The hopes of the Syrian opposition, Gulf states and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will soon turn into disillusions. As the war destroyed more and more of Syria, the prospect has always been that if the long-awaited return of U.S. engagement in the Middle East would finally come, it would also address the root cause of the Syrian conflict: the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Last summer, the chemical weapons attack on rebel-dominated areas in a Damascus suburb nearly proved to be that defining moment. For a couple weeks, it indeed looked like President Barack Obama was going to strike al-Assad. But when Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, offered a diplomatic solution, Obama quickly ditched his “red lines” and accepted – to the despair of many supporters of the Syrian opposition.
This summer, very few have been discussing al-Assad’s brutality as the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gained notoriety. The Syrian conflict transformed this group of insurgents into a near self-sufficient state, seizing territory roughly the size of Jordan. With up to 31,500 fighters and hundreds of millions in the bank, it has become the largest, richest and most successful jihadist movement in history.
For many in the anti-al-Assad camp across the region, ISIL’s rise was seen as the ideal moment for the U.S. to realize its failure of non-intervention and unfold a strategy for Syria. A political, diplomatic and military strategy targeted at the root cause (al-Assad) and its consequences (ISIL). Several weeks into the nameless military campaign, it can be concluded that any hope for such a solution is futile.
President Obama simply does not have the appetite to deal with al-Assad and prefers to look the other way. His inaction has facilitated the rise of ISIL and pushed the Syrian opposition into the hands of al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army – its cries for help ignored – is squeezed dry between al-Assad’s iron fist and ISIL’s ruthlessness. No wonder that the FSA is eager to collaborate with the Syrian al-Qaeda faction, Jabhat al-Nusra – they are the ones doing much of the fighting on the ground against al-Assad’s forces.
This bitter reality will shatter any illusions held by America’s allies in the Middle East, and could even fracture the coalition against ISIL. While for Obama it may be clear that U.S. engagement is as minimal as possible, this perception might be not be shared by all parties involved. Do Turkey and Saudi Arabia fully realize that they are taking part in a counter-terrorism (CT) campaign designed to protect American national security?
As the atrocities of both ISIL and al-Assad continue, and Iran remains the hegemon in Syria and Iraq, the Gulf states and Turkey are bound to get bitter about the course of the campaign. Why would they take part in a costly CT-operation on behalf of America, with no solution for the conflict in sight? Why would they target the more extreme Syrian rebels while al-Assad is simultaneously striking the moderates with impunity?
Ankara, Riyadh and Doha will soon have to take cognizance of this reality. But whether they can revolt and push Obama for a structural solution to the conflict remains to be seen. Such a solution would likely involve both ground troops to battle ISIL and a no-fly zone to protect the less extreme Syrian rebels from al-Assad’s warplanes and barrel bombs.
One option would be for Erdoğan to go rogue and issue a no-fly zone over rebels held areas himself.
He certainly has both the rationale and equipment to implement this effectively. A no-fly zone would protect the Syrian rebels and Kurds in the north and potentially create some stability in these areas as they seek to repel ISIL’s and al-Assad’s advances.
With the imminent slaughter of civilians in Kobane on Turkey’s doorstep and a mounting influx of refugees, Ankara is under heavy pressure to come up with a solution – a solution that is more than just an ineffective American counter-terrorism operation.