Amongst the tumultuous changes happening in the region, perhaps time will tell that the most significant are the ISIS successes in Iraq. After a series of military defeats and failed offensives for the armed opposition in Syria, the repercussions are set to deal a final blow to their chances for a military victory against the Assad regime. We discuss these repercussions.
Ever since the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, the opposition’s Western & Arab backers have been reluctant to provide large, constant, and consistent supplies of resources in the shape of arms, ammunition, and money. Amongst a myriad of reasons behind this stance, the most important are the fear of extremists rising to power in Syria, and the desire to maintain the institutions of the state, avoiding a potentially disastrous vacuum of power.
In this context, the ‘friends of Syria’ engaged in a policy that aims to tire Assad into the negotiating table, rather than making a serious attempt at enabling a rebel military victory. This policy comprised of ‘peaks and troughs’ of material support; Following the successive rebel losses across the country, a major peak, The Lattakia offensive, appeared out of nowhere. While rebels often complained about lack of weapons and resources from their patrons, this offensive, in combination with the push for Western Aleppo, is a shining example of the exact opposite. A sophisticated attack launched from Turkish territory, spearheaded by Al-Qaida, Islamic Front, and a relatively unknown North Africa jihadist group. The method of attack, resources invested, co-ordination between the different groups, and the manoeuvres executed by the fighters were far from the rag-tag, militarily naïve, and often inefficient offensives opposition fighters have been associated with over the years. It was indicative of sophisticated logistics, intelligence, and planning support offered by their foreign patrons. Further, it was the first time a NATO country openly hosts, and provides logistics to al-Qaida. Shortly after, an offensive was launched in Western Aleppo in a bid to capture the city.
The attack terrorized the inhabitants of the Syrian coast, whose civilians had largely been insulated from the mess in the rest of the country. Rebel propaganda spoke of lightening progress towards Lattakia city, and they repeatedly shelled it to reinforce the point that they are coming after Lattakia. Panic set in, and the locals felt they were no longer safe; further, memories spring up of the hundreds of civilians slaughtered after rebels captured several villages in Lattakia in August 2013. However, in the same token, the planners of this offensive knew that the odds were stacked against any serious advance towards Lattakia. The terrain on the coast favors defenders due to the countless mountains and valleys, and even if rebels managed to capture a few of them, it would be very expensive to hold them due to the regime’s ability to bombard them freely from the air. Further, regime forces had short supply lines augmented by big cities with passionate supporters, while rebels had to rely on a risky supply line from Turkey, and had no sympathy from the locals who saw them as an existential threat. Hence, a protracted battle was in the interest of the defenders, provided they can keep the ‘home front’ under control.
Hence, the planners’ aims were different. They wanted to keep Assad busy, stop his progress towards a military victory, and extend the conflict indefinitely; even better, perhaps they could get Assad and his supporters to experience the sort of war fatigue that has plagued their home front for years; perhaps it could be enough for him to relinquish power. If achieving these objectives meant providing support for terrorist organisations, then ‘the ends justify the means’, as long as it all stayed in Syria. It became an obsession. Further, by providing resources through Turkey, the foreign patrons can micro manage their support; when rebels are on the back foot, they let loose, when they go too far, the tap dries up (for reasons discussed in the second paragraph). This policy is about to come to a necessary, and abrupt end.
While they managed to bleed the Syrian (and perhaps Iranian) regime, the chaos and lawlessness associated with a protracted conflict and the failure of the rebels to create a united front, led to the proliferation of extremist elements, amongst them ISIS and Al-Qaida. These elements pose a threat to the social fabric of the Middle East, and the ever so delicate balance of power for the various dictatorships in the region. Further, they are a serious threat to the security of the western world, and as such, foreign security services have dedicating considerable resources to countering this threat. Indeed, ISIS is the most dangerous of these groups, and its goals are not limited to the toppling of a tyrannical regime; rather, its leaders have designs on the map of the Middle East and beyond. One must also not forget the dangers of Al-Qaida in Syria; although allied with western backed groups, its ideology does not differ from ISIS. Rather, its leader has chosen a more subtle path to his objectives, publicly disclosing that he aims to gain power before implementing his real objectives.
