Fighting ISIS

LAST week a group of retired US generals warned Congress that by disengaging from the region, the US may lose the war against extremists. This is sound advice that President Obama may have heard before.

The US is leaving the region more unstable and less secure than it was before its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while for Pakistan and Afghanistan, stability and security will now largely depend on how well the Ashraf Ghani administration and Pakistan’s security establishment are able to work together, it is Iraq and Syria where the situation is far more complicated. Only the US as the sole superpower can help resolve this dreadful mess. And more than military power or ‘nation building programmes’, this may be more a job for US diplomacy.

The full-fledged ‘Sunni’ rebellion that Iraq faces today is no less a consequence of premature US disengagement as it is of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s misrule who made sure to completely disenfranchise Iraq’s Sunni population. Building on this disaffection, the Islamic State has overrun the Sunni regions where the Iraqi army units defected without a fight, leaving behind vast arsenals. It has established a ‘caliphate’, a totalitarian ‘state’, over territory larger than Jordan. The perfect storm that created IS would not have been possible without the Syrian civil war, which affords it much strategic depth.

IS has galvanised Salafist fighters and funds from across the world. It has begun to spread its influence to distant Libya and Yemen. It is not strictly an insurgency but a ‘state’ building organisation, whose military council includes well-trained former officers of Saddam Hussain’s disbanded army and intelligence services.

On the other hand, the response against the group has been a patchwork of uncoordinated actions rather than a unified strategy put up by the states of the region. Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, the Kurdish peshmerga militia as well as Russia and countries of Western Europe have divergent interests and mutual mistrust. They are unable to act against this formidable fighting force or check the flow of motivated fighters and its sources of funds. Their national intelligence agencies rarely share information or collaborate. Meanwhile IS has threatened retaliatory attacks if the West gets in its way. Amidst this response paralysis the organisation thrives and grows.

Yet there is a silver lining. The Islamic State is a common threat to all players. It has no state backing; at least not just yet. And this may provide an opening from where US diplomacy could pick up the thread.

Perhaps the most debilitating obstruction to coining a joint strategy is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry; a religious rivalry that extends deep into the vault of Islamic history. The key here lies with the powerful establishments on both sides. A Byzantine challenge for US diplomacy, the Gordian knot as it were, would be to facilitate a détente.

The Islamic State is inimical to the interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, to a larger extent than they are to each other. A US-brokered Faustian bargain between these two establishments will leave their respective regimes with more latitude to work with each other towards the common objective. As no less a byproduct it would stall the production of toxic sectarian ferment and bring a windfall to the entire region, especially Pakistan, one of the world’s largest sectarian hotbeds.

The other hugely complicating factor is the Syrian civil war. Russia and Iran will not let the Assad regime in Syria fall anytime soon. And nobody wants to contemplate the mayhem that, in the event, will see extremist factions scrambling for power.

The second best option is for the US, working with Russia and Iran to force President Assad’s hand to widen his regime, maybe even to the extent of a national reconciliation government. In return, he can get two things. A lowered intensity of rebellion against his regime and co-option into the coalition on the war against IS.

Granted, these are staggeringly difficult diplomatic objectives. But with these two big-ticket items in place, the others — precision aerial strikes, Special Forces ground operations, choking the sources of external funds, preventing the recruitment and flow of fighters into the region and undertaking state building — would be relatively easy.

This is not a job the US can get done alone. Washington will serve its own interests by addressing the region’s fault lines and align a broad coalition of states to act together. The war against IS cannot be won by coalition airstrikes alone. Even if the Islamic State unravels, it will go back to insurgency mode. And unless the difficult diplomatic challenges are taken on, the group will keep winning and the apprehensions of the former generals may well prove right.

2015 – Dawn Media Group

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Syria’s Calculations

THE international community appears polarised over the issue of attacking Syria. This is not the first time the Syrian regime has allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 chemical weapons have reportedly been used on a few occasions, though on a smaller scale. Saddam Hussein too had gotten away with using them, during the Iran-Iraq war and later, against the Kurds.

