Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card



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Air strikes by the US, France and Britain destroy the Scientific Research Center building in Damascus, Syria.
AAP/ Youssef Badawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.

What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?

Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.

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The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.

Why the strikes?

A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.

Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.

Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.

The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.




Read more:
Explainer: the war in Syria and the possibility of removing Assad


Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.

In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.

Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.

It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.

For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.

Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.

In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.

So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:

We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.

Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.

Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:

We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.

The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.

It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.

Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.

A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.

Where to from here?

The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.

It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.

Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.

Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.

Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.

The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.

The ConversationWhile the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Syrian ‘hell on earth’ is a tangle of power plays unlikely to end soon



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Until the jihadist rebel groups are wiped out, there will be more civilian casualties, like this man and young boy in Eastern Ghouta.
Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

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.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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.




Read more:
Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too


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 ConversationThe 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.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in east Afrin, Syria.
Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.

A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.

Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.

The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.

Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.

Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.




Read more:
Mosul is taken back, but Islamic State is not finished yet


Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.

Displaced Syrian children look out from their tents at a refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria.
Reuters/Osman Orsal

The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.

Erdogan called the proposed force a “terror army” and wowed to “nip this terror army in the bud”. Within days, the Turkish military operation had begun.

This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.

What America wants

For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.

The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.




Read more:
After Islamic State falls, we should expect aftershocks in Syria


According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.

This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.

What Russia wants

Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.

Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.

Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.

What Turkey wants

Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan’s main aim is to thwart any US or Russian plans to carve up Syria post-IS.
Reuters/Umit Bektas

Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.

Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.

Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.

Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.

This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.

The ConversationTurkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Iraq & Syria: Latest Persecution and ISIS News


The links below are to articles reporting on persecution and ISIS news from Iraq and Syria (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:
http://www.aina.org/news/20170921132446.htm
http://www.persecution.org/2017/09/21/admired-but-not-protected-christians-seek-home-elsewhere/
http://www.dw.com/en/syrian-christians-advance-against-is-in-de-facto-capital-raqqa/a-40606948
https://www.vox.com/world/2017/9/18/16309558/isis-iraq-kurds-trump-us-mosul-syria-war-terrorism
https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2017/09/15/in-syrias-war-economy-women-have-become-a-form-of-currency
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/08/retreating-isis-fighters-prepare-for-last-stand-in-syria

After Islamic State falls, we should expect aftershocks in Syria



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Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

US-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria are in the process of rooting Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their strongholds in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

In the case of Mosul in Iraq, the removal of diehard IS remnants might be completed any day now. In Raqqa, the IS headquarters in eastern Syria, US-backed rebel forces are in the town’s suburbs.

How long it will take for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by US artillery and airstrikes, to rid Raqqa of IS and at what cost is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear we are entering the final battle for what has served as the so-called caliphate’s headquarters.

However, what should be understood is the Syrian conflict is far from any sort of long-term resolution. It may be on the verge of becoming more complex and thus more dangerous.

The world is now observing a potentially highly volatile stage in the post-IS fight for Syria, with interested parties manoeuvring for what might be described as the “next game” – certainly not the “endgame”. Latest developments are bringing the US and its allies in Syria into closer proximity to – and possible direct conflict with – the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime, and Iran itself.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders and Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside Assad forces to regain territory and re-establish Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country.

This is a fight to the death.

From Iran’s perspective, Syria – ruled by a heterodox Shiite sect – represents a vital piece in its Middle East designs. This is not least because it provides a corridor to its Hezbollah Shiite co-religionists in Lebanon. This is why it continues to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. A Syrian setback would be crippling for its regional ambitions.

Risks of the US and Iran rubbing up against each other in Syria and precipitating a wider conflagration are incalculable in circumstances in which America’s Middle East policy is in flux, if not in chaos. Not helping is the impression that elements of the Trump administration are spoiling for a fight with Iran without comprehending wider consequences.

And then there’s Russia. It may not have forces on the ground, but its warplanes in Assad’s service are part of a toxic brew that threatens a wider Middle East conflict. Risks grow by the day.

