The world’s attention, which has been focused on West Asia’s macabre theatre of terror, has shifted to Syria from Iraq, and Aleppo has again become an important city not just for the Bashar al-Assad regime but for all the nations involved in the region. The Syrian army — backed by Iran, the Hezbollah, other Shia militia and, most importantly, Russia — is fighting rebel forces to take over Aleppo. However, in the garb of fighting the Jabhat al Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, the pro-Assad forces are attacking rebel groups allied to the United States. Washington has condemned Moscow’s air assault but short of any action, such a reprimand means nothing.
Last week, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia said it was considering sending ground troops to Syria to ‘fight the Islamic State’. This move would further complicate the operations, especially at a time when there are reports that Turkey is attacking the Kurds and Syrian troops.
It is not sure if this decision by Ankara and Riyadh will weaken the Assad government, because Moscow and Tehran have been systematically targeting anti-Assad forces. But what is certain is that Turkish and Saudi forces would weaken the Syrian Kurds who have played a vital role in fighting the Islamic State (IS) —this will shift the focus away from the IS.
A recent report by Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, on the threat posed by the IS to international peace and security, comes to the conclusion that the terror group is likely to grow this year.
The report also raises ‘major concerns’ about the influence and impact the IS’ foreign fighters may have as they return from Iraq and Syria to their homelands and ‘use their skills and combat experience to recruit additional sympathizers, establish terrorist networks and commit terrorist acts.’
While the blowback rate — the number of foreign fighters who return and attack their home country — is relatively low, the report states that this could rise with the number of foreign fighters increasing. This has been a major concern for the West, especially Europe that have seen many lone-wolf attacks in the recent past.
Many Right-leaning political parties in Europe are also subscribing to the view that citizens who have gone to fight the ‘holy war’ in Syria and Iraq should not be allowed back to their home country.
Such views find resonance in a claim made by Riad Kamel Abbas, the Syrian ambassador to India, in an interview to Hindustan Times in 2014. Abbas had said that some European nations had approached the Assad regime to ‘take care’ of radicalised Europeans fighting in Syria. “Intelligence chiefs of some European countries like France, Germany, Denmark and Britain had approached the Syrian government with a deal that if the Syrian government would ‘take care’ of radicalised Europeans fighting in Syria, Europe would not press charges of human rights violation against Syria,” he said.
Closer home and of more concern to India, the UN report notes the IS’ growing influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attraction of groups like the Tehreek-e-Khilafat to the IS’ ideology and the attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, point towards developments New Delhi will need to keep a sharp eye on.
The action in Aleppo, when read along with the UN report, shows how the IS is slipping off the terror radar.
Washington has never been successful in tackling terror in West Asia. Today the region is a house of cards and nothing short of a policy nightmare. To weaken Assad the rebels have to be empowered, but empowering the rebels, especially the Kurds, would not be possible without antagonising Erdogan’s Turkey. Without Turkey’s positive involvement it would be near impossible to check the IS — not to mention the flow of refugees into Europe. Empowering the rebels would also mean weakening Assad, which Tehran and Moscow would oppose —even Washington cannot deny the role Tehran has played in stopping the IS juggernaut in Iraq. But the Sunni powers in the region do not view Tehran’s involvement favourably, further widening the Shia-Sunni divide. This complex web of interests often put countries that should be fighting together at loggerheads. The picture gets further complicated when the actions and interests of the United States, Russia and Israel are factored in.
The focus of the war on terror needs to shift back on to the IS, and for this Russia and Iran need to stop empowering Assad at the cost of rebels who oppose the Syrian president. The US must persuade Turkey and Saudi Arabia to not further muddy the waters, but only after reaching an agreement with Russia. The UN must wake up before the current attack on Aleppo leads to a catastrophe. A failure at this point would benefit terror groups and further push the region into chaos.
Views expressed by the author are personal.
The author tweets as @vijucherian