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New US Airport in Syria While ISIL Struggles to Pay the Mujahedeen-But Where Are the Syrians?

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Following intensive construction work in Rumailan old military airport in Hasakah province in the North East of Syria, including extending its runways, the airport is now ready to be turned into the first US military base on Syrian territories. The base, strategically located in the center on the ISIL stronghold triangle- Dair Al Zour, Raqqa and Mosul and surrounded by friendly Kurdish forces, is destined to be the center of the campaign to exterminate ISIL.

US Helicopters started already using the airport. Large quantities of equipment were downloaded there in the last few weeks and a strict security ring surrounded the location. Kurdish sources indicate that US military personnel will be stationed there.

Parallel to the preparations in Rumailan, Russian military forces have finished preparing Kamishli airport near Qamishli and not far from Rumailan. Kamishili airport was originally a civilian airport and it remained largely intact despite the civil war.

But ISIL is not standing idle.

While the group is well alerted to what is going on around its mainland, it is going through a difficult time internally. However, the script it follows in dealing with the delicate moment lacks any creativity.

In an internal meeting held last December, and according to what some activists picked in Raqqa, the group decided to start a dramatic military attack to regain momentum and to send a message to its supporters that it is still “advancing”. While this dramatic attack was expected for few weeks now, it was difficult to tell which spot will be chosen.

ISIL chose Dair Al Zour. But just prior to its sweeping attack on Assad forces there, it had to deal with its mounting internal problems.The pressing one was financial. In January, a US air strike hit a Mosul bank where most of ISIL cash assets were amassed. The hit, in addition to the destruction of some important components of its oil operations, was so painful to the organization’s treasury that the leadership had to issue a communique to all the “Mujahedeen”.

The communique, a copy of which was obtained by credible publications focusing on Syria, was copied and sent to the outside world by activists in Raqqa, was signed by “Bait Al Mal”, or the treasury department of ISIL. It announced the reduction of all members’ salaries and explained the decision by “the exceptional circumstance which the Islamic State is currently going through”. “The sums paid to the Mujahedeen well be reduced by half and it is not allowed to exclude any one, whatever his post, from this decision”, the communique said.

During the last few months, reports by merchants in Raqqa indicated that ISIL members started to buy less and even to borrow money from these merchants. It was rumored then that the hardship is exclusive to the Syrian members of the organization not to the foreigners. In other words, Syrian members were complaining that the burden of the hardship is not distributed evenly. This may explain the reference in the communique that the reduction of salaries is to be for all members without exceptions.

In its leadership meeting in December in Mosul, ISIL decided to move in an attempt to regain the momentum as it clearly read the writings on the wall. In a patience and gradual effort, the group succeeded in moving large numbers of 4×4’s, trucks and weapons to areas around regime forces in Dair Al Zour. A surprise attack started mid-January. Regime positions collapsed within hours and horrendous atrocities were committed as might be expected. Regime soldiers were slaughtered and over 400 civilians were kidnapped.

ISIS controls now portions of the town of Dair Al Zour and is progressing every day. Controlling this area is meant to be a psychological boost. However, this “expansion” of ISIL is truly out of context. Furthermore, it is doubtful if it will really leave the desired psychological impact, except perhaps among regime forces.

While the loss of Dair Al Zour is important in a tactical sense to Assad forces, its overall strategic significance in the context of the preparations to defeat ISIL in East Syria will be minimized particularly in regard to the current US-Russian coordination with Kurdish forces and the so called Syrian Democratic Forces.

Yet again, we are faced in this very context with the risk of separating the military track from the political one as was done during the surge of 2007 in Central Iraq. Military progress will only gain its full meaning if a political deal is reached. Otherwise, we will be talking about a new terrorist entity emerging somewhere sometime in the future and a start of the same old story all over again. This has to be avoided. And the way to avoid it is to shift the limelight to the diplomatic ring.

Why is this a risk? Progress on the military track usually causes a blinding effect that prevents seeing deeper than superficial “victory” and “mission accomplished”, hence neglect that victory should be based on a wider definition than merely breaking the foes’ military capabilities.

Yet, in this diplomatic ring we see now that the proposed transitional talks that would hopefully reach a political deal does not inspire much hope. Before addressing the choices in the fight against ISIL, even in the absence of a political horizon to end the civil war, it is worth a while to take a quick look at the obstacles that are facing the talks.

The main obstacle is Russia’s insistence to include groups in the “opposition” delegation that are considered too friendly to Assad and to exclude groups that are considered “terrorist” by Moscow’s standards.

Without going into details, the Riyadh conference which gathered major opposition groups has selected a delegation that reflects the mainstream of the armed opposition. While it seems reasonable to represent the unarmed opposition as well, that will depend mainly on their political stand on the future regime.

It is the objective of the talks which determines what kind of opposition to participate, not the opposite. Inasmuch as these talks target a solution which imposes a potentially successful cease fire and forms a joint force to fight ISIL or prevent its expansion, the armed opposition seems to be an indispensable participant. If the objective is to introduce some decorative changes to the Assad regime and call it a success, it makes sense to put the Assad friendly groups in the first raw.

It is particularly here that Moscow’s diplomacy errs. There will be no point in reaching a superficial deal, even if such a deal allows whatever international coalition to interfere in Syria by an invitation from the new decorative government. In Iraq, the US defeated Al Qaeda in full cooperation with Baghdad government and security forces to find out few years later that another Qaeda emerged in the form of ISIL.

A calculated shift has to be introduced to whatever new regime that emerges from talks. This shift should move the new regime to a point of regional and internal equilibrium which gives every side and take from it some.

The choices available in the fight against ISIL are clear, either to fight it without waiting for a political solution as is happening now, or to freeze the fight until a deal is reached. The effective path, between the two, is doubtlessly to fight ISIL immediately and with all possible vigor. Yet, if this choice is not coupled with an international and internal consensus on the objectives of the fight, it will be the known story all over again.

The US is involved in intense diplomatic contacts to reach such a consensus. The objective should be talks that bring a government which reflects a carefully calibrated shift compared to the current regime. It should also be accepted as a regime that has enough legitimacy and support to gather most armed groups in a common fight against terrorism and instability. This regime with all the armed groups included in the talks should work together not only to defeat ISIL, but also to provide the conditions to prevent its, or its clones’, re-emergence. In this sense, Syrian opposition delegation should be formed by Syria’s opposition, not by Sergei Levrov.