The military campaign against Islamic State is being reduced to a vicious sideshow as the Syrian civil war enters a new make-or-break phase. Russian military involvement has been a game-changer – saving Bashar al-Assad’s forces from near collapse, blatantly attacking western-backed opposition forces, and supplying T-90 tanks to Assad’s army closing in on Aleppo. For the western allies, time is running out. The agenda is being shaped by Russia, Assad and Iran, which have formed a de facto alliance to maintain the old Syria and – despite the supposed ceasefire agreed by the big powers in Munich last Friday – are not dissuaded by the death and destruction involved.
The Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimates that Syrian war deaths are now more than 400,000. Over half Syria’s 22 million citizens are internal or international refugees. The civil war, not the Isis phenomenon, is responsible for about 90% of these deaths and displacements, and the attacks of Assad forces are believed to be responsible for over three-quarters of them. Today came news of air strikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital that the organisation blamed on Syrian government or Russian forces.
The accord in Munich was to impose a “cessation of hostilities” on the warring parties within a week. The Russians warned darkly that a third world war would be inevitable if nothing was done. The Saudis warned, less credibly, that they were ready to intervene on the ground in Syria.
But in reality the Russians think they need just a few more weeks to wipe out the anti-Assad opposition, and the ceasefire they urge cannot take effect soon enough to prevent that. The Saudis, more concerned with their failing war in Yemen, know they cannot tip the balance against the Russia-Assad-Iran axis. The US, the Europeans and the UN can only hope that they can this week firm up ceasefire arrangements – at least to create a process that might help them navigate out of the mess. The trick will be to convince the Russians that they have more to gain from an immediate ceasefire than plunging forward.
The alternative would be to accept that Assad and his backers in Moscow and Tehran will emerge as winners from this civil war – and then deal with Isis in Syria, while western forces crush the movement in Iraq and elsewhere. But this would be paying a high political price. Western policy across the Middle East, and elsewhere, would be severely undermined, and an Assad victory would be unlikely to bring even a sullen peace to Syria.
Britain’s involvement in the region to counter the Isis phenomenon in 2014 was understandable and not necessarily wrong. David Cameron is right to say the campaign against Isis is making progress.
For all its barbaric videos and apocalyptic boasting the group is under pressure. There have been no easy victories since it moved into undefended Palmyra in May last year. It is losing ground to Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. The battle of Mosul, the centre of Isis in Iraq, is not far away. It is being dislodged from its siege of Deir ez-Zor in Syria, and Kurdish forces are moving closer to the Isis “capital” in Raqqa. The economic infrastructure that Isis has created is being dismantled: last month the group halved the salaries of its mujahideen, and it is becoming paranoid about spies and traitors.
But none of this means that Isis will be decisively beaten any time soon. Until someone other than badly supplied Kurdish forces is prepared to go toe-to-toe against Isis fighters, the group will retain control over some territory, people, hostages and slaves, alongside grudging, residual loyalty from Sunnis in the region.
Even if Isis is being contained by western military action and undermined by its own weaknesses, we are now faced by some stark realities.
First, Isis is not the crisis. It is a symptom of a civil war within Islam in the Middle East, between Shias and Sunnis, and between mainstream and extremist Sunni sympathies.
Second, the conflict of which Isis is only a symptom is the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance. It may be defined by religion, but this struggle is essentially about the unstoppable political ambitions of the two most significant regional powers.
Third, Barack Obama’s uncertain international leadership and the reappearance of Russia as a big player in the region has made it, once again, an arena for proxy wars. The Russians genuinely fear the contagion of Middle Eastern terrorism within their own Muslim communities and would rather have nasty governments than nasty non-state groups to deal with. The US genuinely fears that its ability to stabilise the region and maintain its credibility with regional allies the world over will be fatally weakened if it walks away.
As a junior partner to the US, Britain can live with the containment of Isis and deal with the terrorist challenges as they arise. But an uncontrolled flow of refugees into Europe is a different problem, as is the humanitarian crisis. Britain could make common political cause with Germany to push for a more coherent EU approach on refugees, while pressing its partners in the Gulf to do far, far more.
Militarily, the Saudi threat issued at Munich has to be made credible. If a ceasefire does not materialise soon, the Russians, Iranians and Assad himself have no incentives to quit while they are ahead. Only the possibility of Arab ground forces, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, heavily backed by western logistics and intelligence, air power and technical specialists, could force Assad and his backers to make a strategic choice in favour of cessation. Only the US could make that work for the Saudis and others – and only Britain could bring along other significant European allies.
This would undoubtedly be a dangerous escalation of the conflict. But in the absence of a genuine ceasefire, the conflict is destined to escalate in any case as Russian forces and Iranian militias put a vengeful Assad back in control of a broken country. If that has the eventual effect of letting him deal with Isis in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor it will leave the west with much bigger strategic problems across the region as a whole. Fifteen years ago these would not have seemed such difficult choices. But after Iraq and Afghanistan they look like dismal options.
The west can choose a dangerous push for a settlement now, or a tepid continuation of a policy that promises a longer war and strategic failure in the region – while hundreds of thousands of desperate people wait at Europe’s doorstep.
Michael Clarke is the director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.