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ICG’s Noah Bonsey: ‘This is not a war that the rest of the world can safely allow to play itself out’

Now in its fifth year, with no serious efforts underway […]

14 May 2015

Now in its fifth year, with no serious efforts underway to end it, barrel bombs fall from the Syrian sky, encircled towns face starvation, and from what we hear, each day this war continues is worse than the one before it.

As we write this introduction, the Islamic State is at most 1.5km away from Palmyra’s Roman-era ruins. It is the latest in a war destroying every aspect of Syria – its culture, history, economy, its people and, at this rate, its future.

The short-term trajectory looks like more of the same. It would not be accurate to call this war at a stalemate; there is in fact movement, as civilians pay the price for each meter of turf lost or gained, for each bullet, shell, missile and suicide bomb.

How can this ever end?

Internal actors are too invested in the conflict, says Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group and one of the authors of its recent report called “Statement on a Syrian Policy Framework.” The report’s authors conclude that “the conflict’s Syria protagonists…are incapable of military victory.”

The ICG, somewhat bravely in a desolate Syrian landscape, lays out a detailed solution to end the war during a time that all parties involved sink deeper into the quagmire. “Such a resolution would entail the regime’s backers accepting an end to Assad rule,” Bonsey says, in exchange for addressing their regional concerns.

“External actors wary of the difficult choices should bear in mind not only how terrible this war has become, but also the destabilizing potential of its continuation,” the report states.

“Recent dynamics on the ground should provide a reality check to the regime and its backers regarding the long-term costs of the status quo and the impossibility of resolving this militarily,” Bonsey tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie.

Q: Why did you decide to come up with this solution now? For the past six months, it seems like all the stories are about violence and fighting for a few meters of turf or a building. I feel like we’re all sinking deeper and don’t know where the bottom is. What prompted you and the ICG to come up with a solution now?

We felt as an organization that it was important for us to say a bit more directly how we see the most realistic path to a resolution.

We saw it as valuable to identify the bottom lines of what such a resolution would look like and provide a framework identifying steps to get there. For us, the logical place to begin is the geo-political dynamics because the parties on the ground are too invested in the status quo for us to realistically expect initiatives toward a solution to come from them.

The statement’s release perhaps comes at a useful moment for us to be having a discussion about the geo-political bottom lines, because recent dynamics on the ground should provide a reality check to the regime and its backers regarding the long-term costs of the status quo and the impossibility of resolving this militarily. They demonstrated misplaced confidence over the last year that the status quo would lead to the military defeat of the non-jihadi opposition, and/or the capitulation of the opposition’s backers. I think now it should be pretty clear that is not the case.

We’ve seen both sides alternate from despair to hubris rather quickly in this conflict. At the moment, momentum on the ground may push the opposition in that direction. But I think among the opposition’s state backers there is a more realistic sense that a political resolution is ultimately necessary.

Q: So in trying to get parties to look at the bottom line, it seems like all of those invested, regional parties and internal parties, feel like time is on their side and that maybe they can wait out the others. Who would you say can most afford to let this play itself out?

I’d say time is most on the side of ISIS and Jabhat a-Nusra. Obviously the war has a radicalizing power that has really taken hold on both sides of the conflict, and this works to the detriment of groups on the moderate end of the rebel spectrum. Their state backers have thus far proven ineffective in coordinating support to compensate for this disadvantage.  

Q: I think your argument about Iran looking at the bottom line and seeing itself getting more mired and entangled in this war is valid, and we regularly hear from Syrians on the ground that the IRGC are running particular battles or particular sectors of Syria, for example in Hama. What if Iran wants to continue its involvement in Syria? What if Iran has an interest in this continuing, and they’re willing to pay the price to entrench itself in Syria as in Iraq?

Syria is much different from Iraq. The long-term prospects for Iran maintaining the kind of influence that it enjoyed in Syria prior to the war are poor; it would require such a high level of Iranian investment on the ground that it’s not a realistic goal, it’s not sustainable.

The unconditional, ever-increasing military, political and economic support that Iran has provided to the regime has done incalculable damage to Iran’s reputation among a huge proportion of Syrians and Sunni Arabs in the region. Iran will not be accepted as a dominant force in most of Syria, nor will military means enable Iran to impose itself as one in any sustainable fashion.

