North Africa, West Asia

Coalition air strikes and the Sunni 'endgame' in Syria, Iraq

The pattern of strikes by the disjointed US-led coalition of Operation Inherent Resolve remains the best and most reliable public indicator of intentions and future operations in the short-term.

Fernando Betancor
26 February 2016

Press Association/AP/Lefteris Pitarakis. All rights reserved.As I pointed out in early December, changes to the balance of forces in Syria and Iraq have been forcing together the disparate and fractious elements of the “informal Sunni coalition,” nominally led by Saudi Arabia. These actors have had little in common except an extreme wariness of Persian power and influence west of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and a desire to see Bashar al Assad, a Persian ally in Syria, replaced by a Sunni government. Beyond those two points, there is little common ground between the Saudis and Turks. Both nations have their preferred proxies in the Syrian struggle against al Assad; but while the Turks are also focused on limiting Kurdish power, the Saudis are indifferent to them.

This has made the US job of organising a stable coalition against the Islamic State next to impossible, for our Turkish and Saudi allies are dead set against working with the Kurds and the Shi’a-dominated government of Iraq. Instead of a unified, coordinated campaign to sweep Daesh off the field, the US has had to settle for multiple disjointed campaigns with whatever forces are available at the moment and with very limited aims. This is clearly demonstrated by one or two examples:

1. Last year, the United States provided sustained air support to a ground campaign spearheaded by Kurdish ground forces of the YPG militias. These forces broke the ISIS siege of Kobane and rapidly overran villages and towns of the surrounding region. They then linked up with a second Kurdish force moving west from Tall Hamees and captured an airbase at Ayn Issa, only 20 kilometres from the Islamic State capital of Ar Raqqah.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.2. At this point – 23 July 2015 – Turkey announced that it would join the coalition against ISIS and open up Incirlik AFB to American strike aircraft. The unspoken condition was that the US stop supporting the Kurds in Syria. US air missions in northern Syria plummeted almost immediately.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.3. The Turkish demands were based on their strategic opposition to the consolidation of a Kurdish proto-state in northern Syria, known as ‘Rojava’. The presence of a large Kurdish minority in southern and eastern Turkey, and the long history of insurgency and terrorism perpetrated by the PKK in the name of Kurdish independence, makes the establishment of such a proto-state anathema to the Ankara’s national interests.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.

Evolution of 'Sunni' strategy [1]

This frustrating situation changed radically when Russia sent an expeditionary force to the government-held port of Latakia in September 2015. The Russian forces consisted of a naval infantry detachment to guard the port itself; elements of a motor rifle battalion to guard the Bashem al Assad airbase; and squadrons of strike aircraft (Su-24, Su-25, Su-37) and escort fighters (Su-30) to provide close air support to the beleaguered forces of the Syrian Army. In fact, the Russians have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the rebels, using not only the local aircraft but also Kalibr cruise missiles fired from vessels of the Mediterranean and Caspian fleets, as well as Tupolev supersonic bombers.

This has transformed the situation in Syria. Assad’s government has gone from the verge of collapse to a sustained offensive thanks to the new injection of firepower. The Syrian Army has made important territorial gains in northern Latakia in the Jabal al Akrad region, pushing into the Ghab Valley in Idlib province and have encircled rebel-held Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Meanwhile, Iranian and Hezbollah forces have been assisting the government in its pounding of rebel positions near the Jordanian border, near Daraa. These series of reverses do not mean the end of the war or the defeat of the rebel forces, but they are nonetheless a strategic threat to the interests of Turkey and the Gulf States, who do not want pro-Iranian governments in both Damascus and Baghdad.


SU-30 plane. Flickr/Zoomed In. Some rights reserved.The Russian intervention and the threat of an Assad victory have impelled the otherwise distrustful partners to begin working together more closely. It has also led them to consider more aggressive measures than had previously been contemplated. Although these proposals have laudable public objectives, such as humanitarian relief and the overthrow of the Islamic State regime, their real purpose is to restore the balance of power in their own favour and establish more favourable conditions for an eventual settlement:

1. Turkey continues to raise the possibility of establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria to protect and house the millions of refugees from the war who are today languishing just inside the Turkish border. This would be one of the objectives; but perhaps a more important one would be to re-establish logistical links with the Syrian opposition and provide them with a safe harbour from Russian bombing.

