Why Tackling Islamic State Won't Mean an End to the Syrian War

  • Too many protagonists in conflict with separate agendas
  • Deal Hinges on Assad cooperating in process that ends his rule

The Islamic State attacks in Paris have accelerated international efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria that helped spawn the extremist group’s rise. Yet after more than four and a half years, the obstacles remain the same.

A deal among 17 nations in Vienna on Nov. 14 offered a time line for Syrian opposition groups to help draft a constitution and elect a new government by 2017. The agreement, which included Iran and Russia, means that a cease-fire is obtainable within weeks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a few days later.

John Kerry, Staffan de Mistura and Sergei Lavrov address the media after the meeting in Vienna

Photographer: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

But with so many protagonists, conflicting military strategies and the ever-present sectarian divide within Syria, that optimism seems premature. The biggest sticking point remains the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Further, the cease-fire wouldn’t apply to efforts to defeat Islamic State, Nusra Front insurgents or other groups still to be identified as terrorists.

"There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on here,” Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “Hope is nice, but when it’s not based on much evidence on the ground, you have to wonder.”

Why is the Syrian crisis so hard to resolve?

The conflict began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad and evolved into a civil war that has sucked in world powers, most recently France as it retaliates against the massacre in Paris by bombing Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa. Some share broad objectives in the country while others, like regional rivals Iran and Saudis Arabia, have conflicting interests.

French naval tecnicians work on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle

Photographer: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Iran is mostly Shiite and supports Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of that side of the Muslim divide. Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia supports groups seeking to bring him down. Their sectarian competition to dominate the region is feeding the Syrian war and complicating efforts to end it.

“It’s often the case that in the wake of a major event, particularly a major tragedy, there is room to start talking about things and get past all the posturing,” Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department official under Obama and now director of Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. “That opportunity doesn’t last long. The parties have been so entrenched for so long I don’t think there are any smart bets on movement.”

Do Russia and the U.S. now agree?

Russia took the U.S. by surprise in late September by sending in its warplanes to support Assad by attacking Islamic State and other groups it called terrorists. The move by President Vladimir Putin prompted his American counterpart Barack Obama to reassess his strategy of how to aid the coalition forces fighting Assad.

The two presidents huddled at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey this week to discuss Syria, with Putin declaring that powers were now “beginning to understand that we can only fight effectively together.” 

While Obama said Russia has been a “constructive partner” during talks in Vienna, he later dented Russia’s optimism that a deal is near with the U.S. and France to coordinate the fight against Islamic State. Obama has complained that the targets for Russian airstrikes have included groups supported by the U.S., and he said Putin’s efforts were still “directed at propping up the Assad regime.”

What are the weaknesses of the Vienna deal?

The agreement leaves significant issues hanging, including a decision on which of the hundreds of opposition groups will be included in the political process. The deal doesn’t specify whether the new government will have full executive power, a key demand for those opposed to a role for Assad in the transition.

Success also hinges on whether Assad will commit to a process that could end his regime. The president has always said outside powers have no right to make such a decision and he will listen only to the will of the people. But in the parts of Syria he still rules -- Assad controls about 60 percent of the remaining population and 25 percent of the territory -- a free vote on his fate won’t be possible.

When asked whether he’s ready to leave if it could be the best solution to protect Syria, Assad reiterated in a Nov. 12 interview with French Magazine Valeurs Actuelles that the "constitution will bring the president and the constitution will make him leave, through the parliament, through elections, through a referendum, and so on."

Is it possible to avoid the chaos that ensued in Iraq?

While the U.S. and its European allies have said that Syrian military and government institutions should remain intact after Assad departs, regime change without state collapse is impossible in Syria, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who has lived in Syria.

Assad has filled important institutions, including the military, with loyalists and any new head of state will seek to fire them because they will be seen as disloyal and could seek to overthrow him. "Assad has created the state in his image," said Landis. "The price of a regime change will be chaos."

What’s the best the deal can achieve?

The biggest positive is that it’s the first time there’s been any serious diplomacy around the conflict, said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group.

The plan won’t end the war partly because Islamic State, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and some Islamist groups are excluded. But one outcome might be for the deal to lead to local cease-fires between Assad’s forces and some rebel groups who will then work together to fight Islamic State.

Islamic State can’t be defeated without first ending the major fighting between the government and the rebels, said Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, an advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.

"If the goal is to at least offer the illusion of progress without a substance, then maybe Vienna could be successful," said Hamid "And sometimes that’s really all people are looking for. They want to demonstrate to the world that they’re doing something even if that something isn’t successful or constructive."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.