The Syrian civil war is now in its third year and continues unabated. A battlefield resolution remains unlikely: the imminent capture of Aleppo by the regime is being offset by rapid advances of the Islamic State in eastern Syria – taking in the city of Deir-ez-Zour, major oilfields, and nearly all strongpoints on the Euphrates river. Most prognoses suggest the Syrian Army and its paramilitary handmaidens will soon have to face off the followers of Caliph Al-Baghdadi.
Before these recent events, the Syrian civil war unexpectedly – but devastatingly – spilled over eastwards and triggered a potentially much larger and longer civil war in Iraq, one that pitted different sectarian groups against each other straight from the outset. The longer these conflicts continue and interact, the higher the risks of further radicalization, conflagration, and break-up.
It is by no means fanciful to imagine how intensification of the recent fighting in Arsal could extend the conflict to Lebanon. Hezbollah’s role in Syria, combined with increasing radicalism, might in fact invite Lebanese Sunni retribution, of which Hezbollah’s constituency is so afraid. This would bring Israeli and thus US intervention one step closer. It does not take a leap of imagination to move from Hezbollah and Lebanon to Hamas and Gaza, where Israel has just matched regional standards of brutality previously seen in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq by killing hundreds of civilians. Once the Syrian-Iraqi civil wars connect with sympathies and support for Hamas, Israel will face its first serious predicament since 1973.
Alternatively, extension of the conflict to Jordan from either Syria or Iraq will pretty much have the same effect. This could happen through further Islamic State territorial advances, creation of cells associated with it, or by linking up with radical splinter groups in the West Bank. While such a development is less likely, it is not impossible given East Bank citizen’s discontent with Jordan’s problematic governance and the country’s general difficult economic situation. Needless to add, this would put both Saudi Arabia and Israel directly on the frontline as well.
Of course, none of this may come to pass. Yet, the duration and radicalization of the fighting, significant weaknesses in both the Jordanian and Lebanese states, a broader context of Iranian-Saudi rivalry, and a radicalizing Sunni-Shia divide that is easily instrumentalized, make it a scenario that cannot be discounted. It suggests that the question is not whether the West should intervene, but how it should intervene. After all, the Levant is geographically close, the West is a legitimate and deliberate target for some combatant groups, the region is an important source of energy, and both the security of a NATO ally (Turkey) and significant trade benefits are at stake. This not one of the Congo wars that can be cynically ignored in realist fashion while continuing to provide humanitarian aid an use its minerals for industrial production.
Messrs. Cameron and Obama have already morphed “no military intervention” into “no boots on the ground,” and this may yet turn into “a limited engagement with a rapid exit.” When did we hear that last? Yet, in all fairness, the sight of Western ground forces in the Levant remains very unlikely in the short- to medium-term. Should they appear, it will be a clear recognition of complete policy failure. However, in the meantime, the question is what overdue action Western governments can sensibly take to achieve the limited aims of reducing the bloodshed and limiting further conflict escalation.
Three observations should guide action. First, both civil wars are to a large extent driven by exclusive governance and selective distributive politics that have alienated and disenfranchised large parts of the Syrian and Iraqi populations. In consequence, interventions must address these factors even though the security imperative of arresting a violent and unstable situation has grabbed the headlines, with an almost complete focus on the Islamic State. This organization, however, was probably more a product of past policies and events than a cause of the current conflicts.
Second, both civil wars are perpetuated by strong external forces that are mostly regional in nature. Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq provide military support to the regime in Syria, while Turkey, the US and the Gulf countries help to prop up a range of opposition groups. In the case of Iraq, Iran has long supported its Shia groups and militias, including Al-Maliki, while the US have tolerated the latter, instrumentally supported Iraq’s Sunni tribes during the Awakening and, more enthusiastically, the Kurds. All of this suggests interventions must be regionally grounded and initiated, especially in light of America’s discredited reputation in the region. Preferably, it should also tap into the soul-searching one can currently witness in the Arab media on how its rich culture and proud religion can give rise to an abomination like the Islamic State.
Third, while there is little doubt that many foreigners have joined the Islamic State for ideological reasons, increasing numbers of its local rank and file seem to join it for practical reasons, such as economic and physical survival. Its wealth (and corresponding modest salary payments) and battlefield success encourage recruitment while its ruthlessness and intolerance for opposition discourage neutrality. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” is proving to be an effective recruitment strategy. In short, interventions need to include a focus on reducing the social support base for the Islamic State and other radical groups.
This analysis suggests two major areas where Western countries can usefully “intervene.” To start, they should marshal their diplomatic resources to help broker an Iranian-Saudi regional deal. This will take time and hence requires a discrete, long-term effort through a mutually acceptable mediator such as Oman, strong public endorsement from each head of state, and, finally, a process that combines informal and official confidence building measures and exploration of the contours of a regional deal. While one objective would be to reduce the flow of weapons and funds to the Assad regime and opposition forces, its real prize is a reduction in the level of strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia – including the latter’s sponsorship of ultraconservative forms of the Islam that are only a breath away from the radicalism fuelling the current conflicts. Recent statements by the country´s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, are a good start, but he represents only the pinnacle of the clerical hierarchy.
In the meantime, Western countries should bring much greater resources to bear on containing the conflict. First, the humanitarian situation is catastrophic not just in terms of human suffering but also in terms of creating fertile grounds for recruitment, violence, and crime. The UN’s funding appeals are woefully underfunded. This must change. Second, the governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Iraqi Kurds need more and better diplomatic, economic, and military support. Diplomatic support in the form of pressure to maintain domestic stability and retaining informal links with the Syrian and Iraqi governments as well as opposition forces; economic support in the form of humanitarian aid, greater market access, better investment conditions, and better education opportunities in the West; and military support in the form of advice, training, intelligence, and perhaps equipment. The challenge is to provide the latter in ways that do not play into the hands of radical groups, by aiding factionalized parts of security apparatuses. This is tricky, for example, in the case of Lebanon.
This combination of encouraging regional actors to engage more positively and containment will not reap any fruits in the short-term. The fighting is likely to continue with equal brutality to that displayed to date. Yet, it would seem to be one of the few ways to protect Western interests while also encouraging a more sustainable solution than military suppression to emerge.
Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow in the Conflict Research Unit at Clingendael. This blog post builds on a broader project titled ‘Between Brutality and Fragmentation: Options for addressing the Syrian Civil War.’ You can follow him on Twitter @ErwinVeen.