North Africa, West Asia

Outside the box: a Sunni endgame in Syria, Iraq?

A series of related events point to a possible endgame scenario in Syria and Iraq.

Fernando Betancor
1 January 2016

Shutterstock/Xtock. All rights reserved.There are signs of previously unknown levels of cooperation and alignment between the United States and the key Sunni states in the region, which could lead to a power-sharing agreement that satisfies their strategic interests. The principal events are as follows:

In October, a group of 53 Saudi imams unaffiliated with the government called for a jihad against the Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments. The group went even further than official condemnation and likened the Russian intervention to the 1980 war in Afghanistan—which led to the birth of Al Qaeda, in case anyone has forgotten. It is significant that the Saudi government allowed or was not able to stop the communication; the former would indicate approval of the intensified message while the latter would imply weakness and the desire of the Saudis to avoid internal dissension from the more radical clergy.

On 5 November, the USAF announced the deployment of six F-15C Eagles to Incirlik AFB in Turkey. That is interesting, because unlike the F-15E Strike Eagle the F-15C is a pure air superiority fighter that has no ground attack role, yet ISIS has no air force. The mission is to protect Turkish airspace; but from what? The only planes flying over Syria belong to the Combined Joint Task Force, to Russia or to the Syrian government.

On 24 November, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that had momentarily violated Turkish airspace. This act goes far beyond Turkish aspirations in Syria and involves a much wider Russo-Turkish competition encompassing the Black Sea and the Caucasus; but the fact that military action was taken in this particular theatre is significant and may indicate that Turkey is prepared to act more aggressively than previous indicated.

On 5 December, the Iraqi government officially accused the Turkish government of an “illegal incursion” of troops into northern Iraq. This was in response to the rotation of about 150 trainers to an Iraqi camp north of Mosul, which has been a largely routine occurrence until now. Yet, freakish as this protest might seem, it was serious enough for the Turkish ambassador to be summoned to Baghdad and the Turkish government to issue a warning to all of its nationals to leave Iraq.

On 9 December, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced during a visit to Iraq that the US was “ready to do more” to assist the Iraqi Army to finish the job against the Islamic State. The secretary’s call echoed his statement on 6 November at Camp David, when he said: “We would welcome working with those countries on the ground because they would have a distinctive advantage in a ground fight.”

Also on 9 December, Syrian opposition groups agreed to a Saudi-proposed framework for talks and to unify in the face of a Russian-backed loyalist resurgence. The road remains rocky as many of the rebel groups courteously despise each other, but the possibility of a unified Sunni rebel front is highly significant.

These events occur in the context of a significant offensive by Assad’s loyalist forces, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, to recapture the initiative and retake critical territory around Hama, Aleppo and Homs. The fighting has been intense and the progress has been slow—mainly because of the anti-tank guided weapons the Gulf states have been providing to the Syrian rebels—but progress is being made. The immediate threat to Latakia and the Alawite heartland has eased; the beleaguered garrison of Kweiras AFB has been relieved after a two-year siege; and the threat to the strategic north-south supply lines has been pushed back. It is not victory; but for a regime on the point of collapse just three months ago, it is an important turnaround.

Many of the rebel groups courteously despise each other, but the possibility of a unified Sunni rebel front is highly significant.

This has put a great deal of pressure on the Saudis. Their Syrian proxies are suffering serious setbacks; in Iraq, the victories are being won either by Shia Hashed militias (Bayji, Ramadi) or else by the Kurdish Peshmerga (Sinjar). The Gulf states don’t have any beef against the Kurds per se, but the Iraqi Shia militias are being openly trained and supplied by Iran. King Salman is not secure enough on his throne to suffer grievous loss of prestige lightly; he faces the very real possibilities of either a palace coup or a radicalisation of his already radical subjects should his leadership lead to a Sunni defeat in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey is also under pressure. President Erdogan faces plenty of domestic opposition due to his authoritarian manner and the vast corruption of his AKP apparatchiks; only by picking a fight with the Kurds and taking a hardline in Syria was he able to secure a narrow parliamentary majority in a November second election, after the previous one delivered a hung parliament. Furthermore, the country faces a resurgent Russia that has thrashed Georgia, occupied Crimea, is playing footsy with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and now has the better part of a frontal aviation regiment in Syria with ground troops to defend their bases. After 400 years of fighting off the Russians, the last thing the Turks want is to be encircled by them.

