“Negotiate With ISIS” (But “does God compromise”?)

December 17, 2015

ISIS, seen here drowning captives in a cage in a swimming poll, doesn’t look like it’s in the mood to negotiate – Tom Gross

 

[Note by Tom Gross]

The first two articles attached below (one published in a mainstream American publication, the other in a British one) both call on western governments to negotiate with ISIS. Though I don’t agree with all aspects of these articles, readers might be interested in them since articles such as these may become a trend.

The first, in the American magazine the Atlantic, is by Jonathan Powell who was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007 and the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007. There are a few extracts from it (below) for those who don’t have time to read it in full.

In the second article, from the British newspaper the Independent, it is argued “When pariah states are brought into the international system, they become subject to constraints. Consider the USSR.”

***

While I believe that ISIS should be hit hard, the Assad regime remains just as much of a problem, if not the root problem. I have argued this since the Syrian conflict began, and indeed even before that. As I have written previously, for the west to pressure ISIS but not Assad is only likely to prolong the conflict. To allow Assad to continue his genocidal and ethnic cleansing policies against the majority Sunni population of Syria will only increase support for ISIS.

The third article below, from the German magazine Der Spiegel, points out that Assad and ISIS are in de facto cooperation as they carve up Syria. There have been dozens of cases since 2014 in which Assad’s troops and IS have been coordinating attacks on rebel groups.

-- Tom Gross

 

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.


“OTHERS SUGGEST THAT ISIS FIGHTERS ARE NIHILISTIC PSYCHOPATHS AND THUS NOT CAPABLE OF RATIONAL NEGOTIATIONS. ON THE CONTRARY”

EXTRACTS FROM FIRST ARTICLE

Former chief of staff to Tony Blair: “The natural human reaction to mass murders by ISIS or their purported sympathizers in Paris, Beirut, and San Bernardino is grief, anger, and a demand to redouble efforts to “degrade and destroy” the organization. People have had similar reactions after every terrorist attack, whether it was committed by the PLO or the IRA... Once the red mist of rage has lifted, however, it’s important to think coolly and calmly about the long-term strategy for ending the horrific violence.

In doing so, Western governments need to learn from history. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said he would never talk to the “murder gang” that was the original Irish Republican Army, but would defeat it. Two years later he was engaged in negotiations with the group’s leader Michael Collins… In reality, however, we nearly always end up talking to terrorist groups rather than defeating them militarily…

The causes of ISIS’s violence in the West can only be tackled at their root in Iraq and Syria…

After 30 years of fighting, the Free Aceh Movement’s guerrilla campaign in Indonesia only ended through the negotiations led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari in 2005. The FMLN in El Salvador wasn’t defeated by more than a decade of American-backed military campaigns, but only ended after UN-brokered talks in 1992. A terrorist campaign by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao in the southern Philippines was only ended after negotiations with the government of President Benigno Aquino in 2014.

Of course people argue that ISIS is completely different from anything we have seen before. But people have said that about each new armed group since the rise of the IRA in 1919. It is true that ISIS is religiously inspired – in the words of a former Israeli cabinet minister, “God doesn’t compromise.” Governments have, however, made peace with Islamic guerrillas before, including the Free Aceh Movement and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, so it is not impossible to do. Others suggest that ISIS fighters are nihilistic psychopaths and thus not capable of rational negotiations. On the contrary, ISIS’s sophisticated military and media strategies show that its leaders are unfortunately very shrewd, as well as very brutal…

I am not for one moment suggesting that talking is an alternative to fighting ISIS. We need to do both…

 

Update:

FrontPage Magazine offers a response to and link to this dispatch here.


