An outline of a modus vivendi with Russia is required if there is to be any progress in the fight against Da’esh. Otherwise, the vaunted 70,000 strong ‘moderate’ forces will continue to be attacked by Russia. Indeed, their bombing campaign to date has been almost exclusively focused on forces other than those of the Da’esh and the Assad regime.
Of equal importance is persuading this 70,000 – or as many of them as possible – that they must concentrate on Da’esh and not the Assad regime. Presently, reports emerging from representatives of these forces claim quite the opposite: that the Assad regime is their primary enemy. As long as this is the case, Russia will continue to attack them and they will be of little use to Cameron and others seeking to primarily attack Da’esh.
On paper, at least, it looks like there is a deal to be done here.
Russia does, in fact, at some stage, want to counter Da’esh. This motley group killed hundreds of its citizens in the Sinai plane attack, and it has released a propaganda video of the execution of a Russian citizen. But Russia wants to guarantee its role in a future Syrian scenario too. This is the primary reason that it is so eagerly fighting the array of extremists and moderates ranged against Assad: it is protecting the Syrian regime.
Similarly, these moderates want Assad to go above all else. They – rightly – see him as the ultimate cause of the Syrian civil war and the one who indirectly founded Da’esh through policies of actively stoking extremism. But this will simply not happen as long as Russia supports the Syrian regime. This statement of basic geopolitical fact needs to be relayed to these groups and driven home.
The deal is, therefore, quite obvious. The bulk of the Assad regime remains in place – Russia will not have it any other way – but Assad himself is scheduled to pass on power in a designated timetable. For this concession, Assad is saved from prosecution, Russia gets a say in the future government to guarantee its interests, the 70,000 and those they represent get rid of Assad and can have some (likely minor) say in a future government, and everyone can concentrate on dismantling Da’esh.
Doubtless, an approximation of this bargain is being discussed. But the fundamental problem is the fractured nature of the opposition groups. Persuading the dozens of militias and fronts that make up this 70,000 grouping of relatively moderate fighters to sign up to such a plan will be likely be near-impossibly difficult. In the end, Cameron and his allies will likely have to support and work with far fewer local forces.
The overarching ‘solution’ to this crisis is, then, political and involves a range of distasteful compromises. That British fighter-jets are now attacking targets a few hundred miles west from their current zone of operations in Iraq will not – cannot possibly – make any wider, strategic difference.
But it can, of course, make a tactical difference. Well targeted attacks can slowly degrade Da’esh capabilities. Especially in conjunction with allied support, it is plausible to suggest that the group’s abilities to operate in parts of Syria could be hampered.
Ultimately, the success or failure of this vote and of the resulting campaign depends on what its goals are. Destroying Da’esh is an absurd, impossible aim. It is an insidious franchise that can demonstrate that it has ‘won’ (i.e. not been wiped out) by any individual anywhere on earth with a flag, a camera, and an internet connection, to say nothing of its resilience in the great lawless swathes Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Nigeria.
The hope, then, is that this move by the British government is more important for its symbolic value signalling a new era of concerned international political alignment and pressure, than for its kinetic impact on the ground in Syria.
Image: Strikes in Syria and Iraq, ISIL Finance Center in ar-Raqqah, Syria. Unclassified DoD Briefing, 2014, courtesy of DoD via Wikimedia Commons.