The U.S. strategy to confront and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) received a major boost yesterday when Middle Eastern governments formally agreed to join the war coalition against the Islamist group. The details are yet to be worked out — for example, what country will make what contribution, how to conduct the war against ISIS inside Syria in a way which will strengthen the moderate opposition rather than the Assad regime — but the fact that Sunni countries in the region have agreed openly to side with the United States against fellow coreligionist is important. The Obama strategy would have to be calibrated carefully. A major element of Obama’s strategy is the strengthening of the moderate Syrian anti-Assad rebels so they can become a more effective force against ISIS. The moderate rebels’ greater military capabilities may well, at some point, be turned again against the Assad regime, and regional supporters of the moderate rebels such as Saudi Arabia would want the now-strengthened rebels to finish the job of removing Assad from power. The administration has studiously avoided becoming involved in the Syrian civil war, but the campaign against ISIS inside Syria may see the United States getting sucked into that conflict.
The U.S. strategy to confront and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) received a major boost yesterday when Middle Eastern governments formally agreed to join the war coalition against the Islamist group. The details are yet to be worked out — for example, what country will make what contribution, how to conduct the war against ISIS inside Syria in a way which will strengthen the moderate opposition rather than the Assad regime — but the fact that Sunni countries in the region have agreed openly to side with the United States against fellow coreligionist is important.
The leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf Cooperation Council — an alliance of the Sunni Arab Gulf nations which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – pledged to “stand united” against “the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”
In a document known as the Jeddah Communique, the signatories agreed to stop ISIS funding and influx of foreign fighters, two of the most critical steps in weakening the Islamist group. They leaders also expressed their readiness to contributing directly – “as appropriate” — to the war effort and join in the coordinated military campaign against ISIS.
The New York Times reports that many of the Gulf states have operated weapons and cash pipelines to Syrian rebels – including, in the case of Qatar, to the extremist groups — which have ended up benefitting ISIS.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to host the training of Syrian rebel groups for the U.S. military.
Analysts say that the two key questions the Obama anti-ISIS strategy faces are:
- The ability of the moderate Syrian rebel groups to take territory away from ISIS — and hold it – during and following the forthcoming U.S.airstrikes against ISIS strongholds inside Syria
- How willing would Assad be in allowing the United States to conduct airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and in allowing a reinforced and better-equipped moderate rebel force to gain control of large swaths of Syria? Assad helped ISIS to emerge as the main rebel force against his regime at the expense of the moderate rebels because it helped him present his survival struggle as a fight against terrorism (see “Obama to outline a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS,” HSNW, 10 September 2014; and “Assad bolsters al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria with secret oil deals, prisoner release: Western intelligence,” HSNW, 21 January 2014). Assad and Iran have miscalculated, and ISIS has become too powerful and too ambitious, so at least in the very short term both have an interest in weakening the organization – and, in Iraq, defeating it — but both are wary of any anti-ISIS strategy which would result in material strengthening of the moderate anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Since the United States and leading Western European countries, let alone the Saudis, are still committed to removing Assad from power, the weaker ISIS become and the stronger the moderate Syrian rebels grow, the more reluctant Assad and Iran would be to let the campaign inside Syria continue.
Any Syrian attempt to interfere with the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in east Syria would complicate matters. Army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has frequently, and publicly, worried about the strength of Assad’s air defenses, a mixture of Soviet-era missiles and jets, mostly along Syria’s western coast.
Retired air force lieutenant general David Deptula, a former branch intelligence chief and Desert Storm attack planner, noted that although most of Syria’s air defenses are located in the western parts of the country, some of Syria’s defenses were mobile, mounted on trucks.
“It’s a complex situation but not impossible,” Deptula told the Guardiansaid. He advocated issuing a diplomatic demarche “to say, we’re conducting operations against ISIS and if any of your air defenses threaten any of our forces they’ll be dealt with accordingly, and we need to be prepared to do that.”
Christopher Harmer, a former US navy officer, said Assad’s air defenses are overrated, and cited by Pentagon officials as an excuse for inaction. “Once they turn on the tracking radar … we’re going to have a dozen anti-radiation missiles go after it. I can’t imagine the Assad regime would be dumb enough to impede our progress,” he said.
The Guardian notes that Assad and his Iranian and Russian sponsors warned the United States yesterday (Thursday) against striking regime targets. Assad’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told NBC that Assad would have “no reservations whatsoever” about U.S. air strikes against ISIS, a prospect the Assad regime appears to be gambling it can trade for tacit U.S. acceptance of its survival.
On the operational level, the main challenges the anti-ISIS campaign faces are good intelligence on ISIS targets in eastern Syria, and the question of whether Obama envisions U.S. soldiers entering Syria to serve as spotters to call in airstrikes from U.S. planes. Without U.S. spotters on the ground, an effective air campaign in Syria will have to rely on the rebels, something which will require more time.
“These guys are going to take a lot of training before they can call in airstrikes, and if not, then we’re acknowledging it’s a static air war scenario,” Harmer, now an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, told the Guardian.
“That’s step one in a 10-step process. It worked well in March and April 2003” in Iraq as the U.S. invasion took Baghdad, but afterward, U.S. pilots found themselves frustrated by “a human network extremely difficult to attack” from above.