CONTENTS

1. “Negotiate With ISIS” (By Jonathan Powell, The Atlantic, Dec 7, 2015)
2. “Why it’s time to grant Isis diplomatic recognition” (By Vadim Nikitim, The Independent, Dec 15, 2015)
3. “Why Assad Is Uninterested in Defeating Islamic State” (By Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel, Dec 8, 2015)

 

ARTICLES

NEGOTIATE WITH ISIS

Negotiate With ISIS
Jonathan Powell
The Atlantic
Dec 7, 2015

The natural human reaction to mass murders by ISIS or their purported sympathizers in Paris, Beirut, and San Bernardino is grief, anger, and a demand to redouble efforts to “degrade and destroy” the organization. People have had similar reactions after every terrorist attack, whether it was committed by the PLO or the IRA, whether it was in New York on 9/11 or London on 7/7. Once the red mist of rage has lifted, however, it’s important to think coolly and calmly about the long-term strategy for ending the horrific violence.

In doing so, Western governments need to learn from history. During the Irish War of Independence in 1919, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said he would never talk to the “murder gang” that was the original Irish Republican Army, but would defeat it. Two years later he was engaged in negotiations with the group’s leader Michael Collins. More recently, Dick Cheney expressed the same idea more pithily: “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” In reality, however, we nearly always end up talking to terrorist groups rather than defeating them militarily. Instead of continuing to suffer from collective amnesia and repeating the same pattern again and again, it would be better to look back at what has happened over the past century and imitate the steps that have led to the successful conclusion of other conflicts.

The causes of ISIS’s violence in the West can only be tackled at their root in Iraq and Syria. That requires a convincing military strategy both from the air and on the ground. I don’t know anyone who seriously believes ISIS will be defeated by bombing alone – an army can only be driven out, and kept out, of territory it controls through the use of ground forces. So far the United States and its allies haven’t come up with a convincing answer to the question of who will provide the necessary “boots on the ground” to do this, although the United States has started sending special-operations forces to both countries.

Even if the United States and its allies were able to beat the group back into being a guerrilla force again, as the White House has rightly emphasized, “there is no military solution” to the ISIS problem. Past experience demonstrates the need for a political strategy, as well as a military one, to defeat the idea behind a terrorist movement. If an armed group enjoys significant political support – unlike the small 1970s-era groups like Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang or America’s Symbionese Liberation Army – ending its violence has historically required addressing the grievances on which the group feeds and, in the end, negotiating with its leaders. In the words of Hugh Orde, the former police chief in Northern Ireland, there are almost no examples in the world of such a terrorist group being “policed out.”

If there is a political issue at the heart of a conflict, it needs a political answer. The violence of the Provisional IRA – the original Irish Republican Army’s successor, which engaged in a three-decade terrorist campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland – was constrained and undermined by security and intelligence work in the 1980s and 1990s. But the conflict was only finally ended by the decade-long negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the Saint Andrews Agreement in 2006, for which I was the chief British government negotiator. After 30 years of fighting, the Free Aceh Movement’s guerrilla campaign in Indonesia only ended through the negotiations led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari in 2005. The FMLN in El Salvador wasn’t defeated by more than a decade of American-backed military campaigns, but only ended after UN-brokered talks in 1992. A terrorist campaign by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao in the southern Philippines was only ended after negotiations with the government of President Benigno Aquino in 2014.

There are many more such examples, but almost no examples of a terrorist campaign with widespread political support being brought to an end by military means alone. Such negotiations do not always succeed the first time around. In Aceh, in Spain with ETA, and in Northern Ireland, eventual success was built on a series of failed negotiations. There is no such thing as an insoluble conflict with an armed group – just one that hasn’t been solved yet.

Of course people argue that ISIS is completely different from anything we have seen before. But people have said that about each new armed group since the rise of the IRA in 1919. It is true that ISIS is religiously inspired – in the words of a former Israeli cabinet minister, “God doesn’t compromise.” Governments have, however, made peace with Islamic guerrillas before, including the Free Aceh Movement and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, so it is not impossible to do. Others suggest that ISIS fighters are nihilistic psychopaths and thus not capable of rational negotiations. On the contrary, ISIS’s sophisticated military and media strategies show that its leaders are unfortunately very shrewd, as well as very brutal. ISIS is indeed different from past groups, just as those groups were different from each other, but the question is whether that means the lessons of history no longer apply. I doubt it.

