The Chaos Coalition

New York talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war are exposing the sprawling strategy gulf in the coalition against the Islamic State.

ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 03: Members of opposition groups make preparations during the US-led coalition airstrikes against DAESH positions at Brekida village in Aleppo, Syria on December 03, 2015. (Photo by Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 03: Members of opposition groups make preparations during the US-led coalition airstrikes against DAESH positions at Brekida village in Aleppo, Syria on December 03, 2015. (Photo by Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

If there is one thing the United States and Russia can agree on in Syria, it’s that the country’s Kurdish fighters are among the most committed to defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield and reclaiming territory the extremists are forced to abandon.

But the big powers’ affinity for the Kurds of the Syrian People’s Protection Units was insufficient to guarantee them a seat at the opposition talks in Saudi Arabia last week. Turkey, a key ally of the United States, vetoed the inclusion of the Syrian Kurdish group, known as the YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.

The reluctance of Turkey to embrace the Kurdish militants as vital partners in Syria’s future points to a broader shortcoming in the international effort to confront the Islamic State. Many, if not most, of the key players are pursuing interests in Syria and Iraq that have nothing to do with the war against the Islamic State. It is one of the issues world powers, organized under the banner of the International Syria Support Group, met on Friday at the United Nations headquarters in the latest push for a peace agreement in Syria.

“The irony is that everyone wants to be part of the fight, but nobody is truly fighting to win,”  said Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It seems to be a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my frenemy.'”

The ISSG — which includes the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other key powers — did its best to put on a unified front while promoting the latest cease-fire plans and struggling to sort out Syria’s moderate opposition groups from terrorists. But diplomats said that the group remained divided over which opposition groups would be allowed to participate in the political process.

Still, the U.N. Security Council adopted of a U.S.-drafted resolution endorsing a peace strategy in the four-and-a-half-year civil war that has left more than 250,000 people dead and has drawn a blinding array of jihadists, militias, and regional and world powers directly into the theater of battle.

“We are under no illusions about the obstacles that exist; there obviously remain sharp differences within the international community, especially about the future of President Assad,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the council after the vote. “But we’ve also seen in recent weeks in Vienna, in Paris…and then today in New York an unprecedented degree o unity on the need to negotiate this political transition, to defeat Daesch, and then indeed to end the war.”

The resolution, which was adopted by all 15 members of the council, calls on the U.N. special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to convene “formal negotiations” between Syrian government and opposition representatives as early as next month. It remained unclear whether that would be achievable as Jordan Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh — whose government is responsible for assembling a list of terrorists who would be barred from the political process –told the council that there is still no agreement among the key powers on which groups or individuals would be designated terrorists.

The resolution also expressed support for a U.N.-facilitated Syrian political process within six months that would establish a “non-sectarian” governing process and set a schedule for drafting a new constitution., and hold U.N.-monitored elections within 18 months. And it demands that Syria’s warring parties fighting immediately halt attacks on civilians and medical facilities, as well as stopping the use of indiscriminate shelling or aerial bombardment of populated areas. The U.N. calls on the U.N. to propose within a month a series of options for a plan to monitoring any future ceasefire.

But whatever agreements — if any — emerge from this third round of Syria political talks — known as the Vienna process because they began Oct. 30 in the Austrian capital — the various parties are certain to leave New York divided on some of the key issues. Chief among them is the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and Iran believe the Syrian leader is an essential partner in any effort to confront and defeat the Islamic State.

The United States, Turkey, and their European and Gulf State allies believe that Syria will never enjoy a durable peace as long as Assad — whose government is responsibility for the vast majority of the war’s dead — remains in power.

In recent months, however, the United States has been moving closer to the Russian position. In Moscow this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that “the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called ‘regime change,’ as it is known in Syria. What we have said is that we don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria.”

Kerry also dismissed a demand by a broad slate of Syrian opposition groups that Assad step down immediately, before peace negotiations begin, saying that is a “nonstarting position.”

A series of attacks either sponsored or inspired by the Islamic State, from Paris to Egypt and Lebanon and San Bernardino, California, have generated broad international consensus on the need to confront the extremist group. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew oversaw a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution aimed at cutting the Islamic State’s ability to generate funds. But translating international outrage over the Islamic State’s conduct into a viable strategy in Syria has been complicated by the ongoing civil war.

