by Ron Spriestersbach
About four years ago, an uprising broke out against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Today the war there consists of several intertwining conflicts, especially with the addition of the tremendous thrust of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or “Daesh” as it is nicknamed in Arabic, which took over large areas of both countries. According to Wikipedia, ISIS is a Wahhabi/Salafi extremist militant group which is led by and mainly composed of Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria. (Wahhabi and Salafi is a reference to a harsh fundamentalist form of Islam promoted by the Saudi monarchy.) ISIS was founded by jihadis who met and united inside a US military prison in Iraq and incorporated elements of Saddam Hussein’s military who had been banned by the US occupation from participation in post-Hussein Iraq. This article grows from an Oct. 15 piece in the NY Times, Untangling the Overlapping conflicts in the Syrian War, supplemented by material from the LA Times and Information Clearing House on-line.
There are in Syria both a civil war and a war against ISIS. In the former, the government, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (predominantly Shia Muslims), battles rebel Syrian elements backed by the US, Turkey and several Arab states. In the second war, ISIS is opposed by the US, Russia, the Kurds, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, and Jordan, and supposedly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
The civil war backed by the West seeks regime change, reminiscent of Yugoslavia, Serbia, the Ukraine and Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi. ISIS seeks to dominate Syria and Iraq supposedly to restore the Muslim Caliphate. After four years of war the government controls about 10% of the country, especially around Aleppo in the northwest, and Damascus in the southwest. Currently, the main base for ISIS is Raqqa, close to the center of the border between Turkey and Syria. But using its base there, and funding from export of Syrian and Iraqi oil, ISIS has a sophisticated international digital offensive and recruitment campaign.
The US has conducted a low key war, mainly through air attacks, waiting for the collapse of Assad. Its attempt to blame the government by poison gas attacks and condemn Assad for possessing weapons of mass destruction was forestalled by a Russian initiative under which the government destroyed its chemical weapons. Generating chaos for year after year through “low intensity” war was an approach used in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The US tries to pit one faction at war with another so that it can avoid committing US troops and taking US casualties. They supply war materials, advisors, intelligence, and money to grind the enemy down. Some believe the US has funneled support to ISIS through other US-backed anti-Assad fundamentalists in order to destabilize the entire region.
Another factor is that Turkey is waging war against the Kurds, even though they are both opposing ISIS. The revolutionary Kurdish forces, including a women’s combat unit, have been the most effective fighters on the ground, defending themselves and other minorities against genocidal ISIS tactics, even while also having to defend themselves against NATO member Turkey.
Russia has been involved in a big way since September, occupying its base in Latakia, Syria. They conduct, like the US, mainly an air war, but it has been a hurry-up war. They feel they may have waited too long. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have been their allies for a long time, and their base in Syria gives them their only foothold in the Mediterranean. They fear that ISIS may affect many of the Muslim-dominant areas in Russia, such as Chechnya. Mike Whitney of Counterpunch believed that Russia would have to score a quick victory over Assadís opponents before an attack in Syria by recently re-elected Turkish leader Erdogan could be launched. (Erdogan had suffered a previous electoral setback, losing his majority, but a second snap election had restored him to power, somewhat chastised.) This situation could lead to an outright war between Russia and the US. Whitney feels that a major new war by Erdogan could ruin Russiaís chance of success. This approach was proposed by Brookings analyst Michael E. OíHanlon in a piece titled ìDeconstructing Syria: A New Strategy for Americaís most hopeless warî (Information Clearing House, (11/6 and 11/7/2015).
But then, the LA Times on 11/11 reported that the ISIS siege of a Syrian government air base at Kuweires near Aleppo was broken. Mike Whitney said that the Syrian Army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and fighters from the Lebanese national militia, Hezbollah liberated 250 Syrian government soldiers at Kumeires, who had been holding out for more than two and a half years. Whitney claims that Putin is now in the driver’s seat.
In response to these developments, for the first time, US backed forces attacked ISIS oil export shipments. Two days later, part of highway 47, which runs roughly parallel with the Turkish border, was seized by Kurdish Iraqi troops, supported by U.S.-led airstrikes. They are trying to take the town of Sinjar from ISIS forces. Sinjar lies between Bacca, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. (From west to east, one finds Aleppo, Bacca, Sinjar, and Mosul.) Bacca and Mosul are major towns which are both controlled by ISIS.
So, after several months of key events in the Syria wars, momentous changes are now occurring. One might be tempted to say that Russia and the US are effectively working together. US Secretary of State John Kerry has been engaged in international diplomacy in the region in the wake of the US-Iran agreement on the latter’s nuclear program, seeking a political solution to the civil war aspect in Syria. According to the NY Times of Nov. 4, Obama would be pleased with a partition of Syria into ìat least four zones: one controlled by Assadís Russian-backed government, one by the U.S.-backed Kurds and their allies, one by ISIS, plus a patchwork of others.î Then, the US would insist on getting rid of Assad.
The terrorist attacks in Paris, to which much more attention was paid in the west than even more deadly extremist terror bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, and against Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia, have drawn France into air assaults on ISIS-held territory. Conversely, ISIS has been recruiting allies in Muslim areas across the “middle east,” Africa and elsewhere. So the war that the US invasion of Iraq and destabilization of Syria has unleashed continues to spread.