Back to the pre-Arab Spring era?
In 2010, a young Tunisian street trader publically killed himself to protest against police harassment, sparkling a movement that eventually led to the demise of the Tunisian authoritative regime and spread across the region, from Libya to Kuwait and Egypt. If the Syrian war originated in this “Arab Spring”, it eventually took a different turn. Unlike Tunisia or Libya, the Assad regime was capable to resist the civil uprising and profit from the rise of the jihadist fighters. The rationale evolved from an oppressive and abusive war against a democratic movement to a war against Islamists known as ISIS.
Indeed, almost three years ago, the jihadists, once a minority in the coalition against the government forces, proclaimed an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and soon fueled most financial and human resources for the fight against al-Assad. The Syrian President was also able to rely on the Russian forces to fight the extremists. This new reality led the U.S.-led coalition to launch airstrikes, eventually killing around three quarters of ISIS fighters. While the Obama Administration was determined throughout its eight years in office to limit U.S. military involvement in world affairs, the Trump Administration already decided to send 400 additional troops to Raqqa, effectively doubling the number of boots on the ground.
As military forces are now closing in on ISIS’ strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, finding a realistic end state for the Syrian civil war becomes more pressing. The Syrian Democratic Forces, constituted of Kurds and Arab tribes, are now surrounding Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, while Mosul, ISIS’ stronghold in neighboring Iraq, is thought to be soon in the hands of the Iraqi forces again, partly thanks to the US led coalitions’ military support.
Six years after the Arab Spring, however, international support for democratic aspirations has been replaced by a far more pessimistic outlook on the outcome of such movements. Indeed, world leaders have grown more realistic about the benefits of a civil war. In Libya for instance, two political systems coexist. Benghazi, where the uprising originated in 2011, is now witnessing daily abductions and summary killings, torn between Islamist militias and armed groups on one side and the UN-back governmental forces on the other.
The Syrian conflict has led to a major refugee crisis, not only in the neighboring countries, but also in Europe. In total, 4 million Syrians have fled their country, and 250,000 people died as a result of the civil war. Although public opinion is generally sympathetic to the plight of civilians caught in the middle of the war, particularly after the fall of Aleppo, no country is ready to undertake a new full-fledge war after Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama Administration strongly opposed Bashar al–Assad and the U.S. official policy was to reject any political solution that included him remaining in power. Even though the candidate Donald Trump has vowed to “bomb the s***t out of” ISIS, and kept Obama’s senior officials leading the U.S. policy towards ISIS, he is now showing signs that President Assad staying in power is inevitable: “With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept,” said the White House Press Secretary, adding that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS is foremost among those priorities“.
Six years after the beginning of the civil war, the Alawite President is now perceived as part of the solution in a deeply divided state. Indeed, three major religious groups cohabit in Syria: the Kurds, who constitute a minority in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, the Sunnis, from which most of the jihadists emanate, and the Shiites, to which President Bashar al-Assad’s sect belongs. Given the difficulty to find a political solution that would be accepted by all factions, President Assad is now considered the only stable future for Syria. As a result, U.S. and Russian interests are now surprisingly aligned. From a Western perspective, the return of Syria to its pre-Arab Spring status quo would have the advantage of making possible the return of millions of refugees and allowing al-Assad to gain control over the Islamists that once threatened to gain power over the region.
If ISIS is defeated, however, European leaders are wary that its citizens that joined the fight will bring back home their terrorist tactics and ideology, fueling a new wave of terrorist attacks. Meanwhile top ISIS commanders are preparing for a stateless Islamic state in Iraq and Syria based on an underground resistance. They will be able to count on over a fifth of the population that supports the Islamic State in Syria. Others might contemplate joining forces with Al Qaeda. Finally, other groups are targeting fragile, post-Arab Spring states such as the Islamic State in Northern Sinai in Egypt and other wilayats in Libya. Beyond ISIS fighters, ISIS ideology is also influencing lone-wolf-like attacks in the West, such as the ones in San Bernardo and Orlando in the U.S. or in Nice in France. Although the terrorists had little ties with Syria and no direct ties with ISIS’ hierarchy, the extremist group was quick to declare that the attacks were perpetrated in the name of their organization. The many civilian deaths that occurred following U.S. airstrikes in Mosul or Raqqa since the Trump Administration took office, however, is likely to be used by ISIS and Al Qaeda ideologues to continue recruiting jihadists in the Middle East or even the West.
The upcoming battle of Raqqa, which might prove particularly long and deadly, will be a test for democratic forces against an ideology that takes advantage of any mishap of the U.S. and its allies to raise propaganda against the American “crusaders” attacking Muslims. Given the rhetoric and offensive policy of the current U.S. President, the ability of ISIS to recruit from any mishap is likely to be further magnified.
Hélène Dieck received her PhD from Sciences Po, Paris, France. She was previously responsible for elaborating military doctrine at the French Ministry of Defense and served as a visiting researcher at the RAND Corporation, Washington, DC. She currently works as a migrant welfare specialist at Qatar Foundation and recently published The influence of public Opinion on Post Cold War U.S. military interventions (Palgrave, 2015).