A new strategy on Syria is a matter of urgency, given the magnitude of the refugee exodus, and the threat ISIS poses to Europe, writes Guido Steinberg.
Guido Steinberg’s research interests at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) include Salafist and jihadist groups in the Syrian insurgency. SWP advises the German Bundestag and government on all questions of foreign and security policy. The text is also available as a Point of View on the SWP website.
The hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary in Western and Northern Europe expose German and European policy failures. Syria is disintegrating, and almost wherever the state loses control, jihadist groups like ISIS take power, driving even more to flee, and threatening Europe’s internal security.
Germany has a vital interest in a stable Syria, whose citizens live without fear of their own government. But with the current maelstrom making that goal a pipedream, Germany should define rather more modest objectives: Firstly, to shore up the remnants of the Syrian state still under the control of the regime (whose collapse would trigger new, even larger population displacements). Secondly, ISIS must be further weakened, and then as quickly as possible, destroyed.
Germany can do three things to advance these two goals. Firstly, as now widely discussed, it should start negotiations over a political solution with the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, albeit in awareness that this can never resolve more than one part of the problem. Secondly, it should assist in stabilising Syria’s Kurdish areas and support the Kurdish forces in northern Syria with military equipment and training, although only given Turkey’s consent. And thirdly, it should participate in air strikes and join the United States in training and arming Arab Sunni groups to fight against ISIS.
Negotiations with the regime
The Assad regime has come under severe pressure in recent months, especially as a coalition led by the jihadist al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham succeeded in capturing almost the entire province of Idlib. That is behind the build-up of Russian forces in the coastal province of Latakia, which directly adjoins Idlib. Given the regime’s weakness, this could in fact be a favourable juncture for negotiations with Assad. But first, the goal and perspectives of a diplomatic initiative need to be clearly defined: Assad must abandon his war against his own population in order to eliminate one crucial cause behind both mass displacements and the strength of the Islamist terrorists. The endpoint of talks should not be an alliance with Assad’s troops and militias – as Moscow would like – because that would make enemies of the majority of the Syrian population. But that means – even in the (unlikely) event of success – that negotiations can only lead to a relative stabilisation in areas still controlled by the regime and a reduction in the intensity of the conflict. For large parts of the country, including Aleppo, there would be no positive impact. Thus any diplomatic “solution”, as is presently so enthusiastically discussed, can be no more than partial.
Support for the Kurds
Alongside the territory still dominated by the regime, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) controls largely Kurdish-populated areas in the north and north-east. Although the PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which many countries – including Germany – rightly class as a terrorist organisation, PYD forces effectively protect their population from the Islamists and coordinate operations with the US Air Force. Given the dearth of capable and even partially acceptable allies in Syria, it would be logical for Germany to support the Syrian Kurds, and supply arms and training in scope and quality similar to the ongoing aid for the Iraqi Kurds. For this to become possible, Turkey must first be persuaded to tolerate such a course of action, as Ankara possesses every possibility to block any stabilisation of Syria’s Kurdish areas. Against the backdrop of Turkey’s reignited war on the PKK, that might appear unrealistic, but it is imperative for any useful German moves in Syria. In any case, a negotiated solution between Ankara and the PKK remains at the forefront of German foreign policy interests. Perhaps there will be a possibility to revive the peace process after Turkey’s new elections. As difficult a partner as Turkey may be, there can be no sensible German policy on Syria without close coordination with Ankara.
Even if it was Assad’s crimes that caused Syria’s collapse, ISIS has become the more immediate threat to Europe. About 4,000 Islamists have travelled from Europe to fight in Syria since 2012, most of them joining ISIS. Since the Spring of 2014, there has also been a series of attacks in Europe associated with ISIS. ISIS must be destroyed to prevent it from planning and conducting larger operations. Air strikes by the United States and its allies are an important step, and there is no reason why the German Air Force should not join them – even Australia is sending warplanes. At the same time, it must be remembered that air strikes can do no more than delay the jihadists. If ISIS is to be destroyed, ground forces will have to be deployed. These should not be Americans or Europeans, who would have great problems fighting local jihadists; the problems experienced in Iraq in 2003 could be expected to recur in Syria. In Arab-populated areas, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds would also be regarded as occupiers and thus generate further support for ISIS. Consequently, it will be non-Islamist Syrian Sunni Arabs who will have to bear the brunt of the fighting. Washington has already recognised this for some time, but has supplied arms and training only half-heartedly, and has failed to protect its allies in Syria from their Islamist adversaries. Germany and Europe should persuade the United States to effectively support non-Islamist insurgents and should themselves participate in such a programme. This is the only effective option for fighting ISIS. In the event of complete failure of talks with the regime, it would also be wise to have more than just Kurdish allies on the ground.
This article was translated by Meredith Dale.