Iran presumably will not accept the costs of becoming an occupying power in major chunks of Syria, but that’s what would be required in the long run to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s control over strategically relevant parts of the country. What we hope is that the Iranians will sooner or later come to appreciate this: that the cost to them of maintaining Assad’s rule is quite high, and only going to rise.

Q: Are you convinced that there can be a negotiation for a full, whole, and contiguous Syria? Or is it too late for Syria as we knew it; are we just talking about negotiating certain parts of it and not Al-Hasakeh, Deir e-Zor and A-Raqqa for example?

At the moment Deir e-Zor and A-Raqqa are pretty firmly under the control of ISIS, and ISIS is not going to be a party to any of these negotiations. But among most of the leading Syrian parties, within both the opposition and regime, there is agreement on the principle of Syria’s territorial integrity. Of course, each side hopes to dominate a united Syria, and currently prefers war to submitting to its adversary’s hegemony.

Our statement urges state backers on both sides to recognize that the human, political, economic and security costs of continuing the war are unsustainable, and that their interests are best served through pressuring their Syrian partners toward a political resolution—rather than continuing to invest in military strategies that will not lead to an actual victory in the war.  

Such a resolution would entail the regime’s backers accepting an end to Assad rule, and the opposition’s backers recognizing that Iran’s influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated on the Syrian battlefield.

We suggest in our statement that a post-war Syria be independent of any regional axis—it is unrealistic for Iran to expect that it can keep Syria in its resistance axis, but the opposition and its backers lack the means to assert control over the entire country. A territorially united, non-aligned Syria would prove better for the interests of all state backers than continued war, worsening radicalization, and further fracturing of the country. 

Q: What if the parties internally involved in this war want a united Syria in theory but in practice realize it’s not going to happen and are content to carve out their own areas and remain in them. Jabhat a-Nusra will remain in Idlib, and the regime’s going to stay along the coast. What if that’s enough for them?

There’s the risk of that but hopefully the external backers on either side can exert pressure through carrots and sticks to push for a meaningful political resolution that would maintain the integrity of the Syrian state.

I think one dynamic that can potentially help in that regard is some degree of de-centralization; enabling communities, whether at the provincial level or otherwise, to play a lead role in protecting themselves, governing themselves. There would need to be security guarantees provided by external backers to deal with some of the trust issues that will exist, but the hope is that there are potential compromises that would enable communities on either side of Syria’s divide to feel that their future within Syria, and within Syrian governance, was secured.

Q: The ICG policy statement looks at the role of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) as a player inside Syria, recommending using the moderate opposition to either bring Nusra into the fold, or to distance themselves from Nusra. I just see Nusra as too powerful, particularly in the northwest of Syria. How does that work, to bolster the moderates, and not have Jabhat a-Nusra target them and kill them like they did with Harakat Hazm?

It’s important for us to recognize that there is a degree of heterogeneity within Jabhat al-Nusra, even among its leaders. Nusra commanders in various regions have pursued distinct strategies on the ground, including with regard to major questions such as whether to cooperate with ISIS, ignore it or confront it. Some of these differences within Nusra leadership have been voiced publicly.

So there are areas of disagreement even among Nusra’s leadership. If you go down a level or two, to mid-level commanders, and particularly to rank-and-file fighters, the degree of heterogeneity appears to increase. By most accounts, a large share of Nusra’s fighters are Syrians who have joined for reasons that are not primarily ideological. This heterogeneity presents an opportunity for mainstream opposition groups and their backers.

The armed rebellion in Syria depends upon supply and logistical support from the opposition’s state backers. This means that these backers enjoy significant leverage over armed groups; thus far, however, haphazard strategy and poor coordination among them has prevented these states from utilizing that leverage in any coherent fashion.  

Were these backers finally to coordinate effectively and combine their leverage, there is the potential to gradually isolate elements of Nusra who are committed to the group’s transnational jihadi agenda from rebels who are fighting for Syrian goals and do not embrace al-Qaeda’s salafi-jihadi worldview.

Together, the opposition’s state backers should aim to drive a wedge between Syrian revolutionaries on one side and trans-national jihadis on the other. I think that such a wedge ultimately would go right through Nusra.

Driving this wedge entails applying a coordinated, coherent set of incentives—providing material support is one key carrot, withholding it is a useful stick. State backers could reward armed groups that demonstrate willingness to engage in a meaningful political process; that embrace the principle of pluralism; that respect and protect independent civil society.

Ultimately, the wedge strategy would aim to compel Syrian rebels to choose between significant external support and a role in Syria’s pluralistic political future on one hand, and continued coordination with transnational jihadi groups on the other. It will take time to get to that point, however.

Jabhat al-Nusra can perhaps be thought of as the rebellion’s air force, with its willingness to conduct suicide attacks that help rebels compensate for the imbalance in firepower.

Mainstream rebels aren’t going to forego that kind of support unless they have the means to perform effectively without it.

Q: I have to crowbar in a question here about airstrikes. They weren’t really in the ICG report–are they not having any sort of tangible impact that you can tell? Do you want to comment at all on the airstrikes?

You mean the coalition airstrikes?

Q: Yes. The ICG policy statement reads: “US-led airstrikes have helped drive the IS from some Kurdish areas east of Aleppo, but have not fundamentally weakened its hold on eastern Syria, nor have they prevented it from gaining ground elsewhere.” Can you expand on that?

The bottom line is that these airstrikes are not getting at the root of the issue. Airstrikes alone do not fundamentally undermine the pillars of ISIS power in eastern Syria. They have been successful to a degree in helping forces on the ground limit ISIS’s advance, especially within and adjacent to Kurdish areas where the PYD is quite powerful. And of course cooperation between the PYD and some local rebels has helped in that effort. But this is not a formula to defeat ISIS.

It’s not even really a formula to fundamentally degrade it. To really begin to erode ISIS’s hold on eastern Syria and to prevent it from gaining additional recruits there and elsewhere, you have to begin addressing some of the root drivers of radicalization in Syria and the war itself, including the collective punishment tactics that are a huge component of the regime’s military strategy.

Doing so requires a real strategy to empower credible, local, mainstream Sunni actors on the ground and to create the conditions necessary for a political resolution to end the war. Such a resolution must include an end to Assad rule in Damascus—so long as that rule continues, few on the opposition side will drop their arms and jihadi groups will continue to enjoy ideal conditions for recruitment.

In the absence of such a strategy, the US-led coalition is not going to be able to fundamentally change the math on the ground that works to jihadis’ advantage. By that, what I mean is simply engaging ISIS with airstrikes and helping Kurdish militias fight it here, and Iraqi militias of various stripes fight it there, does not appear to be eliminating more ISIS members than it is creating.

Indeed, some of the tools being used to fight the group are also recruiting assets for ISIS, which continues to attract new members (foreign and local) at a rate that enables it to maintain control over most of its core areas and even to gain ground in some cases where its adversaries’ hold is weak.

So there needs to be a strategy to deal with the broader conflicts in Iraq and Syria, rather than focusing exclusively on ISIS, whose success is a symptom (albeit a very dangerous symptom) of those conflicts.

Q: I want to conclude with giving people who haven’t read the report yet a snapshot of what the stakes are here. Can you give a quick summary of what is at stake, where we are, and why this is so important to get to a resolution?

There is first and foremost the human toll. The absolutely devastating and continuing toll that this is taking on human lives: in terms of direct casualties, in terms of the displacement of millions of Syrians within their country and outside it; in terms of the sheer level of destruction both to the country’s urban fabric, with whole cities being destroyed, and to its social fabric, i.e., the bonds that hold the society together.

The scale of destruction and the rates of displacement and casualties are devastating in and of themselves. Add to that the threats posed by continuing radicalization on both sides of the conflict, and indeed on both sides of the region’s geopolitical and sectarian divides—including the rise of jihadis, Sunni and Shiite alike.

All of this is also linked of course to the problem of desperate migration, which is of growing concern in Europe. This is a conflict that has clearly demonstrated that it cannot be contained within Syrian borders; it has not been thus far, and it will continue to spill over in ways that are likely to worsen. This is not a war that the rest of the world can safely allow to play itself out. 

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