Thus far in the conflict, the Western powers have chosen to ignore the most potent threat, ISIS, choosing to concentrate their energies on containing the back clash back home. They believed time was on their side, the locals in the region would eventually shun groups like ISIS, and they will disappear into the books of history. Further, ISIS faced multiple simultaneous fronts; the Kurds, the ‘moderate’ rebels, Al-Qaida, the Syrian regime, and the Iraqi one. Surely, they can’t succeed against a host of determined enemies. However, ISIS were smarter than this; they maintained relative calm with the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, and after a number of encounters, stopped attacking the Kurds. This worked well for them – the Kurds were only interested in defending their regions, while the regime in Syria had its hands full with the rest of the rebels, and didn’t want to weaken ISIS so as to keep the rest of the rebels busy. On the other hand, the anti-ISIS rebel coalition lacked almost every quality that is essential in a military force; leadership, discipline, planning, strategy, co-ordination, morale, belief, and even indoctrination. Often, they would fight under one banner, but were made up of thousands of local competing warlords, who had different goals and ideas, and weren’t prepared to make sacrifices for ‘the banner’. To further exacerbate their malaise, they relied on foreign aid, and lacked their own means to provide for themselves. Faced with a group that had almost every one of these qualities, they collapsed on all fronts, despite having vast numerical superiority. Thus, western intelligence agencies were wrong.
Across the border in Iraq, the rules of the game changed; Again, Western intelligence agencies vastly underestimated the strength of ISIS and their ability to enlist fellow Sunnis to their murderous cause. The potential for Sunni militancy turned out to be staggering as well, despite many years of war and instability; a mixture of deep rooted anger towards the hoarding of power and wealth by government, a lack of national identity, and a lot of poor, disenchanted Sunni youth provided a toxic cocktail that ISIS knows how to exploit ever so well. The problem for the West and Arab regimes this time is that this ‘cocktail’ exists in many recently ‘drawn up’ countries in the middle east, and while ISIS only have 15,000 odd fighters, there is a potential for this to grow exponentially and threaten the national security of countries that are ‘red lines’ for the West. One only needs to look at the performance of the Sunni elements of the Iraqi army in Mosul to estimate how their Saudi counterparts will perform.
To make matters worse for western leaders, a series of meaningless overseas wars have resulted in widespread ‘war fatigue’ back home. These leaders now lack the political capital, and spare resources to embark on open ended military adventures in the Middle East. Handicapped with their ‘sterile’ military power, and the disastrous performance of the army of one of their biggest allies, they need a ‘Plan B’ to fight this menace called ISIS, which is now equipped with extortion money, oil fields, and a reported 2 Billion USD in cash, stolen from the central bank in Mosul. There is nobody in the region better placed, trained, and experienced in fighting insurgents as the Syrian, Iranian armies, and their assortment of militias. While we can rightly moan about the impotence of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS, the reality is that it is incredibly difficult for a conventional army to fight a group of disciplined, determined, and fearless insurgents. Iran invented this type of warfare for consumption by its proxies (think Hezbollah), and has been the main driving force behind the biggest militia yet to be trained in insurgent warfare, the NDF of Syria. Nobody can fight ISIS better than Syria and Iran. The west is now faced with a serious dilemma. Not only did their policy of extending the war in Syria prove to be disastrous, it created a monster than can only be slain by the same old and determined foes they have tireless tried to destroy. Even if they refuse to enlist their help, the destruction of these foes (Iran, Syria) is now completely off the cards. This is astonishing considering that just nine months ago, we were hours away from destructive strikes against the Syrian regime, arguably foiled by expertly executed partisan politics on the part of Ed Miliband. Even for Iran, the situation has changed; a nuclear settlement now seems inevitable, Britain re-opened its embassy, and they are now a geopolitical power with a respected voice, far from the pariah state they were a few years ago. This could be the beginning of the biggest realignment of geopolitics in the history of the region, and the biggest loser is the Syrian opposition. Assad cannot believe his luck.
