Like It or Not, a Solution in Syria Is the Only Way to Defeat ISIL


Thirteen months have passed since the city of Mosul and one-third of Iraq fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The U.S.-led coalition, however, still has no comprehensive strategy for dealing with the grave threat ISIL continues to represent. While the Iraqi military is back on the offensive following the fall of Ramadi in May, it is clear that without resolving the conflict between the Assad regime and various rebel groups within Syria, ISIL will retain the strategic depth that prevents its defeat in Iraq.

Multiple rounds of attempted UN-backed peace talks have failed, but the regional environment may now be more conducive to shaping a peace effort in Syria. Regionally, two important developments could catalyze a breakthrough.

First, the historic P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran could have a positive effect on moving Iran toward a more conciliatory policy in Syria, where Tehran has been an indispensable enabler of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s war effort. The Obama administration and top Iranian diplomats both view that a deal — amid growing desire among Iranians to come out of isolation — could bring about a more constructive role for Iran in regional affairs. Last week, Moscow’s foreign minister also echoed this view.

The Iranian nuclear deal also bears implications for Saudi Arabia, who along with Turkey has been among the staunchest backers of moderate rebel groups and among the most vociferous opponents of the Iranian-backed Assad regime. With the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement, it is clear that Saudi Arabia, as a long-time opponent of a nuclear deal with Iran, is at risk of losing more of its regional influence. Saudi Arabia must reconsider its policy of regime change in Syria and redefine what it seeks to achieve from backing the moderate rebels — whose weight in this fight has diminished compared to ISIL and the Nusra Front — if it wants to have a constructive and effective role in shaping Syria’s future.

Second, the June election results in Turkey saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose the parliamentary majority necessary to form a government on its own. Change in Turkey opens the door for a possible return to pragmatism. A coalition government with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and/or the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) could steer Ankara away from the ideology-influenced foreign policy of the Islamist-leaning AKP leadership that has contributed to sectarian polarization in the Middle East. Such change would give renewed momentum to a normalization of Turkey’s relations with Kurdish actors, including a decrease in hostility toward the Syrian Kurds (particularly the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has made remarkable gains against ISIL recently), who are seen by Ankara as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and proxies of Iran.

Against that evolving regional backdrop, two things have come to an end inside Syria: the possibility that the Assad regime can reassert control over the whole of Syria, and the 2011 “Arab Spring” inspired revolution that sought to replace Ba’ath Party rule with a democratic system.

From Assad’s point of view, the more radical his domestic opponents become, the less reprehensible his regime will appear in comparison. His focus on decimating more moderate rebel groups over combating ISIL has turned into an unspoken, occasional alliance of convenience. His apparent calculus is that when it is only Assad vs. ISIL, the world will choose Assad. However, his fighting moderate rebel groups instead of ISIL is prolonging a bloody stalemate and may lead to a Pyrrhic victory, at best. Such a strategy will only benefit ISIL and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in the long run.

From the rebel’s point of view, the revolution cannot be abandoned, and Assad must pay for his crimes against his people. Moderate rebel groups, however, have been caught between the ISIL hammer and the Assad regime’s anvil, and have taken devastating, unsustainable losses as a result. Even U.S. efforts to bolster these moderate rebel groups have failed. The Obama administration was hoping to have over 3,000 moderate rebels trained and equipped by the end of 2015. To date, the United States has only successfully vetted and trained 60 recruits. By fighting on two fronts, the rebel groups are rapidly losing this war of attrition, and their relevancy.

Assad’s approach of demonizing his opponents to seem the lesser of two evils may have had some tactical value, and the rebels’ position may be a moral imperative, however today both views are misguided and must change. When ISIL eventually runs out of rebel groups to assimilate or slaughter, it will put its full weight behind defeating Assad. The unwillingness of the United States and its allies to intervene directly in support of their traditional “allies” in Baghdad and Erbil makes Assad’s strategy a risky gamble.

The United States quietly declared the Syrian revolution dead when it demanded that Syrian rebels refrain from using U.S.-provided weapons and assistance to fight Assad or any of his allies in Syria. It is time for the rebels and, crucially, their regional supporters in Ankara, Riyadh, and elsewhere to understand this and adjust course based on what can be done, and not on wishful thinking.

This is not to suggest that Assad has proven his point. His exhausted forces are perhaps in their weakest position since the war started, and the ability of his allies in Iran, Hezbollah, and Shia Iraqi militias to shore up his defenses are not limitless.

The rebels and Assad must recognize the futility and gravity of their current policies. Their key respective allies in Saudi Arabia and Iran bear the responsibility for brokering an immediate truce, pushing the rebels and regime to turn their attention toward ISIL, and re-launch dialogue for a political solution.

One wild-card in the equation is the Nusra Front. It remains to be seen how al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm will react if and when the moderate rebels, Assad, and their regional supporters adjust their positions. In any case, there can be no place for a group that identifies with al-Qaeda in a stable post-war Syria.

Eventually, decentralization and a federal or confederal system may be the only way forward for Syria. Long advocated by Syrian Kurds, Assad seems to have acquiesced quietly to a decentralized system, so it is perplexing that the rebels continue to reject this as a basis for a political solution. A compromise that includes Assad, however distasteful, may ultimately be the only way to defeat ISIL in Syria.

A political breakthrough leading to military gains in Syria against ISIL can create tremendous advantages in Iraq. When the time comes for Iraq to launch its offensive on Mosul, the critical question remains: Will routing ISIL out of Mosul be enough to break ISIL in Iraq? Without first coming to a political solution in Syria that permits all actors — including the Iranian-backed regime and the Saudi Arabian-backed rebels — to gain ground against ISIL in Syria, the answer is no. Without some political rapprochement and military coordination within Syria, any successful Iraqi offensive against Mosul will see ISIL forces pull back to their safe havens in Syria. Such a move will permit ISIL to regroup and ultimately counterattack in Iraq at a time and place of its choosing. Ultimately, only by first solving the political situation in Syria can ISIL be effectively defeated in both Syria and Iraq.


Omar Al-Nidawi is director for Iraq at Gryphon Partners and a security analyst based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @omar_nidawi.

Adam Tiffen is senior director with Gryphon Partners, a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council, and a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter: @TiffenDC.


Photo credit: Beshr Abdulhadi