December 31, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Save the Patient: Syria in 2015

• Without a regional strategic cure in 2015, Syria could succumb to the symptoms of its wasting disease

• These symptoms include the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other extremist groups, some of which carry the label of ‘moderate,’ as well as the equally fatal Assad regime

• Tactics such as airstrikes and adding more arms to the fighting are akin to taking aspirin to lessen the initial pain of cancer, and will prove as ineffective in the long-term if nothing is done to treat the whole patient

• The extent of the disease will require a level of cooperation that has yet to take place in the region, as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey need to address their responsibilities and inter-dynamics, along with a renewed push for peace.


The end of 2014 finds Syria in extremely critical condition. The patient is divided between the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), all of which are deadly symptoms of a fatal disease. This disease is environmental in nature, as the toxins from regionally polluted politics and sectarian divisions have, in effect, poisoned the body. Without changing these factors, there is little that can be done other than continue treating for symptoms.

The Islamic State has garnered most of the tactical palliative care, as its deadly manifestations are the most public and visible, as least to Western powers. Airstrikes have indeed hurt the group but the underlying causes that facilitated its explosive growth have not been addressed. The regenerative abilities of the Islamic State, and its appeal to recruits across the world—both due to the allure of its message and the lack of alternative options—means that it is resistant to normal measures, much like an antibiotic-resistant superbug.

Equally fatal to the long-term health of Syria is JN, which despite being the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda, has managed to present itself as a solution. It has masked its true toxicity in two ways: by comparing itself to the Islamic State and by aligning itself, at times, with groups such as the Free Syrian Army that are presented as moderate but perhaps are no such thing. Such close alignment to seemingly benign groups (though some indeed are) has blunted initial measures to alleviate the symptoms of sustained extremism. JN latches on to the moderates until the conditions are right and then it devours them like a cancer cell. This has played out again and again, with groups such as Harakat Hazm, and will increase in 2015 until all parties see JN as not just the best fighters against Assad but as a fatal threat to the country’s future.

Less obvious to the West because of comparisons to the Islamic State and JN but tragically clear in Syria is the fatal impact of the Assad regime. The regime has continued its slaughter of the Syrian people, through barrel bombs and airstrikes. And it has powerful backers in Iran and Russia who have ensured there have been little effective tactics, let alone strategies, to alleviate the pain it is causing.

The overall health of the Syrian patient is deteriorating, with poor sanitation, insufficient medical care, and inadequate food supplies—further weakening resiliency and the ability to fend off opportunistic infections such as yet more armed groups aligning and then fighting amongst themselves. Even if the symptoms of extremism and Assad were somehow alleviated, Syria is in such bad health that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to more disease.

The situation is beyond the capabilities of one doctor, no matter how skilled or equipped. This means that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, the EU, the United States, and other involved actors need to combine efforts in ways that haven’t happened before. A uniform commitment to pressure for cessation of hostilities—from all sides—is a necessary beginning. Sectarian division and geopolitical gamesmanship have ensured that Syria can only deteriorate over the lamentations of those standing by the bedside watching. All of these parties bear some responsibility for the current critical condition of Syria and all have a responsibility in 2015 to save the patient.


The Soufan Group wishes all its readers a happy New Year!

The IntelBrief will return on January 5, 2015.



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