As we approach the forty month mark for the Syrian uprising the situation is grimmer than it has ever been. Not just the casualties: more than 200,000 people dead. Not just the physical devastation and mass-displacement of more than a third of the country. But now in military terms the rebellion is on the defensive in a way it has not been since it erupted at the end of 2011, after more than six months of peaceful protests.
On June 29, almost certainly to coincide both with the first day of Ramadan and the centenary of the assassination that began the First World War and set in train the events that led to the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) changed its name to the Islamic State (I.S.) and announced that the Caliphate had been restored with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now going by his real name, Ibrahim, as Emir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful). The declaration is not itself that surprising: from the time I.S. changed its name from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006 and more obviously after al-Qaeda’s formal repudiation of the group in February it has claimed to be a State authority, a proto-Caliphate that will expand across the world. But it is a major propaganda event, especially when accompanied by last Friday’s sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mosul by “Caliph Ibrahim”.
I.S. has been steadily gaining territory in the Fertile Crescent since 2013, something brought to global attention when it overran Mosul in northern Iraq on June 10. I had predicted at that I.S. would use the ghanima (war booty) taken from the Iraqi Army to bring intense pressure on the rebellion in eastern Syria. Within twenty-four hours the weaponry from Iraq had appeared in Deir Ezzor, under the stewardship of Abu Omar a-Shishani, the Chechen zealot who oversees what used to be the border area between Iraq and Syria. Now the Eastern Front has completely collapsed, with mass-expulsions of civilians believed to sympathise with the Islamic State’s enemies. Tens of thousands of people are huddled closely in unsanitary conditions outside the cleared towns, so look for an outbreak of disease to be the next thing. Jabhat an-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham, and the remnants of the FSA-branded rebels in Deir Ezzor vowed to fight on against I.S. but they are hopelessly outmatched.
Much more worrying for the opposition is the impending battle on the Northern Front for Aleppo City. In the run-up to the fall of Homs City to the regime it was possible for the rebellion to be relatively sanguine. The loss of Homs, the “capital of the revolution,” was a bitter blow but the predictions that it presaged a march on Aleppo seemed unlikely. This had been predicted before after the fall of Qusayr in June 2013 and the fall of Yabrud in March 2014 that signified the complete collapse of the Qalamoun region after an attack that began in November 2013. In neither case had the regime been able to marshal the forces for such an assault, and there was reason to think they would not be able to this time. Perhaps they still won’t. But indications are that this long-delayed attempt to retake Syria’s commercial centre, to drive the rebellion from its last remaining urban stronghold and its last remaining secure hinterland to rest its fighters and get supplies of weapons, is upon us.
The regime never lost control of western Aleppo City and is now tightening a siege around the rebel-held east, and in the meanwhile I.S. is bouncing back from the revolt that erupted against it on January 3 and expelled it from Latakia, Idlib, and all-but the west of Aleppo Province, where they have strongholds in al-Bab, Jarabulus, and Manbij. At least 7,000 people have been killed since the rebellion fought back against the takfiris that some had (wrongly) believed could be used to defeat the regime. With I.S. now pushing in from the east, the grim situation was summarised by an activist on the ground as: “You look to the right, and there’s the regime. You look to the left it’s the Islamic State. We are caught in a pincer.” This has been a long-standing problem.
The report of 1,000 rebels abandoning Idlib on Sunday and moving to Raqqa City to pledge allegiance to, and fortify, the Caliphate is actually not much of a story when examined. The fighters are from Liwa ad-Dawud, a brigade that was once within Suqour a-Sham (Falcons of Syria), and which has long been known to have pro-I.S. sympathies—indeed it has already split from the Falcons once. What is happening here is a clarification of the battle-lines, and not by accident. As Aaron Zelin has explained, I.S. sees this polarisation “as a positive development because it will separate those who believe in haqq [truth] from batil [falsehood].” It also cuts both ways.
In Iraq, the few hundred I.S. holy warriors could not have taken over a massive urban centre like Mosul without help. They have had a lot of help by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who tried to consolidate a sectarian autocracy after the American withdrawal, which provoked in the Sunni Arabs existential fears that made them put aside their distaste for the takfiris to side with them at least long enough to bring down Maliki and his Iranian backers. But in military terms Jaysh an-Naqshbandi was the force that helped I.S. conquer large swaths of central Iraq. (The Naqshbandis are essentially the Islamized remnants of the Ba’athists, led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the final conspirator of 1968 still alive.) But no sooner had I.S. begun settling-in when clashes erupted with the Naqshbandis.
For those who do not believe that ideology counts in this world, the “Islamic State” is your nemesis. There was every advantage for I.S. in allying with the Naqshbandis, and it was rumoured to have had an agreement with them to allow the Naqshbandis to front a future “government” in the I.S.-conquered territory because while the world would never accept a Takfiri State, they had shown themselves more than willing to accept a Ba’athist State. But I.S. couldn’t help itself. It “tried to disarm” the Naqshbandis as soon as it had enough control, and in Mosul has
kidnapped arrested up to sixty ex-Ba’athists. The stewards of the only governing authority approved by god cannot share power at all and especially not with Ba’athists, who are regarded as secular socialists, the evidence of their Islamism notwithstanding.
