Visits to Ankara by both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week failed to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step up as a "core" member of a US-led "broad coalition of partners” against the Islamic State (IS), which US President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 10.
While US officials said that Turkey has, finally, begun to crack down on foreign fighters entering Syria, the circumspect response by Erdogan to separate appeals by both Kerry and Hagel can only be characterized as a setback for the rollout of US President Barack Obama’s regional strategy against IS.
The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 13 characterized Turkey as a “non-ally" and cited former US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone as saying last week that Turkey "frankly worked” with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked group.
The spin from Ankara is that Turkish reluctance to be out front is because of an understandable concern about its diplomats held hostage by IS in Mosul, a sign of the blowback from Turkey’s ambiguous approach to foreign fighters in Syria that this column has warned about since January.
And it is more than that. Cengiz Candar writes: “Turkey's stance in the joint struggle against IS is indeed low-profile, but perhaps this is an understatement. If the recent discourse of its decision-makers is scrutinized closely, one may reach the conclusion that the ruling Islamist government of Turkey is more distanced from its NATO allies than from IS.”
Kadri Gursel reports some reservations against fully pursuing IS also stem from an “ideological constraint” present in the leadership of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Gursel writes: “The AKP government and its media have never referred to IS as a terrorist group, calling it a 'radical element.'" This reluctance shows that "IS enjoys a remarkable 'caveat' in the mindset of Turkey’s leadership,” notes Gursel.
Turkey’s "caveat" about IS may contribute to its sinking standing in US Congress. Some members have threatened punitive legislation for Turkey’s support for Hamas, as Julian Pecquet reports. With the United States now waging war on IS, Congress will expect its allies to step up. Those that don’t will likely face enhanced scrutiny of the reasons why any country would hedge in acting against enemies Obama described this week as “unique in their brutality,” and whose “leaders have repeatedly threatened the United States."
Russia’s cards in Syria
Russia, which is providing arms to both Iraq and Syria, argues that conducting airstrikes or military operations inside Syria, without the support of the Syrian government, is a violation of international law.
A consequence of the Russian position is that it could neutralize the UN Security Council in dealing with Syria, meaning US or allied strikes there would have a questionable legal basis.
This would be especially problematic if any US or allied jets were shot down over Syria, a possible contingency if airstrikes take place. In June 2012, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet allegedly in Syrian airspace. Syria’s air defenses are supplied by Russia. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apologized and sought to de-escalate that crisis, some press accounts alleged an even more direct Russian hand.
Moscow has diplomatic cards as well. Moscow might consider its own coalition of like-minded powers, including Iran, to combat IS. And Moscow could sponsor meetings between Damascus and Syrian opposition forces, which it has done in the past, as Vitaly Naumkin writes this week. Syria, Iran, Iraq and China, to name a few, would all be inclined to support such a Russian initiative.
According to Naumkin, Moscow’s perspective, which has been consistent since the beginning of the Syria crisis, is that “Damascus fills the role, in one way or another, of the (albeit unacknowledged) de facto ally of the West and the countries in the region leading the fight against the ultra-Islamist radicals, [which] in Moscow’s view increases the chances for a diplomatic settlement of the Syrian conflict.”
Iran out of US coalition
US Secretary of State John Kerry ruled Iran out of the US coalition, citing the presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria, and referring to Iran as a "state sponsor of terror in various places."
For its part, Iran has expressed its "doubts about the seriousness of the coalition" and is not asking to join.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for African and Arab Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian blamed US and Western policies for the rise of extremism in the region while calling for an international effort to combat extremists.
Iran’s Majles Speaker Ali Larijani warned that US policies would backfire and incite hatred in the region.
Iran has already shown its willingness to join the battle against IS on its own terms — such as in Iraq — and in the end has a decisive role in the future of Syria. Iranian conservatives opposed to cooperation with the United States may get a boost from the US approach to the coalition, as Arash Karami reports.
With Turkey on the fence, and Russia and Iran sitting out, the “broad coalition of partners” for the United States in the Middle East seems tilted toward those Arab governments that are committed to their own long-standing agendas in Syria, including the overthrow of the Assad government.
Obama’s request that America’s Sunni allies “help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria,” while necessary, nonetheless treads closely to casting the battle in the sectarian terms the United States hopes to avoid.
Obama’s turnaround on the Syrian opposition
Obama is counting on "ramped up" military assistance to the Syrian opposition “as the best counterweight to extremists like [IS].”
The president’s investment in the opposition represents a turnaround from his comments in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman just last month:
“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”
While Obama reminded Americans that “additional US action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government," the United States will take a different approach in Syria, rejecting cooperation with Damascus and instead relying on a nonstate armed group to be the “boots on the ground” in the battle against IS.
It is worth pausing to consider this decision to rule the "moderate" Syrian rebel forces as the "best" counterweight to IS, given Obama’s position just last month, and taking into account the experiences of Libya and Iraq.
In Libya, the state has collapsed following a NATO-backed insurgency that toppled Moammar Gadhafi.
In Iraq, over 140,000 US ground troops could not prevent a sectarian civil war after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, probably the most bloody years in the modern history of the country.
There should be questions about the effectiveness of "train and equip" after 10 years of rebuilding the Iraqi military, which initially collapsed against the advance of IS in June.
Nonetheless, the president is investing heavily to "train and equip" a Syrian rebel force, about which Obama told Friedman on Aug. 8, “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”
Obama also said the United States would pursue “the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.” With more subtle and creative diplomacy, perhaps Washington can leverage the IS threat toward a political transition in Syria.
On the ground in Syria, the UN is helping facilitate 40 local truces between regime and rebel forces.
One option could be to capitalize on these negotiations to broker alliances between government and opposition forces. This could serve the US objectives of forging a Syrian alliance to defeat IS and building goodwill toward a political transition. Such an effort would require Russia and Iran to use their leverage with Damascus.
The urgency of the Syria crisis grows by the day. The newly appointed UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met on Sept. 11 with Assad in Damascus. De Mistura described the situation in Syria as "shocking," including a tally so far of 190,000 dead, 3 million refugees and 9 million displaced.
And then there is the plight of Syria’s Christians. Peggy Noonan writes this week in the Wall Street Journal of the "genocide" of the region’s Christians, noting that “for all his crimes and failings, Syria's justly maligned Assad was not attempting to crush his country's Christians. His enemies were — the jihadists, including those who became the Islamic State.”
Al-Monitor goes long
Al-Monitor published its first piece of long-form journalism this week with Mohannad Sabry’s article on Egypt’s new protest law. Utilizing interactive elements and an in-depth look at court records, Sabry builds a case that the Egyptian government has turned against the revolutionaries that brought it to power.