Why do all the powers supposedly arrayed against the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS) seem incapable to date of effectively hitting its strongholds in Syria?
Is it fear of civilian casualties, which are unavoidable in any large-scale military operation? This might indeed be a factor in the case of the United States, France and the UK, which have scrupulous legal rules and militaries that actually care about such things. But this cannot explain the behavior of Russia and the Assad regime which, it should be clear by now, care not a whit for such “modern” and “Western,” not to mention “impractical,” concerns. Indeed, the willingness of both to inflict such casualties, often intentionally, is on display every day and is well-documented.
I do not believe that fear of civilian casualties fully explains Western behavior either. After all, there are quite a few installations where IS maintains a presence that are located outside densely populated areas and that could, I suspect, be targeted with minimal human collateral damage. But striking these installations carries risks and costs far beyond any immediate loss to IS.
So, what is it that lurks behind the near universal decision to avoid bombing these installations and IS strongholds, except on a minimalist basis? The short answer, I suspect, is something quite sinister that is worth airing openly: the Islamic State has a kind of doomsday threat that has all of the intervening powers over a barrel.
The Islamic State, after a long period of quiet preparation, managed to burst dramatically onto the scene in both Syria and Iraq, succeeding within a few short months in establishing and consolidating its hold over major swaths of territory that, in Syria in particular, included all major oil and natural gas infrastructure in the country. It also included a number of key dams, including Sadd Al-Tabqa, Syria’s biggest dam.
This control of key assets gives ISIS a major trump card in its dealing with its enemies, domestic and foreign. Should push come to shove, it has the ability to obliterate these vital assets within days, if not hours, plunging the whole country into darkness, destroying critical agricultural lands, and interrupting water supplies and services, effectively setting the clock back on development in the country by a century. The cost of repairing all this will be astronomical, and Syria simply does not have the requisite resources to cover even a small fraction of it.
Nor can Iran and Russia make up the difference, considering the drain the effort would put on their already struggling economies. No matter what Putin says in order to justify his Syrian adventure to his domestic audience, Russia’s military operations in Syria are not cheap, as so many Russians know, and will not be counterbalanced by increased arms sales. Russia’s attempt to demonstrate its military capabilities in Syria has not been as impressive as its propagandists want us to believe.
More importantly, those capabilities are simply a means to an end, and whether the ultimate end is bolstering the Assad regime, defeating IS, or both, Russia is not only far from achieving its goals, it will never achieve it. Whether Putin realizes this or not, whether he has drunk his own Kool-Aid, is a separate question.
As for Iran, even the cash inflow it expects to receive as a result of the nuclear deal with the U.S. and partners will not be enough to cover modernization of its own energy infrastructure, let alone such a major investment in Syria.
Even the natural gas reserves Syria has off its shores will not help. Syria will not be in a position to tap into them for at least a decade, at the earliest, and that particular development may not be something that its own allies, Iran and Russia, will want to see so soon—not, that is, unless they have total control of production and distribution.
The real reason neither Russia nor Iran will take on IS, in other words, is that the Assad regime simply cannot weather the damage that IS can inflict. For this reason, Russia and Iran are not simply avoiding conducting major airstrikes against IS positions and strongholds, they are actually doing a brisk business with it —brisker even than Turkey is. Putin’s criticism of Turkish officials’ involvement in oil smuggling from Syria comes by way of detracting attention from his local ally, that is, the Assad regime, larger and more direct involvement in the matter.
Syria is currently a shattered imploding state, but its ability to keep gasping for air and to keep on functioning at all depends in no small part on the oil it procures from IS, and on its ability to avoid major confrontations with it. The result is that whatever skirmishes happen between the two sides at this stage seem to come by way of negotiating their eventual borders, as each side strives, their rhetoric and whatever political process in play notwithstanding, to carve out its own enclave, its own state to be.
Damascus and southern Syria are the areas where these border “negotiations” between the two sides will be particularly difficult. (For IS presence in Damascus and southern Syria, see this groundbreaking study by Aaron Zelin and Oula Alrifai.) Indeed, the possibility of splitting Damascus into two areas, with the east coming under IS control (except for areas in southeastern parts where major Shia shrines are located, and where the UN managed after months of negotiations to reach a local ceasefire agreement that allows IS fighters’ families to leave the Yarmoue Camp accompanied by few fighters with all heading towards IS strongholds in Raqqa), and the West remaining under Assad rule (which is to say under Russian and Iranian control) might well be the scenario that develops over the next 2-3 years. The recent Russian strike that killed Zahran Alloush, the commander of Jaish Al-Islam in eastern Damascus and IS nemesis there will probably end up facilitating an eventual IS takeover. In fact, the development has already forestalled the evacuation of the Yarmouk, meaning, the few IS fighters who were supposed to leave are staying.