What is clear – as Iraqi forces retake a shattered Mosul and Syrian anti-Assad regime rebels push further into Raqqa – is that contesting forces in Syria are battling over the country’s shattered post-IS corpse. Where this will end is impossible to predict, but as a rule of thumb in the Middle East these sorts of situations do not end well.

Tensions – and risks – were underscored earlier this month when the US shot down a Syrian Russian-supplied jet in airspace to the south of Raqqa. The US has also brought down several Iranian drones in hotly costed territory around the Euphrates.

What is transpiring as an IS “caliphate” shrinks east towards the Iraq border from Raqqa is the emergence of a vacuum that various players are striving to fill, including principally the Assad regime, having regained control of the west of Syria.

Where this will go next is not clear, not least because the US has not indicated the extent to which it plans to continue to involve itself on the ground beyond rooting out IS from its Raqqa redoubt. Will it step aside when and if Raqqa falls, enabling Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia and with the participation of Lebanese and Iraqi militias, to regain control of lost territory? Or will it remain a factor?

Journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has spent years reporting on the Syrian conflict and its implications for the wider Middle East, is at a loss to interpret US policy in Syria beyond its confrontation with IS. As he writes in Foreign Policy:

The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated US policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of a potential confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.

Spyer quotes the Iranian Fars News Agency as saying ominously:

The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun. Stormy days are ahead of us.

That might be regarded as an understatement. What is clear is that the US cannot expand its presence in eastern Syria without engaging the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. As Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East observes:

The United States cannot tiptoe around Iran and the Syrian regime while capturing strategic territory and resources.

While Russia does not seek a confrontation, it appears unable (or unwilling) to restrain its allies. The United States does not seem to have decided whether fighting IS only to empower Iran and Assad would be worthwhile, or whether there is a feasible way, at an acceptable cost, to beat the Islamic State without strengthening US adversaries … It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible – and it probably never was.

From an Australian perspective, Syria presents a concerning spectacle. Canberra suspended missions by the Royal Australian Airforce over Syria (not Iraq) after the US shooting down of the Syrian warplane out of concern over a suspension of “deconfliction” arrangements with Russia. It is not clear whether those missions have resumed.

More broadly, deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict would potentially pose challenges for an Australian government – if indeed a request was made for on-the-ground assistance.

At this stage there is no sign of that occurring. But Australia should be prepared for an unravelling of circumstances in Syria and be ready for any eventualities. Needless to say, it should hasten slowly.

In all of this, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider what would be nightmare scenario in which the US and Iran found themselves at war. As Nader Hashem, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver and an expert of sectarian conflict in the region, has observed:

I suspect the biggest problem is a clash between American and Iranian forces somewhere in Syria where there will be a major loss of life, and then a slow, steady decline toward war with Iran, where Iran chooses to retaliate in the Persian Gulf with American shipping or some sort of escalation along those lines. That would have huge consequences for the nuclear agreement and the broader stabilisation of the region.

The ConversationIndeed.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too



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Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson head to a meeting in Moscow.
Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

A week has passed since US President Donald Trump rained 59 Cruise missiles down on Al Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. But we are not much closer to answering the question: what next? The Conversation

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow late this week hardly answered that question, with the two sides agreeing to disagree – but not necessarily agreeably – on Syria’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters after meetings with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin.

This might be regarded as an understatement.

Tillerson also re-stated what had been the position of the Obama administration: a resolution of the Syrian crisis could not involve President Bashar al-Assad.

Where all this leaves Australian policy on Syria is unclear beyond a hardening of Canberra’s position on Assad continuing to hold power.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the Syrian leader to go, and indeed face war crimes charges.

Turnbull’s liberal interventionist line posed some problems for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has been on the record for several years insisting that Assad should be part of any transition arrangement.

Now Bishop says Australia’s position on Assad is “hardening”, thus indicating a shift.

If nothing else, she is displaying characteristic nimbleness in bringing herself into line not only with her leader’s position, but that of an evolving American attitude. During Trump’s first 100 days, his administration has been more antagonistic towards the Damascus regime.

