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U.S. strategy: Accelerate Syria talks, defeat ISIS

Whether or not talks take place on Friday, there is little doubt about where the faultiness stand: over Assad’s future

Published: Updated:

Amid uncertainty over whether U.N.-sponsored talks will take place in Geneva on Friday, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) - representing 35 opposition groups - insists it will not participate unless the Syrian regime stops its barrel-bombings and starvation policies against rebel-held areas.

The regime’s denial of humanitarian organizations from providing basic supplies to rebel-held areas has added yet another dimension to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe. So far, more than 250,000 civilians have been killed and millions of desperate refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Europe faces record numbers of refugees fleeing the war crimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who conveniently fails to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as he seeks to present the international community with a false choice: either him or terrorist mayhem. Assad’s gamble is that increasing European anxiety over the massive refugee influx, and fears that ISIS terrorists could be among them, will benefit his only goal: regime survival.

Leading up to the talks, Russian air support has enabled the regime and Hezbollah to seize rebel-held territory in Latakia province. Another sticking point as to whether the talks will take place is the role of Syrian Kurds - Moscow insists they must participate while Turkey, which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency, opposes their inclusion.
These factors add to the multi-layered proxy war for Syria’s future, including domestic groups and regional and international powers logging heads over the very process that is supposed to bring the conflict’s opposing parties to the negotiating table.

Changing strategy?

As part of an effort to boost regional support for the talks, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden traveled last week to Turkey for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz. They appear to have received their respective backing.

This comes as U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter received Iraqi government support for the U.S.-led coalition’s objective to liberate Mosul and Kirkuk from ISIS, while he seeks additional military commitments from the alliance’s partners.

While the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama continues to face criticism at home and abroad over its ISIS strategy, the diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Biden, Kerry and Carter suggest that Washington has a clear vision of how to accelerate both the embattled Syrian peace process and the defeat of ISIS.

Washington seeks to liberate Mosul and Kirkuk, and possibly Syria’s Raqqa, from ISIS to put the necessary military pressure on Assad to participate in U.N.-sponsored talks, and to pressure Russia to loosen its support for him so a political settlement can be found. The Obama administration arguably aims to call Moscow’s bluff, that it risks being drawn into an endless military conflict in Syria unless it partners with Washington to seek a political settlement.

Whether or not talks take place on Friday, there is little doubt about where the faultiness stand: over Assad’s future. He knows he has most to lose from talks taking place, especially if they move toward a political settlement. As such, he is expected to increase his barrel-bombings and continue his starvation policies to prevent them taking place.

With the rise of far-right parties across Europe, prompted by anxiety over the Syrian refugee crisis, Assad hopes a deal with concerned European leaders can be struck on his terms. Unfortunately, the Syrian people will continue to suffer under his cruelty as regional and world powers maintain their high-stakes battle for Syria’s future.

Sigurd Neubauer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.