Syria: A Murderous Spectacle With No End in Sight

Russia and the U.S. failed miserably at managing the cease-fire they orchestrated, and are both responsible for the absurd situation now delaying the assault on ISIS' stronghold.

A Syrian boy receives treatment at a make-shift hospital following air strikes on rebel-held eastern areas of Aleppo on September 24, 2016.
Karam Al-Masr, AFP

It seems that cutting-edge technology — the one that enables pilots to locate the particular window of a house and accurately strike a blind cat from 2,000 feet — came up short during the attack on an Aleppo-bound aid convoy last Monday. Suddenly, the entire system of warning lights, locating and listening devices, and other wondrous control measures failed. So much so that, even now, days after the attack, no side can produce evidence that the other attacked 18 trucks and killed at least 20 people, in what was seen as an action to intentionally shatter the cease-fire.

However, mutual recriminations abound. It seems that no one, excepting the family members, remembers the 60 or so Syrian soldiers who were killed last Saturday in a U.S. attack near the airport at Deir el-Zour, eastern Syria. The Americans didn’t rush to claim responsibility, later saying that if it was indeed U.S. forces that committed the attack, they sincerely regretted it because it was not intentional.

Unintentional? Instrument failure again? Perhaps the blame should be laid at the feet of the makers of these advanced technologies that failed the test. It wouldn’t be the first time.

You shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the truth to come out, either in Deir el-Zour or the aid convoy attack near Aleppo. There will be no international commission of inquiry, since neither the United States nor Russia will allow the UN Security Council to delve through data in the black boxes of their attack planes.

A Syrian rescuer walks amid destruction following an airstrike in the rebel-held Ansari district in Aleppo, north Syria, on September 23, 2016.
Karam al-Masri/AFP

It’s not seen as a matter for the Security Council since the Syrian civil war is not a global or international one. It’s an arena in which two world powers are fighting and anyone else can only purchase tickets and watch the murderous spectacle from the sidelines — a spectacle with no end in sight.

Russia and the United States were the ones who signed the cease-fire agreement, not the UN. They took responsibility for its implementation, and they were the ones who broke it. They determine diplomatic moves and their pace, and both failed miserably in managing the cease-fire.

Russia couldn’t prevent the Syrian air and ground forces attacking neighborhoods in Aleppo and Homs, which was happening even on the second or third day of the cease-fire. The Americans, meanwhile, couldn’t stop rebel forces on the outskirts of Aleppo and in the Hama District, western Syria. They were also unable to prevent violent confrontations between Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, which is operating in the Jarabulus area, together with the Turkish army, in an attempt to take control of the Turkish-Syrian border area.

How can one reconcile the claim that Russia and the United States are masters in Syria with the reality, where rebel militias or President Bashar Assad’s army are setting the agenda? And where is Iran in all this?

One explanation can be found in the battles taking place around Deir el-Zour, where control is shared between the Syrian army, the Islamic State group and rebel militias.

The problem begins with use of the sweeping term “rebel militias,” which may be convenient when describing a list of “legitimate” militias (those who can participate in the political process in Syria), but in no way describes the complexity on the ground. In Deir el-Zour alone, there are, among others, Shi’ite militias called the “Zine al-Abidine brigades,” which support the regime and are financed by Iran. These shouldn’t be confused with Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq, which will likely be part of the forces planned to occupy Mosul. The Zine al-Abidine militias are mainly fighting other militias at Deir el-Zour, besides their fight against Islamic State.

No innocent misses

Anyone wanting to bomb the area must distinguish between these militias, ISIS and regime forces — and between these and innocent civilians. It’s easy to miss, but all this bungling gives rise to local interpretation, since in the eyes of the forces on the ground there are no “innocent” misses.

Another example is the fighting around the besieged city of Aleppo, northwest Syria. This critical area houses several forces, including the Ahrar al-Sham militia (perhaps the largest in the region, and encompassing a dozen smaller militias); Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front); the Free Syrian Army; Kurdish forces; and the Syrian army.