More worryingly for the ‘moderate’ rebels, instead of feeling stretched from having multiple fronts, ISIS managed to advance simultaneously against them in Syria, all the while avoiding the regime. With their newly captured toys and resources from Iraq, they blitzed through Deir Ezzor, now besieging the rebel held part, advancing with haste in North Aleppo. The rebels are in such a dismal state, that there are now leaked reports of an impending ‘reconciliation’ in Aleppo city in which rebels would hand over their biggest stronghold, and only hope for power in Syria. Reconciling with the regime is more graceful than losing your head to ISIS, one would think is their rationale.
There should no question in our minds that Western and Arab powers now realize the pressing need to end the war in Syria; some being more stubborn than others. They need to stop the chaos while they can, and focus on countering a growing threat that has the potential to become apocalyptic. This is now a much bigger problem than a brutal dictator slaughtering unarmed protestors on the streets; we are dealing with an ideology that is capable of exploiting decades of tyrannical rule in the Middle East, attracting the disenchanted youth of the Middle East who have been scarred by pandemic robbery and corruption that has left them hopeless for their present, and future. Forget ‘advanced’ armament for ‘moderate’ rebels – nobody is talking about this anymore, especially after seeing the Humvee garage courtesy of ISIS. Forget about ‘extending the war indefinitely’ – nobody wants that anymore. Forget that Iran is the enemy – its services are now essential for the security of the Middle East and western world. Even the services of Iran’s most potent proxy, Hezbollah, may be needed. Whichever approach the powers of the world take, whether it is accepting a different regime figure in Syria (to save face), or it is wiping the slate clean with Assad, the goals of The Syrian Revolution, in their original form, are history. Further, the Syrian Opposition, in their current form, are being walked helplessly to their permanent demise. We cannot help but recall what President Assad said back in April during a meeting with former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin:
‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists’
Everyone laughed at him, even his die-hard supporters. Nobody is laughing now.
In our article ‘Iraq – The nail in the coffin of the Syrian Revolution’, we discussed some of the general repercussions of ISIS’s adventures in Iraq. Here, we discuss the repercussions on the military situation on the ground.
Following the disastrous performance of the Iraqi army in Mosul, the overwhelming majority of which was Sunni, the government in Baghdad realized that under the current status quo, it cannot rely on Sunni men to fight for its cause. Instead, it needs to mobilize heavily indoctrinated Shi’ite militias, eager to fight ISIS, unafraid of death. However, building up effective militias is not a task that is feasible overnight – it takes months of selecting, arming, and training. Iran, being an expert in such operations, knows this; as such, there can be no immediate successful counter attack against ISIS. Even if the militias were ready, regaining a city from an insurgent force is a far cry from losing it. Just ask Assad – it took him three months to dislodge a well-trained insurgent force from an area in which the odds were heavily stacked against them. Further, Assad already had the passionate, trained, and experienced fighters at his disposal. Maliki should take stock of this and beware that hot headed attempts to quickly reverse the ISIS gains could prove disastrous.
The strategy that Iraq will more than likely engage in is to contain the ISIS advance with forces they already have, making small selective advances, while fortifying strategic positions (such as the capital), gathering intelligence, and plotting the wider war. Do not be fooled, this will be a long war – the ISIS gains cannot and will not be reversed in a month or two. Rather, this war may last for years. We must not forget that it took the American Army many years to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq – an organization that was smaller, less ambitious, and ultimately a far less powerful organization than ISIS. Hence, in the context of a wider, large scale sectarian mobilization, we estimate that there could be at least a hundred thousand Shi’ite militia men, armed to the tooth, and, by the end of the war, experienced, and battle hardened.
It is no secret that Assad has been relying on Iraqi militiamen to do some of the dirty hard work. While their official purpose is to protect Shi’ite shrines, they have been used in offensive operations as well. Reports suggests that Iran plays a large role in recruiting the militias that fight in Syria, offering guarantees of jobs when they complete their tours, helping to pay handsome salaries, and securing their families’ future should they be ‘martyred’ in combat. Thus far, the regime has employed them rather sparsely, due their limited numbers, rumoured at around 5000. Their purpose is to augment the Syrian army with highly sectarian, indoctrinated fighters that are ready to carry out difficult operations and die for the cause, reducing casualties amongst Syrian forces in order to keep the home front under control. One cannot begin to imagine what these enlarged, upgraded, experienced, and battle hardened militias can do to help Assad’s cause in Syria. Hence, once the Iraq war is over, Assad may well have a substantial pool of willing recruits, all of whom share a special hatred of Sunni militants, and especially ISIS. To add a sweetener, there is no doubt that they will be more than eager to open a long awaited front against ISIS in Syria. As a matter of fact, it won’t be an option for them – it will be essential to destroy ISIS in Syria in order for them to secure Iraq.
