To Defeat ISIS, Save Syria: ISIS Is An Effect, Syria Is The Cause - In Other Words, It's Syria, Stupid!
02 November 2014
By Amir Taheri
Given the media's focus on the Islamic State of Iraq
and Syria (ISIS), some "experts" claim that the crisis
in Syria, now heading into its fourth year, has become
a sideshow. The truth, however, is that Syria remains
at the center of the crisis shaking the political
architecture of the Middle East. Unless Western
democracies and regional allies develop a policy on
Syria, hopes of a return to even a semblance of
stability will remain forlorn.
ISIS is an effect, Syria is the cause.
Even from a narrow military perspective, the war
against ISIS makes little sense outside the broader
context of the Syrian quagmire. The reason is simple:
Either directly or in conjunction with jihadist
allies, ISIS has taken control of some 40 percent of
Syrian territory, starting from Al-Bukamal in the
south, on the border with Iraq, to the Syrian–Turkish
border passing by Mayadin, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and
Manbij. If Kobani falls, ISIS will secure a band of
contiguous territory between Aleppo, Syria's most
populous city, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Unlike other jihadist groups, for example Al-Qaeda,
ISIS is trying to morph into a state with its own
territory. Thus, defeating it can only mean driving it
out of territories it controls. In military terms,
this is expressed through the mantra of the "3 Cs":
capture, cleanse, control.
At some point, someone, maybe the Iraqi army, Kurdish
forces, the Turkish army, or even US and allied
troops, would have to capture territory seized by
ISIS. They would then proceed to cleanse it of any
But what do they do once they reach the third "C":
control? Such control cannot be handed over to other
jihadist groups. Even those that are not as nasty as
ISIS would still be bad news for the people living in
the areas affected.
It would also be impossible to let ethnic Kurds seize
control since that could mean the emergence of a
statelet controlled by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)
right on Turkey's border, something no government in
Ankara would tolerate.
The other option, handing territories back to what is
left of Bashar Al-Assad's regime, could be even more
Today, Assad controls about 40 percent of Syria's
territory, including Damascus and parts of its
environs plus the coastline, with around 50 percent of
the country's pre-war population. A further 20 percent
is controlled by forces opposed to Assad while almost
a quarter of the population is now displaced in
neighboring countries or inside Syria itself.
Some in Washington and Israel suggest a deal with
Assad to help him re-impose control in territories
recaptured from ISIS. The trouble is that it is
unlikely those who have shaken off Assad's yoke would
want to resubmit to it. More importantly, Assad no
longer has the wherewithal to re-impose effective
control over the entire country.
Right now, no one has the coercive clout or the
persuasive appeal to claim effective power in Syria.
Whichever of the participants in this deadly game
comes on top, for whatever reason, is sure to be
challenged by others.
Some experts suggest that Syria is a dead state with
no hope of Lazarus-like resuscitation. The argument is
that Syria, like other states in the Levant, were put
on the map by Western "imperialists" and do not
reflect the ethnic, religious and ideological
diversity of a complex region. A decade ago, Joe Biden,
now US vice-president, suggested that Iraq be carved
into three states. Today, his buddies fly a similar
kite about Syria.
It is true that a war is best fought on the basis of
accomplishing immediate goals with focus kept on the
defeat and destruction of the enemy. However, war is
only useful if it changes an intolerable status quo by
creating a new one in the interests of the victors.
Prudent warriors, while not distracted by
"what-happens-afterwards" concerns, nevertheless, give
some thought to the possible shape of a post-war
balance of power. Today, none of the options being
discussed is likely to prove helpful.
You can't leave ISIS in control, or hand power to
"ISIS-lite" groups either. Replacing a jihadist regime
with a Marxist–Leninist one under the PKK would be a
surrealistic jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Inviting the genocidal Assad to regain control is
indecent, to say the least.
The idea of carving up Syria, and for that matter
other states of the region, is one underpinned by
cynicism, and the entrenched belief in some Western
quarters that Arabs are incapable of governing
themselves without violence and terror. To suggest
that Syria is an artificial state is to say nothing,
if only because every state under the sun is
artificial, starting with the United States and
Russia, and passing by Australia and India. No
nation-state simply fell from the heavens
The only realistic option is to envisage the revival
of the Syrian state in a new context. One way would be
to create UN-supervised "safe havens" adjacent to the
borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That
could provide a basis from which to promote a national
dialogue aimed at power-sharing with the goal of
restoring the Syrian state. Those in the Assad camp
who still believe in a united Syria would be invited
to attend. The permanent members of the UN Security
Council would act as brokers for a national
It is only as a war to liberate Syria and restore its
status as a nation-state that the campaign against
ISIS might make sense.
Without solving the Syrian problem, no amount of
bombing, or even a ground invasion, would bring the
Middle East back from the edge of disaster.
In other words, it's Syria, stupid!
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz,
southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and
Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle
East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he
served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and
2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald
Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal,
the New York Post, the New York Times, the London
Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale,
and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been
translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist
for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in
London and New York.