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The Trump administration and Syria: targeting ISIS or working towards Syria’s partition?

A Syrian rebel fires as a regime fighter jet flies overhead in Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor, on August 17, 2013. Al-Qaeda loyalists attacked a mainly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria sparking fighting in which 17 people were killed, two of them ambulance crew, a watchdog said. AFP PHOTO/ABO SHUJA

Recent US media reports – obviously sourced from the US military – that ISIS has been relocating its ‘bureaucrats’ from Raqqa to  Al-Madayin, a town in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, actually replicate information the US military was already circulating back in February.

This information is almost certainly true.  Raqqa is a provincial capital, but it is a relatively small place of no intrinsic significance, which only became ISIS’s ‘capital’ by chance because it has been under Jihadi control for a long time.

There is no inherent reason why ISIS should fight to the death for it, as opposed to relocating is ‘capital’ to Deir Ezzor.  Indeed there is a longstanding view that Deir Ezzor – relatively isolated from the rest of Syria and inherently more defendable – is a more logical location for ISIS’s ‘capital’ than Raqqa.

The one significant advantage Raqqa has for ISIS over Al-Madayin is that Raqqa has the prestige of being a provincial capital, which Al-Madayin is not.

That almost certainly explains ISIS’s relentless attempts since January to capture the town of Deir Ezzor, the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor province.  It seems that having lost hope of holding on to Raqqa, ISIS has been intent on capturing the city of Deir Ezzor so as to make it its new ‘capital’, and in anticipation of that it began to transfer its ‘bureaucrats’ from Raqqa to a location close to the city of Deir Ezzor in February.

What has prevented this plan from being put into effect is that the Syrian army garrison in Deir Ezzor has put up a much stiffer resistance than ISIS appears to have expected, so that contrary to the expectations of ISIS’s leadership the city of Deir Ezzor is still under the Syrian government’s control.  Indeed the very latest reports from the city suggest that the Syrian troops there have been gaining ground against ISIS recently.

The unanswered question is whether the relocation of ISIS’s ‘capital’ from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor is something which is actually wanted by the US.

The theory – discussed at length by the Moon of Alabama site – is that if ISIS captures Deir Ezzor and formally declares it its ‘capital’, then the US has a pretext to attack ISIS there, and – once Deir Ezzor is freed from ISIS – make Deir Ezzor the centre of a ‘liberated” ‘Free Syrian army’ Sunni controlled ‘safe area’ independent of the Syrian government in Damascus.

In that way the project of partitioning Syria would have been put into effect, with the advantage of placing the ‘Free Syrian army’ astride the lines linking the western part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – the Syrian government and Hezbollah – with its eastern part – Iran in the east  (see Afra’a Dagher’s detailed discussion of the strategic importance of Deir Ezzor, and its relation to all this).

Believers in this theory point to an apparent gathering of US backed ‘Free Syrian army’ Jihadi militia groups in Jordan, who it is supposed are being readied for an advance against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, with the real objective being to bar the advance of the Syrian army into this region, and to set up a US backed ‘Free Syrian army’ Jihadi “Sunnistan” once ISIS has been defeated there.

It is certainly possible that there are people in Washington who think this way.  The project of partitioning Syria by creating a Jihadi ‘Sunnistan’ in its eastern regions has been discussed in the US in the past, and it is certainly possible that there are officials in the US foreign policy and security bureaucracy who are still working towards achieving it.  Moreover the US air strike in September on Syrian army positions defending Deir Ezzor is consistent with this theory.

I would however make a number of important qualifications.

Though I am perfectly willing to believe that there are people within the US bureaucracy who think in this way, I strongly doubt that President Trump is one of them.  He does not come across to me as the sort of calculating strategist who would come up with or support this sort of plan, and his loathing of ISIS seems genuine, making it unlikely that he would consciously set out to use ISIS in this manipulative way.  In that important respect President Trump seems to me to be a very different person to his predecessor President Obama, who we know because of things former Secretary of State Kerry has said did indeed try to use ISIS as a tool against the Syrian government (see my detailed discussion here).

President Trump is not however the only official in the US government.  It is perfectly conceivable that there are others within the US government more cynical and ruthless than he is who are continuing with a strategy in Syria he probably doesn’t know about and wouldn’t approve of if he did.

However for the strategy to work ISIS has to capture Deir Ezzor.  So long as the Syrian garrison holds out there the Syrian army and the Russian air force have all the justification they need to engage ISIS there.  Moreover in doing so they now have the support of the Iraqi military.

The ‘Free Syrian army’ has consistently failed in any operation it has mounted against ISIS or the Syrian army in which it did not have external support.  It is very difficult to see it succeeding in territory contested between the Syrian army and ISIS, which is what Deir Ezzor province remains so long as the city of Deir Ezzor remains under the Syrian government’s control.  Would the US be prepared to challenge the Syrian army and the Russian air force to support a ‘Free Syrian army’ advance against ISIS, the Syrian and the Russian and Iraqi air forces in order to achieve some complicated plan for Syria’s partition?  That would be a massive escalation if it were to happen, and one which might be difficult to explain or justify.  President Trump has repeatedly ruled such an idea out, and frankly I don’t think it will happen.

What that means is that so long as Deir Ezzor remains in Syrian army hands this whole plan for Syria’s partition is a non-starter.  The Russians and the Syrians presumably understand this, which is why they have made defending the city a priority.

Beyond that there is the question of what would happen even if the plan were eventually to be ‘successfully’ carried out.

As the Moon of Alabama says, partitioning Syria in this way would leave the ‘Free Syrian army’ in possession of a poor, thinly populated desert region, sandwiched between the hostile powers of the Syrian army to the west and the Iraqi military to the east, with Iraq bound to oppose strongly the creation of a semi-independent Jihadi “Sunnistan” on its western border.

Sustaining such an entity would require a huge commitment of US resources.  Even if it were only intended to provide the US with leverage to strengthen the US’s hand in the negotiations for a political settlement of Syria’s future (in other words to remove President Assad from power) it hardly seems worthwhile.  Realistically, it would be far more likely to drain US resources, and to strengthen opposition against the administration’s Syrian policy within the US, than it would be to weaken the positions in the negotiations of the Syrian and Russian governments.

The extent of the US and Western fixation with President Assad means that it is not impossible – indeed it is very likely – that there are obsessive and hardline people in Washington and elsewhere who think in this way, and who come up with these over-complicated and dangerous plans, in this case of willing ISIS to capture Deir Ezzor in order to lay the groundwork for a Jihadi “Sunnistan” that can be used leverage the ouster of President Assad.  Possibly the latest moves should indeed be interpreted as intended to carry out such plans.

However these plans do not look to me at all realistic.  On the contrary they seem overcomplicated and unrealisable.  If they are seriously attempted they look certain to me to backfire on their creators.

What do you think?

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