There is no such thing as an insoluble conflict with an armed group – just one that hasn’t been solved yet.

A political strategy to deal with ISIS is thus ultimately likely to mean negotiations with the core leadership, however much we despise the group’s methods. It may seem outlandish that a creed as absurd as ISIS’s should enjoy political support, but on the other hand, it is very hard to see how 2,000 fighters were able to take the Iraqi city of Mosul, population about 1.5 million, without it. And any political strategy will need to address the sources of this support – particularly Sunni alienation. In Iraq, a major cause of this was the corrupt and sectarian rule of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, which made even ISIS seem preferable among some Sunnis. It’s no coincidence that the self-styled Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi draws many of his deputies from among former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army and members of the Baath party. It is less likely that those individuals have suffered some sudden genuine conversion to an extreme sect of Islam than that they see an opportunity to fight the Shiite majority that has ruled the country since the fall of Saddam’s minority Sunni-dominated regime. In Syria the domination of the Assad family and their Alawite backers have had much the same effect on Sunnis there. There are, in other words, genuine grievances underlying ISIS’s resilience in Mesopotamia.

Who should be talking to ISIS? Like the Taliban in Afghanistan – who have been in on-again, off-again talks with the U.S. government for several years – they are likely to want to talk in the first instance to those who are fighting them, in other words the Americans and their allies, not least since they do not accept the legitimacy of governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Their immediate aim will be to reduce the military pressure they face. It should ultimately be legitimate governments in Iraq and Syria – which in the latter’s case will almost certainly require the removal of Bashar al-Assad – that work with Sunnis to determine their place in society, perhaps through the creation of autonomous Sunni regions comparable to the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. In the same way, the Afghan government will be the Taliban’s interlocutor if and when peace talks finally take off in Afghanistan.

What is there to talk about with such a horrific and fascistic group? For one thing, it is important to understand that talking with terrorists is not the same as agreeing with them. In the 1990s, the British government would never have been prepared to talk to the IRA about a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun and against the wishes of the majority of the people living there. When we sat down with the Republicans, however, we found that there were a series of legitimate subjects they wanted to discuss – from power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants to the protection of human rights. It is not impossible that the same pattern could be repeated with ISIS. No one is going to be interested in discussing a universal caliphate, but there are issues that can legitimately be discussed, starting with the oppression of Sunnis and future efforts to forge for them a comfortable place in both Iraq and Syria.

It is possible to imagine a solution that includes autonomy for Sunni communities in both Iraq and Syria.

Moreover, such negotiations are dynamic, not static. Positions change as part of a process. Even if some of the hardline leaders of ISIS, particularly the foreign fighters, want nothing less than their full demands (including ushering in the apocalypse), other more moderate leaders will, under military pressure, be prepared to settle for more modest gains. The aim should be to strengthen those moderates’ positions in ISIS’s internal discussions. Such a negotiation would not be easy, but it is possible to imagine a solution that includes autonomy for Sunni communities in both Iraq and Syria, respect for their rights, and oil-revenue sharing that allows a viable system of government.

Of course some will insist that Sunni grievances in Iraq should be discussed only with Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad, and not with ISIS. Certainly replacing Maliki with Abadi was an improvement from the point of view of Sunnis, but it is equally clear that many Sunnis, and not just ISIS supporters, remain alienated from Baghdad. One of the many mistakes the U.S., U.K., and their allies made in Iraq was to pull out in 2011 without ensuring power-sharing or at least an effective dialogue between Sunnis and Shia there. A major external effort will now be required to create such a dialogue.

