The latest Syrian ceasefire was meant to herald the renewal of stalled peace talks as well as provide the impetus for greater US-Russian cooperation. However, a series of incidents, including an airstrike on an Aleppo-inbound UN aid convoy, meant that the ceasefire ultimately collapsed within days. Compounding matters is the fact that, despite over two years of US-led airstrikes, ISIS continues to hold vast swathes of Syria including the cities of Al-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. In essence, it is patently clear that the US must significantly alter its Syria strategy if it is to see meaningful and sustainable results on the ground.
In any modern conflict, air supremacy is a necessary but not sufficient means of achieving victory. In this sense, it is not surprising that ISIS endures, despite US-lead Coalition airstrikes having liquidated over 5,000 of its personnel. Cognisant of this fact, the US has partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Aided by US airstrikes, this primarily Kurdish ground force has liberated previously ISIS-held areas such as Manbij and the Tishrin Dam.
However, questions unfortunately remain over the ability of the US to defeat ISIS whilst using the SDF as a proxy force. Because the SDF is mostly comprised of Kurdish soldiers, it is uncertain whether it could realistically be expected to spearhead a ground assault on the predominately Arab Al-Raqqah. It is possible that, like the Shia militias involved in the ‘liberation’ of Ramadi in Iraq, the Kurds will be viewed as oppressors rather than liberators. This would be particularly counterproductive given that, in the first place, it was sectarian oppression which provided fertile breeding ground for the rise of ISIS.
Similarly, ethnic rivalries may imperil the ability of the SDF to hold recaptured majority Arab areas like Manbij, particularly if this city was to be incorporated into a contiguous Kurdish state in Northern Syria. Turkish distrust of the supposedly PKK-Allied SDF is yet another complicating factor that the US must contend with if the current policy is to remain in place.
Accordingly, it is clear that the US must enlist the support of alternative fighting forces. Possible options include the raising of a local Sunni-Arab fighting force, instituting greater cooperation with Turkish forces already embedded in Syria or encouraging surrounding Sunni states to commit their own ground forces. Admittedly, all of these options are fraught with their own potential difficulties, given regional lethargy, concerns over Syria’s sovereignty and the farce that was the US’ previous attempt to create an anti-ISIS Syrian-Arab fighting force.
Efforts to defeat ISIS must also encompass a comprehensive and mutually satisfactory political solution. Alongside such a deal, the crippled economy and infrastructure of Syria must be rebuilt, its governance improved and its civil society expanded. So long as Sunni resentment against the Syrian government remains, groups like ISIS will have a foothold. This is most clearly demonstrated by the case of Fallujah and Ramadi, where groups like ISIS were able to embed themselves amongst the Sunni protest movement of 2012-13, which materialised in response to the perceived oppression and corruption of the Shia Maliki government.
Consequently, it is clear that the US needs to do more to bring about a peaceful political solution. This is not to negate the commendable and tireless diplomatic efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Rather, it is to say that, thus far, the US has persisted in engaging with a peace process that, owing to the unfavourable balance of power, never had a realistic chance of succeeding. As long as Assad continues to hold significant portions of Syria’s major population centres, it is very unlikely that his regime will ever sincerely engage in dialogue with the Syrian opposition. Continued Russian airstrikes in Syria have only served to exacerbate Assad’s obstinacy, as the regime now appears poised to recapture the entirety of Aleppo.
Whilst no easy solutions are forthcoming, the US has a number of options which would create a balance of power dynamic more amenable to the realisation of a durable political solution. The US could implement sanctions on Russia, which has almost certainly committed a series of war crimes in bombing civilian areas. Such sanctions could successfully create a disincentive for further support of Assad, which has most disturbingly manifested itself in Russian complicity in the destruction of Aleppo. Given the relative success of the Minsk ceasefire in lowering violence in Eastern Ukraine, it is apparent that sanctions can and do induce Russia to change its behaviour.
Alternatively, the US could itself use force in order to coerce the Syrian regime into meaningfully engaging in the peace process. In a leaked recording it appeared that Kerry and others in the US political establishment are seriously contemplating just this. Although military action should always be a last resort, with hundreds of thousands dead and the conflict in its sixth year, few if any alternative viable options remain.
American failure to change its Syrian policy will allow Assad to decisively shift the conflict in his favour. More years of Assad rule will only lead to more oppression, instability and radicalism, perpetuating the very conditions which incubated ISIS. It is not too late for the US to shift gears, but concerted and timely action by the next presidency is a necessity.
Henry Storey is completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics and International Relations at the University of Melbourne.