22 May 2015

With Syria and Iraq, there is no Plan B – and the omens are not good

It has been a bad week for “coalition” strategy against militants from so-called Islamic State. I write “coalition” in inverted commas, because in reality this is an American-led attempt to impose regional and international legitimacy upon a war which the US president himself views with great qualms and some reluctance.

The plan, in a nutshell, is air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq – along with supplying arms and training for select Syrian rebel groups, the Iraqi army, and Iraqi Sunni tribes.

The training of Syrian rebel groups has only just begun in Turkey and Jordan. I don’t hold out a great deal of hope for it turning the tide, but it is too early to judge. The Saudis are not waiting around for the Americans to deliver results and have stepped up the arming of alternative Islamist groups. One of the under-reported  stories of Syria is not the territorial gains of IS, but the gains of their Saudi-backed rivals.

As for Iraq, the Americans have been assisting the Iraqi army for years – and Ramadi fell to IS at the weekend, nonetheless. It hasn’t worked before and I see no reason to believe it will work now. Arming the Sunni tribes may work in pushing back IS, as it has against al-Qaeda in the past, but it may also widen Iraq’s sectarian divide.

And yet no broader overhaul of US strategy is in the offing. The war-weary Americans do not wish to be further drawn into somebody else’s conflict and nor do the British. David Cameron’s new government is putting its diplomatic effort into EU reform ahead of a referendum on EU membership.

Both the US and UK regard President Assad of Syria as a barrel-bombing villain with whom they can’t do business, so expect no change of tack there. Just because the barbarians are quite literally at the gates of Palmyra is not going to make Assad’s regime any more palatable.

With both Syria and Iraq, there is no plan B. We are where we are. And while it is easy to write off that strategy at the end of a bad week, the omens are not good either.

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