New York, United States – On a normal day, Farouq Habib is involved in pulling bomb blast survivors out of collapsed buildings. This week the Syrian aid worker is in New York for an annual meeting of world leaders, at which his chaotic homeland tops the agenda.
He spoke with Al Jazeera at the United Nations headquarters, where on Wednesday, diplomats worked on a US-led coalition of more than 40 countries to rout ISIL – which calls itself the Islamic State – with air strikes and new rules to stop foreign fighters from travelling to war zones.
Habib is calling for an end to a conflict that has claimed more than 190,000 lives. A trainer of the white helmet-wearing Syria Civil Defenders, he questioned whether frenetic UN diplomacy or US air strikes will lead to peace back home.
“In the first years of the uprising, there were no foreign fighters in Syria, but there was killing on a massive scale. It is the Syrian regime that is responsible for most of the death, not foreigners,” said Habib, 33.
“The Islamic State and other groups are the result of the ignorance of the international community, which abandoned Syria and allowed [President] Bashar al-Assad to torture and kill tens of thousands of his own people.”
On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama used the UN podium to urge more states to rally against ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has declared a caliphate across Sunni-majority areas on either side of the Syria-Iraq border.
“There can be no reasoning, no negotiations, with this brand of evil,” Obama told the General Assembly meeting.
Launching attacks on Syria
The US has launched nearly 200 air strikes on the group in Iraq, and France has joined in as well. This week, the Pentagon expanded strikes into Syria, hitting ISIL’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, and other targets with help from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
|Leaders at the UN discuss US-strikes in Syria|
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said on Tuesday.
Critics point to lacklustre support from US allies. Julien Barnes-Dacey, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, told Al Jazeera that Obama required “legitimacy by having Arab states involved” in Washington’s latest Middle East war.
Obama will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday about a US-drafted resolution that aims to end the “recruiting, organising, transporting or equipping” of people to cross international borders to take part in attacks.
Leaders are concerned about the estimated 12,000 foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria in the past three years, including about 3,000 from the West who, it is feared, could acquire terrorism training to use in their home countries after ending their combat vacations.
“We need cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement,” said a White House official during a background briefing. “We need to be able to find and apprehend those individuals who have been radicalised and are seeking to join this fight, or leaving this theatre of war.”
They include the man dubbed “Jihadi John” by British tabloids. Wearing a black mask and speaking with a London accent, he beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker in videos posted online that prompted the White House to get tough on ISIL.
The resolution, if adopted, would legally oblige countries to ensure “domestic laws and regulations establish serious criminal offenses sufficient to provide the ability to prosecute and to penalise” globe-trotting radicals, according to a draft text.
“It’s a well-intentioned attempt to get countries to cooperate on blocking the flow of fighters, but it will be hugely hard to enforce,” said Barnes-Dacey. “A lot of these jihadists move across hazy borders covertly. It will be hard to put punitive sanctions on countries that don’t comply.”
Analysts highlight the difficulty of patrolling the 1,210km Turkey-Syria border, a key entry point for fighters and an export route for ISIL’s oil, which provides an estimated $1m in daily revenue for the group, believed to have more than 30,000 soldiers.
The US was invited by Baghdad to launch air strikes against the group in Iraq, but Washington has no such invitation in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is holding out against moderate rebels and Islamist fighters after three-and-a-half years of fighting.
UN action blocked
Obama said he can strike within Syria because ISIL is a threat to the United States, and because Damascus does not control its own territory. The US is not likely to gain legal approval through the UN Security Council because Russia, a veto-wielding member, can block actions against its Syrian ally.
“Stopping foreign fighters is an issue on which all members can get on board – it threatens everyone,” Faysal Itani, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera. “Until the Russians want to remove the regime, the UN Security Council is not the vehicle through which to tackle the Assad regime problem.”
The lack of concerted UN Security Council action on Syria has renewed long-standing doubts about the body’s usefulness on global problems. Permanent members – Britain, France, Russia, China, and the US – can use veto rights to block decisions.
|US-led air strikes in Syria attack ISIL group|
Moscow has nixed UN action against its ally Assad, and over the Ukraine crisis, where it is accused of backing anti-Kiev rebels. Washington likewise shields Israel at the UN from allegations of committing atrocities against Palestinians.
Barnes-Dacey criticised the “brokenness of the UN system” on Syria and other conflicts. Obama’s resolution on foreign fighters is low-hanging diplomatic fruit, and the UN “needs to take what it can get at the moment”, he added.
Lawrence Korb, a former US Department of Defense official and an analyst at the Center for American Progress, disagreed. The UN was born in 1945 and structured so that World War II’s victors would not be sidelined by the international community, he said.
“The UN Security Council was set up to avoid a situation where the world community acts against the will of a great power,” he told Al Jazeera. “That’s not a bad thing.”
As well as being deadlocked on key security issues, the UN has suffered damaging setbacks recently. UN peacekeepers have been accused of bringing cholera to Haiti; others, of committing sex crimes in Congo.
Does the US lack a strategy?
Despite support from Paris and Arab states, the US-led coalition lacks firm commitments from allies and an overall strategy, critics say. Syria’s allies in Moscow and Tehran have long maintained that Assad was a stabilising force against sectarian mayhem in Syria.
“Defeating ISIL requires significant arming and training of Syrian rebels,” said Barnes-Dacey. “If that fails, it needs a Western ground intervention, which is unlikely. What may ultimately come to pass is some kind of alliance with the Syrian regime, if not with Assad himself.”
This is the deepest fear for Habib – the helmet-wearing aid worker – that Washington was dragged reluctantly into another Middle East war. While degrading ISIL, the United States will bolster Syria’s Assad regime and may ultimately make an expedient bargain with him, he said.
“As long as the dictator is there, this catastrophe will not end,” said Habib. “We want to see the superpowers put pressure on Iran and the Assad regime to stop the killing in Syria, stop the barrel bombs, Scud missiles and air strikes that cause death and destruction every day.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl