The announced objective of the US coalition bombing campaign against ISIL (IS) is to disrupt, marginalize, and ultimately dismantle the force of IS, so it is no longer threatening to the security of the region.
It might sound like the appropriate thing to do. IS has been a big problem mainly in the Iraq/Syria region. Since last summer it has overrun some otherwise peaceful areas of Iraq and threatened others, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, with those atrocities inflaming the moral sensibilities of most of the rest of the globe.
I agree with President Obama that the IS problem is a political one, though not necessarily in the way he has described as being the lack of an inclusive government in Iraq and/or mistakes made by former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Surely those played a role in the group’s success in seizure of Iraqi territory. But that role is limited to the growth of its influence and has nothing to do the with root cause, which at its base is mostly political in a cultural sense, with a weak governing body in Iraq being unable to provide security, it ultimately lost power.
The beginning of the civil war in Syria was probably not the result of a mass populist movement supported by the majority of Syrians with similar objectives. If given time to develop, it may have become that way, but I think assuming that as a major characteristic of the movement to overthrow Assad would be a bit of a stretch. Certainly Assad is hated by many groups, but by groups with differing visions of what would replace him.
And war by its very nature tends to scramble the cultural and demographic makeup of the population, with the more peaceful-minded fleeing to places where they can pick up the pieces of shattered lives, and the global attraction of a political greenfield with the opportunity to build utopia of various characters depending upon the visions of the individuals. The success of IS in Iraq strengthened its utopian appeal to hardline conservatives, and by the time the US responded to its territorial adventurism, it was already too late to stop the influx of supporters into the region.
As a thought exercise, I supposed that Assad decided to step down today and the violence immediately stopped so that there could be a democratic solution to the question of what form of government would take the place of his regime. My imagined result isn’t much different than the democratic result in Egypt because the moderates just do not appear to be the politically or militarily stronger group given the makeup of the current population. When people flee Syria, they do not appear to be flocking to areas held by the moderates rather than leaving the country entirely. The radicalization genie has done been let out of the bottle for those who remain, and after years of anarchy and violence with no peace on the horizon for anyone, the hardliners would win.
The bombing campaign can never accomplish the stated objective and was lost before it started. The Obama administration screwed up in not attempting to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war in its infancy, and certainly even before that by not pursing Baghdadi’s terrorist organization which has festered in the pool of war-induced radicalization. The best that could be hoped for in the bombing campaign is containment of its military adventurism, which it has likely done.
What should be done now, I think, is to abandon plans to arm and train the moderate rebels for the purpose of propping them up to continue fighting the war for an outcome we’d prefer. They’ve already lost the majority of Syria, both politically and militarily; and for them to continue fighting the war amounts to nothing more than senseless killing. Instead, the purpose of arming and training should be for defense of areas they hold, and those wishing to flee Assad or IS should be evacuated to the areas held by the moderates. In other words, the rebel held areas should be consolidated into autonomous regions, with the training and equipping meant to defend those regions against hardline and Assad aggression – the creation of pockets of peace or at least as much peace as can be hoped for.
Additionally, Assad should just be taken down in order for the dust to settle, allowing the rest of the country to achieve a conclusion. He too has already lost the majority of Syria both politically and militarily and there is no practical reason for him to continue the killing. He is no longer the legitimate ruler of the country, and never could be again. He either needs to accept it or be removed regardless of whether IS would fill the vacuum or not.
I certainly do not desire IS to win or keep most of what they want. But there is a difference between wants and the practicalities involved in being human. The stalemate has to be broken and the killing has to stop. Stability needs to be restored. And within that stability, the well-defended moderate areas can compete in the marketplace of ideas for population until it is strong enough to overcome IS politically and militarily. In the short term, if IS did fill the vacuum left by Assad, it would be because people don’t know the difference between liberal and ill-liberal. But they would be living right beside the difference that would exist in the moderate areas – and they would have a choice. That is the only way to ultimately marginalize and defeat IS – by ending the major driver of radicalization and providing the population with a choice that can be made rationally, absent of immediate physical duress.