2. As a prelude, Turkey has continued to ratchet up the tension with Russia by releasing fresh accusations of airspace violations and warning of unspecified consequences. Given that Turkey has already shot down a Russian Su-24 “Fencer” and that the Russians have warned that they will not allow this to happen again, the situation is fairly perilous.


SU-24. Flickr/mashleymorgan. Some rights reserved.3. Saudi Arabia has raised the prospect of sending its army into Syria, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State. It has even offered to coordinate with the Turkish military, something that was unthinkable before the Russians arrived. In fact, this operation would be about holding as much Sunni Arab territory as possible in order to prevent the Syrian Army from taking it, in anticipation of a potential negotiation or even division of the country.

This is the reason that the February peace talks proved so abortive: they were hopeless before they even began due to conditions on the ground. The pro-government group, including Russia, see little reason in any negotiation so long as the momentum is so clearly on their side. They are perfectly willing to wait and improve their bargaining position. Meanwhile, the anti-government forces see no reason to negotiate from a bad position; they confidently expect that their patrons will not sit idly by while they are destroyed. They are unlikely to be disappointed.

This is why the February peace talks proved so abortive: they were hopeless before they even began due to conditions on the ground.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been open-handed in their provision of anti-tank guided weapons to their proxies and the rebels, for their part, have proven adept at using them. There are reports of high levels of casualties among Syrian Army tank crews. The next critical escalation would be the supply of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS); shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles such as the famous US-made Stinger missile that proved devastating to Soviet aviation in Afghanistan. So far, the US has vetoed the handover of these systems: America spent decades trying to repurchase all the Stingers sent to Afghanistan to prevent them falling into the black market and terrorist hands. If the Russians continue to pound the rebels from the air with impunity, flying as many as 250 sorties per day in some areas, then it is likely that some few missiles might find their way to Syria. It would be particularly ironic if these were Ukrainian-made Strela missiles; a clear demonstration of how closely linked, and therefore dangerous, the two conflicts are.

The United States, for its part, is perfectly willing to go along with its Turkish and Saudi allies for the moment. The Americans want to establish a new balance of power in the region; they do not want to see the Iranians establish powerful proxies in Baghdad, Damascus and southern Lebanon and become too dominant in the region. The US also has an interest in destroying ISIS without the commitment of large numbers of ground troops, though the presence of small numbers of Special Forces as forward observers is already occurring.

We have come to realise that these goals can only be pushed so far with the means we currently have, namely the Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. A too successful Kurdish offensive would risk both a Turkish and Arab backlash, while the Iraqi Army is heavily reliant on Shi’a Hashed militias to bolster its forces. Having the pro-Iranian Shi’a militias win back Sunni territory for Baghdad is not really what the US or Saudi Arabia want; yet it is unlikely that the Iraqi Army by itself will be able to do so for some time to come. This is why Secretary Ashton Carter has always maintained that America would welcome “greater contributions” from its Middle Eastern allies; in other words, ground troops.

That sort of contribution would be extremely unwelcome in Baghdad; the last thing Haider al Abadi wants is thousands of Saudi and Turkish troops occupying Fallujah and Mosul, two of Iraq’s largest cities. No one knows how long they might stay, for one thing; and they would wear out their welcome as quickly as any other foreign force, especially the Turks, who were the colonial masters of Mesopotamia for hundreds of years prior to the First World War. The danger is even greater in Syria, where any potential incursion by Turkish or Saudi troops would be condemned as a foreign invasion by Bashar al Assad’s government. That would not bring a Security Council condemnation; it would bring an attack by Syrian military forces. That would quickly drag in the Russians; and if the Russians proved too successful, it would bring in the Americans. The prospect of American and Russian aircraft shooting at each other to protect their respective allies in Syria is extremely chilling.

