Time for a new strategy on Syria

US policy needs to be re-examined in the light of military facts on the ground

 

News that the so-called Islamic State (IS) has captured the ancient and strategic city of Palmyra from Syrian government forces underlines how precarious the Assad regime’s position is in the country and how strong the insurgent force has become in the region. If the rebels go ahead with their threat to destroy the city’s ancient monuments in a further display of the propagandist iconoclasm they have previously used to publicise their cause we will hear more about their military successes.

The IS rebels now lead the opposition to the Syrian regime, having taken over that role from the previously fragmented forces in rebellion since 2011. Their ruthless methods are bolstered by substantial support from regional Sunni states determined to undermine Assad, who is backed by Iran.

The rebels now control most of southern Syria, from the Jordan border and across into Iraq, where last week they routed Iraqi forces in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, only 50 kilometres from the capital Baghdad. It is a substantial military achievement, which the United States policy of external intervention by airstrikes and drone attacks has been unable to arrest. The IS military force has been given backbone by recruiting sacked or defecting Sunni officers from the Iraqi army.

The fighting in Syria and Iraq has thereby become part and parcel of an actual and proxy war between these contending sectarian forces for control of the region. The outcome is far from the intended consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but nonetheless must be traced back there directly. Despite the Obama administration’s military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011-12 US forces are still directly involved. And although there are clear limits to US influence in the region it still has scope for a much more imaginative involvement arising from the nuclear agreement with Iran.

US policy badly needs to be re-examined in the light of these accumulating military facts on the ground.

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