Trump's War Against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad and Iran Are Winning

Putin, Trump
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. Carlos Barria/Trump

In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Related: Donald Trump on peace in the Middle East

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down.

The United States has also struck Iranian-backed columns in the southeast of the country three times in recent weeks, as well as destroying at least two Iranian drones. The Shiite militias were advancing near Al-Tanf, where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. From the Al-Tanf base, the U.S. military has supported local rebel groups as they won large swathes of the southern desert from ISIS, and from here it hopes to drive ISIS out of the Euphrates valley. But as the rebels advanced eastward against Sunni jihadis, Iran’s Shiite jihadis came from the west and claimed the newly liberated territory.

After six years, and the interventions of a myriad of states and organizations, each with competing agendas, the war in Syria is immensely complex. This doesn’t stop people reaching for simplistic total explanations, both ethnic and sectarian.

Some in the region will frame the intensifying tensions as the U.S. siding with Sunni against Shiite Muslims, a perception reinforced by President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the multibillion-dollar arms deal he signed there. Likewise, President Barack Obama ignoring the Iranian build up in Syria, and the disappearance of his chemical “red line” in August 2013 when Assad gassed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburbs, led many to believe then that America was siding with Shiite over Sunni Islam.

Many in the West too—politicians, academics and journalists as much as anyone else— assume that the Middle East’s current wars are symptoms of ancient, unchanging enmities. Obama, evading his own share of responsibility, asserted that regional instability is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” In other words, in “ancient sectarian differences.”

But it’s not “the Kurds” occupying Arab-majority towns; it’s one political party-militia claiming to speak for the Kurds. Likewise, ISIS in no way represents Syria’s Sunni Arabs, though it says it does. Neither does the externally based Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has proved incapable of recognizing Kurds’ right to autonomy in areas where they do form a majority. And Iran’s goals are strategic, though it exploits sectarian identity in order to achieve these goals.

Proponents of the “ancient conflict” thesis are unable to explain why religion matters in politics in some moments but not in others. The main cleavage in Lebanese politics, for instance, appears today to be Sunni vs. Shiite, but during the country’s 1975-90 civil war battle, lines were drawn between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, Sunni and Shiite communities in contemporary Iraq seem largely closed to each other, but before 2003, a third of Iraqi marriages were made between sects.

Any serious analysis of these shifts and reversals must pay attention not to theology but politics. A new book—Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, a collection of essays focusing on crises from Pakistan to Yemen—does just that. The introduction (written by editors Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel) defines sectarianization as a deliberate policy pursued (or perpetrated) by authoritarian regimes, the better to divide and rule. By this reading, the problems of the Middle East arise from tyranny and political underdevelopment, not from inherent cultural divides.

In its early stages, the Syrian Revolution was explicitly anti-sectarian. Protesters hoisted such slogans as “My sect is freedom” and “The Syrian people are one.” Christians attended mosques so they could join the demonstrations after prayers, and Arabs chanted azadi—the Kurdish word for “freedom.” As land was liberated, Syrians of all sects cooperated in elected local councils. How did this promising start degenerate in six short years to today’s seeming tangle of ethnic and religious wars?

In the essay on Syria in Hashemi and Postel’s book, Paulo Hilu Pinto identifies four channels of division: “top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fueled by regional forces); and inside out (the spread of Syria’s conflict to regional states).”

The most significant is top-down. From the start of the revolutionary challenge, the Assad regime made “strategic use” of visible state violence against Sunnis while mobilizing minority groups to police their “own” revolutionaries. To shore up minority support, and to pose to the West as the lesser evil, the regime helped create a Sunni-jihadi opposition by organizing massacres of Sunni civilians (in 2012) and releasing thousands of extremists from prison (in 2011) even as it rounded up, tortured and murdered democrats.

Greater division grew out of the trauma of war. Rumors, jokes, songs and media platforms expressed a sense of communal victimhood and demonized the other side. The chief regional forces contributing to the broth were ISIS—an Iraqi Sunni organization—and Shiite-theocratic Iran. Both broadcast their presence in April 2013. Iran did so through its Lebanese client Hezbollah, which recaptured Al-Qusayr for the regime. In the same month, ISIS declared itself a “state.” At this point, some Sunnis came to believe that Iran’s Shiite International was attacking them not because they had demanded democracy, but simply because they were Sunnis. And some non-Sunnis came to believe the regime was the only alternative to annihilation.

Both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance have practiced sectarian cleansing. ISIS does it for ideological and propaganda reasons. Assad does it more politically, to clear rebellious populations from strategic points and often to replace them with loyalists. To a lesser extent, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have also contributed to communal hatred, through propaganda and by funding Sunni-identity militias. 

But Saudi Arabia’s divisive influence, as Madawi Rasheed’s essay shows, is most pronounced at home. There’s a long history to this, but most recently the Arab Spring, and the specter of a national opposition movement, “pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shiite.” Just as Iran portrayed Syria’s uprising as a Saudi plot, so the Saudi Arabians described their restive population as a tool of Iranian imperialism.

Shiite Muslims form a majority in nearby Bahrain. Toby Matthiesen’s essay remembers that the country contained an active workers' movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The (Sunni) al-Khalifa royal family responded by banning unions, disbanding parliament (in 1975), building an exclusively Sunni security service (staffed by foreign mercenaries) and promoting Islamist parties. In February 2011, in response to pro-democracy protests, Saudi troops moved into Bahrain, supposedly to foil an Iranian-Shiite plot.

Today the U.S. maintains a naval base in this dictatorship. When Trump told the Muslim dictators massed in Riyadh to drive out extremism, he missed the main point. Dictatorship is the problem. The long-term solution to extremism is democracy. Sectarian division is just one of the obstacles that dictators deliberately throw in its way.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of the novel The Road From Damascus. He is co-author with Leila al-Shami of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize.