By Afro-Middle East Centre
The collapse of the recent Syrian ceasefire and resultant blame game being played by the USA and Russia is an indication of the complex nature of the Syrian crisis and more importantly indicates the interests and motivations of the ceasefire’s chief protagonists. Although violence lessened slightly during the four- to five-day armistice, its collapse points to the differing interests of the actors involved, and to the partiality of the supposed enforcers. The consequent Aleppo offensive has compounded this, illustrating that Russia will continue backing the Syrian regime, while the USA is more concerned about the Islamic State group (IS). Moreover, even Russia recently admitted that it is now impossible to bring ‘peace’ to the conflict arena.
Negotiated between Russia and the USA, neither the regime nor opposition groups fully endorsed the 9 September ceasefire, revealing a clearly erroneous assumption that the conflict is between two clearly identifiable sets of belligerents that could be restrained by their supposed patrons. Further, the agreement was not made public (though it was subsequently leaked), or even made available to the rebel groups that were to implement it, thus inhibiting its chances for success and undermining the already tenuous US influence. Moreover, the regime, though using limited aerial bombardment, utilised the ‘pause’ to consolidate and continued attacking areas in Aleppo, Homs and east Ghouta (east of the capital Damascus). Rebel groups were also accused of violations, especially in Aleppo, although these were mostly less intense than those of the regime. The violations that fundamentally ended the ceasefire, however, were the 17 September USA-led attack in Deir al-Zor that killed sixty-two Syrian soldiers, and the attack on a thirty-one truck aid convoy entering Aleppo, allegedly carried out by Russian aircraft two days later. Fighting subsequently intensified, and the regime resumed its aerial bombardment of besieged east Aleppo, declaring a new offensive to ‘liberate’ the area.
The ceasefire’s flaws were already apparent when considering the interests motivating the chief protagonists and the steps it was to follow. The US views the fight against IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formally Jabhat al-Nusra), still believed by the Obama administration to have links with al-Qa'ida, as more pertinent, and believes that a political solution, however skewed in the regime’s favour, would help attempts to combat these groups. Further, it is wary of intensifying its military involvement in the conflict and has thus concentrated its assistance mainly on the fight against IS. Conversely, the Russians possess strategic interests in Syria, are fearful of a power vacuum were the regime to fall, and perceive most Islamist rebel groups as terrorists that pose a threat to the country. Since September 2015 Russia has acted directly, militarily, to protect these interests. Convergences over IS, and US reticence to confront Russia, meant that the USA endorsed or ignored Russia’s actions. The Obama administration also agreed to include Jabhat in the list of groups against which attacks were allowed even during the ceasefire, and committed to the formation of a joint intelligence centre with Russia to confront these groups if the ceasefire lasted more than a week. Notably, Jabhat had been actively involved in temporarily breaking the siege on Aleppo in July, and its entrenchment in Aleppo and other areas controlled by opposition groups prevent regime forces from continuing attacks in contested areas despite the ceasefire. The USA also altered its stance on the future role of Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, and now is open to Asad leading a transitionary government of national unity.
The ceasefire, thus, to be enforced by parties who were partial, and, especially in the case of the USA, had little influence on the ground because of this partiality and its unwillingness to follow up on policy pronouncements. Further, this partiality inhibited the chances for effective monitoring of the ceasefire, allowing for violations, especially by the regime, to go unpunished. Opposition forces were in a bind: coordinating with Jabhat would render them susceptible to Russian and US attacks, while halting coordination with and confronting the former al-Qa'ida affiliate would allow the disciplined group to consolidate control. In some instances, regime forces captured territory when US coalition attacks forced IS to retreat, and it was feared that Jabhat’s retreat would have a similar result, especially around Aleppo. Therefore, unlike the February ceasefire attempt which was endorsed by groups representing the regime and opposition factions and which lasted around a month, the September truce lasted five days.
Although the ceasefire has failed, it is likely that attempts will be made to broker a new one along similar lines, despite the current war of words between USA and Russia. The USA, believing that IS poses a greater threat than the Syrian regime, and having misgivings about the main Islamist forces that are currently the strongest and most well-organised rebel components, and which would benefit most from Asad’s fall, will go along with a Russian initiative. The balance of power on the ground heavily favours Russia, and dissuades active interference by other foreign powers for fear of confrontation with Russia. Further, the Turkish incursion into Syria is also likely to lead to a weakening of support for opposition groups, especially in light of the recent Turkish-Russian and Turkish-Iranian rapprochements and the belief that Turkey is reassessing its position on Asad. Already, thousands of Turkey-backed fighters have withdrawn from east Aleppo to focus on consolidating Turkey’s control of its 900-square kilometre incursion, and to prepare for a push towards the IS-held town of Al-Bab. Talks on reviving the Geneva peace process will continue after the current US-Russian spat settles, mainly because international powers are unable and unwilling to conceive of new solutions. Thus, even though the twenty-three-member International Syria Support Group meeting, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, collapsed on 22 September with accusations of partisanship and no new measures formulated, and although the USA, the UK and France have accused Russia of war crimes, little actual action is being proposed to make even a ceasefire more enforceable.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
While being a violation of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory along the Syria-Turkey border and its attacks on Islamic State group (IS) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions there have not been heavily criticised except by the USA and various Kurdish groups. It has received mild criticism from the Russian and Syrian governments, and significant support from the Turkish population and many Turkish opposition groups. The intervention – called Operation Euphrates Shield – is expected to be a longterm one, and is set to worsen already-tense relations between Turkey and the USA.
