Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.
But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.
Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.
Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”
The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.
Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.
Repression following civil wars
The period after an armed conflict is fragile.
Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge.
It is a risky strategy.
We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.
Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.
Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.
Assessing the risk of renewed war in Iraq
Sadly, Iraq has been down this road before.
In 2007, the U.S. military surge sent more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat in Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki – which came to power after Hussein’s demise – fight Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.
The U.S. enlisted Sunni insurgents to help them find, capture or kill Al-Qaida operatives during this period of the Iraq war, which is often called “the surge.”
That decision inflamed the centuries-old sectarian divide between Iraq’s two dominant religious groups, Sunni and Shia Muslims.
During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.
After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government began a brutal campaign to consolidate its authority. From 2012 to 2013, he expelled all Sunni officials from Iraq’s government and silenced opponents using torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances.
At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.
Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.
Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.
By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.
In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.
What’s next for Iraq
Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.
American intelligence officials have warned against President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it will give IS more freedom to regroup there and in Iraq.
The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunnis is, in part, an effort to eliminate this threat, since IS could draw renewed support from disaffected Sunni Iraqis across the border.
But many observers think Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is also exacting revenge on Sunnis for previously joining IS in armed warfare against Iraq’s government.
Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.
Eric Keels, Research Associate at One Earth Future Foundation & Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee and Angela D. Nichols, Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University
December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
The belief that we must not let our soldiers “die in vain” dates back to ancient Athens. During the Peloponnesian War, Pericles delivered a funeral oration in which he urged his compatriots to see themselves in the heroism of recently deceased fighters. Honouring these heroes, he argued, required continuing the struggle with Sparta. The living could prove themselves worthy of the sacrifice of the dead only by fighting for what they fought for and embodying the virtues (such as courage) they embodied.
In modern times, political scientists have argued that it is “important to say of those who died in war that they did not die in vain”. This notion was echoed by US President George W. Bush when he suggested that the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “did not die in vain”.
And, just like Pericles, Bush suggested the best way to prove that deaths in the so-called war on terror were not in vain was to continue the conflict. In this way, war becomes an end in itself. The fighting may never cease because there is always one more soldier to honour, one more civilian casualty to avenge.
Through a glass, darkly
The way people talk about the dead and the traits they hope to manifest by way of honouring them tell us what counts as a virtue in their community. In my previous research, I’ve show that different communities celebrate their dead in different ways. Most of my work has focused on civilians, but I recently began to investigate what is said about combatants killed in action.
One interesting and troubling comparison is between the obituaries of Western soldiers who have been killed in the Middle East and those of Islamic State fighters.
Here’s a little quiz: which of the following traits are associated with IS “martyrs” and which with Australians recently killed in action in Afghanistan, Iraq and nearby countries?
- a leader
The truth is that most of these traits are associated with both populations. To establish this, I coded every obituary published by the Islamic State in its two online magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, along with a matching sample of obituaries published in Vale by the Australian Department of Defence.
I then mapped out the patterns of co-occurrence among traits to see which virtues are associated with combatants in each community. Here’s what the Australian Department of Defence and IS have to say about their war dead:
Both the IS and the Australian data are available for examination. What these texts tell us is that ISIS and the Australian government speak of their dead in similar ways. And both use the occasion of martial grief to motivate the continuation of conflict. In so doing, they place death in the context of an ongoing narrative or trajectory that points to further violence as the only acceptable option.
There are, of course, some differences. Australian soldiers are more likely to be remembered as professional, easygoing and larrikin. IS fighters are more likely to be remembered as ascetic, deceitful and harsh (towards enemies – not in general). Their obituaries tend to refer to religious concepts such as aqidah (adherence to correct creed), manhaj (theological insight), and taqwah (pious humility).
These terms refer to values of the local community just as much as “larrikin” does for Australians. And IS fighters are praised not just for their religious or theological virtues but also for traits we find more familiar and congenial. Even someone as the bloody-minded as “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi) was praised in his obituary for his sense of humour.
Moreover, just as the obituaries published in Dabiq and Rumiyah tend to call others to continue the struggle, so the obituaries published in Vale often include and even conclude with calls to action. In one, the deceased soldier’s commanding officer declares:
We will honour his sacrifice by finishing what he helped us to start.
In another, the decedent’s family concludes that he “would want his colleagues to keep fighting the cause”.
From monuments to memorials
The philosopher Arthur Danto has suggested we “erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget”. Monuments express a community’s pride and commitment to victory; memorials express a community’s remorse and commitment to redress.