These weapons are banned by international convention, though Damascus is not a signatory. In any case, despotic regimes will have few qualms about using them — as tactical terror tools — to put down rebellions that threaten their existence. How freely they use them will depend on how far they can get away with it.

Terrible as they are, these weapons work in two ways: they spread panic in enemy ranks, and devastate morale as its fighters abandon the battlefront to rush to their families and support bases against which such weapons are usually launched. Secondly, they remind other rebellious communities of the consequences of rebellion.

Increasingly grisly tactics have been used by both sides in this war. The Assad regime has bombed populated areas using helicopter gunships, aircraft and even scud missiles. It has used cluster munitions and now the US administration has concluded “with high confidence” that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. On their part, the rebels calling themselves the ‘Free Syrian Army’ have carried out suicide bombings and executions of the regime’s collaborators.

The fighting in the Syrian civil war is concentrated around three well-populated regions: Damascus in the south, Homs and Latakia near the Mediterranean coast and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city near the border with Turkey.

So on this particular occasion, what could the regime’s generals have been trying to accomplish with chemical weapons? The rebels’ recent acquisition of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles had unnerved the Syrian regime. The rebels could threaten the regime’s helicopters and aircraft, including civil aviation, and Assad probably was going to take no chances with tolerating them in the capital.

Iran had sent the Lebanese Hezbollah to help Assad’s forces beat out the rebels from Damascus. One suburban region was, however, proving to be a hard nut to crack. The logic of the hawks in the regime probably went as follows: let’s take a drastic measure to eliminate this clear and present danger. We will deal with any international outcry later. It will also tell us how far we can push the envelope across Obama’s ‘red line’. If it gets discovered, we’ll deny involvement and cloud the matter.

We will also delay the UN inspectors from reaching the site and use the window of time to erase the evidence. This will substantially weaken America’s moral leverage for a strike. In this window, we would have cleared Damascus of this existential threat.

This is sound war logic. But if it cleared Damascus of one threat wouldn’t it create the bigger threat of a US strike? Not really. In the regime’s calculations, this perhaps was a reasonable trade off. US strikes would only inflict limited damage, on known targets. Even then, to minimise losses some of the assets could be moved out. Any military hardware that got destroyed could be replaced by Russia, which maintains two military bases and several military advisors in Syria.

The regime correctly assessed that if the US struck, it would not take matters to a tipping point where rebel groups could gain a decisive advantage. The US would have to walk a thin line. The gravity of the scenario — with nightmarish implications for Israel’s security — is not lost on the US in which foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra group get hold of chunks of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which is one of the largest in the world.

Additionally for Russia and Iran, regime change in Syria would be a red line. Therefore the US strikes, if they came would be clinical, not lethal. The Assad regime also calculated that if the rebels got their hands on anti-tank weapons then they would only be one final and lethal push away from Damascus. Therefore this beach head had to go, even if it was going to take chemical weapons and embracing the risk of a US punitive strike.

There was another payoff. America attacking yet another Arab country would trigger outrage across the Arab world. This wave would tap into the sentiment of populations of Arab countries, most of whose governments are inimical to Bashar al-Assad. It would serve as the Syrian regime’s fifth column of sorts and create political difficulties for several Arab governments that cheered the bombing. Meanwhile Assad would gain stature as the defiant Arab leader who stood up to the West.

So what are the Assad regime’s options? Syria can likely absorb a US strike as long as it remains symbolic and from which it can create political capital. If the US does not strike, then that too suits the regime fine. Either way, it is hard to rule out the possibility of his regime again using deadly weapons — which remain at its disposal.

If, in the unlikely event the strike is somewhat harder than a rap on the knuckles, the risk of the Syrian military taking aim at the Israeli-occupied and annexed Golan Heights, provoking Israel to retaliate cannot be ignored. Nothing would flare sentiment on the Arab street faster than an armed conflict with Israel. If the stage comes where Israel is provoked into responding, then a Rubicon would have been crossed in the present stand-off. The conflict could then spiral beyond anybody’s ability to control. And that must be avoided at all costs.

Copyright © 2013 – Dawn Media Group