The operation follows several fatal operations in Turkey by IS and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the wake of state security weaknesses after the July coup attempt. The Syrian YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and has strong links with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While the US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, it regards the PYD/PYG as an essential element of its anti-IS armed forces in Syria, and a component of what it calls ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’. Relying on two diametrically opposed actors – Turkey and the YPG, both US allies – to fight a common enemy presents the USA with a tactical and strategic dilemma. Soon after Turkey’s incursion began on 24 August, the USA called on YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates River, a key demand of Turkey, but on Wednesday US spokespersons criticised Turkey’s moves against the group. With the YPG refusing to relocate, USA faces the prospect of losing the largest component of its SDF if it pushes too hard. The head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel,announced at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates, but the lack of agreement on whether this is true will exacerbate relations between the two NATO allies.
Turkey had been unable to convince its allies to impose a no-fly zone on the Syria-Turkey border which, Turkey claimed, would help keep millions of refugees safe; Operation Euphrates Shield is likely to create a de facto ‘safe zone’ for refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkish planes had begun the first movements in the operation, bombing IS targets in the northern Syrian area of Jarablus. Two hours later 1 500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters crossed over from the Turkish region of Karkamis, accompanied by an armed battalion of twenty-five M60A3 tanks, and close fire support from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The FSA troops include Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which Turkey considers ‘moderate’ – particularly after the FSA sidelined al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups two weeks earlier.
The operation involves 350 TSK soldiers, 200 troops from mechanised units, and 150 special forces. They are supported by heavy aerial operations conducted collectively by the anti-IS coalition. In addition, seventeen Turkish war planes are participating in the operation, including eleven F16s. Turkey is also using newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unarmed drones. An armed brigade is on reserve at the border area of Karkamis and security analysts suggest the nearby base at Kilis Elbeyli will coordinate air support and medical evacuation with FSA units. Based on the type of armaments used by the TSK, Turkey is likely intending to have a longterm presence in Syria’s north with, possibly, a military base in Jarablus that serve as a coordination and training area for FSA fighters. Turkey hopes the FSA can prove its mettle in the field, and then be able to capture the IS stronghold of al-Bab. Should the FSA take that city, it will favour the opposition politically, and deprive the YPG of its status as the most efficient anti-IS force.
This is the first occasion that a NATO member puts boots on the ground in Syria since the war there began in 2011, and comes at a critical time for Turkey, which just six weeks ago experienced an attempted coup that dealt a severe blow to the TSK’s prestige. Caught between its membership in NATO and the deterioration of domestic security, Turkey extracted much benefit from the recent turnaround in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s assurances that Russian aircraft will not fire on FSA and Turkish troops during this complex operation. The Russian foreign ministry has officially said it ‘is concerned about Turkey’s incursion into Syria’ and that actions against IS should be coordinated with Damascus. Syria itself responded with a statement complaining about the violation of its ‘sovereign rights’, but not suggesting it would do anything more about it.
Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria reflects a change in Ankara’s regional policy from one that claimed humanitarian issues at the core of its policy to a return to hard security goals by national interest. A key political and security aim is to prevent the creation of a contiguous area controlled by the PYD on the 822-kilometre Turkey-Syria border. To achieve this it becomes necessary for the FSA and other rebel factions to unite under a single political banner that regards the territorial integrity of Syria as a precondition for peace talks. Realising this political aim will require the FSA to secure more than just the Jarablus area, and to extend its control to terrain to the west up to the Rai-Azaz / Jarablus-Cobanbey line. Should it gain control of this area, Turkey will be able to cut off IS supply routes and isolate the PYD in the town of Afrin. Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted YPG targets in Afrin on the second day of Euphrates Shield.
