A 97-party umbrella group, the High Negotiating Committee, and the Assad regime have agreed to a temporary pause in fighting in the Syrian conflict that went into effect in the last weekend of February. While the Syrian Kurds are party to the ceasefire, it does not, however, cover continuing military action by all parties against those defined as terrorists by the UN Security Council : the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al- Nusra front. The latter two are to face ‘defeat’.
The challenges ahead are easy to spot. Firstly, Jordan is to produce, through consultations, a common list of groups to be designated as terrorist. Doing so is important so that the Syrian government and its Russian backers, who are resolved to continue operations against terrorists, have a shorter list to work with, perhaps restricted to ISIS and Al Nusra alone.
Secondly, the pre-ceasefire jostling that sabotaged the first round of the Geneva III talks early February continues with the UN postponement of the start of this round of talks by a couple of days.
Thirdly, there is the perennial question of Turkey’s antipathy for autonomy for Kurds in any of the four countries they overlap. The Syrian Kurds have made gains that have all but pulled in Turkey into the conflict.
Fourthly, the timelines are tight. These are necessarily so, in order to focus on bringing the fighting to a close. Closure might however take much longer than the currently envisaged six months for an interim arrangement and eighteen months to get a constitution in place and elections.
Lastly and the most problematic of all is the UN Security Council stipulation in its December resolution that keeps the ISIS out of the peace process, requiring all to ‘defeat’ it. On the face of it there is little else that can be done with ISIS. Eventually, that is what needs to be done.
The question is how to ‘defeat’ it and how to go about doing so. It is here that India, which currently does not figure in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) comprising of 17 states and their international organisations, could chip in.
As its predecessor Al Qaeda has proven, it is easy for an ISIS-like group to dissolve and melt away. The Al Qaeda’s dispersal from Afghanistan has aggravated problems from Pakistan to Nigeria, with Yemen and Somalia in between. If dissent against the Western sponsored world order and Western influence over Arab regimes is an idea, it will be difficult to defeat since both – the world order and its implications for Arab lands - are set to continue. Therefore, in a sense, the problem is not going to go away, even if ISIS hold over a third of Syria and of Iraq is unfixed militarily.
The military containment and rollback of ISIS is already underway. In Iraq, several cities have been retrieved such as Tikrit and Ramadi. The Iraqi Kurds have also taken Sinjar. The Syrian Kurds have pushed the ISIS out of Kobane and are closing on Raqqa. The Western coalition airstrikes now number in five digits. Russia has also joined the bombing, even if so far it has concentrated more on helping its ally Assad fight off the Free Syrian Army combine.
Once the ceasefire is in place in the rest of Syria, the squeezing from the air can only intensify. International action from areas where foreign fighters originate is also well underway and Turkey has clamped down on financing, oil supplies and recruiting routes. Unable to recoup losses, ISIS will be set back considerably.
However, it had much in terms of resources – human, financial and material – to start with. Therefore, it would not go away any time soon. It would have enough to keep any peacekeeping operation to stabilize Syria, how so ever ‘robust’, unsettled. President Obama has on this account kept his distance from being sucked into Syria or going the distance in Iraq. Upping the ante in terms of military action will further impose on the 10 million or so Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis caught up in ISIS grip.
What therefore needs to be done? Once the Syrian peace process gets going and eventuates in a provisional government, there is a case for expanding its scope to also accommodate a political prong in addition to the military prong addressing the ISIS. Since the timeline for this will be the better part of this year, there will be additional time to batter the ISIS but with an aim to weaken and condition it for talks.
This would appear fanciful in light of the well-deserved vilification ISIS has been subject to in the media. However, practicality suggests that not doing so will likely see the breakup of Syria and Iraq. Both states are not militarily capable of wresting back the areas taken over by ISIS. There are also national recovery and reconstruction priorities that may be neglected in case ISIS is taken on militarily.
The defeat of ISIS therefore should not come about through the usual means that the notion of defeat conjures up. The means should be political. India can play a role here owing to its advantage of being equi-distant from both sides of the conflict. Its legacy of non-alignment and current foreign policy of multi-alignment places it in a suitable spot to sell some ideas on conflict resolution to its friends on both sides. As a multi-religious state in a proximate region it has a legitimate interest in amicable conflict termination.
India can push a ‘root causes’ approach in line with UN principles. It should extend to eliminating ‘pull factors’ that give rise to foreign fighters – primarily Arab and from Western countries - in the first place.
It may be counterintuitive to suggest democracy as an antidote to ISIS, which is taken as its antithesis. However, setting back religious extremism requires giving more space to Arab nationalism. What is clear is that as long as the West finds suppressive Arab regimes more amenable, the ISIS as an idea will not wither. India as a leading post-colonial democratic state is best positioned to foreground this home truth.
The daunting Syrian peace process set to restart in the early part of March requires every national shoulder, including an Indian one. Even if it is a process characterized by ‘one hesitant step after another’, the direction cannot exclude involvement of Syria’s east at some juncture in the process, which means defeating the ISIS but with non-military means. This would entail separating the nationalist, Baathist and tribal elements from violent religious extremists. A military template only pushes them together.
Will the suggestion be taken on board? The West has the ISIS as a magnet for its dissidents, helping it pin them down in a foreign locale. It gives the West a rationale to continue shaping the Middle East. The Arab regimes too export their dissidents to ISIS territory where they can then bash them with impunity. The Russians gain the logic to remain in Syria now that their immediate task of preserving Assad is done. The Shia spectrum would not like Sunni fighters being let off the hook.
Clearly, it can only devolve on the UN, perhaps aided by external players such as India, to chip-in with the otherwise obvious suggestion. India has played a role even in its infancy in untangling intricate conflict such as in Korea. While the world might look its way soon scouting for blue helmets, India must bring new ideas to the table. For this, it needs to once again reach into the wellsprings of its non-violent experience and philosophy. It can yet play the role of a great power, but with a difference.