In Fight Against ISIS, Russia Has the Brawn, U.S. the Brains

It's easy to criticize American reluctance to put boots on the ground in Syria, but Washington and Riyadh remain crucial for any diplomatic solution to take place.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 8, 2012.
A Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 8, 2012.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Lots of angry people have been roaming the luxurious hallways of the InterContinental Hotel in Riyadh for the last two days. They include more than 100 representatives of Syrian rebel militias, intellectuals and heads of opposition movements, who collectively represent a mere fraction of all the forces fighting in Syria.

Not everyone who attended the conference, which was sponsored and funded by Saudi Arabia, was enthusiastic about it. But since Riyadh funds much of the opposition’s activity in Syria and arms several of its militias, they couldn’t refuse the invitation.

Even before the conference began, Haytham Manna – one of the most respected Syrian human rights activists, a physician now living in Switzerland who has written more than 40 books on human rights – announced that he wouldn’t attend because it includes representatives of terrorist organizations. The Syrian Kurds, who are considered the most effective potential ground force against Islamic State in Syria, weren’t even invited. Even though they enjoy both American and Russian support, Turkey opposed the participation of a group it deems a terrorist organization.

The Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, obviously wasn’t invited. And while representatives of one of the largest militias, Ahrar al-Sham, did show up, they’re unhappy because militias that support the Assad regime are also present.

Given all the disagreements and the very partial representation, it’s hard to foresee major achievements from the conference, even if the Saudi media hastened to report that initial agreements had been reached. The parties reportedly agreed on the principles on which a transitional government will be based and even a timetable for its establishment. They agreed that Syria will remain united rather than being divided into cantons, that it will be democratic, that the militias will disarm once the transitional government is formed, that the government will be the only party authorized to maintain an army, and that a new national army should be established.

On Thursday, the parties were supposed to discuss the extremely important question of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s role in the transitional government and his political future thereafter. If they manage to dismantle this landmine, the decisions will serve as the basis for a meeting in New York on December 18 of the “friends of Syria” countries.

But don’t be swept away by optimism. Even if a miracle occurs and all the participants embrace at the end of the Riyadh conference, Syria has many other militias that could undermine any agreement. Iran, which is angry that the conference was held in Saudi Arabia at all, and Russia, which failed in its effort to convene a similar conference of opposition leaders, are also ready to torpedo any agreement that might undermine their interests.

Nevertheless, most of the parties agree on two things: The Syrian civil war won’t be decided militarily, and without ending it, no effective military front against ISIS will be possible.

The latest fashion is to accuse U.S. President Barack Obama of not understanding the situation in Syria. But Obama needs no advice from Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who recently warned that aerial attacks won’t destroy ISIS, or from any of his ilk.

In case anyone has forgotten, Washington has been busy since 2013 negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, and it feared that any military intervention in Syria would scuttle the deal, which it viewed as higher priority. But even before then, it feared that Western intervention in Syria would spark Iranian military intervention, and from there the road to an international war would be short.

After the nuclear deal with Iran was signed, America intensified air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and began arming some Syrian rebel groups. And one result was Russia’s entry into the theater.

One could argue that since the Syrian crisis has now become an international one anyway, the West gained nothing by refraining from intervening on the ground earlier on. But the fact is that American and Russian jets aren’t fighting each other; Washington and Moscow have a joint interest in destroying Islamic State; and though Iran and Russia both support Assad while America doesn’t, all agree that only a diplomatic solution can end the war. And for any diplomatic solution, Washington and Riyadh will be needed, because they have a better chance of getting the rebels to the table than Moscow and Tehran do.

Russia’s political leverage, in contrast, comes from its military intervention, which ended the West’s monopoly on dealing with Syria. Moscow is now considered an indispensable part of any solution to the ISIS problem.

The focus on the Syrian theater has lessened interest in ISIS’s massive presence in Iraq. There, the American, Iranian and Iraqi governments have identical political and military interests. For months, there has been talk of a military offensive to retake Ramadi and Mosul from ISIS, and it’s now expected to begin this spring.

Ostensibly, Iraq is a less complicated front than Syria. Military operations against ISIS there won’t spark any international conflicts, and ground forces to conduct these operations already exist, in the form of Iraqi soldiers, Shi’ite militias, Sunni tribesmen and Kurdish peshmerga.

Thus from afar, it’s easy to criticize American haplessness on this front, too. But when Sunni tribesmen from western Iraq threaten to join ISIS if Shi’ite militias funded and trained by Iran enter their territory; when Kurds are fighting Turkmen in northwest Iraq even though both oppose ISIS; and when Baghdad demands that Turkey withdraw its forces from the Mosul region even though those forces are training Kurdish peshmerga, what Western or Arab power could really forge a coalition for a ground operation against ISIS in Iraq?

Nevertheless, it’s always nice to have someone to accuse of screwing up.

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