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Monuments to those who die in battle also encourage and sometimes demand the interminable renewal of conflict. Even if it makes us queasy to recognise our shared humanity with killers as deeply evil as Jihadi John, perhaps a shift from monumentalising our war dead to memorialising them is necessary. Otherwise, we stand the risk of becoming what we rightly despise.
It was no coincidence that Sunday’s suicide attacks on three Catholic churches in Indonesia came as Muslims began the holy month of Ramadan.
For the observant, this is a time of charity, introspection, renewal and closeness to God. For Islamic State, however, Ramadan has become a strategic time in which to strike, inspired by the Battle of Badr in the year 624, when the Prophet Muhammad and his army defeated a vastly superior force and laid the foundation for the growth of Islam.
Around the time of Ramadan last year, the Islamic State claimed over 300 separate attacks worldwide.
The gruesome church attack on Sunday, which involved using children as suicide bombers and left 13 people dead and more than 40 injured, also follows another pattern – an uptick of violence linked to the terrorist group in Southeast Asia.
As Islamic State has lost vast swathes of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, it has actively sought to mobilise support with Jihadist groups in other countries such as Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, was also identified as a core target of the group in an article in the Islamic State magazine Rumiyah in 2017. And in a worrying sign for the region, the number of attacks has been on the rise, driven in part by the return of fighters from the front lines of Islamic State’s battles in the Middle East.
Returning foreign fighters
Conservative estimates suggest more than 1,000 fighters have travelled to the Middle East from Southeast Asia to join Islamic State over the past five years. Of these, [700 are estimated] to have come from Indonesia, about half of whom were male fighters, the other half women and children joining their husbands. Another 75 Indonesian fighters were deported from Turkey before they could travel to Syria.
Considering Indonesia is home to 225 million Muslims, the number of Indonesians who fought in Iraq and Syria is remarkably low. (Australia, with just over 604,000 Muslims, has seen more than 100 of its citizens join the fight, with up to 87 deaths at last count).
Should we worry about Islamism in Indonesia?
Journalists and scholars have argued that Indonesia’s pluralism has played a significant role in limiting the outflow of fighters to the Middle East.
However, as has been made painfully clear in attacks like the one on the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015, the actions of just a handful of trained Islamic State fighters can have a devastating impact – both in terms of casualties and the wider political fallout.
Though Indonesian intelligence forces are well-trained and have been working with countries like Australia to improve the sharing of information across borders, there are no laws prohibiting Indonesians from travelling overseas to join the Islamic State. Nor is it illegal to express support for the group.
Adding to the problem is the fact that Indonesia’s borders are exceptionally porous, making it almost impossible to prevent returning fighters from slipping back into the country unnoticed.
The threat from within
It was initially reported by media outlets that the family responsible for the church bombings on Sunday had also fought in Syria, a claim that has now been retracted.
But they were linked with Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organisation consisting of up to two dozen affiliated militant groups. The leader of JAD, Aman Abdurrahman, is being held at the prison that was the scene of deadly riots by Islamic State followers a week ago and led to the deaths of several prison guards.
The militant groups operating within the JAD umbrella are relatively autonomous and don’t have a great deal of interaction with one another. However, it is almost certain, though difficult to substantiate, that fighters returning from Iraq and Syria have joined up with a number of them, bringing their battlefield experience and militant skill sets with them.
JAD has also pledged its support to the Islamic State. This pledge of allegiance, or bayat, to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi requires followers to follow Al-Baghdadi’s orders but gives them autonomy to conduct terrorist operations against the state, rejectionists and apostates.
The Islamic state continues to enjoy a sizeable level of support among everyday Indonesians, as well. A Pew Research study found that 4% of Indonesians have a favourable opinion of the group, which may seem small, but in numerical terms, constitutes over 9 million people. As Indonesian society has slowly become more conservative in recent years, this support is sure to grow.
The Indonesian government faces a significant challenge overcoming the simultaneous problems of returning foreign fighters and home-grown violent extremism.
But no nation can battle terrorism alone. Though Australia and Indonesia have been working well together on counter-terrorism initiatives, a senior Australian government official told The Australian on Monday that Canberra would “double down” on its cooperation with Jakarta to tackle the issue of returning foreign fighters.
Even after the recent arrests and deaths of dozens of its members, the Islamic State-linked network of militant groups in Indonesia organised under the umbrella Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) clearly remains a potent force.
