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Global Affairs

Syria: A proxy war with no end in sight

The country has now become a breeding ground for terrorists.

LONDON • French President Francois Hollande deserves admiration. Since his capital city was hit by gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 130 in France's worst atrocity for decades, Mr Hollande has travelled the globe, seeking to unite major powers behind a single strategy on Syria, one which aims to destroy the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation responsible for the Paris attacks.

The idea that, instead of confronting one another, countries should unite over the handling of Syria was pushed by Mr Hollande in frantic diplomatic shuttles between Washington and Moscow. He even made history by attending a summit of leaders of the Commonwealth, a grouping of countries mostly drawn from Britain's former colonies, where he also sold his vision of a "grand alliance" to tackle Syria. Altogether, President Hollande personally spoke on the subject to no fewer than 60 different heads of states and governments during the past week alone.

Yet, despite this astonishing effort, Mr Hollande failed. For the civil war which has torn Syria apart since 2011 is now largely unstoppable; it has morphed into a proxy war between every Middle Eastern government as well as many powers outside the region, a conflict bewildering in its complexity, destined to last for many years and certain to give birth to many more terrorist organisations. Seldom before was the strategic map of the Middle East so confusing or its long-term implications so depressing.

It is wrong to suggest - as many commentators currently do - that Syria was always an "artificial state", a country which sooner or later was bound to implode. For while it is true that Syria was largely the product of the territorial carve-up of the Middle East between Britain and France at the end of World War I, it is also a fact that the country has existed for almost a century, far longer than many other states around the world.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Syrians are divided along religious lines between Sunni, Shia and Christians, and along ethnic lines between Arabs, Kurds, Druze and a few other communities. But these divisions are not unique to Syria, and were certainly not the reason for the country's current civil war, which was unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's determination to crack down on opponents to his track record of bad governance.

All evidence suggests that, with the exception of violent extremists who dream of establishing an "Islamic Caliphate", the majority of the country's population still remain loyal to the idea of a Syrian nation. A consensus thus exists over the need to maintain a functioning Syrian state.

And an equally strong consensus also prevails in both the Middle East and the world at large that the ISIS terrorist organisation, which now has strong roots and presence in Syria, is a global menace and must be urgently eradicated. For ISIS is not only responsible for the gruesome murder of civilians of almost every conceivable nationality, but is also acting as the training ground for terrorism and religious extremism.

Paradoxically, however, the fundamental obstacle to forging a global alliance designed to bring the war in Syria to a conclusion is not the absence of an agreement about what the final objective should be but, rather, a fundamental disagreement between all the protagonists in the conflict about which objective takes first priority.

For the Syrian government of President Assad, the key priority is, of course, sheer survival. Mr Assad is no lover of ISIS and may not have been directly responsible for the creation of the terrorist organisation, as many of his critics claim.

Still, there is no question that Mr Assad established the terrorist smuggling routes now used by ISIS, when he allowed his territory to be used as transit for terrorists fighting United States forces in neighbouring Iraq a decade ago. And it's equally beyond doubt that Mr Assad beefed up the ranks of terrorist organisations when he emptied his country's jails of extremists and other misfits at the start of the current Syrian civil war.

Mr Assad did so because his best chance of survival lies in persuading the world that he is fighting religious fundamentalism, and that his current Syrian regime is preferable to anything which may follow. It is a claim which no longer carries credibility for, even if Mr Assad was allowed to remain in power and asked to help in crushing ISIS, all that would do is generate terrorism from other movements. Mr Assad has lived by institutionalising terrorism in his country; his regime is destined to die by it.

In all likelihood, Russia understands that Mr Assad is now part of the problem. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin is clinging to Mr Assad as a bargaining chip with the West over a deal which acknowledges Russia's importance and allows Mr Putin to maintain a sphere of influence both in Ukraine, where Russian troops are stationed, and in the Middle East.

That's why only an estimated 6 per cent of Russia's airstrikes in Syria were conducted against ISIS this month; the Russians, who lost one of their civilian airliners to terrorism originating from ISIS, are nevertheless keener to turn their fire on other Syrian opposition forces.

Meanwhile, the Middle East's other governments have their own games to play. Iran detests ISIS to the extent that many Iranian leaders believe that the terrorist organisation was actually "invented" by Israel and the US; in the bizarre world of the Middle East, such conspiracy theories are easily taken as granted. Still, the Iranians are more keen on propping up the Shia-leaning Assad regime against its domestic opponents. Iran sees ISIS as, at best, a diversion.

So do the region's Arab states, which are far keener on toppling Mr Assad. They fund and arm the Free Syrian Army, the various so-called Southern Front fighting groups, as well as the Ahrar al-Sham, which has its own radical Islamic elements. And they turn a blind eye to the Nusra Front, arguably the second most powerful military force in Syria, which owes its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

And then there is Turkey, whose main interest is to prevent the Kurds of Syria from establishing their own state, as this may embolden ethnic Kurds inside Turkey to do the same. The Turks flatly deny any sympathies for ISIS. But it is a fact that some of the petrol smuggling which funds ISIS operations was conducted through Turkish territory, and most of the foreign volunteers who joined ISIS came via Turkey.

France, the US and Britain, to name but some of the key Western players in this drama, cannot be blamed for the Syrian mess. However, they do carry some responsibility for making grand statements and pronouncements while failing to follow them through with practical steps.

All Western governments are demanding Mr Assad's removal from power, without suggesting who or what should replace him. All criticise Arab states for failing to coordinate their efforts in Syria, without offering a clue on what such coordination should look like. The US has criticised Turkey for failing to take ISIS seriously. But Washington also relied on the Kurds of Syria to hit back at ISIS and at the Syrian regime, precisely the people Turkey fears most.

And if this is not enough, the US also expects Russia to cooperate on a joint strategy in Syria while maintaining that this cannot be part of a broader diplomatic deal over Ukraine. The Americans are right to uphold the principle that the interests of nations should not be bartered. Still, the US is also wrong in assuming that Mr Putin would render assistance in Syria while Russia is still subjected to Western economic sanctions over Ukraine.

Mr Hollande's brave attempt to paper over all cracks has not been entirely in vain: negotiations between the key powers in the conflict are continuing behind the scenes. However, no coherent strategy or agreement on what needs be done is likely to emerge as long as all the actors in Syria care enough about the conflict to poke their fingers in it, but don't care enough to commit their resources to a particular outcome or place their own soldiers in harm's way.

The result is the worst possible outcome: a war which lingers on indefinitely because none of its protagonists have the necessary strength to bring it to a conclusion, while none of the outside proxy sponsors can agree on what they wish to achieve.

A perfect swamp for terrorists.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Syria: A proxy war with no end in sight'. Print Edition | Subscribe