Can IS be ousted from Syria with­out As­sad’s help?

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

As the US-led coali­tion tight­ens the noose around the Is­lamic State group in Syria, Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s Ira­nian-backed troops are also seiz­ing back ter­ri­tory from the mil­i­tants with lit­tle protest from Wash­ing­ton, a sign of how Amer­i­can op­tions are lim­ited with­out a pow­er­ful ally on the ground.

Wash­ing­ton is loath to co­op­er­ate with As­sad’s in­ter­na­tion­ally os­tra­cized gov­ern­ment. But it will be dif­fi­cult to up­root IS mil­i­tants and keep them out with only the Kur­dish and Arab mili­tias backed by the US - and a coali­tion spokesman pointed out that As­sad’s gains ease the bur­den on those forces. Let­ting As­sad grab IS ter­ri­tory, how­ever, risks be­ing seen as the US le­git­imiz­ing his con­tin­ued rule and would likely strengthen his hand in his war against the al­ready strug­gling re­bel­lion. It also threat­ens to fur­ther em­power As­sad’s al­lies, Iran and the Le­banese Hezbol­lah, which both have forces along­side his troops in the as­sault into IS-held ter­ri­tory.

Within the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, there is a split over whether to ag­gres­sively try to stem As­sad’s ad­vances, said a se­nior US of­fi­cial, who wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak to re­porters and re­quested anonymity. Army Col Ryan Dil­lon, the spokesman for the anti-IS coali­tion, said Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces are wel­come to re­claim IS-held ter­ri­tory and fill the vac­uum once the ex­trem­ist group is gone. The state­ment was star­tling - even more so be­cause soon af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump this week warned As­sad he would pay “a heavy price,” claim­ing “po­ten­tial” ev­i­dence that Syria was pre­par­ing for an­other chem­i­cal weapons at­tack.

The mixed mes­sages re­veal a dis­com­fit­ing fact that most pol­icy mak­ers would rather not spell out: As­sad is a pariah but he is also a con­ve­nient tool to se­cure and gov­ern ter­ri­tory in ma­jor­ity-Arab cities in a com­plex ter­rain. The sit­u­a­tion in Syria is a con­trast to Iraq, where the coali­tion and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, work­ing hand in glove, ap­pear to be on the verge of re­tak­ing the main IS re­doubt in city of Mo­sul. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has re­peat­edly sug­gested that ev­ery­one is wel­come to work with it to defeat IS.

‘An­i­mal’

Mo­ham­mad Kheir Akkam, a Syr­ian law­maker, ques­tioned US sup­port for the Kur­dish-led forces “de­spite the fact that the Syr­ian-Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion has achieved more re­sults in com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism,” while US ef­forts have “had the op­po­site re­sult”. The US so far has shunned any co­op­er­a­tion with the Syr­ian leader, whom Trump de­scribed as an “an­i­mal”. In­stead, it has part­nered with lo­cal Kur­dish and Arab forces known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF.

Those fight­ers are cur­rently spear­head­ing the as­sault on the Is­lamic State group’s self-de­clared cap­i­tal, Raqqa in north­ern Syria, and then face the prospect of as­sault­ing the group’s fi­nal ma­jor strong­hold to the south­east, in Deir el-Zour. But US sup­port for the Kur­dish-led group has an­gered Turkey, which views it as an ex­ten­sion of a Kur­dish in­sur­gency within its own ter­ri­tory. The SDF is also viewed with sus­pi­cion by the pre­dom­i­nantly Arab res­i­dents of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.

Fur­ther­more, the SDF, num­ber­ing around 50,000 fight­ers, is al­ready risk­ing over­stretch and is in no way ready for the more chal­leng­ing bat­tle in Deir el-Zour. As­sad and his Ira­nian al­lies, on the other hand, have steadily po­si­tioned them­selves in key ar­eas on the flanks of the US-led war against IS, grab­bing ter­ri­tory on sev­eral fronts, in­clud­ing on the out­skirts of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour. With Rus­sian and Ira­nian sup­port, As­sad has made steady gains and now con­trols al­most all of Syria’s ma­jor cities ex­cept those held by IS.

Sym­bol­ism

The sym­bol­ism was strik­ing this week as a smil­ing As­sad paid a visit to cen­tral Hama, driv­ing his own car, and to a Rus­sian air base in west­ern Syria, where he posed along­side Rus­sian gen­er­als and in­side the cock­pit of a Rus­sian SU-35 fighter jet. Syr­ian troops have po­si­tioned them­selves on Raqqa’s south­west­ern flanks, and of­fi­cials have vowed to re­take the city even­tu­ally. The US has in­sisted that the city should be handed over to a lo­cal coun­cil that would han­dle its ad­min­is­tra­tion post-lib­er­a­tion - and it has made clear it will not tol­er­ate the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and its al­lies cash­ing in on the fight. US forces re­cently shot down a Syr­ian air­craft as well as drones be­lieved con­nected to Ira­nian-sup­ported forces as ten­sions es­ca­lated near a base where the coali­tion trains Syr­ian rebels.

But the se­nior Amer­i­can of­fi­cial said there was sig­nif­i­cant dis­agree­ment about how ag­gres­sively the US should try to pre­vent As­sad from re­claim­ing the ter­ri­tory IS va­cates, with some in the White House push­ing a more force­ful ap­proach while the State Depart­ment and the Pen­tagon warn of the risks. Keeping As­sad’s ter­ri­tory to a min­i­mum would en­sure his hand isn’t strength­ened in an even­tual po­lit­i­cal deal to end the con­flict, mak­ing it more likely the US could de­liver on its long­stand­ing de­sire to see him leave power. Lim­it­ing his con­trol in east­ern Syria would also pre­vent Ira­nian-backed forces from se­cur­ing a wide cor­ri­dor through Iraq to Syria and all the way into Le­banon.

The more risk-averse voices in Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion are wary about let­ting the US slip into a more di­rect fight with As­sad, the of­fi­cial said. Dil­lon, the coali­tion spokesman, told re­porters at the Pen­tagon that the US goal is to defeat IS wher­ever it ex­ists. If oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and its Ira­nian and Rus­sian al­lies, want to fight the ex­trem­ists, “we ab­so­lutely have no prob­lem with that.” Fred­eric C Hof, di­rec­tor of the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Rafik Hariri Cen­ter for the Mid­dle East, said the com­ments re­flect the nar­row US view of the Syria war, fo­cused very specif­i­cally on the neu­tral­iza­tion of IS. In the coali­tion view, “it is all about killing ISIS in Raqqa.” Hof wrote in an ar­ti­cle this week. “Cre­at­ing con­di­tions that would keep it dead? That, pre­sum­ably, would be some­one else’s job.” — AP

—AP

In this June 27, 2017 photo, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad climbs into the cock­pit of a Rus­sian SU-35 fighter jet as he in­spects the Rus­sian Hmeimim air base in the prov­ince of Latakia.

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