An American acquaintance of mine who lives and works in Kabul calls Afghanistan "the graveyard of common sense." But the welter of priorities, contradictions, and claims emanating from the anti-Islamic State coalition the US is trying to lead is already giving the Hindu Khush conflict a run for its money when it comes to head-scratchers.
One of the central difficulties is illustrated by remarks from British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond, who told The Christian Science Monitor last week that the ultimate goal of the coalition in Syria will be to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, though only after IS is deemed sufficiently degraded.
"In this part of the world it is not the case that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. My enemy’s enemy is somebody that I’m going to get later after I’ve got my enemy," Mr. Hammond said. He added that a US-led effort is slated to train 15,000 "moderate" Syrian rebels within a year, and that they will join the fight along with an estimated 20-25,000 members of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that has avoided jihadi rhetoric, already on the ground.
The problem with this vague promise that Mr. Assad will be targeted somehow, someday is that Assad's position is getting stronger, not weaker. IS, one of the most organized and capable rebel groups, is now being confronted with US airpower, effectively removing it from the fight against Damascus. Yet the US still needs to reassure Syrian rebels and unwilling partners like Turkey that see Assad, not IS, as the main threat to their interests.
And for now, the British government doesn't have a mandate to fight in Syria. Parliament voted at the end of September to approve British airstrikes in Iraq, but not in its neighbor.
The refusal of Western powers, particularly the US, to make Assad's government a priority has infuriated Turkey, which has refused to open its Incirlik and Batman airbases to the US-led military campaign. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants the US to create a no-fly zone over northern Syria and patrol a "safe zone" for refugees inside that country, as a minimum price for greater cooperation.
Over the weekend, the Pentagon claimed that Turkey had agreed to open Incirlik for operations targeting IS in both Iraq and Syria. But the country's foreign minister, Mevlet Cavusoglu, poured cold water on that claim yesterday.
Turkish air power was finally used today – against bases of the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The airstrikes were reportedly launched inside Turkey and along the Iraqi border and were the first such bombardment since early 2013. For weeks now, the PKK's Syrian affiliate has been leading the defense of the Syrian border town of Kobane, assisted by US air strikes. Turkey's refusal to aid Kobane – or even to allow more PKK fighters to cross the border to help repel IS – has infuriated Kurds, sparking protests and clashes with Turkish police that have left dozens dead.
The PKK, deemed terrorists by both the US and Turkey, have proven among the most capable of Kurdish fighters taking on IS inside both Iraq and Syria. But Turkey's priority is to contain the Marxist group, which it sees as a bigger threat to its interests than IS. For the past 18 months, Turkey has held peace talks with the PKK, which appeared willing to accept some kind of autonomy in Turkey in exchange for giving up its independence ambitions.
US training plans for "moderate" Syrian rebels, which Hammond lauded in his interview with the Monitor, are also problematic. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been mooted as possible training locations, though the vetting process to ensure that they are truly "moderate" (a vague, catch-all term that apparently means "not too Al Qaeda-y") has yet to be created. The US has justifiable concerns that any weapons it supplies will end up in the hands of IS or other powerful Syrian rebel groups, like the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, since that's precisely what happened last year, when Islamist fighters seized weapons that the US had supplied to the FSA.
Even in Iraq, where the army was trained and equipped for nearly a decade by the US, many American-provided weapons and vehicles ended up in IS hands, after the Iraqi military collapsed in northern Iraq. The fall of Mosul last June decisively expanded the IS war for control of the region into Iraq from Syria.
Meanwhile, Assad's forces have stepped up attacks around Aleppo, the country's second largest city that has been partially held by Free Syrian Army rebels for the better part of two years. As the ICG wrote of the city in September:
As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion. The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State (IS). After an alliance of armed rebel factions seized its eastern half in July 2012, Aleppo for a time symbolised the opposition’s optimism and momentum; in the following months, it exposed the rebels’ limits, as their progress slowed, and they struggled to win over the local population.
Today, locked in a two-front war against the regime and IS, their position is more precarious than at any time since the fighting began. Urgent action is required to prevent the mainstream opposition’s defeat: either for Iran and Russia to press the regime for de-escalation, to showcase their willingness to confront IS instead of exploiting its presence to further strengthen Damascus; or, more realistically, for the U.S., Europe and regional allies to qualitatively and quantitatively improve support to local, non-jihadi rebel factions in Aleppo. Any eventual possibility of a negotiated resolution of the war depends on one course or the other being followed.
While it's hard to determine the exact state of the fight around Aleppo today, Assad surely considers its recapture a priority. And if he succeeds, the notion of removing him from power – either by force or in a negotiation in which his position is weak enough to extract major concessions – becomes far bloodier and more expensive.
In Iraq, too, the US is hitting a wall. From President Obama to Secretary of State John Kerry on down, US officials have insisted that a stable Iraq, with an inclusive non-sectarian government in Baghdad, is crucial to defeating IS. Yet Iraq's Shiite leaders share different priorities – and making concessions to the country's Sunni Arabs, at a time when many of the country's Shiites view them as traitors, aren't among them.
Pictures of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Qud's Force, has become a fixture of photographs from the front against IS in Iraq, both among Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi Shiite militias. Mr. Soleimani's men are viewed with horror by many Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who blame Iran for backing Shiite death squads during the worst of Iraq's sectarian civil war in the middle of the last decade. The question attached to the below picture seems spot on:
If pictures of Qassem Soleimani with anti-ISIS Shia militias annoy Americans, imagine what they do to Sunni Arabs. pic.twitter.com/mBDvyXrdPU— Andrew Exum (@ExumAM) October 9, 2014
To sum up, the US and partners like the UK are wading into a situation where their priorities are not shared by almost any of the local actors involved. Iran is helping fight IS, but still wants to maintain Shiite political hegemony in Iraq. Iraq's Sunni Arabs have legitimate grievances that have fueled support for the uprising against Baghdad within their community. Turkey worries more about the Kurds and Assad than IS. Free Syrian Army fighters are desperate for military help against Assad – and aren't getting any.