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ISIL Cannot Be Defeated in Iraq if Left In Syria: Reviving a Modified Geneva Process Could Offer Answers

There is a clear need for a concept to deal with the presence in Syria of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and this need becomes more urgent with the realization that the problem of ISIL in Iraq will never really end if the organization remains entrenched in Syria. The basic principle for any effective strategy against ISIL is that the only force that can defeat ISIL’s band of motivated and devoted fighters is a Sunni one.
But what is the concept? In Iraq it was self-evident: Nouri Al Maliki had to go; the Kurds needed to be assisted; and Baghdad had to be supported. Furthermore, the Arab Sunni tribes had to have a share in the government if the country was to remain unified. (Though we still believe that, that to put Iraq on a stable footing, a loose federation is still in order, with security forces in the Sunni areas composed mainly of Sunnis along the lines of the Kurdish Peshmerga in their region).
But in Syria, it is not that simple. To obtain an answer, we should pay more attention to what is being proposed by the very dynamics of the crisis on the ground as it evolves before our eyes. For in what is unfolding there are the seeds of a concept that must be picked up and shaped to further the positive elements necessary to confront ISIL in its areas inside Syria. But this must be done simultaneously to ISIL’s being contained and crushed in Iraq.
In this context, the most important element that has evolved on the ground is the process of local truces reached between the regime forces and the moderate opposition. In the Ghoyran section of Al Hasaka province, the two sides entered laborious negotiations to reach a truce. Though the truce was respected for only two days, they went back to the negotiating table to mend the breach. The same happened in Daria as MEB reported in a previous story. It also happened in the Qadam quarter, south of Damascus. The emergence of this trend engendered the formation of a grassroots committee that calls itself The Committee for Popular Reconciliation headed by Sheikh Jaber Issa.
In order to elevate this process and generalize it, it maybe time to consider pushing it up to the “macro” level within the framework of the Geneva I communique. Now could be the proper moment for the deliberations of Geneva to be renewed, but with a different orientation, as what has happened with the rise of ISIL creates a new context that necessitates modifications. Both the regime and the moderate opposition show some encouraging signs, particularly on the ground. However, jumping to a “comprehensive” deal may still be difficult. The new framework should be drawn with fighting ISIL in mind and getting the regime and the moderate opposition to build working relations gradually on the ground in that specific context. Any “mega” objective for negotiations like ending the fight between the regime and the moderate opposition and reaching a deal for the almost four years old war may break the negotiations and prove unhelpful in fighting ISIL or getting the two sides closer.
This process should now be based on the immediate need to establish a ceasefire between the regime and the moderate opposition. A kind of generalization of the local truces that are emerging on the ground could be constituted under such conditions. The ceasefire would only be between the regime and the moderate opposition, and will not include either ISIL or Jabhet Al Nusrah. International monitors (preferably from Muslim countries) will have access under the banner of the United Nations to guarantee the truce.
This general bilateral truce will obviously be applicable wherever non-Jihadist opposition exists. But it should be followed with opening a safe passage for humanitarian aid; the release of non-Jihadists prisoners by both sides, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, the designation of non-combat areas or Green Zones to which civilians can resort unharmed, and the beginning of negotiations to settle the conflict. A clear commitment from both sides to respect the rights of minorities should be placed at the center of the process.
What is currently happening on the ground in Syria must be given a larger space to spread and that will, at one point, be reflected in the negotiations that aim to settle the conflict and unify all to fight ISIL and JAN. This will also minimize the current unbearable sufferings of the civilian population and will enhance local immunity to ISIL. Shots are to be heard only if the Jihadists try to take a local site. Currently, almost all localities have their own defense systems provided by armed locals defending their families and properties. Communications must be established between the moderate opposition and the Syrian army forces in order to coordinate repelling ISIL attacks or in offensive missions.
The return to the Geneva process is a common interest for all the relevant parties in light of the rise of ISIL. These parties should build on the simple efforts of Sheikh Issa and pick up the threads that are offered objectively on the ground of a country that is tired of wars and that faces an existential threat.
In conversations with some representatives of the moderate opposition, we detected a willingness to deal positively with this concept as it is a face-saver for all parties. Obviously, a step in this direction can develop further once truces and joint coordination develops on the ground.
It is obvious that even those who formerly financed the radicals are now reconsidering their policies. Qatar, for example, announced a freeze on all its payments to any opposition group. Arab countries should be invited to the resumption of the Geneva process under this name or any other to develop this concept further and establish practical mechanisms of its implementation.
Regarding the question of how prudent it is to fight Al Nusrah while fighting ISIL, it is sufficient to say that increasing numbers of Al Nusrah members are already defecting to ISIL. The line between the two groups should not be an impediment to putting the two in the same basket. Those of Al Nusrah who want to fight ISIL should join other moderate Islamists.
There is no way that ISIL could be defeated in Iraq without defeating it in Syria. Instead of trying to push Bashar Al Assad and the moderate opposition towards a position that one of them or both cannot accept, it is better to start from where Sheikh Issa ended.

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