Suddenly, we are facing a potential joint Iraqi/Syrian operation against ISIS; this co-operation will have far reaching consequences that highly favours Assad. Indeed, he didn’t waste any time in volunteering his air force’s services, and began bombing ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq before Obama sent his first drone. Further, reports suggest that the Syrian Air Force employed its most advanced jets, the MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft) Mig-29, together with guided missiles which have been another rarity in the conflict. Assad had a pre-war stockpile of 40 of these planes, and they have been largely intact as they are not used in day to day operations; instead, they are the ‘reserve’ aircraft used for emergencies, such as when rebels were overrunning Damascus back in 2012. In less than a week, the Syrian air force bombed more ISIS positions than it had done over the entire Syrian war thus far. The purpose is clear – Assad wants to buy legitimacy as a threat to ISIS. It is a win-win situation as ISIS doesn’t have the capacity to retaliate and take on the Syrian regime, while Maliki would surely be more than happy to foot the bill of the costs involved.
While the Syrian Air Force is one of the biggest in the region, it lacks modern bombers capable of attacking ground targets with precision. The regime has made good use of the stockpile it has, and adapted some of its fighter jets for ground operations, even resorting to Mig-21s in desperate situations. The trick is to identify the purpose of each jet and assign missions accordingly – this wasn’t easy at the onset of the war as the air force had never before fought insurgents. For example, defending besieged bases doesn’t require top of the line ground bombers; instead you need jets that can terrorize your enemy and push them back. In the beginning, when the pilots lacked experience, there were often friendly fire incidents, but they have largely subsided as the pilots gained more experience. Another example for their use is terrorizing the civilian population living in rebel areas or in areas about to be stormed by the army. The only real use for top end bombers is breaking stubborn defensive lines, such as those in Eastern Ghouta, providing close air support for your ground troops. For this, Assad needs guided missiles from Mig-29s (expensive) or more modern bombers that are less worn out – from a pre-war population of 70 specialised Su-24 and Su-22 bombers, the regime probably lost half due to heavy use, and naïve, suicidal missions at the beginning of the war. The air force definitely needs new bombers. Indeed, the regime has been endlessly trying to acquire Sukhoi-25s for quite some time but Russia hasn’t been able to supply them. However, the question is, can Assad buy enough legitimacy to be able to receive shipments of Sukhoi-25s he desperately needs? A dozen or two of these can become real game changers in the Syrian conflict.
Growing impatient with the conditions Obama is attaching to serious military assistance, Maliki turned to Russia to prop up his air force. Less than two weeks after the capture of Mosul, he received a shipment of 5 Sukhoi 25’s, with more coming on the way. These are the very same jets that Assad badly needs. It’s quite astonishing just how quickly Maliki turned to Putin – as if to corner Obama, threatening him with a Russian ‘hegemony’ invasion of Iraq if he refuses to promptly help. Iraq can be a very lucrative customer for the right seller, after all. Putin obliged, delivering the jets in double quick time, very unusual of air force transactions. Incidentally, while Iraq received the jets, they don’t have anyone to fly them. Indeed, the Iraqi Air Force doesn’t have any fighter jets after giving 130 of them to Iran, fearing they would be destroyed by coalition bombing during the Saddam era. It will be interesting to solve the missing pilots puzzle – will it be Iranian pilots, will it be former Iraqi pilots brought back from retirement – or – will Syrian pilots be utilized? We may never find out.
