Will the ISIS threat force a new strategy for Syria?

Last week’s spate of terrorist attacks was another dark reminder of the severity of the crisis we face

Manuel Almeida
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It is becoming difficult to keep track of all the atrocities committed by ISIS, the biggest beneficiary of the Arab world’s severe crisis of sovereign statehood. Beyond Syria and Iraq, only over the last seven days its followers killed dozens of innocent civilians in Tunis, North Sinai, Kuwait City, Sanaa and Lyon.

Yet the expansion of ISIS, and its followers’ ability to strike across the region and beyond, might achieve what the death of more than a quarter of a million people in Syria and the suffering of many millions more did not: turn the Syrian tragedy into an absolute priority for the international community.

The regional and potentially global repercussions of the expansion of ISIS may force a change of approach on Syria. This change might already be in motion

Manuel Almeida

Different priorities

Four years into the Syrian war, various players with capacity to shape events on the diplomatic, political, military and economic fronts have not done enough. The U.S. administration remains stuck between its obsession with the nuclear deal with Iran, and the belief that the current talks with Tehran have to be insulated from all other crises.

Russia has been too preoccupied with challenging the Western sphere of influence, despite being very active diplomatically on the Syrian file. European Union heavyweights such as Germany and France have been bogged down with the Greek financial crisis and Europe’s slow economic recovery.

In the Middle East, Ankara has been unable to distinguish between the very different nature of the threat posed by ISIS and the challenge of its relations with the Kurds. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) naturally remains reluctant to focus all its military power on a full confrontation with ISIS, while the majority of the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq remain trapped between a brutal Assad regime and myriad ruthless militias backed by Iran.

However, the regional and potentially global repercussions of the expansion of ISIS may force a change of approach on Syria. This change might already be in motion. Reports emerged this week of Jordan’s preparations to set up a buffer or protection zone in the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Suwayda for refugees and moderate opposition forces.

The prospect of ISIS occupying areas on its border with Syria seems to be the main driver of the Jordanian decision. Nevertheless, it would inescapably be a blow for the Assad regime. It would provide a safe haven for the moderate opposition groups trained in Jordan with Western support, and represent one of the strongest statements so far that the Assad government has lost all credibility.

In Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey, there is intense debate between the outgoing government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition about the prospect of taking military action in Syria.

The creation of a buffer zone by the Turkish armed forces following a government directive is allegedly being delayed by talks to establish a coalition government. Yet the AKP seems to be at least as concerned with the territorial gains of the Syrian Kurdish forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as with the presence of ISIS militants on its border.

Speculation

Recent weeks have also been rife in speculation about a possible modification of Russia’s stance on the Assad regime. On the one hand, there are reports that Moscow is already reducing its military, economic and logistical support to the regime as it considers a future without President Bashar al-Assad. On the other, a couple of Russian analysts with close ties to the government have rejected the idea that the Russian position on Syria has changed at all.

What is certain is that Moscow is increasingly concerned about the threat that radical Islamists can come to represent to its own security, and is willing to compromise provided its basic interests in Syria are safeguarded. This means that the Russians might already be recognizing the flaws in the notion that the Assad regime is the last bulwark against ISIS.

With some of Syria’s neighbors increasingly inclined to do their share to contain ISIS’s expansion and push for a solution for Syria, what is still missing is the trigger to bring in a more decisive strategy to deal with the problem. That will not come from a more flexible Iranian approach on Syria if and when a nuclear deal is signed, as some commentators oddly expect.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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