery and arms. Russian economy would benefit from such transactions. Additionally, Putin wants to build Russian image as a reliable protector for its allies and satellite states. Russian assurances to allies and partners demonstrate Russian role as a “balancer” in world politics. In few years Syria has been devastated by ISIS, it still has occupation of Syrian territory. Prospects of stable Syria are quite unlikely until this conflict reaches a peaceful settlement.
Bringing conflicting parties to the negotiation table is itself a huge challenge. At least there is a dire need to form a coalition government free from extremist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Nusra front. Let Assad be in power and start combating ISIS in collaborative and joint campaign. Assad’s authoritarianism is not grave threat as is ISIS’ extremist ideology. Recent bomb blast in Turkey and Brussels have killed dozens innocent people in these stable countries. ISIS may expand its network of devastation to other countries of Europe and Asia Pacific as well until it is thwarted.
ISIS still generates revenue from oil smuggling to Syria-Turkey border through middlemen and smugglers. According to US Treasury Department, ISIS roughly earned $I million per day from oil sales which increased drastically later.US airstrikes destroyed some of the trucks transporting oil in border area, but that is not effective measure. United States, EU and Russia need to cooperate against ISIS, for that level of coordination small, concrete and pragmatic steps are needed. Intelligence sharing amongst these powers may precisely target ISIS strengths.
Russia may also arm and train Iraqi and Kurd forces, in coordination with US.US can strangle ISIS social media campaign for recruitment through its computer wizards. Tight control of Syrian borders and surveillance through drones may help curbing smuggling of oil and arms to Syria. Capacity-building of locals in Syria and return of IDPs is not the easy task that US can do it alone, it needs coordinated effort from US, Russia, EU and even regional actors.
— The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Defence and Diplomatic Studies, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Rawalpindi.

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