The quiet responses to Turkey’s incursion by Russia and Syria (whose response was limited to a written statement) reflects their similar objective that Syria’s integrity be maintained; they thus would be unhappy to allow the PYD to set up an autonomous Kurdish area. Syria’s Iranian allies are also unhappy about what message Kurdish autonomy in Syria might send to Iranian Kurds – especially since recent clashes between the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and reports that the USA might be supporting the PDKI. Tehran has already said it tacitly supported Turkey in its anti-PKK effort although the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Turkey should halt operations that challenge Syria’s against central government authority, suggesting that Iran remains sceptical of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria.
Qatar, another regional actor which has supported the FSA, will support Turkey in its push against IS and the YPG as the two countries share similar perspectives on key issues. Qatar has sought to diversify its defence partnerships with the setting up of a Turkish-Qatari military base in the emirate state, which also reflects the rapidly changing security architecture of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama are due to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in China on 4 September, but it is unlikely that any substantive movement on a Syrian peace deal will be announced as fighting between the government and rebels continue in the key area of Aleppo.
By Caroline Timoney
On 22 June, Qatar called for the national prosecution of those who had committed crimes against international humanitarian law in Syria.
This is recognition that the veto of Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council has prevented any attempt to send the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC), that Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute and that the Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, has so far not begun her own investigation into the issue.
But who would have jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes? What laws would be applicable?
In March, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated that prosecution of lower-level perpetrators of war crimes should not wait for peace in Syria, but should occur in foreign jurisdictions. The Commission intended to continue to lobby for a referral to the ICC or an ad hoc tribunal.
Our first question is what system of law would be applicable. In order to answer this one, we must establish whether this is an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict. The conflict in Syria easily meets the test for the existence of an armed conflict: is there protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised armed groups or between such groups within a state?
But in order to be international at least two different states would have to be involved on opposing sides. In Syria, although the United States and Russia have provided air support to government troops, their involvement would not elevate the conflict to be international. Although often criticised, due to this point the armed conflict in Syria does not meet this definition and thus remains a non-international armed conflict.
Common Article 3 of the the Geneva Conventions may be applied or customary international law, but not Additional Protocol II as Syria is not a party to the latter.
The date at which the armed conflict began in Syria becomes important as war crimes can only occur during a recognised armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) date the beginning of the armed conflict between February and August 2012. So were there crimes committed against international humanitarian law from this period?
In a word, yes, for the COI’s report from the period 15 February to 20 July 2012 found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that both Government and opposition forces had committed the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, war crimes and gross violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. These violations included unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property.
Human Rights Watch released a report in 2013 that highlighted the lack of capacity of the Syrian air force to conduct precise air strikes leading to the deliberate or reckless attacks on civilians; compounded by the rebel Free Syrian Army basing themselves in civilian areas. The report noted the targeting of bakeries and hospitals both of which place renewed pressure on food supplies and medical resources (personnel, equipment and supplies).
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster bombs by government forces, which are banned internationally.
On 4 July, Amnesty International released a new report detailing abuses committed by five armed groups in Aleppo and Idlib since 2012. These are the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement, al-Shamia Front, Division 16, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement.
Since 2014 all five of these groups have received military and financial support either from the MOM – a coalition of the United States, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom – in the form of lethal and non-lethal equipment or, and in the case of the latter two groups, have reportedly received military and financial support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement lost their funding from MOM in September 2015 but is thought to still receive financial and military support from Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf states.
The report details cases of abduction, torture, summary killings and the harsh application of Sharia law by inexperienced laymen – all of which are counted as war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.
But who has jurisdiction to prosecute and would it be feasible?
Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the concept of universal jurisdiction was introduced. If grave breaches of the Conventions occurred then the states parties are required to search for these alleged perpetrators and arrest them for trial under their own national jurisdiction or handed over to another state to prosecute.
States are not given a choice as this obligation imposes an active duty on states to both arrest and prosecute. A state party to the Geneva Conventions must therefore have domestic criminal legislation in place to try alleged perpetrators regardless of their nationality and the location of the offence.
States in the region that have ratified or acceded to the Geneva Conventions would have jurisdiction to try such a case if they are able to arrest an alleged perpetrator, or if they receive such a perpetrator from another nation in the region. Qatar, for example, signed all four Geneva Conventions in 1975 and Additional Protocol II in 1990, as too did the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain.
Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Iran have only ratified the Geneva Conventions, while Yemen, currently in the midst of civil war, has ratified all the above treaties but is probably incapable of effecting a successful prosecution.
Of course the Rome Statute would provide a more coherent legal frame for prosecutors with its expanded list of crimes and greater definitions. However, the only states in the Middle East to have ratified the Rome Statute are Jordan and Palestine.
For example without the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions do not explicitly regard rape as one of the grave breaches and cases involving persecution based on gender, sexual slavery and other sexual violence would have to rely on the less clear-cut domestic legislation or customary international law.
