A War of Priorities in Syria

Recent weeks have seen jolting reversals in the world’s attempt to bring an end to the war in Syria: the horrific attacks in Paris and Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian bomber that crossed into its airspace threatening joint action against Islamic State. François Hollande’s shuttle diplomacy to Washington and Moscow underlined the fact the international community is more focused on Syria today than at any point since the UN-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons in 2012. Yet a substantive diplomatic deal among the major players, the type of deal that would bring peace to Syria, looks far more difficult as each has contradictory security and political priorities that complicate the fight against the Islamic State.  

The war is driven by multiple, interlocking layers of conflict. There are disputes among different clusters of Syrian fighters, as Sunni rebel groups in northwestern and southwestern Syria fight government forces and fend off attacks from ISIS. At the same time, there is a regional dimension, especially a region-wide conflict between Shiite Iran and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey, too, maintains it has critical security interests in Syria, above all in prioritizing that Syria’s Kurdish minority does not achieve an independent state, which would exacerbate the Turkish government’s dispute with its own Kurdish minority. Finally, outside powers such as the United States, France and Russia clash over the role that Bashar al Assad’s government should play in Syria’s future and the fight against the Islamic State.

The terrorist attacks in Paris led many to expect that France would drop its longstanding demand that Assad must leave office and devote all its attention to fighting ISIS, perhaps even with the support of Assad’s forces. In such a scenario, many assumed, the West would have no choice but to come to terms with Russia. The Kremlin says it wants to fight terrorism, but has primarily focused its airstrikes not on ISIS targets but against the rebel groups around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo who are fighting Assad.

Two recent events have made a “grand bargain” about Syria between Russia and the West less likely. First, Hollande’s week of diplomatic shuttle to Moscow and Washington underscored the vast gap that remains between how the West and Russia see Syria – and how two years of war in Ukraine have eroded Western trust in Russia. Even intelligence sharing between Russia and Western powers about ISIS is a complicated task because of fears about revealing sources. Second, Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber has underscored the risk involved in military operations in Syria and the danger of miscalculations.

Why did Turkey shoot down the Russian plane? Russian aircraft have violated Turkish airspace several times since…

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