In Syria there is no legitimate government for the Sunni opposition to talk to, and the principal efforts of the non-ISIS opposition will continue to be focused on removing Assad rather than fighting the group. The first objective of negotiations should be inter-sectarian dialogue with more moderate opposition groups to try to split off Sunni support from ISIS. But in Northern Ireland, while we started trying to make peace between the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party and Catholic SDLP, we ended having to conclude the agreement between the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, and I suspect something similar will be true in Iraq and Syria. We will again have to speak to the extremes if we want to silence the guns for good.

I am not for one moment suggesting that talking is an alternative to fighting ISIS. We need to do both.

I am not arguing that those of us in the anti-ISIS coalition should try to sit down with Mr. al-Baghdadi now, even if he wanted to do so. Past experience tells us, however, that it would be sensible to open a secret channel now so we can communicate with ISIS and put ourselves in a position to negotiate once we have arrived at a “mutually hurting stalemate” in which both sides realize they cannot win militarily. That is what has happened in previous cases. The British government, for example, opened a secret channel to the IRA in 1972, even though the real negotiations didn’t start until 1992.

I am also not for one moment suggesting that talking is an alternative to fighting ISIS. We need to do both. If real military pressure – on the ground as well as from the air – is combined with attempts to address the Sunni grievances that fuel the conflict, and to offer ISIS’s supporters a political way out, then maybe the world will eradicate the problem of ISIS, just as we have eradicated the threat posed by previous armed groups. If we learn the lessons of the past quickly, rather than waiting for years and trying everything else, many fewer people may die in the Middle East and in the West.

 

WHY IT’S TIME TO GRANT ISIS DIPLOMATIC RECOGNITION

Why it’s time to grant Isis diplomatic recognition
When pariah states are brought into the international system, they become subject to constraints. Consider the USSR
By Vadim Nikitim
The Independent (London)
December 15, 2015

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/why-we-should-grant-isis-diplomatic-recognition-a6773761.html

Last week saw the publication of a cache of internal memos leaked from official Isis sources, including a “24-page statecraft blueprint”. The documents show that Isis has already lived up to its name, whether we like it or not.

Yet Western policies continue to deny this reality. Like the war on drugs, the war against Isis remains predicated on the flawed notion that acceptance implies legitimation. With the US and other Western countries are finally coming round to more reality-based drugs policies, the time has come to embrace the same principles of harm-reduction when it comes to international relations. Only by recognising and treating Isis as a bona fide state can we hope to understand its workings and motivations and, ultimately, contain its murderous advance across the region.

History shows that diplomatic recognition of extremist governments can make them more likely to moderate their behaviour. While pariahs are able behave with impunity, when brought within the international system, they become subject to constraints. The most striking example of this was the Soviet Union.

For three years following the revolution of 1917, the US, UK and France believed they could defeat the spread of Communism in Russia with force. Thousands of troops were deployed to fight against the Red Army in a brutal and confusing civil war, to no avail. When Vladimir Lenin finally proclaimed the creation of the USSR in 1922, Western powers refused to accept it.

Shunned by the international community, the Bolsheviks acted in much the same way as Isis do now. Thousands of churches and priceless historical artefacts were destroyed in the name of an extremist ideology. Firing squads roamed the countryside brutally executing enemies of the regime. Similarly to Isis, Russia’s new rulers recognised neither the legitimacy of neighbouring governments nor the sanctity of their borders. For example, the Communist International explicitly sought to export world revolution and sponsored armed uprisings in Germany, Hungary and Estonia.

Britain finally established diplomatic relations in 1924; nearly a decade passed before the US and most of the rest of the world followed suit. Widespread diplomatic recognition of the USSR did little to quell the internal excesses of the regime. But it did correspond to a shift in Soviet foreign policy from ideological zealotry to greater pragmatism and accommodation with its neighbours.