Ahrar al-Sham is a religious organization led by military commanders and the Shura Council, where clerics provide religious support to the fighting. A serious dispute broke out in the council recently when a member, Ayman Haroush, delivered a ruling stating that the group should cooperate with the Turks in their fight against the Kurds and Islamic State. This triggered criticism within the organization, mainly due to opposition to “collaborating with secular [Turkish] elements in order to establish a provisional government.”

Men ride a motorcycle near damaged buildings in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria, September 22, 2016.
Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

A further pretext for opposing the ruling lies in the fact that Ahrar al-Sham cooperated with the Kurds and Free Syrian Army in the battle for Jarabulus, which was invaded by Turkish forces in August. This means that a religious edict permitting action against the Kurds will cause a rift with local allies.

The problem is that Ahrar al-Sham is partly funded by Turkey and partly funded by Qatar (in addition to other donors). It controls most of the border crossings between Syria and Turkey. Its dilemma is not whether to support Russia or the United States, but to decide whether to join the anti-Kurdish drive by Turkey or to work with the Kurds and other militias against the Assad regime.

This dilemma has international ramifications, because Russia — despite its renewal of ties with Turkey — continues to support the Syrian Kurds. The United States, meanwhile, announced that it is considering providing military aid directly to the Kurds, while Turkey is pressuring the militias to act against the Kurds.

The dilemma becomes even more toxic since the United States seeks to appease Turkey and not look like it is supporting the Kurds, but it doesn’t want to leave the Kurds under Russian tutelage.

The result is that in order to keep Turkey happy, Washington turns a blind eye to the continued Turkish occupation of Syrian territory, which is liable to reach as far as the outskirts of Aleppo. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared this week that the aerial attacks must stop in certain areas, in order to prevent aid convoys being hit. However, aid convoys aren’t Kerry’s only concern. His proposal — which sounds like a desperate attempt before the formal collapse of the cease-fire — implies to Turkey that the United States won’t object to the establishment of another no-fly zone in Syria. From there, it’s a short journey to establishing security buffer zones — something Washington has opposed so far.

Postponing the assault on Raqqa

While last week’s attacks in Deir el-Zour and near Aleppo were consigned to the rear-view mirror of international interest, it is not entirely clear what’s causing the delay in the assault on Raqqa (the de facto capital of ISIS), which constitutes the main declared reason for the Western coalition’s military intervention in Syria.

Turkey has already informed Washington that it is ready to join the war on Raqqa, but issued an ultimatum that the Kurds shouldn’t participate. Russia doesn’t object to attacking Raqqa as part of the declaration that it’s a partner in the war against ISIS. And, naturally, Iran also supports the removal of ISIS from Syria.

Theoretically, there couldn’t be a more effective coalition. The problem is that such a coalition, which could relatively easily loosen the Islamic State’s grip on Raqqa, is liable to create a series of explosive packages.

Russia, for example, fears that Turkish and U.S. forces will take control of Raqqa, thus severing it from control by the Syrian regime. Iran, meanwhile, fears that the United States and Turkey will significantly curb its influence over any future Syrian regime. Simultaneously, it views with concern any Russian involvement in Syria, since that has already pushed Iran into a corner.

The United States, meanwhile, sees a dangerous scenario according to which joint U.S.-Turkish entry into Raqqa, together with non-Kurdish militias, will drag along the Russians and Iranians aided by Kurdish militias. Only blind luck would prevent an all-out war in which battles would be liable to erupt between Russians, Americans, Iranians, Kurds and Turks, and not between local forces. It’s worth noticing that, amid all these calculations, the strength of ISIS and the force of its expected resistance have become marginal issues.

Paradoxically, one can conclude that the war against ISIS in Raqqa is being delayed because no side can guarantee what will happen once the city is reconquered. And if we want to push the absurdity still further, we could argue that ISIS is less dangerous in its present situation than after its expulsion from Syria.