The latest round of talks in Vienna to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict created the impression that something good could yet come out of the attacks in France. There is finally agreement among the global powers for a transition plan, and for a unification of forces to fight ISIS in the future.
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According to the declarations emerging from Saturday’s talks in Vienna, there will be a transition government within six months that will rule for 18 months, and it will be responsible for laying the groundwork for holding elections and formulating a new constitution. Foreign ministers from 17 countries, including the United States and Russia, participated in the talks.
In keeping with previous Vienna declarations as well as the decisions made this weekend, Syrian President Bashar Assad will continue in his role and in any event will not be prevented from being a part of the diplomatic process. In the interim balance sheet it’s clear who has won and who has lost points: United States has given up on the immediate removal of Assad, whereas Russia and Iran managed, at least on paper, to guarantee the extension of his political life.
But before making the final tally, it is worth remembering that the declarations and decisions remain in the meantime theoretical and it is far from certain that they will come to fruition. The negotiations with the rebel militias will only begin in January. They have not participated in the Vienna talks until now and didn’t communicate a clear, joint stance regarding the declarations.
Which rebel militia will participate? There is still no agreement between Russia, the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia on that question, except for the consensus that ISIS cannot participate. Will the Free Syrian Army agree to sit with Assad representatives? Will the Al-Nusra Front, which is detested by Al-Qaida, be accepted as a representative in the eyes of the Americans? Which guarantees will be given to the rebels that Assad will cease being president at the end of the transition period? These are just a few examples of the difficulties ahead.
There is no doubt that the terror attacks in Paris provided a strong tailwind for the Vienna talks, as the urgency to build an effective front for the war against ISIS has become critical. The working assumption is that only cooling the crisis in Syria will enable the mobilization of the rebel militias and of course the Syrian army to fight a war against ISIS. The logic behind this assumption is simple. The strategy envisions aerial cooperation between Russia, the United States and European states, a ground force made up of Syrian army fighters that will absorb rebel forces and together will constitute a trained fighting force to expel ISIS.
It is a nice vision, but its realization needs much more than optimistic rhetoric. Even if the rebel militias agree among themselves, and consent to sit with regime representatives, the process is liable to take at least half a year, and it still does not guarantee the establishment of an integrated force. It will take at least 18 months – in this rosy scenario – until the formulation of a constitution and the establishment of a government that includes the rebels.
Just to chill the optimism a bit, it is worth recalling the ongoing conflicts and rivalries between the Kurds and the Iraqi government or the violent confrontations between the Taliban and the Afghani government, many years after a constitution was formulated and governments were elected in these countries. The Kurds in Iraq have a private army, and the Taliban are a significant military force in Afghanistan. No one can predict which private militias will continue to operate in Syria even after a deal is signed.
But let’s say the rebels are happy with the diplomatic deal, and a Syrian government and army arise that satisfies all the ethnic groups and factions. Which strategy will they pursue against ISIS? The prevailing logic is that ISIS changed its strategy and decided to adopt the terror methods of al-Qaida. It is not clear on what this assumption is based. In every major attack outside Iraq and Syria involving assailants identified with ISIS, you could ascribe other reasons that reflect the group’s original strategy.
It is likely that these attacks were meant to recruit more volunteers, to increase donations and to settle scores between radical organizations and local governments (like downing the Russian jet to hurt the Egyptian economy and not Russia). Even more so, they were probably meant to hurt those who try to attack ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq as a means of deterrence and not to “conquer” the West or to undermine its cultural foundations.
If the ISIS strategy hasn’t changed then there is logic in assembling a massive fighting force, including ground and air troops, in which the Syrian army plays a central role, and proceeding to attack ISIS territory, dismantle its economic base and return the cities it conquered to the residents. If, on the other hand, ISIS has morphed into an international terror organization, the battle front will move to whatever country the group is trying to hit, and then the effort to assemble a united Syrian force under one government will seem secondary compared to the battle against individual ISIS terror cells. But tying the war against ISIS to a political solution in Syria is a dangerous gamble that is liable to perpetuate the Syrian crisis. After all, what if the sides are unable to arrive at a political solution? Then what strategy will the powers propose?