Boston College Expert: Syria, ISIS
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Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane could be part of an attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and NATO over a possible deal to partner against ISIS, says Boston College Assistant Professor of Political Science Peter Krause, who adds the deal would leave the Turks’ main target, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, in power.
“The Russians care most about maintaining their influence in Syria, which is largely tied to Assad. The Russians—and especially the Iranians—want to keep Assad in power and they see these Arab and Western backed rebels as a larger threat than ISIS, so they’ve been going after them. The Turks shot down the plane in the context of attacks and advances from Assad and the Russians on the Turkmen just over the border in Syria. With the attacks in Paris, the bombings in Beirut against Hezbollah, and the attack against the Russian airliner, ISIS has struck a part of every major coalition in Syria. I don’t think that alone drives them all together against ISIS, but it makes ISIS seem like a much bigger threat than before.
“The lynchpin is what happens to Assad because I think the French, many of its NATO allies, potentially including the U.S., would agree to a deal whereby Assad stays in power for a time, the rebels get some kind of stake in a new government or autonomous control of parts of the country, possible elections at some point in the future, and then all the parties focus for now on the near terms threat of ISIS. The problem is the Turks and the Saudis really don’t like that deal because they see Assad as an Iranian proxy—which is their main concern—and they think that what will happen is ISIS will be weakened or destroyed and then even though there were supposed to be elections and power sharing, the Assad regime will not really give in to that and then they will have lost their leverage.”
“I think this could potentially serve as a wakeup call to both sides in the sense that the United States, NATO and even the Russians don’t think want to risk any type of direct war over Syria,” says Krause, who conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the Middle East. “Even though Putin himself is popular in Russia, the polls that have come out show that a majority of Russians aren’t supportive of this intervention. Certainly after the downing of the commercial plane and now the killing of one of their pilots, this is quickly becoming a costly intervention without a clear end in sight. So in that sense, this can provide additional momentum to making a deal – the first part of the momentum being the ISIS attacks with ISIS as an enhanced, common threat, and the second part being if there isn’t a deal, we’re going to have these types of potential flare-ups which can escalate. In the next few days, I think we’ll see tough rhetoric from all sides and a perception that direct conflict is more likely, but in the not-too-distant-future I think this incident could make a deal to cooperate against ISIS more likely.”
“The Obama administration’s move to insert approximately 50 special forces into Syria signals to allies and enemies alike at the negotiating table in Vienna and on the battlefield in Syria that the U.S. still has an interest in the outcome of the conflict. The force is far too small to make a significant impact militarily, but its political effect may outweigh its size. First, the possibility of hitting U.S. soldiers with air strikes may give the Russians pause about targeting the very rebel groups that U.S. Special Forces will be 'advising.’ Second, the move is a small signal that although the U.S. remains unwilling to commit enough resources for its chosen side to win the war, it retains enough of an interest to avoid losing it. This deployment thus represents a continued U.S. commitment to these Kurdish and Sunni rebel forces, militarily and politically, as the U.S. wants them to play a role in any resolution to the Syrian conflict.
“To the extent this deployment represents a strategy with an end game, it may well be the push for the rebels to hold their ground against ISIS and the Assad regime alike while a compromise is hammered out diplomatically. After all, Assad and the Russians are not going to bargain over something they feel they can simply take. Unfortunately, however, multi-party civil wars like the one in Syria today often endure precisely because of foreign backers doing just enough not to lose, but not committing enough force to win. What happened in Lebanon from 1975 to 1989 is a good example. If this deployment of U.S. forces is to avoid being simply another pointless ante that leads to a longer conflict for the Syrian people and the region, it must be tied to a realistic reassessment of ends and means in Syria, which has been sorely lacking among the U.S. and its allies and enemies alike.”
“Americans see the images of the millions of refugees and the Russians on the battlefield, and so candidates seek a policy that seeks to ‘do more’ and show concern for the humanitarian crisis,” says Boston College Political Science Professor Peter Krause, who has published articles on the effectiveness of terrorism and insurgency, and the U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. “However, the ramifications of such a policy must be clearly understood. Are its supporters ready to shoot down Russian planes that enter the no-fly zone? A failure to do so makes the U.S. look weaker than these supporters think it does today. A commitment to do so risks great power war. Is Syria a core U.S. interest that is worth such a significant risk?”
Krause, who has conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the Middle East, contends the establishment of a no-fly zone would likely prolong the war, bringing with it the probability of further death and destruction, and the possibility of mission creep.
“Is the U.S. willing to escalate further if it loses American lives defending the no-fly zone? What happens when its Arab allies try to pull it deeper into the conflict? America’s greatest foreign policy failures stem from a disconnect between means, will, and ends. The public should be wary of half-measures that ‘do something’ if they are not prepared to do more, and they should be realistic about the low likelihood of defeating ISIS and removing an Assad regime backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with anything less than significant American and allied commitment.”
As the Obama administration looks for a solution that doesn’t include a no-fly zone, Iraq has publicly indicated it would welcome Russian airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside its borders. But Krause says it would be a mistake to allow that to happen.
“The U.S. and its allies should avoid allowing Russia to expand its military strikes into Iraq—or Turkey and Jordan—because it significantly raises the likelihood of a direct regional war involving the Iranians, Saudis, and Iraqis, which is a much bigger problem than the struggle among their proxies in Syria.”
Krause's research and writing focuses on international security, Middle East politics, terrorism and national movements. Krause has conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the Middle East over the past five years and has published articles on the effectiveness of non-state violence, U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, the politics of division within the Palestinian national movement, the war of ideas in the Middle East, and a reassessment of U.S. operations at Tora Bora in 2001.
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