The special U.S. envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS (the Islamic State), retired Marine General John Allen, said “remarkable progress” has been made against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in the past year. However, Allen also said that only a political solution, not a military victory, will finally bring the nearly five-year Syrian conflict and its humanitarian and refugee crisis to an end.
Allen, in a U.S. television interview on ABC’s This Week, said when he took up his current post a year ago he wasn’t sure Iraq would survive the early successes of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, or Daesh.
"In the intervening months, we’ve seen remarkable progress in many respects. We’ve seen the emergence of a capable leader and partner in Baghdad in Haider al-Abadi. Between his national program, his outreach to the Sunnis, his plan for al-Anbar, his close relationship with His Eminence, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, we find in him a hope for a political future a hope for a political future in Iraq that we couldn’t have seen under other leadership, and we haven’t seen before, without a political platform, without a political resolution of this conflict, no matter what we do militarily, we will not solve this crisis overall," said Allen.
Allen said that over the past year the coalition against the Islamic State has worked hard to stem the flow of foreign fighters to its ranks, impede its finances, compete with what he called the IS message of hate, as well as deal with the resulting humanitarian crisis.
Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, said in a separate U.S. television interview that the humanitarian crisis is not coming from IS-held territory in Syria, but as a result of the President Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs that are emptying out entire cities.
"Half of Syria is now displaced. Half the Syrian population is no longer living in their homes," said Ford.
Ford said the Obama Administration’s focus has been on the IS group, not the real culprit in the crisis, the Assad government.
"The Assad regime’s brutality is driving recruitment into the Islamic State. We just had a report out of the U.S. intelligence community that said that the Islamic State is replacing all of the fighters that we kill in our bombing runs, and why is that? It’s because they’re able to recruit from angry young Syrian men who are furious at the bombing the Assad regime is inflicting on civilian neighborhoods in Syrian cities," said Ford.
Last week a White House spokesman said the Islamic State has lost some 30 percent of the populated territory it held a year ago in Iraq. He said it has lost more than 17,000 square kilometers of territory in northern Syria and is cut off from most of the Syria-Turkey border.
Allen said the Syrian civil war can never be resolved militarily, only through a political solution.
"Syria has got to have a political transition away from Bashar al-Assad. He can’t be part of the solution. And so we have to be in constant conversation with our international partners and, ultimately, with the opposition elements within Syria to effect that transition because expanding or supporting the fight on the ground just increases the violence and its increases the conflict, and then it increases the refugee and humanitarian catastrophe that we face," said Allen.
Allen said that is why it is important to empower those opposition elements within Syria, politically and militarily, who have a chance to win back territory and have a voice in a future political solution.
The retired Marine general declined to comment on the Russian military presence in Syria. The Pentagon last week said recent Russian aid includes 200 naval personnel and modular housing for up to 1500 troops. A defense official told VOA the materiel also includes artillery, a short-range guided-missile controller and about a dozen armored vehicles.
President Obama Friday warned Russia’s military activity could prevent the United States and its allies from finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict. He said Washington would confront Moscow on its recent activity.
Former Ambassador Ford said Russian aid is on the rise because the Assad government is losing the civil war. Allen said the U.S. would welcome constructive contributions by any partner around the world, including Russia.
"What we would oppose, though, is any support to the Assad regime that expands or accelerates the conflict," said Ford.
As for the Islamic State posing a threat to the United States, Allen said it should be taken seriously. But, he points to last month’s airstrike in Syria that killed 21-year old Junaid Hussain, a central figure in the IS group’s online recruitment campaign, as likely to have disrupted efforts to plan and carry out such attacks.
Allen said he expects greater political stability in Iraq a year from now, while he expects security forces will wrest more territory from IS control, allowing displaced Iraqis to return to their homes.