By Ishaan Tharoor
February 16, 2016
The situation in Syria looked anything but calm just days after the United States and Russia reached an agreement calling for a "cessation of hostilities" between the major parties fighting in the grim five-year conflict.
Over the weekend, Western officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, reiterated claims that Russia was continuing to bomb civilian areas and targets that included "legitimate" rebel opposition groups backed by a number of outside powers. Meanwhile, Turkish artillery fired across the border at Syrian Kurdish units, which are seeking to build a de facto Kurdish rump state in northern Syria.
It's all part of what my colleague Liz Sly deemed a "mini world war" that defines the multi-sided battles in Syria, and which has become increasingly acute as an offensive launched by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- and aided by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-backed militias -- tightens the noose around rebel areas in the major city of Aleppo.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, tweeted out this dizzying yet handy guide to the strategic lay of the land:
There’s a spiral of insecurity here that is not being managed," Salman Shaikh, a political consultant engaged in mediation efforts in the Syrian war, told Sly. "What we are seeing is a classic, really complicated balance-of-power struggle that could become a very dangerous situation."
In midst of this the worrying spiral, the U.S. and other governments are also trying to coordinate strikes against the Islamic State, a radical Islamist terror organization that still controls territory in parts of Syria and Iraq. Kurdish militias have long been battling the extremists in Syria's Raqqa province; a U.S.-led international ground incursion from Turkey, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, has also been mooted though remains an unlikely prospect.
Russia, which entered the Syrian war ostensibly to counter the Islamic State, has devoted far more of its efforts to bombing rebel forces that themselves have warred with the jihadists. The weakening of these factions, comprised largely of Sunni Arabs, could play into the Islamic State's hands.
"What ISIS failed to achieve with advanced weapons and momentum could be achieved with the changing military landscape in Aleppo and northern Syria at large," writes Hassan Hassan, a fellow at Chatham House and an expert on the Syrian conflict, using another term for the Islamic State.
Hassan argues that the defeats suffered by rebel forces at the hands of the Assad regime and its allies may have dangerous implications for future efforts to flush out the Islamic State's own insurgency. The Assad advance, boosted by Iranian-backed Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon on the ground, may inflame the sectarian dimensions of the war that plays into the jihadists' hands. Hassan elaborates:
The danger is that foreign militias could defeat rebel forces – with the crucial help of Russian airstrikes –without necessarily having the local support or experience to hold territory, which will inevitably create an opening for Isis forces that have already been attempting to control those areas. The regime’s reliance on foreign militias suggests it does not have enough manpower to fight for it everywhere. More importantly, the growing public appearance of foreign sectarian militias on the frontlines of predominantly Sunni Aleppo is a gift for sectarian forces from the other side. Shia operatives have recently released videos using clearly sectarian language: one Shia cleric is shown shouting anti-Sunni slogans from a Sunni mosque pulpit in Aleppo. This is new in Aleppo, and has increased since November.
And there's no certainty that the Islamic State, which has endured a withering U.S.-led air campaign for the past year, will be that easily driven from its redoubts by the combined efforts of the regime and other world powers.
As a recent report from the office of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon documented, the terrorist group remains one of the wealthiest in the world, pooling perhaps as much as half a billion dollars in illicit funds last year alone. It commands the allegiance of some 34 proxy organizations around the world and has the ability to sow terror in major world capitals. Despite being in the crosshairs of the international community, the organization's ranks are expected to swell in 2016, predicts the U.N. report.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.