December 28, 2014

Iraq and Syria - clarity and confusion (Part Two)

Jahbat al-Nusrah (al-Qa'idah in Syria) fighters in Syria

This is Part Two of a two part article. See Part One and the Addendum, which deals with the comparatively clear situation in Iraq. This part deals with the confusion in Syria.


The situation in Syria makes Iraq look like the model of clarity - there are myriad cooperating, competing and conflicting interests simultaneously at play in the country. These various interests make a solution to the political turmoil and civil war much more difficult, if even possible.

In Iraq, there is one enemy - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - and several parties all focused on defeating that enemy. In Syria, however, there is a multifaceted war that has created a situation which borders on anarchy. To simplify some of the confusion, in essence there is a three-way war being fought. The major antagonists are the Syrian regime, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Some background is in order. A civil war erupted in Syria in March of 2011 as groups of young Syrians began to demand reforms of the Bashar al-Asad regime, following the example of their brothers and sisters in Tunisia and Egypt who were participating what the media dubbed as the "Arab Spring."

The al-Asad regime responded by ordering the Syrian armed forces to brutally crush the demonstrations. The resulting death and destruction caused revulsion among many in the ranks of the military - massive defections followed. Many of the defected officers and soldiers established the FSA.

In 2012, when the FSA failed to secure adequate assistance from Western or Arab nations, the group formerly known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) sent fighters from Iraq to Syria to fill the power vacuum, creating an al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria known as jabhat al-nusrah - tanzim al-qa'idah fi bilad al-sham (The Victory Front - Al-Qaidah in the land of Syria).

While nominally there to assist the FSA in the removal of Bashar al-Asad, Jabhat al-Nusrah began to fight the FSA as well - its goal was to set up an Islamic state - and seize territory, taking advantage of the lack of authority in many parts of the country. In 2013, the group merged with AQI and created the larger organization known as ISIS. ISIS rejected its ties to al-Qa'idah leadership, claiming instead that it had established the new caliphate.

The declaration of the creation of a caliphate caused Jabhat al-Nusrah to split from ISIS - to this day it maintains its status as the "authorized" al-Qa'idah element in Syria. In late 2014, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah entered into a tactical alliance to fight both the al-Asad regime and the FSA - the future of that alliance is unknown.

The presence of Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria and the emergence of ISIS created a three-way (and at times a four-way) war in the country. In addition, there are a host of unaffiliated armed groups who sometimes ally with the FSA and at other times act independently. These include local Islamist and secular groups, as well as the Syrian Kurds.

The Kurds are a special case. They have at times supported the al-Asad regime and other times opposed it, but are now locked in a major confrontation with ISIS along the Turkish border. The media has closely covered the intense fighting in the city of Kobani (Arabic: 'Ayn al-'Arab) between ISIS and the local Kurdish militia supported by coalition (almost exclusively American) airstrikes. American support of the Kurds is more about ISIS than supporting the Kurds.

It appears that the United States is attempting to support the removal of the al-Asad regime at the same time attempting to defeat ISIS. The attacks on ISIS began in response to ISIS successes in Iraq after its seizure of Mosul in June of this year - the U.S. led coalition is treating ISIS as one target set (correctly, in my opinion). The United States is trying to accomplish two separate and distinct foreign policy goals - either one of the goals is achievable, however, achieving both presents major challenges.

In its attempt to support the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad, the United States is providing money, weapons and training to the FSA. The recently introduced and much feared American TOW antitank missile has already taken a toll on Syrian Army armored vehicles.

The FSA has made no secret that its focus is and will remain the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government, but has been pragmatic enough to accept the materiel support from the west under the guise of being the Obama Administration's "boots on the ground" in the fight against ISIS. Although they are the sole designated recipients of the TOW missiles, these missiles have shown up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusrah. There are numerous videos posted on social media of Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters using the weapons to devastating effect.

ISIS is being attacked by some members of the U.S.-led coalition - other coalition members have restricted their pilots to only operating in Iraq. The air situation has been complicated by the December 24 downing (cause as yet unknown) of a Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16 near the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, and the continuing air operations of the Syrian Air Force, often in the same areas. While there is no coordination or cooperation between the coalition and Syrian forces, the coalition does notify the Syrians of impending air activity.

In some areas of central Syria, there appears to be if not cooperation between ISIS(with Jabhat al-Nusrah) and the FSA, at least a willingness to allow the other group to have freedom of operation. Jabhat al-Nusrah just recently was able to seize two key Syrian army garrisons near the city of Ma'arat al-Nu'aman, allowing the al-Qa'idah group to control a large section of the main highway linking the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The group has also set up operations at a Syrian air base that the FSA had seized early last year. ISIS is currently engaged in a major assault of a Syrian airbase in Dayr al-Zawr on the Euphrates River - a target the FSA has been trying to seize for at least two years.

For its part, the Syrian regime is being supported by Iran and Iraq. There are fighters from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, Iran's client/proxy Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi'a militias currently fighting in Syria. If it was not for the introduction of Iranian special forces and Hizballah fighters in 2012, the Syrian regime may have fallen to the FSA.

Additional support is being provided by Russia with almost daily flights by Syrian Air Force IL-76 transports or Russian charter aircraft delivering weapons and supplies to the Syrian military. Russia continues to maintain and overhaul Syrian military equipment in Russia, and has committed to deliver a more capable jet trainer - the Yak-130 - with an excellent counterinsurgency capbility. (See my earlier article, Russia to deliver military trainer/attack aircraft to Syria.)

The takeaway

The situation in Iraq is relatively clear. ISIS is the enemy and everyone else, whether cooperating or not, is focused on the defeat of the Islamist group. The strategy is to use coalition airpower to stop ISIS's advance and hold it at bay while coalition advisers re-train and re-equip the Iraqi armed forces, who will then launch a counteroffensive and either destroy ISIS or force it to withdraw to Syria. If the Iraqis are up to the task, the strategy has a chance of success. If not, members of the coalition (read: the United States) will have to deploy combat forces to defeat ISIS.

The situation in Syria is chaos.