Whose boots will prevail in Syria?

It does not require rocket science to see that ISIS will only, can only, be defeated finally by boots on the ground.

The US and its partners assumed that “moderate rebels” in Syria would provide the boots on the ground to take over, once they had managed to get rid of Assad. But the assumption that the “moderate rebels” formed any sort of cohesive group which could bring stability has proven to be grossly wrong. They are so splintered and fractured and cover such a wide range of objectives that they can only ensure instability. The further assumption that the rag-tag being supplied with weapons and money to effect regime change, did not also include radical and fanatic Sunnis and Wahabis has been at best, incompetent, and at worst, disastrous. The Russians are, it seems, making a different calculation.

Any scenario which pictures the defeat of ISIS will require that their followers are left with no physical or political space to occupy and control. And that is going to require that their space is then occupied by someone else. Air attacks by the US led coalition or by Russia can only prepare the way, but without a real physical presence the effects of such air attacks can only be temporary. Without filling up the space with some form of political stability, any political vacuum will always provide room for the fanatics.

Of a Syrian population of about 23 million, 9 million are displaced and are refugees within Syria or abroad. Around 3 million are estimated to have left Syria. Around 75% of the Syrian population were Sunni muslims, 12% were Alawites (a secretive branch of Shia Muslims) and about 8% were Christians. Assad is of course an Alawite. As Shias the regime is supported by the Hezbollah from Lebanon and from Iran’s Shia (90% of Iran’s population are Shia and about 9% are Sunni). If Assad were to step down, but was replaced by another Alawite, then the Alawites, many of the Christians and even some of the moderate Sunnis, could probably live with a regime which provided stability. The fly in the ointment is financial support for the various Sunni and Wahabi rebel groups in Syria (including the hard-line terrorist groups such as Al Qaida, al-Nusra and ISIS) which comes mainly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. US support for rebel groups in Syria has, under Saudi influence, often supported the Sunni line. ISIS cannot be politically suffocated as long as its external financing continues.

Even with a defeated ISIS, sympathisers will still remain. But they will not be in control. A “defeat” can only mean that they no longer have any control over any settlements within which they might still exist, and that they have no safe havens within which to hole-up. That cannot happen unless control over all geographical areas effectively lies with some body – or bodies – that reject the fundamental claims of the Islamic State.

The mutual hatred between ISIS and Shia Muslims is a key factor. No Sunni rebel group fighting against Assad is not without some sympathy for ISIS. This virtually disqualifies any of the current rebel groups being supported by the US coalition, from being capable of supplying the political control needed to squeeze out ISIS. Certainly the US and its coalition partners are not going to supply the physical presence on the ground. The Russians are not going to send in troops beyond military advisors to Assad either.

So who does that leave? Whose boots on the ground are going to prevail?

The Russian calculation seems to be that the regime (later without Assad) together with Hezbollah, Iraqi Shias and some Iranian presence will be sufficient to defeat ISIS and squeeze them out. It is not impossible, but the Saudis will not take kindly to that. That would be seen as an unacceptable blow to the Sunni ego.

And then whether such an end-game is allowed to stand will depend upon whether the US is prepared to satisfy the Saudis by challenging the Russians (and the Iranians and Hezbollah) in their support of the Assad regime. I suspect that the Russians are calculating that Obama will only keep shifting his red line rather than actually cross it. As long as the Russians keep the eventual stepping down of Assad as being inherent in their plans, Obama will, reluctantly, go along.

It seems a highly dangerous path to this end-game where the regime (without Assad) but with help from Hezbollah and Shias from Iraq and Iran supply the boots on the ground to get rid of ISIS. But at least it is an end-game which is not impossible. And it seems to be the only one available. The US and their European partners seem not to have thought very far beyond the removal of Assad.

 

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2 Responses to “Whose boots will prevail in Syria?”

  1. US/Nato lack of strategy being shown up by the Russians | The k2p blog Says:

    […] problem for the US is that the boots on the ground to defeat ISIS are not going to come from their pet “moderate rebels”. They can only come from the […]

  2. atypicalrationale Says:

    I think its neccessary for one to investigate the feasibility of claims that the ISIS and the Assad government actively co-operate militarily. Its quite plausible that claims that Assad buys ISIS oil is legit, but is it so farfetched to say that that relationship extends to a temporary alliance between the two hostile groups in order to collectively combat the moderate rebels which pose a threat to both? I think Assad knows that the FSA are far more dangerous as hostiles and needs all the local help he can get against them, and if the ISIS benefits from the same status quo, i dont see why they cant temporarily cease mutual hostilities. Food for thought.

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