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Pure Onsense

Has ISIS Put Syria Back in Play?

Scott Zuke

(9/2014) Since its ambitious capture of Mosul and other towns in northern Iraq earlier this summer, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has had a meteoric rise in its profile. It now rivals al Qaeda in notoriety and has seen a surge in momentum that has cast a shadow over the whole region and made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza and Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine secondary concerns.

While the group’s blitz into Iraq captured the world’s attention, it appeared to stall once its territorial holdings reached Baghdad on its southern flank, and the well-defended Kurdish border in the east. The group rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared itself a caliphate, seeming to turn toward the goal of establishing itself as a viable state with tax collection, public utilities and services, even post offices.

ISIS was always known to hold expansionist intentions, but its capacity to achieve them was downplayed until it scored a series of victories over the Kurdish armed forces, the peshmerga, and threatened the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where American diplomatic and military personnel were stationed. They also seized a strategic dam and engaged in ethnic cleansing, expelling Christians from Mosul and besieging thousands of minority Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains to the point of starvation.

With the combination of a humanitarian emergency, American resources at risk, and the United States being the only effective force left in the area, President Obama finally had to intervene—an incredible shift in policy after spending most of his presidency working to end the American military presence in Iraq after a decade of war. In August the United States used airstrikes to halt the Islamic State’s advances and take back the Mosul Dam, and stepped up its material support for the peshmerga. Meanwhile, the Iraqi president nominated a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, widely blamed for fomenting the sectarian tensions that had allowed ISIS to recruit Iraq’s Sunnis to support its offensive into the country in the first place. Maliki stepped down a few days later, further opening the doors for US intervention since Obama had been reluctant to do anything that appeared to be propping up the unpopular prime minister.

As quickly as the American intervention was able to make an impact in Iraq, however, the Islamic State sent a grim reminder of its foothold in Syria with a video purportedly showing the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist captured by militants there in 2011. Following the horrific video there was a notable shift in rhetoric from the administration, military officials, and from Congress. The Islamic State is now being portrayed as a much greater threat to the United States and the West, and it is being more readily acknowledged that a strategy to combat it cannot be limited to strikes in Iraq, but must extend into Syria as well.

This is a very important shift in tone that could finally hint at a break in the geopolitical stalemate that has stood in the way of intervention in the Syrian civil war for over three years. Syria has been off the public radar for some time, much to the frustration of those who have been following the mounting death toll. Body count politics were a constant discussion during the flare-up in Gaza, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed compared to just over 60 Israeli soldiers and only 2 Israeli civilians. The death toll in the Syrian conflict, however, is over 191,000, according to a conservative estimate recently released by the United Nations.

So why has Syria been out of the spotlight for so long, and why might that be about to change? It has a lot to do with Russia.

This time last year the Obama administration was seriously weighing military intervention in the Syrian conflict in response to reported use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians in rebel-held villages. Russia, a staunch ally of Bashar al-Assad, firmly blocked any action by the UN Security Council, and eventually took credit for mediating a settlement in which Syria would give up its chemical arms stockpiles for disposal. This did not in any way slow down the regime’s brutal attacks on its citizens. On the contrary, the appearance of action gave the regime cover, and allowed the international community to turn a blind eye to its atrocities, making the past year by far the most deadly yet.

But nothing will happen unless the impasse between Russia and the West is broken. The Islamic State might just be the catalyst that could upset the stalemate. The complex situation in Syria is often portrayed as a battle between the Assad regime on one side, and the rebel opposition and the United States on the other. ISIS, however, is a third and increasingly powerful force at war with both. If Russia feels that the Islamic State is becoming the greater threat to its interests in the country, it is possible that it could become more amenable to airstrikes and material support for the moderate rebel forces.

And although it would take a lot of factors coming together—from a quieting of the separate crisis in Ukraine to a significant shift in thinking by Syria’s ruling elite in Damascus—it’s possible that support for Assad could erode and lead to a regime change. This is basically what happened in Iraq, where the once-unshakable Maliki was abandoned by the United States, his backers in Iran, and eventually his political support base in Baghdad.

The challenge will be to find a path forward that allows for a stable power transfer. For all of the evil he has committed upon Syria’s civilians, Assad’s military forces have been instrumental in keeping ISIS in check. The Islamic State has become a beacon for young jihadis, drawing them from all over the world. As horrifically bad as the situation in Syria is already, a political collapse there similar to what is currently happening in Libya would be an even worse calamity, and one that the international community must find a way to avoid in spite of their differences.

Read other article by Scott Zuke