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 of 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 successive rebel losses across the country, a major peak, The Lattakia offensive, appeared out of nowhere. While rebels often complained about the lack of weapon supplies 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 African 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-Qaeda. Shortly after, an offensive was launched for 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 sprung 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 with 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 dedicated 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-Qaeda in Syria either; 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, opting 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-Qaeda, 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 home 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 of the city, 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.