POST: SHIFTING ALLIANCES

When the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 broke out into civil war between Government forces and the ‘rebels’, the United States, Britain an other European countries came out in support of the opposition groups in their struggle to topple President Bashar al Assad. It quickly became apparent that the ‘rebels’ were made up of disparate groups, each with its own agenda.

As predicted by President Assad, foreign Jihadists linked to Al Qaeda also moved into the power vacuum and added to the growing anarchy across the country. Consequently, although the West spoke of supporting ‘moderate’ groups, it has always been unclear exactly who these groups might be.

The situation was made even more complicated when the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crossed over from Iraq into Syria and by July 2014 controlled large parts of Northern Syria including oil and gas facilities.

When scenes of American and British citizens being beheaded flashed across our TV screens the West shifted its focus from toppling President Assad to the destruction of the new enemy, ISIL. But where does this leave the ‘moderate’ rebels who were relying on help from the West?

It leaves them in a very bad place. Many have become disillusioned and have joined either Jabhat Al Nusra, a Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, or they have joined ISIL. Others feel totally abandoned by the West and thousands have fled across the borders into Lebanon and Turkey to face another winter of misery.

In the meantime the Assad Government is now fighting on two fronts. It is retaking ground from the opposition groups while at the same time fighting ISIL. The United States and some Arab countries are bombing ISIL targets in both Iraq and Syria, but without partners on the ground it is difficult to know what is being achieved.

Everyone knows that bombing alone will not defeat ISIL. No matter how well organized or well equipped, ISIL is not an army belonging to a state even though it may claim to be. It is something far more dangerous. As with Al Qaeda, it is an ideology that cuts across all national boundaries and infiltrates all ethnic groups. It is an ideology that feeds into the grand narrative of Islamic history and sectarian conflict.

Syria’s Muslim neighbours understand this narrative very well and are therefore better equipped to deal with the situation. It is also in the interests of these regional powers to work towards a solution. Behind the scenes Iran has been doing just that. Among other things it is training Iraqi Government forces in the fight against ISIL.

There are now signs that Iran’s contribution towards defeating ISIL is being recognized by the West. Since ISIL is the declared common enemy, an obvious way forward would be for Assad’s Government and Iran to join forces against ISIL with support from the West.

But of course a Western alliance with President Assad and Iran is unthinkable for many. It would also upset Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States who are both enemies of Iran and it would upset Turkey who wants to see President Assad deposed. But as unpalatable and unthinkable as this may be, it could be the only way forward. New situations require new alliances.