As the quest for world revolution was replaced with the much more modest doctrine of “Socialism in one country”, Moscow stopped actively plotting the overthrow of Western governments. While the USSR would remain a foe of the West for the next 50 years, it became a predictable and rational opponent, one that knew the rules of the game and could be counted to stick to them. In fact, for all its anxiety and terror, the cold war also produced the longest period of peace and stability between the great powers. The historian John Lewis Gaddis described it as the “long peace”.

Isis exists, and wishful thinking cannot will it away. As with the war on drugs, which has singularly failed to curb either use or trafficking, the international bombing campaign has done little to stop the self-described Caliphate from attaining the core principles of statehood. It now controls significant territory, governs a population of up to 10 million, operates an increasingly sophisticated civil service bureaucracy and has largely established a monopoly on violence. Only by accepting reality and extending diplomatic recognition to Isis can the West hope to gain a credible means to moderate and constrain its further advance. The Soviet scenario is now the least worst option: it is time to forge a long peace with militant Islam.

 

WHY ASSAD IS UNINTERESTED IN DEFEATING ISLAMIC STATE

Why Assad Is Uninterested in Defeating Islamic State
By Christoph Reuter
Der Spiegel
December 8, 2015

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-helps-assad-gain-legitimacy-in-west-a-1066211.html

In the fight against Islamic State, the West is considering cooperating with the Syrian army. There’s a hitch though: Assad’s troops aren’t just too weak to defeat IS -- they also have no interest in doing so.

Sunday, Nov. 29, was market day in Ariha, a small city located in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. In May, various rebel groups had taken control of the town, which is legendary for its deep-red cherries. Ariha is located far from the front, and even further away from areas under the control of Islamic State (IS). But the Russian air force bombed it anyway.

The people shopping at the market didn’t stand a chance. Just seconds after the roar of the approaching Russian Sukhoi fighter jet first became audible, the first bombs struck. They killed passersby, vegetable sellers and entire families. “I saw torn up bodies flying around and children calling for their parents,” said a civil defense rescuer hours after the attack.

One day prior, just before 10 a.m., it was the turn of Safarana, a small city northeast of Homs. A first barrel bomb, dropped out of a Syrian regime helicopter, killed a man and a young girl and injured more than a dozen others. The victims had hardly been delivered to the clinic when two more barrel bombs exploded in front of the hospital, operated by Doctors without Borders, killing patients and paramedics who were caring for those who had just arrived.

Such attacks are nothing new in Syria. Jets from both Syria and Russia continue unhindered to bomb markets, hospitals, bakeries and pretty much any other place where people gather in the provinces that are under rebel control. Two years ago, Russia voted in favor of United Nations Resolution 2139, which was supposed to bring an end to attacks on Syrian civilians. But that hasn’t prevented Russia from flying hundreds of exactly those kinds of bombing raids itself since the end of September. And that, in turn, hasn’t prevented France from talking to Russia about the possibility of conducting coordinated air strikes and joining together in the fight against Islamic State.

Just three weeks after the terror attacks in Paris, Europe has prepared itself for entry into this war against Islamic State. But it is a war that unites many radically divergent elements -- and one for which there is no strategy. French jets, joined recently by British warplanes, are now flying sorties against IS in Syria. And Germany will soon join them. German Tornado jets, equipped with high-resolution imaging technology, are to help identify targets while A-310 aircraft will refuel warplanes in the air. In addition, a German frigate is to provide protection to a French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

PARTNERSHIP WITH THE DICTATOR

But beyond Germany’s limited contribution to the air war, Berlin and Paris are discussing a vastly more sensitive and extremely uncertain engagement on the ground. Meanwhile, the French government -- which had long been a vocal opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad -- recently introduced the idea of a possible partnership with the dictator and his troops in a joint alliance to fight IS.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently said somewhat awkwardly of Syria: “There are parts of the troops, that one could very well -- like in the Iraq example, where the training of local troops was very successful -- emulate here too.” Her spokesperson quickly made it clear that such a concept doesn’t apply to troops under Assad’s command. But the idea of cooperating with Assad is one under discussion: Islamic State terror in Europe would seem to have partially rehabilitated the dictator.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even proposed that fighting between the Syrian opposition and regime troops could be “discontinued, for a start.” Steinmeier’s words reveal his frustration at the fact that the two sides are engaging each other in a war of attrition instead of joining forces against IS. But the reality on the ground refuses to conform to his aspirations.

Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to identify such a potential partner for Europe on the Syrian battlegrounds. Assad’s official army is now just one of many fighting forces on the side of the regime -- and is also suffering from poor morale and a lack of soldiers. For many young Syrians from areas under government control, forced conscription has become the most significant motivator for embarking on the refugee trail to Europe.

This is also one reason why Russia’s initial strategy for Syria is not finding success. Moscow had been hoping that massive air strikes would force rebel fighters in opposition-held areas to abandon the fight. That would then pave the way for Assad’s ground forces to advance and take back those regions. But in October, when Assad’s tank units rolled into those areas that Russian jets had previously bombed, they didn’t get very far. Instead of fleeing, rebels there had dug in instead.

SYRIAN FIGHTING FORCE?

Using TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the US, in addition to Russian anti-tank weapons that had been captured or acquired from corrupt officers, the rebels struck some 20 tanks before the others turned back. The army’s ground offensive south of Aleppo likewise quickly ground to a halt. Meanwhile, rebels near Hama were able to finally take control of a long-contested city.

Assad’s army isn’t just vulnerable, it also isn’t strictly a Syrian force anymore. For the last two years, the forces on his side have increasingly been made up of foreigners, including Revolutionary Guards from Iran, members of Iraqi militias and Hezbollah units from Lebanon. They are joined at the front by Shiite Afghans from the Hazara people, up to 2 million of whom live in Iran, mostly as illegal immigrants. They are forcibly conscripted in Iranian prisons and sent to Syria -- according to internal Iranian estimates, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 of them fighting in the country. The situation leads to absurd scenes: In the southern Syrian town of Daraa, rebels began desperately searching for Persian interpreters after an offensive of 2,500 Afghans suddenly began approaching.

It is the first international Shiite jihad in history, one which has been compensating for the demographic inferiority of Assad’s troops since 2012. The alliance has prevented Assad’s defeat, but it hasn’t been enough for victory either. Furthermore, the orders are no longer coming exclusively from the Syrian officer corps. Iranian officers control their own troops in addition to the Afghan units, and they plan offensives that also involve Syrian soldiers. Hezbollah commanders coordinate small elite units under their control. Iraqis give orders to Iraqi and Pakistani militia groups. And the Russians don’t let anyone tell them what to do.

The odd alliances aren’t just limited to the Shiite fighters. Anti-Assad rebels were recently surprised to see American Humvees -- a vehicle that quickly became a symbol of IS attacks after the Islamists captured hundreds of them in Iraq in summer 2014 -- rolling towards them from government-controlled territory. “We thought only IS had captured Humvees, but the Shiite militias fighting alongside Assad use them too,” said Osama Abu Zaid, a local legal advisor to various groups belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Elsewhere, attacks by Assad supporters and by Islamic State have likewise taken place with astonishing temporal and geographic proximity to each other. Near the northern Syrian city of Tal Rifaat in early November, for example, an IS suicide attacker detonated his car bomb at an FSA base, though without causing much damage. Just half an hour later, two witnesses say, Russian jets attacked the same base for the first time.

UNSURPRISING COOPERATION

Was it a coincidence? Likely not. There have been dozens of cases since 2014 in which Assad’s troops and IS have apparently been coordinating attacks on rebel groups, with the air force bombing them from above and IS firing at them from the ground. In early June, the US State Department announced that the regime wasn’t just avoiding IS positions, but was actively reinforcing them.