Coalition air activity is as good an indicator of short-term intentions as the public has, and there are a number of insights that can be drawn from the pattern of activity. If we divide the area of battle into four zones: Syria [2], northern Iraq, central Iraq and southern Iraq, we can make an appraisal of the most likely next targets of a ground campaign:

1. In northern Iraq, coalition forces have intensified their bombardment of Daesh positions around Mosul. The loss of Iraq’s second city would be a critical blow to the aspirations of the Islamic State: indeed, it was the lightening fall of Mosul that drew international attention and consternation to the deteriorating situation in Mesopotamia. Mosul also drew the unfortunate attention of al Abadi’s government when it vehemently denounced a “Turkish invasion” of the region, despite these being only 150 trainers moving through a previously agreed rotation: proof that tensions are high and levels of trust are low. Any attempt to retake Mosul would be a major undertaking, and it could not be a purely Kurdish affair: Mosul is a predominantly Arab city and too important to the Iraqi government to leave it in the hands of the de facto government of Erbil. It would therefore require time and the massing of Iraqi Army troops, and both activities would draw notice.

An alternative would be a diversionary attack by Kurdish forces on Qayyarah, south of Mosul. Kurdish Peshmerga in Makhmur are well positioned to attack the town and interdict the vital Mosul-Baghdad Highway, a critical logistics artery for either ISIS or the Iraqis to control. Strike levels against Qayyarah have been increasing over recent weeks to levels that could prelude an attack.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.2. Another area to observe closely is in northern Syria. Although levels of US air activity have been very restrained in the area – more by Turkey than by the presence of the Russians – there has been a continuous low-level of support for the Kurds around Ayn Issa, Al Hasakah and Al Hawl. The US has also been active in bombing the Islamic State salient around Manbij, Al Bab and Washiya; as well as the area near Marea and Mar’a, villages held by the Syrian rebels, but desired by the Islamic State as a link to Turkey. Any significant increase in coalition air strikes in this area could be the prelude to a Turkish intervention for the establishment of a “safe zone”.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.3. Air operations in southern Iraq remain intense and concentrated around Ramadi. Although the Iraqi government announced the recapture of the city on 27 December, the intensity of air missions has not decreased in the subsequent weeks, as they have after other major operations. This would indicate that Daesh still has significant assets in the area, or that the government’s hold on Ramadi is tenuous, or both. Until the area is more secure, the Iraqi Army is unlikely to be able to divert forces for another major campaign in the area, such as the recapture of Fallujah or Habbaniyah.

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Image credit: Fernando Betancor. All rights reserved.Although the initiative today rests with President al Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, the situation remains fluid. The Syrian government still faces a manpower shortage, which recent victories might ease somewhat, and has much ground to retake. Furthermore, the rebels are well entrenched in a number of large cities and urban warfare will reduce the advantage in armour and airpower enjoyed by the Syrian Army. Retaking cities from an entrenched, determined enemy is an extremely costly affair in terms of human lives, as the Iraqis learned in Tikrit. Rebel forces remain confident that they will continue to receive supplies and equipment and their morale has not broken; there have been no reports of desertion or abandonment of positions.

So long as they prove willing to fight on, the “Sunni coalition” will increase its efforts to counter the advantages enjoyed by the “pro-Iranian” faction in this regional conflict. This escalation could lead to direct conflict between US and Russian forces, whether through accident or provocation. The pattern of strikes by the US-led coalition of Operation Inherent Resolve remains the best and most reliable public indicator of intentions and future operations in the short-term.



[1] I use the term “Sunni” very loosely as a shorthand manner of describing the anti-Iranian, anti-Alawite, anti-Hezbollah, moderately anti-Shi’a coalition. Not all of the coalition partners are Sunni, nor is the sectarian aspect of the struggle necessarily the predominant one, but it is nevertheless a useful abbreviation which I use advisedly and with caution.

[2] The United States is, for the moment, uninvolved in central and southern Syria. The area of operations for US and coalition forces is limited to the northern strip from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border near Al Hasakah and Al Hawl and then south to the border crossing at Al Bukamal. There is an occasional strike at Palmyra, but this is out of the area of immediate interest of coalition forces.

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