These setbacks seem to have brought the ‘Sunni coalition’ closer together. Goaded on by the United States, the Turks and Saudis may be prepared to move beyond supplies and munitions to use of ground forces in an effort to redress the situation. It would not be precisely the “invasion of Iraq” that the Shia parliamentarians in Baghdad have been screaming about, but it wouldn’t be too far off the mark. What would this look like in practice?

Ground Force Commitment: the Americans, the Gulf states and the Turks would each agree to contribute a certain number of troops to ‘defeat the Islamic State’. The Americans would contribute a small number of light troops—special forces, light infantry—and the airpower. The Turks and Gulf states would provide more conventional forces: mechanised infantry, armour, and artillery.

Diplomatic screen: there is no possibility of a UN resolution authorising any sort of military action in Syria—the Russians would veto it. However, the west has already set a (dangerous) precedent for use of force without Security Council sanction: the air campaign against Serbia was conducted exclusively under NATO auspices. In this case, the diplomatic cover would be provided by the Arab League, which has already sanctioned military action against the Houthis in Yemen.

In Iraq, no diplomatic screen is required. The United States and European Union will put Baghdad under enormous pressure to force Prime Minister al Abadi to agree to accept the “gracious assistance” of the Gulf states to defeat the Islamic State threat.

Military action in Iraq: the Gulf States would deploy regular forces alongside Sunni Hashed militias (like the ones the Turks were supposed to be training near Mosul) and the Iraqi Army. These would focus on retaking the predominantly Sunni Anbar province from ISIS and keeping it free of Shia militias. The Americans would operate as they did with the Northern Alliance: as embedded forward observers calling in airstrikes and in limited engagements to take out high-value targets or deal with limited pockets of ISIS resistance. US troops would not be leading the charge.

Military action in Syria: the Turks would move substantial ground units into northern Syria to provide a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees. This would coincide with the establishment of a US-backed no-fly zone over said safe zone (we wouldn’t want to bomb civilians by accident, would we?). This safe haven would be fully endorsed by the US and European Union, both of whom want something done to keep Syrian refugees away from their borders. It will also act as a safe haven for rebels fighting al Assad, for the flow of munitions and volunteers, and for Islamic State oil (the spice must flow).

Press offensive: all of this will be touted as concrete steps taken in the wake of the Paris massacre to ensure the destruction of ISIS. Indeed, it is quite possible that the French will be invited to suggest and lead some of these measures.

The endgame is therefore to checkmate Russia and Iran through the imposition of sufficient military forces as to prevent them from accomplishing their goals, while forestalling a direct military response through the threat of escalation. If Russia challenges the Turkish safe zone too directly, Turkey can invoke the mutual defence clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. If Iran challenges the situation in Iraq too directly, the US by itself has adequate forces to deal with any incursion. This endgame does not oust Assad nor does it destroy ISIS; but it weakens both. The US-Saudi-Turkish coalition is open to dealing with Russia, but not on Russian terms: the only acceptable outcome for these allies is the departure of Assad and a Sunni government to replace him.

The problems with this strategy are many and evident: the Russians, Syrians and Iranians are not going to sit meekly by while the US and its allies make their moves. There are many actions short of direct confrontation that can be taken to counter such an endgame and the other side is unlikely to be stupid enough to act in the predetermined manner. There will be countermoves starting with the Baghdad government inviting the Russians to participate officially in the operations to destroy ISIS in Iraq.  However, the real risk is the high probability of “inadvertent” incidents—or even really inadvertent incidents—with Russian and American aircraft operating in the same airspace and possibly bombing targets on opposite sides of the same battlefield. Once American munitions start killing embedded Russian troops and vice versa, there will an uncontrollable escalation risk. Russia will be sure to test the ‘no-fly zone’ which it will declare illegitimate without Security Council sanction. Either the no-fly stricture is enforced or it becomes a joke: I tend to think the Russians will be warned privately that it would be enforced publically.

As 2016 dawns, we may have US and Russian proxies bombing each other in eastern Ukraine and northern Syria. What’s worse is that we may face the spectre of doing away with the proxies altogether. Happy new year.

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