In short, these clarifying lines—despite the wealth I.S. can use to pay for fighters, the ideological temptation of its Caliphate, and the naked brutality it can bring to bear—will redound against it; a majority is against this project, even the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, if only for crude reasons of wanting to be the ones who resurrect the Caliphate. The takfiris will burn themselves out; they always do. It’s just a question of how much damage they can do in the meanwhile.
In seeking to contain this fallout the absolute imperative is that the American-led West not get positioned as taking—let alone actually choose—the side of clerical Iran. This is not just because of the fury it would evoke in the Sunni world, where the West would be seen as: (a) indifferent to their slaughter, caring only about counter-terrorism; and b) siding with the Iranian theocracy’s sectarian, imperial ambitions. The plan for airstrikes against I.S. in Iraq risks placing the West on the side of an Iraqi government that is a virtual satellite of Tehran’s. The West has no interest in the survival of Maliki: he and his Iranian patrons are at the root of this crisis; let Iran pay the price of defending Maliki’s government. Baghdad will not fall: the Khomeini’ist militias have been given the run of the place and the Pasdaran are massed on the border to intervene if I.S. does actually attack the capital, a threat that is presently being used to round up Sunni ex-military officers and try to humble the Sunnis within the city. Awful as this prospect is, the appearance of Western approval for the Iranian takeover of Iraq is an even grimmer prospect.
Moreover, not only is clerical Iran a greater danger than I.S.—a Jihadist State trying for nuclear weapons as opposed to a network of rather primitive holy warriors, even with a reach into Europe—but it is not as if by choosing to side with Iran you would be opposing I.S. At a purely strategic level, as Reuel Marc Gerecht has put it,
In Iraq, [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and [Quds Force commander Qassem] Suleimani … have doggedly encouraged sectarian politics and violence to increase Tehran’s leverage over the Iraqi Shiites, who tend to take their distance from Iran as they become more self-confident. The triumph of Sunni militants in the north of Iraq doesn’t weaken Tehran’s position in that country; it fortifies it.
Given Tehran’s concurrent effort to convince the Obama administration that it is an ally in what we once called the War on Terror, it has taken steps to ensure that Sunni militancy really is a threat in the Fertile Crescent, and presents itself as the only means of defeating it.
As to what should be done, direct U.S. intervention now looks like a risky proposition. Taking out the Syrian regime has to be the primary goal. The image of the Alawi tyranny at war with a pious population while the West not only stands by but looks for a rapprochement with the Iranian regime that is the only reason Bashar al-Assad is still standing is the primary incitement to Salafi-jihadism. The view that Assad is a bulwark against radicalism is exactly wrong: there is no more galvanic force in the world. But to dismantle Assad’s regime requires something to go in its place.
Having rejected proposals two years ago to create a force in the surrounding States that could march on Damascus and having refused to impose a no-fly zone when the secularists were in the lead (up to the fall of 2012) and there was not so much devastation, when some of the cohesiveness of the country remained, Obama has now asked for $500 million to train an insurgent army. That seems like an awful lot of money for “farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before,” whom only a fantasist could believe would make a difference against the regime or the Salafi-jihadists. But perhaps Obama knows how mendacious this statement is: that in reality more than half of the Syrian insurgents are military defectors. Still, there seems to be no urgency about this project. The administration said in May this will be “an ongoing focus for us as we head into the summer.” We’re half way through the summer now and, unless a serious surprise is to come, progress has been minimal. The reason for this is simple: Obama does not believe in overthrowing the Assad regime. He believes a political solution can be reached, which means supporting the rebellion enough to increase pressure on Assad to deal, but which aims to keep the “institutions” of the Syrian State. Sadly by the spring of 2013, those “institutions”—the “expansive system of personal relationships and patronage”—had “already failed“: the regime had heightened sectarianism too far, and the State would now fall with the regime. The possibility that regime-change is part of a political solution seems not to be on the President’s mind.
There are some direct things that can be done by the U.S. If it could kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi it would make a real difference after this Caliphate declaration. As was once said of Hizballah after it claimed a “divine victory” in the war it started with Israel, “They can’t have a super divine victory next, followed by a super-duper divine victory.” Mutatis mutandis, you can’t declare the restoration of the Caliphate every-other week, and to lose the Caliph after a fortnight would be a real blow to morale. I see no reason why the terror-sieges that the regime is using to starve the population into submission can’t be broken with limited air strikes. And there are forces inside Syria that should be supplied with weaponry. Beyond that, support for the Iraqi Kurds to ensure their enclave does not fall and as much pressure as possible to get rid of Nouri al-Maliki so a government can be put together in Iraq that is inclusive enough of the Sunni Arabs that they see it as in their interests to fight for Baghdad against the Islamic State, which will weaken I.S. in Syria too.
The time has just run out. President Obama tried to ignore this for three-and-a-half years and now it is decision time. Either he throws the full weight of the United States behind a regime-change policy—specifically the creation of a moderate insurgent army that can destroy the regime and restore order in Syria, which will include going to war with the takfiris, and ensures that at all costs Aleppo City does not fall—or the decision will be made for him on the ground by an Iranian theocracy and Russian autocracy that are all-in in Syria. Tehran saved the regime in 2013 by flooding in its military and intelligence assets, weapons, oil, and Khomeini’ist jihadists, and now it seems to have marshalled enough force to retake the crucial western corridor of Syria where most of the population lives. If it is not countered now it will be too late, and a movement that began in peace and called out for our help will fall to our worst enemies.