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Iraq and Syria - developments in 2015

Published Friday, November 27, 2015

After the Paris attacks, the pressure for Western countries to do more about ISIS has grown. Is that leading them to downgrade the violence perpetrated in Syria by the government of Bashar al-Assad?

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Some18 months since the fall of Mosul, ISIS still poses a grave threat in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, while the suffering of Syrians and Iraqi continues unabated and a huge refugee crisis has erupted.

Syria

In Syria the previous stalemate has shifted. Rebel groups have found new unity and received more backing from regional powers such as Turkey, and have made some territorial advances on important towns in the north and south of the country. Those groups have collaborated with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate.

Kurds, backed by US airstrikes, have had significant success against ISIS. But ISIS has consolidated its presence in other areas, taking the Syrian town of Palmyra. The fall of Palmyra to ISIS in May 2015 was a demonstration of continuing strength, despite the US government’s ‘ISIS-first’ strategy.

If the Syrian government used to give ISIS a relatively easy ride, attacking other rebel groups more ferociously, ISIS is now a significant actor in the civil war and both the government and the other rebel groups may turn more attention towards the group.

There were some anti-government rebel gains over the first half of 2015, amid reports of a shortage of manpower in the Syrian armed forces.

The Syrian government’s allies Iran and Russia took action. Russia surprised observers by starting air strikes in Syria in September 2015. Coordinating with the Russian air cover, Iran (and its proxy Hezbollah and other militias) increased ground offensives, collaborating with Syrian government forces. This combined push did a lot to end anti-government forces’ momentum.

Russia says that it is targeting ISIS and other terrorist groups. US and other Western sources have said that the Russian air strikes are aimed principally at preventing the Assad government from falling.

Iraq

In Iraq, the fall of Ramadi to ISIS was a blow to the Iraqi government and to Western, including UK, policy. US-led airstrikes combined with training assistance to Iraqi forces were not enough to stop Iraqi forces collapsing in Ramadi. That left Shiite militias, backed by Iran, in a stronger position and seen by many Iraqi Shias as their only effective defenders. That does not bode well for the policy of reducing the sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq.

There have been calls for the UK parliament to revisit its 2013 decision not to participate in military action in Syria. Questions persist about the legality of any intervention and whether the Royal Air Force has the resources. The US administration has said that it will increase its support for ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels.

US/Russian collaboration?

Terrorist attacks by ISIS outside Iraq and Syria – their alleged bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt and the November attacks in Paris – may encourage collaboration against ISIS between outside powers, but they still have differing objectives for the final outcome, and increasing the number of countries attacking ISIS from the air may not make as much difference as expected; the Syrian government has been using air power against its enemies for four years. Air strikes against ISIS will cause more civilian casualties and may help the group to recruit. They will not solve the problem of the Assad government, which is widely thought to be killing far more civilians than any other group, maybe even than all the other armed forces combined.

Negotiated settlement?

Some analysts have argued for Russia and the US to try for a negotiated settlement involving a transitional power-sharing government and with Bashar al-Assad leaving power after a time. A deal would need to offer certain guarantees to Russia and Iran, while fulfilling minimum conditions for the US.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7261

Authors: Ben Smith; Claire Mills

Topics: Iraq, Middle East, Terrorism

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