At last the penny seems to have dropped with the Canberra foreign policy establishment – conspicuously light on for Middle East expertise – that Assad cannot be part of any solution that hopes to bring order to his civil war-ravaged country.

In any case, the Syrian pieces may well have moved far beyond being put back together again and we will be looking at best at a sort of Dayton Accords Bosnian solution in which the country becomes cantonised.

But all that is far off, as warring factions continue to tear each other and the country apart. Assad has demonstrated there are almost no limits beyond which he will go to defend his regime.

From Canberra’s perspective, these are testing moments in a broader chess game as Australian policymakers seek to make sense of a Trump foreign policy not only towards Syria and the wider Middle East, but in a confrontational US stance towards North Korea.

It is much too soon to begin talking about a Trump Doctrine, but whatever was said on the campaign trail by an “America First” candidate intent on avoiding foreign entanglements that position now seems to be fungible.

Based on Trump’s actions in Syria and his threats against Pyongyang, backed up by the deployment of an American battle group, what is emerging is an apparent willingness to use force, or at least employ the threat of force overtly to advance US foreign policy interests.

How then should an Australian government respond to what is shaping as a significant departure from business as usual under a restrained Barack Obama administration, whose preferred approach was to use drone strikes and other such methods to assert American foreign policy interests more subtly?

Australian policymakers would be advised to proceed with extreme caution. Turnbull and his advisers should be especially wary of any moves that would involve Australia more deeply in Middle East conflict.

Australian military forces are in the region to help the Iraqi government stabilise Iraq, not become enmeshed in a vicious civil war in Syria beyond limited air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and eastern Syria.

Turnbull and his national security team need to be mindful of the risks involved in any sort of deeper engagement, including especially the commitment of ground troops.

Syria is a mess, and a treacherous one.

What remain unclear is whether the Trump missile attack was a one-off strike aimed at sending a message to Assad not to resort to chemical weapons again, or whether it will be followed by other such actions.

At this stage, it seems to be of a piece with missile strikes that Bill Clinton launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan when those countries crossed a line, in Washington’s view. But you can’t be sure.

What is the case is that Trump’s warning shot has got Moscow’s attention.

As things stood, Vladimir Putin more or less had his way in Syria in a loose alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the toxic Assad regime.

Now, Moscow has been put on notice. There are limits to Western tolerance of Assad’s war against his own people, in which more than 400,000 have died and half the country’s population of 22 million displaced.

This brutal campaign has involved the widespread use of barrel bombs and other such cluster devices that inflict carnage on those in the vicinity. These devices have been used mercilessly, and have drawn the condemnation of governments and human rights organisations under various Geneva conventions.

Putin may be willing to put pressure on Assad to forego the use of chemical weapons again, but it is hardly likely he would abandon him, or his regime.

Russia has too much invested in Syria, including an agreement on Mediterranean berthing rights for its navy, use of airstrips and other such facilities, and perhaps most important the message Russian involvement delivers to the rest of the Middle East.

Russia is back four decades after it was bundled out of Egypt by President Anwar Sadat, and is not about to withdraw.

What vastly complicates Western policy in Syria is how to sanction Assad on one hand and deal with Islamic State on the other, without the country unravelling completely, thus enabling a jihadist takeover.

Western policymakers tell us the aim is to “defeat’’ IS, but what does this mean?

IS might be pushed out of Mosul in northern Iraq and its stronghold in Raqqa, but it will not be “defeated’’ in any formal sense. There will be no armistice agreement in which both sides negotiate a truce.

Whether we like it or not IS, or whatever its mutations, will remain a threat to regional peace and stability, and further afield a continuing terrorist menace across the globe.

What we have on our hands is a generational struggle. This is all the more reason to hasten slowly in Syria outside an internationally-backed settlement involving the US and Russia that would end the bloodshed.

This would represent the best case outcome, but how to fashion such an arrangement given Moscow’s resolute support for Assad is the question.

A bloodstained Assad or his immediate henchmen should not be part of these transitional arrangements. Their place is before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

_This column has been corrected. The paragraph beginning “Australian military forces are in the region …” went on to read “air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and western Syria”. It has since been corrected to central and eastern Syria.“ _

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.