The international community, in particular the United Nations Security Council, has often been wilfully blind concerning war crimes in the region. Any international tribunal or referral to the International Criminal Court will take many years to come to fruition; the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, once vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes, took six years before judgement was given.
Support for Qatar’s proposal may assist in bringing justice to the victims of such crimes. However, justice will be difficult to find where any evidence has fast been disappearing.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, which collates conflict death tolls, stopped counting Syria’s dead in mid-2014 which may hamper the prosecution of alleged perpetrators, and there is currently no solution to the conflict in sight. But any attempt at prosecution may help counter the current culture of impunity in Syria.
* This article was first published in The New Arab
** Caroline is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg. She has a Masters in International Law from the University of Cape Town and her research interests include South African politics, refugee rights and international criminal law.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna on 17 May to discuss the ongoing civil war in Syria. The group of seventeen countries, chaired by the USA and Russia, is tasked with devising a diplomatic solution to the war afflicting Syria since 2011, which has killed between 250 000 and 400 000 people. This week’s meeting was mostly concerned with humanitarian assistance to areas still under siege, and with the internationally endorsed ceasefire that began on 27 February, through Security Council Resolution 2268. These points had been part of the measures agreed upon in order to restart negotiations between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Syrian opposition, represented by the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC).
The withdrawal of the HNC from UN-brokered talks on 20 April set back weeks of shuttle diplomacy by UN special envoy Stefan de Mistura. Continued violations of the ceasefire and questions concerning Asad’s future – which the regime, Moscow and Tehran insist is not under discussion – were perceived by the HNC as Asad negotiating in bad faith.
The Vienna meeting was different from previous meetings in February when there was great optimism that talks would recommence. The ISSG reiterated the need for the 1 August deadline for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 to be met ‘at an appropriate time’. In the strongest worded statement from the ISSG yet, it was noted that failure to adhere to the ceasefire would be followed by the removal of its legal protection to those party to it. Saudi Arabia commented that if the ceasefire were to fail it might provide the rebels with heavier arms, including surface-to-air missiles. While US State Department officials echoed this comment, US Secretary of State John Kerry, eager not to alienate Russia, omitted this possibility in public.
An ISSG meeting in March had guaranteed humanitarian assistance to areas under siege. Since then, limited UN humanitarian aid has been airlifted to Deir ez-Zor – besieged by the Islamic State group (IS); and aid convoys have passed through government-controlled areas to rebel-held territory in Idlib province, which previously faced drastic shortages of food and medicine. Since the ceasefire began in February, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have delivered assistance to 255 000 people in besieged areas and 473 000 people in hard-to-reach areas. However, continued fighting between regime forces and their allies, aided by Russian airstrikes, on the one hand, and rebel groups on the other has made aid delivery into Aleppo and the Idlib countryside extremely difficult. Difficulty has also been experienced getting aid to the outskirts of Damascus, and there are reports of starvation in the suburb of Daraya.
After the Vienna meeting the ISSG said the UN plan for ‘priority humanitarian deliveries’ in June, as stipulated in UNSC Resolution 2254, should progressively be built upon until aid can be delivered throughout the country. Kerry noted that he and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would coordinate airdrops to areas blocked by Asad’s forces if Damascus did not facilitate aid deliveries. This is an admission of the failure of previous aid declarations, and an indication that even Asad’s Russian backers are concerned about his regime ignoring agreements. The difficulty of aid delivery is linked to the 27 February ceasefire which allowed Russian and Syrian aircraft to continue striking areas controlled by IS, al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and allied groups. Due to increased pressure on various rebel groups, particularly in Aleppo, many rekindled or forged alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact which was used by the Russians to bomb these groups, resulting in massive destruction on civilian areas in these groups’ control.
The USA, currently moving towards an election, will not push for drastic changes, and thus will play the role of junior chair of the ISSG over the coming months. The current ceasefire allows continued bombing of areas in a state of flux, changing hands between rebel groups. Until a more comprehensive ceasefire is endorsed, the violence will continue. The latest ISSG meeting raised less expectations than previous meetings did, indicating that the real negotiations on the fate of the political transition in Syria will take place elsewhere.
This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i
After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.
In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v
Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.
It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.
This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.
The smaller group: How to succeed militarily
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).
Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.
Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x
Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.
Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).
Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).
Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics
Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv
Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.
IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.
However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.
Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.
IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix
Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.
There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.
On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.
The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.
The near future and the far enemy
In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx
IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.
* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)
i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.
ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.
iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).
iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.
vi Strack, Columb (2015).
vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.
ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>
xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.
xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.
xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.
xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009
xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.
xix Interview with the author, September 2015.