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.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked many with his announcement on 14 March that his 8 000-strong expeditionary force in Syria would begin a gradual withdrawal over the next five months. The move has attracted a varied set of responses from Russia’s allies, critics, and other roleplayers in the Syrian crisis. It is clear this will not be a full withdrawal of all forces, weaponry and materiel. Instead, while most forces – including pilots – will return home, a number will be confined to the Russian naval base in Tartus, and the Russian Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, as will much of the weaponry and military aircraft. Putin claimed the withdrawal was because Russian intervention in Syria had achieved its objectives.
Since September 2015 Russian aircraft have bombarded Syrian opposition groups, as well as some Islamic State group (IS) targets, from the air, while Spetsnaz special forces and Russian military advisers have directed and assisted Syrian, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces in their defence of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and the Syrian army’s surge into Aleppo’s rebel-held northern countryside. Russia also upgraded its Tartus naval base, and rebuilt and expanded the Hmeimim airbase.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had initially said the intervention was aimed at fighting ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria, which, for Russia, included various Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. But Russia’s objectives also included: propping up the Asad regime and returning it to a position of superiority on the battlefield; removing the immediate threat to the Alawi heartland along the western coast; ensuring that Russian interests in Syria were protected; establishing itself as a global player that is able decisively to deal with international conflicts; use the military campaign to prepare for Geneva negotiations in a manner that would make negotiations favourable to the Syrian regime and to Russia’s role as a mediator. Many of these objectives have been attained, and Russia does not want to extend its stay and risk an Afghanistan-type quagmire.
When Russian aircraft took to the skies above Syria in September 2015, rebel forces had been making substantial and sustained gains on the battlefield, and had posed a threat to Asad’s stronghold of Latakia. The Russian campaign has decisively reversed many of those gains and eliminated the threat to Latakia; and while the regime still does not have full control over the country, it is now more secure and has the upper hand in the war. Russia is not necessarily concerned about Asad having full control over the country, even if that is the Syrian government’s aim.
Russia is eager to secure is its interests in Syria, and has achieved that by securing the regime’s position, thus ensuring Russian influence in the Arab world; fortifying the Tartus and Hmeimim bases, thus guaranteeing Russia a longer term presence and protection of its warm water Mediterranean port. That this is not a real ‘withdrawal’ is illustrated by Putin’s comment that the two bases will be ‘protected from the land, from the sea, and from the air’. Russia might have stopped bombing Syria, but it will still have the capacity to control Syrian airspace and to deter foreign (including regional) powers from intervening.
Russia has also strengthened its influence in Syria through its intervention because it has emboldened forces within the Syrian Ba'ath Party which do not like the Islamist Iranian ally, including senior officers who trained in the Soviet Union and are more comfortable with a Russian role than an Iranian one. Furthermore, Iran has become, for Russia, a slightly less predictable ally after the Iran nuclear deal drew that country closer to the West. Direct influence in Syria means Russia does not need to rely on Iranian influence to achieve its objectives there. Thus, although Iran was pleased when the Russian strikes began, it might see its influence in Syria decrease in favour of Russia.
Putin has also decisively emphasised Russia’s status as a global player that will not shy away from challenges, and is able to play a role in foreign conflicts both at diplomatic and military levels. Unlike the US role in countries such as Libya, Russia is also able to claim that it intervened not against but in support of an internationally recognised government, thus not violating international law.
Significantly, Putin made the announcement on the day that peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition groups were to resume in Geneva. As co-chair of the International Syria Support Group, Russia was instrumental in setting up the ceasefire – as problematic as it might have been – that was vital for these negotiations to take place. Russia’s support of Asad in the past five months means it will be able to persuade him to participate in the talks in a manner that will lead to some solution. Asad’s belligerence should be sobered by realising that Russia can alter or withdraw its support as it pleases. Furthermore, with the opposition having been battered by Russian airstrikes, these groups will participate in talks while licking their wounds, and with the knowledge that the strikes could begin as suddenly as they had ended. Despite belligerent rhetoric, many of them will also be relieved to find a solution. For Russia, its withdrawal from the battlefield allows it now to present itself as more ‘neutral’ and as a mediator, enhancing its role in the talks and on the global stage.
Putin aims to re-establish Russia’s political standing globally, commensurate to its nuclear capability, UN Security Council seat and historic role in world affairs. Guiding the Syrian war to a settlement which restores relative stability can therefore be significant. While the Syrian role and the withdrawal helps rejuvenate its image as a military-diplomatic superpower, it also assists in rolling back Russian isolation forced onto the state by western sanctions after its intervention in Ukraine. The European Union will decide in July whether to renew sanctions on Russia. If Russia secures a Syria deal that helps reduce the flow of refugees to Europe, and can use a Syria deal to ease tensions in Ukraine, it could realise a favourable outcome in July. It will bank on Italy and/or Hungary – whose representatives have already met Russian officials to discuss the refugee issue – to oppose sanction renewal.