Achieving progress in cobbling together a diverse coalition to sit down with Syria’s government would mark an essential first step in mounting and advancing the political process in Syria, or reaching a ceasefire agreement.

But it would hardly be sufficient to end the war. Nor would it be enough to persuade Syria’s warring parties, let alone their foreign sponsors, to turn their firepower on the Islamic State.

“The key issue is not the unity or disunity of the opposition,” said David Pollock, an expert on the Kurds and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The key issue is that Russia and Iran haven’t given up on Assad and there is no sign that they are going to do it. That is why I think the Vienna process is not going to go very far.”

Sharp differences between the key Syrian and international players, meanwhile, are complicating efforts to cobble together a united coalition against the Islamic State, while purported allies in the fight against them are often shooting at one another.

Russia and Turkey — two key sponsors of rival Syrian fighting forces — have been at each other’s throats since the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet last month along the Syrian border with Turkey.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin derided Turkey in the crudest of terms, describing Ankara’s government as toadies of the United States who “wanted to lick the Americans in a certain place.” He hinted Moscow might be prepared to retaliate if Turkey attacked its planes again. “Let them try and fly there now,” he said.

Russia, meanwhile, has denounced several Islamist groups in Syria as terrorists — despite having the backing of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Those groups — Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham — are seen as critical in combatting the Assad regime.

“The terrorists of all stripes have no place in the talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the council Friday. “It is inadmissible to divide terrorists among good and bad ones.”

“We still believe that terrorists of all kinds should be excluded from the political process,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a recent statement, singling out Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham. “The first group, among other things, has opened fire on the Russian Embassy in Damascus more than once, while the fighters from the second group are combating alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and are members of the same terrorist structure, Jaish al-Fatah.” Jabhat al-Nursra, or al-Nusra Front, is al Qaeda’s wing in Syria.

Turkey and the United States also disagree on the validity of the YPG and its allied Democratic Union Party, which administers the self-proclaimed territory of Rojava. The Syrian Kurdish militia draws inspiration from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is a widely recognized terror group. Washington, however, does not consider YPG fighters as terrorists.

Adding to the confusion, the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have all sought to assemble their own antiterror coalitions, which are often working at cross purposes.

Since last year, the United States has led a military coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve, in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In September, Russia intervened militarily in Syria, joining a coalition of Assad’s government troops, Iranian forces, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to crush armed opposition forces seeking Assad’s overthrow, including some rebel groups the West and Gulf Arab nations support.

And on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the creation of its own 34-nation antiterror coalition. Iran, Iraq, and Syria are conspicuously absent from the list.

“The sheer complexity of the international response to Syria is unprecedented,” said Gowan. However, he suggested there is still cause to hope competing powers may one day come together to help patrol a postwar Syria, recalling that “Russia and NATO both sent troops into Kosovo in 1999, and nearly got into a firefight, but ended up working together.”

“Ultimately, it is going to get more complicated … like it or not,” Gowan said. But “it’s still quite feasible you’ll see Russian, Arab, and NATO peacekeepers patrolling the country in parallel at some point in the future — though coordinating them will be an absolute nightmare.”

In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is looking to Syria’s Kurds to help fashion a new coalition with Arab fighters to take on the Islamic State in northern Syria.

During a stop Thursday in Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdish capital, Carter said the Syrian Kurds, who have “been quite effective at fighting ISIL,” have introduced the United States to some Syrian Arabs who “would be willing to fight ISIL.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

But some analysts had doubts as to whether the Kurds can form a durable relationship with Syrian Arabs, who have been unwilling to recognize the Kurds’ minority rights. Additionally, the Kurds have been accused by Amnesty International of displacing Arabs and Turkmen communities in northern Syria that are suspected of sympathizing with the Islamic State.

“In my view it is a real failure of the anti-Assad forces, in that they haven’t been able to bridge gaps between Arabs and Kurds,” said Pollock. “The fact is the Arab opposition and the Kurds themselves have been unable, despite several attempts, to come together and agree on a common platform.”

Photo credit: Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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