For its part, Israel might end up choosing to get more actively involved in the struggle in order to create a buffer zone that can shield it from any future challenges to its security from both the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Israel is also facing domestic pressure to protect Druze communities in Southern Syria. We may not be far from Israeli intervention as well.
Considering all this, as well as the recent changes in the U.S. position on regime change and Assad’s removal from power, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Obama administration realizes what is involved in this matter at this stage, including the nature of the calculations driving each side, and specifically, what IS can do in Syria and parts of Iraq should it feel an existential threat from any side. This is why the U.S. and its allies seem to be avoiding conducting major strikes against IS strongholds, and why they seem to have decided to limit their involvement in the Syrian scene to a strategy of slow-motion targeted showdown with IS. The hope here might be to facilitate the implosion of IS in a manner that could help ward off the catastrophic scenario for Syria described earlier.
But this is wishful and downright delusional thinking. A few setbacks in Syria and Iraq, such as the loss of the Tishreen Dam in northern Syria, and the town of Ramadi in Iraq, no matter how major they might seem at first, do not constitute an existential threat to IS, as it still has the ability to retrench then come back and reconquer lost territory at some point, as they recently showed in the town of Qarayatein in central Syria, which IS has taken back in August, lost parts of it in early December, and are now launching operations to retake it. Only a serious existential threat, that is, one in which ISIS realizes that it can no longer retake territory or gain new ground, will trigger the apocalypse scenario. Unless there is some catastrophic collapse of the command structure, IS leaders will likely be able to see the writing on the wall in advance giving them enough time to implement their doomsday strategy.
So, in reality, the current American and allied policy in Syria boils down to accepting both the Assad regime, under Russia-Iranian tutelage, and the Islamic State. It will be up to a future administration to decide whether to try and work out a different scenario or to accept the fait accompli which the Obama administration has given us.
Even a massive Western military intervention at this stage, including tens of thousands of boots on the ground, and a military strategy designed to secure critical sites within hours coupled with a major multi-pronged ground offensive may not be enough to avert catastrophe in Syria; the Islamic State and illiberal forces far and wide were given enough time to maneuver us into this dilemma. Moreover, and if I am to believe my contacts on the ground, many major oil installations and the dams seem to be already rigged with explosives, and it may not take much time to blow them all up.
Bolstering what might otherwise seem like a conspiracy theory is the fact that even the recent moves by the Russians and the Americans to interrupt IS financing operations by allegedly targeting its oil installations have actually avoided targeting any major facility, including wells and pipelines. Rather the focus was on convoys of trucks bearing oil, and small oil and gas collection and separation facilities that are relatively cheap to build and replace. Russia’s propaganda machine’s claims that the Americans are failing to target such convoys seem to come, as usual, by way of detracting attention from Assad’s own dealings with IS, which recently led the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist the Syrian businessman said to facilitate the transactions.
Beyond these token steps, neither side can actually do anything to seriously undermine IS presence in Syria at this stage; and while the motives might be different, with the U.S. and its allies more worried about the potential humanitarian cost for Syrians, and Russia and its allies more worried about the material costs of it all, the result is the same: rhetoric, propaganda, mutual accusations, and doublespeak notwithstanding, both sides seem to have reconciled themselves to living with the Islamic State for the foreseeable future. The fact that the UN itself has negotiated a deal between the regime and IS to move IS fighters’ families from Damascus to Raqqa seems to come as a reflection of this spirit of normalization.
The more macabre aspect of this arrangement is the fact that this small terrorist entity is busy creating similar scenarios in Libya, where it has taken control of a number of cities and towns that host major oil production facilities, as well as in Nigeria, acting through its affiliate Boko Haram, which despite some recent setbacks have managed to grow stronger throughout 2015.
As a longtime Syrian prodemocracy activist, who is on his way to becoming an American citizen, coming to terms with this reality poisons my very soul. But denying reality never leads to any good. A mess was created in Syria, and the world, and there are plenty of sides and forces to blame, and there are quite a few implications with which we have to deal on all levels: political, ethical, social, legal, economic and security-related. Indeed, the consequences of failing to follow up adequately on the change in Libya and to act in a timely fashion in Syria to stop what was both foreseeable and preventable will haunt us for decades to come.