Such cooperation isn’t surprising. The rebels -- in all their variety, from nationalists to radical Islamists -- represent the greatest danger to both Assad and IS. And if the two sides want to survive in the long term, the Syrian dictator and the jihadists are useful to each other. From Assad’s perspective, if the rebels were to be vanquished, the world would no longer see an alternative to the Syrian dictator. But the rebels are also primarily Sunni, as are two-thirds of the Syrian populace -- meaning that, from the IS perspective, once the rebels were defeated, the populace would be faced either with submission and exile, or they would join IS.

In short, a Syria free of rebels would put both Assad and Islamic State in powerful positions, though not powerful enough to defeat the other. Still, such a situation would be vastly preferable to the alternatives: Being toppled from power (Assad), or being destroyed (IS).

Relative to those two camps, the Syrian opposition in the West is hardly being paid attention to anymore. That is in part a function of their confusing structure: There are dozens of larger rebel groups and hundreds of smaller units, mostly at a local level. They cooperate, but alliances often crumble due to the ideological differences of their foreign supporters.

British Prime Minister David Cameron presented numbers last week indicating the existence of some 70,000 moderate rebels. In addition, he said, there were two large Islamist groups: Ahrar al-Sham in the north, with 15,000 fighters; and Jaish al-Islam north of Damascus, with 12,500 militiamen -- and the al-Qaida-allied group Nusra Front, with its 6,000 to 10,000 men. Cameron had hardly finished reciting the numbers before questions were raised as to whether the 70,000 he cited were prepared to partner with the West in the battle against Islamic State. They have, though, been fighting against Islamic State since January 2014 -- but have primarily focused their fight on Assad.

SIGNIFICANT MORAL QUESTION

Sending ground troops into such a situation, or even lending legitimacy to the Russian-Syrian offensive, would unwittingly transform Europe into Assad’s vassals. Beyond that, the dictator would have to be given troop reinforcements so that he could halfway successfully advance against the enemy.

Even if one were to ignore all of the military problems, there is also a significant moral question: Would the West really want to go into battle with a regime that has used, aside from nuclear weapons, pretty much every weapon imaginable against its own populace in an effort to cling to power? And once Islamic State is defeated and driven away, what should happen with the cities -- such as Raqqa, Deir el-Zour, al-Bab, Manbij and Abu Kamal -- that they now hold? All those cities had been take over by local rebels long before Islamic State moved in. Who should such areas be given to?

Certainly not to Assad. That would merely turn the clock back on this war by three years. Rebel groups would once again try to throw out Assad’s troops -- and ultimately Islamic State would strike again.

Making matters even more complicated is the fact that IS, the declared enemy-number-one of international efforts, is receding from the focus of two major foreign actors in Syria. Ever since Turkey shot down the Russian jet, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a proxy war in the Aleppo province, a conflict which has seen Kurdish IS-opponents exchanging fire with Sunni IS-opponents in recent days. Furthermore, Russian jets have stepped up their bombing campaign against Syrian settlements along the border with Turkey while the Turkish secret service is sending weapons and ammunition into the fight against the Kurds. Both presidents have fragile egos, and Syria has emerged as the perfect playing field for them to get Kurdish YPG units and rebel groups -- both of which had thus far focused their efforts on Islamic State -- to fight against each other.

And Islamic State? The jihadists had been facing significant pressure in recent months from ongoing air strikes launched by the US-led coalition. Not because it had lost ground, but because it had been unable to continue its advance. The group’s exploitative economy and its propaganda image both make a steady stream of victories necessary. The “caliphate” is facing financial difficulties and is also having trouble recruiting more foreign fighters. An expansion of allied air strikes could likely increase the pressure, while cooperation with Assad would put Islamic State in a perfect strategic position.

But for as long as Islamic State’s enemies are busy fighting each other, the Islamists can carry on as before. Like last Wednesday, when the jihadists took over the small city of Kafra north of Aleppo -- not long after it had been bombed by Russian jets.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.