Opposing interests are preventing a grand alliance to defeat ISIS

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, there have been widespread calls for the global powers to set aside their other differences and form a military coalition against the common enemy, ISIS. The model for this coalition is World War II, when the US, UK, Free French and others got together with their ideological opponents, the Soviet Union, to defeat the Nazis. But a “grand alliance” cannot be constructed under the present global political circumstances. Nor is the creation of one desirable until a political solution to the wider conflict in Syria has been found.

The fundamental flaw with the grand alliance proposal is that the main external parties to the conflict in Syria do not have a common enemy. Unfortunately, Russia, and its wannabe Stalin leader, Vladimir Putin, is on the wrong side, as it was during World War II until the Germans attacked the USSR in 1941. Rather than tackling ISIS, Russia is mostly bombing the Syrian equivalent of the French Resistance to support the fascist influenced Ba’ath regime of President Assad. Indeed, by weakening the rebel forces who are the main bulwark against ISIS, Russia is indirectly assisting the jihadis.

The various groups of the Syrian Resistance under Russian attack are the core of the “70,000 local fighters” David Cameron has earmarked as the putative coalition’s ground troops against ISIS. These fighters have substantial support amongst the Syrian people. With some justification, they wonder why we are only bombing ISIS and not Asad’s forces too. As they see it, the regime has killed far more Syrians than ISIS, often by using brutally indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons dropped on civilian targets. Our long reluctance to do much about 200,000 massacred Syrians contrasts uncomfortably with the rapid military reaction to ISIS’s murder of 130 people in Paris.

A grand alliance would also thoroughly discredit us in the eyes of most Syrian citizens

The doubts the resistance groups have about our commitment to their cause would be crystallised if we entered into any sort of coalition with Russia. Lining up with the Russian accomplices of their primary enemy, the Assad regime, would wreck our chances of persuading these groups to fight ISIS more intensely than they are doing already. A grand alliance would also thoroughly discredit us in the eyes of most Syrian citizens and make influencing the creation of a stable post-conflict Syria even more difficult.

There are other important countries that are difficult to engage fully in a coalition. Turkey is the largest and militarily most powerful nation bordering Syria. But it has problems aligning with some Syrian opposition forces. The most capable resistance fighters include Kurds from groups such as the YPG that are linked to the Turkish state’s long-standing enemies, the PKK. This is a neuralgic issue for the Turkish government, which recently reignited its domestic war on the PKK and Kurds. There is credible – rather than only Russian - evidence that Turkey’s obsession with the Kurds has led to it soft-peddling on ISIS. This includes allowing jihadist fighters and the trade that sustains them across its border more easily than assistance to the Syrian Kurds fighting the extremists.

Even if Turkey could be persuaded to overcome its Kurd fixation, its military usefulness in Syria is inhibited by its tensions with Russia. After much provocation, the Turks were justified in shooting down a Russian fighter jet that invaded its airspace. Indeed, Turkey may have done its fellow NATO members a service by making the Russians think again before launching more of their incursions into NATO airspace that have been threatening security and civilian aviation for far too long now. But Russia’s subsequent posting of anti-aircraft missiles in Syria and thirst for vengeance has severely curtailed what Turkey can contribute militarily there without risking a Russia-NATO escalation.

Unlike the anti-Assad international alliance, Russia is not exclusively reliant on local ground forces. Iran is also keen to save Asad and, in particular, the supply route his regime provides to its Hezbollah protégés across the border in Lebanon. Iran has sent several thousand Revolutionary Guards-instructed Hezbollah fighters to Syria, where they have made crucial interventions against the mainstream opposition to prevent the regime from falling. Whilst Shia Iran is no friend of the Sunni supremacists of ISIS, it is also in no hurry to deviate from its main objective by fighting them too.

The international picture is a reflection of the conflict within Syria - an almighty mess of rival and opposing interests

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States are supplying assorted Syrian opposition groups with funds and weapons, including some non-ISIS Islamist groups that are considered beyond the pale by the Western powers. Their objective is to counteract the spread of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, especially since the nuclear deal that will see it released from international sanctions and its acquisition of near-protectorate status over the Iraqi government. It remains to be seen whether the new anti-terrorist alliance of thirty-four Muslim countries just announced by the Saudis is a PR exercise or a genuine additional military asset.

In short, the option of creating a grand military coalition to fight ISIS does not currently exist. The international picture is a reflection of the conflict within Syria - an almighty mess of rival and opposing interests.

That is not, though, to argue that nothing should be done to tackle ISIS in Syria. As Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn MP put it “inaction has a cost in lives too”. The existing military campaign is crucial to contain the spread of ISIS and for targeting its leaders. But the impossibility of forming an all-encompassing international coalition against ISIS leaves insufficient means to eliminate it entirely.

The end of ISIS will not happen before a political solution to the war in Syria. Only after Assad has departed from power and the conflict elsewhere in the country has ended will it become possible for all of Syria’s fighting forces to focus on ISIS, with the full backing of the whole international community. This is a mutually exclusive proposition in the short-term and untangling it presents a fiendishly difficult diplomatic challenge. Somehow, a way has to be found to satisfy the opposition by extricating Asad whilst salvaging enough of the interests of his domestic and external supporters. The nearest thing to good news is that at least the process has started, with all of the main international actors finally sitting down together in negotiations in Vienna.

Until that diplomatic process succeeds, the most we can usefully do is continue with a military “coalition of the willing” to inhibit and diminish ISIS. This coalition must overtly exclude Russia, and other Assad backers such as Iran, to avoid alienating the Syrian resistance movements who will be essential for eradicating ISIS from their country later on.

Paul Knott is a writer on international politics, music and sport. He has twenty years of experience as a British diplomat and his new book about life in the Foreign Office, “The Accidental Diplomat”, is out now.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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