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Islamic State, Syria, And Western Responsibility

  • David Patrikarakos

Iraqi special forces pose for a photograph in front of an Islamic States drawing inside a building east of Mosul on October 21.

Iraqi special forces pose for a photograph in front of an Islamic States drawing inside a building east of Mosul on October 21.

An Iraqi-led coalition that includes Kurdish and U.S. Special Forces has now begun its campaign to drive the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from its stronghold of Mosul, the group’s second-largest city. Dabiq, the site of what IS suggested would be an apocalyptic battle signaling the end times, and a town central to IS’s ideology, fell just a week earlier -- without even a fight. IS is losing territory everywhere; the "dawla," or "state," that IS has brutally carved out over the past two years, is being torn apart.

But the seemingly inevitable collapse of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate will not spell the group’s demise. Despite its pretensions of statehood, IS has always been a terror group, albeit one that managed to conquer large parts of Syria and Iraq, and like all terrorist organizations, once it is driven from its main urban holdings it will melt away into the villages and the towns and the desert to fight like the insurgency group it has always been.

As IS recedes in Iraq (though for how long and to what extent remains in doubt) and faces increasing pressure in Syria, a broader question naturally arises: What does this mean for the broader conflicts in the two countries that have been raging for longer than IS has been involved in either nation?

And herein lies the problem. Neither Iraq’s internal strife nor Syria’s civil war, both of which IS has exacerbated with its fastidious brutality and sophisticated propaganda, can be solved militarily. In Iraq, Sunni-Shia tensions -- and bloodshed -- will remain, even if IS is finally defeated. In Syria, with Russia and Iran backing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the opposition cannot defeat the regime; meanwhile, Damascus is in no position to win back all the areas it has lost. A bloody stalemate is the only foreseeable future.

Which means that the problems must be solved politically, and solved with the support of fellow Middle East states and the West. The question is: How committed is the West to solving the Syrian crisis?

Diplomatic Wavering Breeds Uncertainty

Recent events are instructive here.

Around three weeks ago, in what was something of a minor scandal, the British authorities confiscated the passport of Syrian anti-Assad activist Zaina Erhaim when she arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport. The Syrian authorities, she was told, had reported it as "stolen." It was only thanks to a second passport that she was able to enter the country.

Arguably, the United Kingdom was, in effect, clamping down on Syrian dissenters; it was doing Assad’s dirty work for him. To make it worse, as Erhaim told RFE/RL in an e-mail, "This has not just happened to me. I know five activists/journalists who discovered that their passports were reported stolen when applying for visas in Turkey. So obviously the regime is publishing the passport numbers of all of those who dare to challenge its crimes and are trying to speak out [against them] in the West."

What makes her situation yet more surreal is that Erhaim is a "Chevening Scholar" -- an award sponsored by the British state for "future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers." She continued: "They [the U.K. government] are technically following the rulebook, despite the fact that what they are dealing with is a war criminal persecuting a journalist. They clearly still consider Assad’s regime as a legitimate government."

The U.K. government's actions might have been made even more shameful by the pro-Assad propaganda that subsequently emerged from them. As Erhaim explained: "They acted as the arm of Assad in helping to silence me and others. Russia state media then wrote about this incident proudly, showing off that the regime they support is still treated as a legitimate government."

Actions like this only serve as evidence to those Syrians fighting Assad on the ground that they are likely to get nothing in the way of any significant help from the West -- that, in fact, the West seeks to keep Assad in power. And the more Syrians who believe this, the more will flock to the ranks of IS or other anti-Western organizations that they see as arguably the most effective force in fighting the regime's brutality.

The more that powers like the United Kingdom and, critically, the United States, are discredited as honest brokers, the less likely the Syrian rebels are to trust them in negotiations to try to reach a political settlement -- the only way to stop the bloodshed. Instead, they see little in the way of significant assistance and much in the way of horror as Russia enters the war, ostensibly to strike at IS but in reality to strike at them and anyone else who threatens their puppet Assad and their naval facility at Tartus.

Meanwhile, Assad's other major backer, Iran, which made a deal over its nuclear program with Washington and other world powers last year, is slowly being integrated back into the international fold, while its proxy Shi'ite militias on the ground in Syria continue to kill their Sunni counterparts.

As far as IS is concerned, it's a perfect storm. Taken together, the propaganda value these various factors yield is enormous and ensure that as it suffers defeat after the defeat on the ground IS will continue to draw yet more Sunni recruits -- left with almost no other choice -- to its black flag.

And in the meantime, the perennial victims in this ever-expanding catastrophe are, of course, the Syrian people.

Erhaim concluded: "This will be my last trip to the West. I have no space whatsoever on my second passport, which is 9 years old and has no more free pages for stamps or visa, and is anyway expiring next year. So I will be joining the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are no ones, residents of nowhere. I will have no papers, no residency, no bank account, no work, and no future. I hope the U.K. government, which gave me the 'Chevening scholarship,' is feeling proud."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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