In the past week, five bombings have rocked the island of Java, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 50 – the deadliest series of terrorist attacks in the country since the Bali bombings in 2002. These attacks included the bombings of three churches in the city of Surabaya, carried out by a family that used its children as suicide bombers.
The latest attack came on Wednesday when four assailants wielding swords stormed a police station in Sumatra. One officer was killed and two others were injured. The alleged militants were shot dead.
Formed in 2015, JAD achieved notoriety in January 2016 with a military-style attack in the centre of Jakarta that resulted in the deaths of four people and four attackers. Dozens of other potential attacks were foiled in the two years that followed, but several smaller ones were carried out, directed largely against the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism police unit – the arch-nemesis of JAD.
Formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings, with assistance from the Australian Federal Police, Detachment 88 has emerged as one of the world’s most effective counter-terrorism units, having arrested more than 1,000 militants.
Last year, 172 suspected terrorists were apprehended and 16 shot dead, following 163 arrests in 2016 and 73 in 2015. Most of the militants recently arrested have been linked with JAD and the related Islamic State support network of Mujahidin Indonesian Timur (MIT).
Since it declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State has perversely given special attention to planning and inspiring terrorist attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began this week.
This is the first Ramadan since the group lost control of large swathes of its territory centred around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. As the Islamic State is clearly desperate to maintain its brand and prove its continuing potency around the globe, there are now concerns the recent attacks in Indonesia are a sign the group has extended its reach eastward to the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Ever since the Islamic State shot to prominence with the fall of Mosul in 2014, there have been fears about its potential to reenergise the decades-old jihadi network in Indonesia.
Since 2013, it’s estimated between 600 and 1,000 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict, most drawn to the Islamic State and its fabled caliphate. (Others were aligned with al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra.)
Indonesian police estimate 400-500 of these fighters subsequently returned home, either from Syria and Iraq, or from Turkey on their way to join the conflict. Many have been met at the airport by authorities and taken into rehabilitation programs. But others returned unannounced. With a lack of appropriate laws in Indonesia, these returning fighters cannot be prosecuted for travelling overseas to join the Islamic State.
After the recent JAD attacks in Indonesia, local police have spoken of sleeper cells of returnees from the Middle East and their associates, who lay low and give the appearance of having no inclination to violence, even while they prepare for an attack at an opportune time.
Initially, it was reported by the respected head of the Indonesian police, General Tito Karnavian, that a family of six involved in the bomb attacks on the churches in Surabaya had returned from the Middle East. Later reports suggested this was not the case. Nevertheless, they and the other two families involved in the attacks were close associates of Islamic State returning fighters.
Defeat in the Middle East
The world rejoiced when Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate, was finally liberated in October 2017, following a four-month siege. With the fall of the city, the last holdout of its tens of thousands of local and foreign fighters was also defeated.
Months earlier, Mosul, the last city held by the Islamic State in Iraq, fell after nine months of the most brutal urban warfare since the second world war. With the caliphate destroyed, it was believed the Islamic State itself had been eliminated, too.
As it turns out, the fall of Raqqa did not see the final destruction of the Islamic State army. Rather, under a secret deal brokered by the Kurdish-led, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces who led the campaign to liberate Raqqa, thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families were allowed to leave the city in convoys of busses and trucks.
Many made their way to Turkey, where it seems some remain. But thousands more drove into the desert of eastern Syria, occupying territory along the Euphrates River and linked to others across the border in rural northern Iraq.
Many Islamic State fighters, especially local Arabs, have gone to ground, blending into villages and Sunni desert communities. Even in liberated Mosul, which is largely Sunni, many locals still express support for the militant group.
The election of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the failure to rebuild Mosul and other destroyed Sunni cities, mean that in Iraq, as in Syria, all the social and communal grievances that supported the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remain in place.
Even as the Islamic State was losing territory in Iraq in recent years, its leaders spoke with the conviction of an apocalyptic cult, confidently asserting that even if they lost the caliphate, the insurgency would rebuild.
Today, the group has active affiliates and supporters across the Muslim world, including in the southern Philippines, and a “virtual insurgency” throughout the many Western countries that contributed around one-quarter of the group’s total of 40,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The insurgency is far from over, and in Indonesia it may well be that the worst is yet to come.
The links below are to articles reporting on the persecution of Christians in Iraq. The most recent articles are at the top.
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Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.
It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.
The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.
None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.
There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.
The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.
Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.
The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.
Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.
Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.
All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.
The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.
So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.
This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.
This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.
Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.
It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.
The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.
Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.
The Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.