Ruslan Trad: Peace in Syria is still far away
Islamic State is not defeated, the jihadists are regrouping their forcesNadia Ilieva
Unfortunately, Europe is busy with making populist and nationalistic statements instead of waging a real battle with the issues which serve as a trigger for terrorism, Ruslan Trad, journalist and Middle East analyst, says in an interview to Europost.
Mr Trad, do you see the end of the civil war in Syria in the context of the declared withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country?
The conflict in Syria, triggered in 2012 by a wave of protests which were crushed in 2011, has long become not civil but regional. As before the Russian intervention in 2015 we faced mostly two belligerent parties - those of the insurgents and the pro-government forces, then in the past three years the situation has changed drastically. The offensive troops of Islamic State have entered the scene, penetrating from Iraq into Syria in 2014, and in 2015 entrenched their forces deep into Syrian territory. This is the reason why the anti-Islamic State international coalition was formed. Iran has reinforced its militias, and today Teheran has tens of thousands of troops which the state backs politically, economically and by providing training. The armed insurgent forces infiltrated into the country with the help of the extremist factions which pushed out the initial groups to give prevalence to the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. The Kurdish forces backed by PKK have significantly expanded the territories under their control. Turkey attempted intervention twice, as a result it practically gained control over the regions in northern and northwestern Syria. The Russians have entrenched themselves in Syria for long. Israel on a regular basis exchanges blows with Iran in Syria.
And where is the US in this puzzle?
Having in mind that this is a civil war, the US has never really wanted to join in this game. The US administration for years on end has been sending threatening or obscure messages to the regime of President Bashar Assad which, however, have never resulted in concrete actions. The attacks on the positions of the Syrian army, launched on the order of President Trump, are only a facade. As we all saw, they were delivered after consultations with Russia and Assad had time to redeploy his forces far from the attacks locations. The American policy in the region has been stagnating since the time of President Obama whose heedless inaction gave “green light” to the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. Henceforth, there is no more important factor than Russia in shaping the international policy in this country. Later on, Trump launched his presidential campaign vowing to bring American soldiers back home and he meant, first and foremost, Afghanistan. In Trump's speeches Syria was mentioned mostly in the context of the fight against ISIS. The US president has totally ignored the civil war sweeping the country since 2012, hundreds of thousands of victims after the Syrian pro-government forces' air raids, and the fact that the US interests in the Middle East were seriously undermined owing to the ambitions of the local actors, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Not only were the Americans last to join in the geopolitical game, but their forces are in fact the smallest in number. Set against hundreds of thousands-strong militias subordinate to Iran, or thousands of Russian soldiers and mercenaries, the two thousand American soldiers in Syria look as a negligible force.
Doesn't the US withdrawal signal the collapse of the anti-Islamic State coalition? French President Emmanuel Macron said some days ago that France will not backtrack on its commitments in Syria.
It is not sure yet whether the US will actually withdraw its troops from Syria and, even if it does, it is not clear when this will be done. After the Manbij explosions - one killed four US soldiers and the other injured their allies on patrol - many people in the Trump administration say that the president will reconsider his decision on withdrawal. If the US forces withdraw, the coalition will suffer a serious blow but for the moment it will not mean its end. France and Great Britain stay on, these countries also have their troops in Syria which they are not planning to withdraw soon.
That said, how come some maintain that ISIS is defeated while others disprove it? What do the facts say?
ISIS is not defeated. This fact is inconvenient because the participants in the battle against it have to admit their mistakes. All military experts know that the jihadists have been regrouping since the summer of 2018, regardless of the strikes against them in Iraq and Syria. Currently, it is estimated that ISIS has about 30,000-strong army, without counting in its sympathisers and a network of spies in both countries. In Iraq, they employ again their terrorist weaponry - car bombs, abductions, murders, mass shootings, placed explosives, etc. In Syria, ISIS has been constantly moving its headquarters from southern and eastern Syria and went on launching attacks far beyond their territories.
Islamic State also made a comeback to Africa. Within the recent months, their traces have been discovered more and more frequently in South Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia. The militants of ISIS in West Africa, former members of extremist group Boko Haram, got hold of two towns in the region of Lake Chad within just two weeks in the very end of 2018. This does not testify to the defeat of ISIS - on the contrary, ISIS is moving its centres of activity to other zones and expands its global sphere of influence. Its presence in East Afghanistan is an especially illustrative example - within the past two years they have enhanced their influence and drew in even Taliban militants. ISIS is becoming increasingly active in Southeastern Asia too. The top leaders of ISIS are also safe and sound - there is no information as to whether their leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed.
Why is no one now talking about ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad?
I don't believe that any of the world leaders really wanted to topple Assad's regime. Yes, there were certain statements to media, but all talks I had with some members of state administrations in the recent eight years show a completely different picture off screen. France and Great Britain employed similar policy against the regime but did not do anything substantial. Other European states, like Italy and the Czech Republic, went on cooperating with the Syrian government for years, as Italian companies even supplied fuel to the Syrian air force till 2016. At the beginning of 2019, three Belgian companies were again found guilty of violating EU directives against chemical products supplies to Syria. Two of their managers are even sentenced to a prison term.
The fact is that there was no explicit political will to oust the regime because it is useful and the Israelis could say a lot to confirm it. It is not by chance that PM Benjamin Netanyahu has never taken a steadfast position on the civil war in Syria, and during his talks with Vladimir Putin he reiterated that his only concern was the presence of Iran in Syria. In the years before the riots in Syria, in 2011, Israel and Syria even attempted to negotiate several times and made certain progress. If an enemy state - and that's how Israel is seen - has nothing against Assad, then why the states which do business with him, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would like to change the regime in Damascus? Both Riyadh and Doha have shown that they support the Syrian militias only to counter each other's influence in the region, nothing else. The states of the Persian Gulf even started reopening embassies in Damascus.
A month ago, the Syrian army was called to rescue the Kurds in Manbij, isn't it strange?
Yes, the Syrian regime had an opportunity to show off as a saviour of Kurds, the people who for decades on end were oppressed by the regime of Ba'ath and Hafez al-Assad, the father of the incumbent president. The Kurds did not have citizenship and were considered second-rate people in Syria. However, PKK, which forms the greater part of the Kurdish force in northern Syria, have a long history of friendship with Assad. The Syrian regime provided shelter to Abdullah Oecalan before he was extradited to Turkey, and as of 2011 PKK has always had Plan B which included an agreement with Assad concerning the controlled zones. For instance, the city of Al-Hasakah was divided between Assad and PKK. The reaction of PKK to the events in Manbij was not surprising - surprising is the naivete of the states that have interests in Syria.
Do you believe that negotiations like those in Astana or Geneva may result in peace in Syria, or is it only the big global and regional powers that can bring the war to an end one day?
No, definitely not. Both in Geneva and Astana, the main mission was to let the states show what trump cards they had to play. They have shown no willingness to achieve peace or find an adequate solution that will end the clashes, they only wanted to redistribute zones of influence. In Astana, Turkey, Iran and Russia distributed the zones among themselves and called them “de-escalation zones”. These zones, one way or another, were a total failure. In Geneva, the impassiveness of the European countries and failure of the UN became apparent. So, these negotiations were doomed to fail and could only produce a roadmap similar to agreements which put to end the war in Bosnia, but in the Syrian context they have precipitated even stronger concussions.
Europe is very interested in ensuring peace in Syria and the entire Middle East, but so far it has been only an outside observer. How long will it hold this position?
The European Union cannot react, as it has no consolidated stand on the issue. As long as the EU cannot overcome its internal strife and create EU joint military force, it will remain only an outside observer.
Could we expect a new wave of migrants from Syria after a certain abatement last year?
Yes, the surge of refugees has abated, but in fact the influx of migrants has not stopped. If military conflicts are sparked off again, which will happen almost for certain, there will be people who would choose to flee their home country. And here we have to note that Syria is not the only hot spot - in Mali war is going on, in Afghanistan things go from bad to worse. The climate refugees (environmental migrants) will very soon become an important factor too.
Where are the soldiers of ISIS who come from EU countries now moving to? Is there any threat of future terrorist acts in Europe?
This is a very important topic and it must be discussed constantly. Currently, ISIS has a considerable number of militant members in several countries in Africa and Asia, as well as a sprawling network of sympathisers in Europe and the US. There are many EU citizens (including from the Balkan countries) among them. Al-Qaeda also recruits foreign members and the organisation has now reached its apogee.
When talking of future attacks, our concept of a “lonely wolf” is erroneous. The group decides where to attack and where not. All probes made so far show that ISIS works like a well-greased machine. There will be for sure other attacks, but from now on they will be carried out by one or two persons, with knives or pistols or drones. The cost of an attack could be very low but it may trigger a wave of fear and make governments increase spending on safety by millions. Unfortunately, Europe is busy with making populist and nationalistic statements instead of waging a real battle with the issues which serve as a trigger for terrorism.
Ruslan Trad is an analyst, author and freelance journalist of Syrian descent whose focus of interest are the Middle East and North Africa. He has lectured in Bulgarian universities, the Diplomatic Institute with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NATO, and has published a series of articles on Lebanon, Southeastern Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Thailand. In 2014, he made a film in Iraqi Kurdistan, shot at the frontline with ISIS, and in 2016 made another film in Tunisia about the country's political crisis and the war in Libya. In 2017, his book “Murder of a Revolution” was published. The book is dedicated to the war in Syria. He is also a co-founder of De Re Militari - the only journal in Bulgaria covering military conflicts and producing maps related to them.