Another gain for Russia, though of a lower priority, has been an increase in Russian arms sales in the past few months. Russian airforce sorties over Syria provided a wonderful advertisement for its weapons’ industry.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
As various parties to the Syrian crisis, including the United Nations, Russia, and the United States, prepare for ‘proximity talks’ to take place this week, and as UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura attempts to put a positive face to a ceasefire he oversaw, it was clear within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire going into effect that it would not hold. Within the first week of the ceasefire a total of 135 people were killed according to one monitoring group, although the real number is likely to be much higher.
The cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Asad’s regime and a selection of opposition groups took effect on 27 February. The ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia and the USA, co-chairs of the seventeen-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The joint US-Russian communiqué regarding the aims and logistics of the ceasefire noted that Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra were not included in the ceasefire agreement, and mandated that a US-Russian-led ISSG Ceasefire Task Force would be responsible for identifying IS- and Jabhat-controlled territory for continued airstrikes. The communiqué also committed all parties to ensure the safe passage of aid to areas requiring it. Within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire having gone into force, however, Russian aircraft are believed to have bombed targets in Hama province around the village of Herbanafsa, where rebels associated with the powerful Jaish al-Fatah faction are operating. In Darkosh, Idlib province, where Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) rebels are in control, the ceasefire is also not holding. Throughout the week following the signing of the ceasefire agreement, suspected Russian aircraft continued to pound villages allegedly linked to JAN and IS and those controlled by the Free Syrian Army, which is a party to the ceasefire. Due to international and regional actors putting their geostrategic goals ahead of promoting a complete winding down of hostilities, the ceasefire is incomplete and is barely holding even in its targeted areas.
The communiqué notes that the identification of armed groups will be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Paragraph 8 of the resolution obligates UN member states to suppress ‘terrorist acts committed specifically by…entities associated with Al Qa'ida or ISIL’. A number of groups so identified by this resolution are backed by the USA – either directly or indirectly through its allies in Ankara, Doha and Riyadh. The powerful components of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are backed by Riyadh, received training through CIA programmes, and were invited to form part of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have occasionally fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, and also alongside Free Syrian Army-linked units, notably in the eastern Damascene suburbs. Ahrar al-Sham’s position on various issues has been particularly ambivalent. It aims to present itself as moderate and accommodating in various Arab media forums, while also stating that it will not abide by any ceasefire, and pledging support for Jabhat al-Nusra. The group opportunistically allies itself with al-Nusra in areas where IS and the Syrian forces pose a threat, while decrying Nusra’s exclusionary Salafism on the international stage to avoid being labelled a terrorist outfit.
Such tactics have provided Russia with the excuse to continue bombing ‘terrorists’. Meanwhile, Riyadh and Washington see groups such as Ahrar al-Sham as a counterweight to IS and regard them as battle hardened enough to be able to hold ground against the Syrian army. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will likely continue arming and funding certain groups within Jaish al-Fatah; Riyadh hopes to bolster its main proxy groups as the war enters a new and more unpredictable phase. Ankara hopes to strengthen groups that can win political and military victories against the Kurds. The ambition of the most powerful Syrian Kurdish armed group, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), is to link the Kurdish cantons of Efrin with other Kurdish cantons ofCizire and Kobani by a strip of Syrian territory disputed between various rebel groups and IS. By linking these three cantons the PYD-YPG would be able to forge a contiguous Kurdish-controlled territory in order to entrench its social project and block supply routes to Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and other rebel groups. Ankara views this ambition as a direct attack on its security and foreign policy goals in Syria; an autonomous Kurdish area on its southern border could provide the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has renewed hostilities with the Turkish state, with a safe haven. Furthermore; any experiment in autonomy could provide inspiration to Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population. Turkey has therefore been shelling YPG positions along the border and threatened intervention into Syria – which is unlikely given the strong involvement of Russia.
Another important element of the ceasefire communiqué is the humanitarian aspect. Parties to the ceasefire are obliged to ‘allow humanitarian agencies rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their control’. UN and partner aid agencies had planned to deliver life-saving aid to 154 000 civilians this week, but even this is subject to the politics of the groups involved, with many areas still subject to air raids. The siege of Deir al-Zor, wherein 200 000 people are trapped, continues because IS, which controls that territory, is not part of the agreement; and airdrops which were meant to ease the plight of the besieged inhabitants have been missing their targets.
De Mistura expressed hope that increased aid to besieged areas and a lull in the violence could set the stage for the revival of the halted Geneva peace talks. He wants ‘proximity talks’ to begin on 10 March. It is likely that the Syrian regime will attempt to create a situation on the ground before then that will grant them maximum negotiating power. Riyadh and Ankara, meanwhile, will look at ways to prop up rebel factions in order to both block both an Iranian diplomatic coup and a roll back of Kurdish goals.
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