It is a well-known fact that Iran has been using Iraqi airspace to maintain a supply line for Assad’s forces. There was a time when Maliki was under heavy pressure to stop allowing Iranian cargo jets through Iraqi air space. In fact, Iraq had to pretend they were carrying out ‘random searches’ on cargo jets bound for Damascus carrying ‘humanitarian aid’. This is a thing of the past. Thanks to ISIS, Iran can keep Assad’s killing machine operating on full throttle. Even better, they may be able to ‘merge’ these fronts and allow more advanced arms (and plane) shipments to Assad. Once again, the gods have blessed the dictator of Damascus with good fortune.
@EJMalrai Elijah J Magnier contributed to this report.
The Sykes-Picot article is supported by US secretary of State’s recent overture’s to Hezbollah:
Secretary Kerry, following a few hours visit to Beirut, was reading a statement saying (below link to the entire statement and interview):“So all of us, all nations, have a responsibility to try to end this conflict. And I particularly call on those nations directly supporting the Assad regime – in what has become a grotesque display of modern warfare by a state against its own people – I call on them – Iran, Russia, and I call on Hezbollah, based right here in Lebanon – to engage in the legitimate effort to bring this war to an end.”View through Kerry’s statement:– “All of us”: Kerry is talking about all Nations concerned in this conflict.– “Particularly those (nations) directly supporting Assad regime”: Iran and Russia-” And I call on Hezbollah” (since Hezbollah is not a nation but an organisation, Kerry is asking Hezbollah for its contribution without including it in the first sentence)– “To engage in the legitimate effort to bring this war to and end”: Kerry is putting Hezbollah on the level of an organisation – non state – but also on the level of all Nations involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian conflict. A real turn for an organisation on the list of terrorism by the same US State Department headed by Kerry himself.Question: How Hezbollah can help “to bring this war to an end”? Will the War in Syria “ends” without the end of AQ (al-Qaeda) and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham)?Hezbollah’s view below: Bullet points1-US pragmatism seeks Hezbollah’s support.2-Hezbollah’s support to help end war has morphed into an international demand.3-Hezbollah saw Kerry’s statement as politically significant seeing as his own US department of state has designated Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organization.4- Hezbollah’s thinking on Kerry’s statement: Request holds significant multi-political nuances when unlike Iran & Russia, Hezbollah is not a state but a military organisation fighting in Syria.5-Nassralah said that “Hezbollah has turned from a mere local organization into a regional player recognized by International world as such.”6-Nassrallah confident that ” the international community will one day thank Hezbollah for its role in Syria, given they are in effect fighting west’s war against Al-Qaeda and ISIS takfiris.7-Hezbollah inner circles say “that its role in Syria & in fighting AQ and Isis is being recognized now as perhaps the force that can actually stop their expansion.”8- Hezbollah sources: “World concerned about danger posed by returning jihadists to create cells in Europen countries on behalf of AQ mother ship based in Syria.”9-Hezbollah soruces: “Kerrys statement in effect seeks Iran, Russia & importantly HA to help battle AQ in Syria, Moderate rebels not worrying as deals can be struck with them.”10- Hezbollah sees Kerry’s visit to Lebanon not to ask the group to leave Syria, having seen & studied its ability & the military gains made since its involvement.11-”Kerry knows US forces unable to stand against AQ as seen in Afghanistan & Iraq. He sees Hezbollah’s military performance in Syria (Qusseyr, Qalamoun, Baba Amro, Ghouta, Aleppo, Homs)as only hope to stand against AQ and ISIS thrust.”12-Hezbollah sources recognises “US ability to bow to pragmatism when logic and its higher interest demand so, hence Kerry’s flirtation with HA & Iran together.”13-Hezbollah knows ” US will not be arming rebels with high range weapons to prevent them falling in AQ or ISIS hands.”14-” Europe, US Canada, are largely civil societies , not militarized as Israel & not quite prepared for the growth of jihadists /AQ/ISIS phenomena in its midst.15-AS such US pragmatic to realize common interest with Hezbollah in Syria & tt AQ/Isis etc has to be fought in Syria at the mother ship & source to prevent spread.16- Hezbollah considers “the United States untrustworthy as Imam Khomeini said: We don’t trust the United States whatever they do or whatever they say”.