ISIL’s rise demands some fresh thinking in the Syrian conflict

Having missed one early chance to bolster moderate opposition groups in Syria, the US can make up for it as part of its battle with ISIL, writes Hassan Hassan.

Civilians leave the  the besieged Syrian city of Homs as Syria's regime and rebels accused each other of violating a truce. Bassel Tawil / AFP
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Bashar Al Assad has a dilemma: ISIL has spun out of control, after once being seen as a useful tool with which he could prod and undermine the opposition. But, unless US air strikes against the group are part of a broader rapprochement with the regime, they will only serve to strengthen his opponents, since the jihadi group controls territory it has seized from the rebels. Furthermore, air strikes would reduce pressure on the rebels in Hasaka, Aleppo, Idlib and Hama and enable them to open new fronts against the regime.

The opposition seems to have a greater dilemma: ISIL now has a clear gateway into Idlib, in the north-west of the country, one of the last remaining strongholds of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, there has been a growing sense of apathy among the opposition’s backers. Since the appointment of new leaders for the National Coalition and the interim government, the opposition has not made any formal visit to Saudi Arabia. According to official sources, Riyadh and other key backers have been dissatisfied about recent infighting within the opposition.

Also, during a meeting in Ankara last month, Turkish and Qatari officials made a proposal to the Friends of Syria’s core group known as “London 11” to include the Islamic Front, a coalition of Salafi-armed groups, in the official western-backed scheme of financing and training the Syrian rebels. The scheme stipulates that governments can only support groups affiliated to the FSA’s general command, even though regional governments informally support other forces.

The Turkish-Qatari proposal, which came a month after the hardline group Ahrar Al Sham was excluded from a new formulation under the Islamic Front, was rejected. The proposal was an attempt to resuscitate the Islamic Front, significantly weakened in recent months in part because a US-supervised policy of blocking foreign funding to radical groups coincided with the alliance’s exhausting fight against ISIL. The demise of the Islamic Front has implications on the rebels’ military abilities.

Unlike the regime, which still fully controls six key provinces, the opposition has already lost the majority of its territories either to Al Assad (such as Homs) or to jihadist groups (Deir Ezzor and Raqqa) and Jabhat Al Nusra (Deraa). This situation is aggravated by the waning of support for the opposition and the simultaneous rise of ISIL.

It is hard to imagine how this can be reversed, even with increased support for the rebels. At the same time, the fight against ISIL will be significantly harder if it returns to the north of Syria.

So, what is the way forward? A fresh approach to the conflict is urgently needed. To fight ISIL effectively, a broader approach and deeper engagement are both vital, especially with the local populations under the jihadi group’s control. That requires going beyond containment and moving towards long-term political and military arrangements.

For example, training the rebels should be seen as a necessary tool to govern and police territories outside the regime’s control. Any political solution for the conflict should consider such local dynamics, rather than focus on a doomed power-sharing arrangement in Damascus.

Any prospect of a US-led coalition striking ISIL in Syria would present an opportunity to start such a process. There is already a nascent regional realignment to pursue a broader solution, not only in Syria but also in Iraq – with Qatar and Turkey moving slightly towards the Saudi position of prioritising the fight against radicals, and the Iranians and Saudis engaging with each other to deal with the crises in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, both the regime and the opposition view ISIL as a serious threat, but each side also sees the air strikes as an opportunity and a challenge, depending on whether the international action will involve working with one party at the expense of the other.

This opportunity to work towards a lasting solution in Syria cannot be missed. The Al Assad regime, it should be emphasised, remains a spoke in the wheel. Although the regime has started to feel the heat from the rise of ISIL, it will continue to view the militant group as a useful tool for its survival. It might be interested in degrading the group’s assets but not in its elimination. On the other hand, the rebels are better positioned to eliminate ISIL and keep extremists at bay in the longer term, especially if they had the assistance of a regional coalition.

Hassan Hassan is an analyst with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @hxhassan