Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Consensus and the coalition

Washington continues to appear only partially committed to its fight against the Islamic State group, with its policy towards the Bashar Al-Assad regime still ambiguous, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ayn Al-Arab, or Kobani city, on the Syrian-Turkish borders, was liberated by Kurdish popular resistance forces in January. Terrorists of the Islamic State (IS), occupying the surrounding area, were defeated after almost four months of heavy fighting.

Undoubtedly, the aerial bombardment by coalition fighter planes played a great role in preventing the fall of the city to IS. The international coalition against IS scored a symbolic victory in a confrontation that will take, most probably, a long time to win.

But this victory was overshadowed by the barbaric murder of the Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kassasabah, who was captured by IS at the end of December in Syrian territory controlled by IS.

The downing of his plane is being investigated by the Jordanian government, and questions have been raised about the coalition’s search and rescue operations in the case of pilot downings.

Unconfirmed press reports say that the United Arab Emirates is suspending its participation in air bombardment over Syria until search and rescue operations are improved.

Doubts are rampant about the effectiveness of the coalition’s strategy against IS. One set of doubts centres around the military aspects of this strategy; the other deals with coherence within the coalition as to the definition of the enemy against whom it was established in the first place.

It goes without saying that the countries that signed the Jeddah communiqué on 11 September 2014 in Saudi Arabia intend to defeat IS. However, no consensus within the coalition has emerged, so far, on how to go about this in the long run.

The IS, for its part, is expanding into new countries, including Libya, and has succeeded in consolidating its control over most of the territories it captured over the past seven months, in both Syria and Iraq.

Military experts, mostly in Western countries, have doubted the readiness of Iraqi forces to stage a ground offensive against IS in Mosul, Iraq. Meanwhile, time is needed to train and arm what the US administration describes as the moderate Syrian opposition. There are also fears that some of those who will be trained will desert to the opposition and join IS, or other extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Syria.

To achieve the military objective behind the setting up of the coalition will require a major ground assault against the entrenched positions of IS in Mosul and Tikrit. As far as the liberation of Syrian territories held by IS, that has proven a very serious problem for the coalition.

Some members in the coalition — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar — have demanded that the coalition target the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria at the same time it is targeting IS. Whether the United States will go along and adopt a military strategy geared to achieving these two conflicting objectives, militarily and strategically, remains to be seen.

In case it does, the question will be whether it will be feasible, and whether it can be carried out without the presence of American forces. The US administration would need to justify such a step to US public opinion and the US Congress.

Both Democrats and Republicans are preparing for presidential elections in November 2016. American politics will play a great role in responding to the interests of the four countries mentioned above. Some observers within the coalition’s member countries have questioned the wisdom of tilting military efforts towards the ouster of Al-Assad.

The BBC, in a report aired on 6 February, quoted senior military figures in the United Kingdom and France who argue that the US should actually be doing the opposite — namely, recognising that the Syrian army is the most effective ground force within Syria. They say that the Syrian army is the only force that can take on IS in the northeastern part of the country, and prevent its expansion to the west and the south, near the Jordanian-Syrian borders.

According to the same report, the four countries I earlier referred to sent messages to Washington in which they explicitly stated that the removal of Al-Assad is part of the solution. I believe that this position will complicate the regional landscape further, and I doubt very much if it will help the coalition in degrading and defeating IS militarily.

It would prove futile in the long term, as far as the future security and stability of the Middle East is concerned. I am afraid it would help create another Libya in the Levant. I do not think that Syria’s neighbours — particularly Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — want to see the emergence of such a Syria on their borders.

How will the United States under the Obama administration, after the publication of its second National Security Strategy (NSS 2015 — the first one dates back to May 2010), lead the coalition in its remaining two years, bearing in mind that the fight against IS and other terrorist groups is not about to end soon?

On the one hand, it has shown great reluctance to intervene militarily in the Middle East, On the other, coalition members, particularly Arab countries, will not send ground forces to fight IS in Syria. Is there a middle ground, from a military point of view, between these two positions?

My guess is that the US administration is preparing the grounds for a limited military presence. Already US military personnel have reached 4,500 advisers and military instructors in Iraq. This figure could go higher when the battle for Mosul gets started some time this year.

The apparent problem with the coalition has been the absence of a coherent strategy to deal with IS globally. Up to now it seems that the main effort has been to save Iraq from falling, and no similar determination has been shown in Syria. Maybe because of opposing views concerning the role — if any — for the Syrian army and the future of the Syrian government.

Or perhaps it is because some Arab and regional powers are so determined to bring down the Assad regime that they are incapable of foreseeing the highly destabilising consequences of the fall of the Syrian government.

The regional landscape has changed dramatically since 2012, when some countries worked for the overthrow of the Syrian regime and proved incapable of shifting gears when new dangers, much more threatening for regional security and stability, arose.

It is time to come up with new visions for the existential challenges that the Middle East and the Arab world are actually facing.

A series of hearings on “Global Challenges to the United States National Security Strategy” in the US Senate Armed Services Committee began on 21 January 2015. Senator John McCain (Republican) is the chairman of the committee.

He was probably right when he described the threat posed by radical Islamic movements in the following terms: “A vicious and violent strain of radical Islamist ideology continues to metastasize across the Middle East and North Africa. And now, in its latest and potentially most virulent form, the IS, this evil has the manpower and resources to dissolve international borders, occupy wide swaths of sovereign territory, destabilise one of the most strategically important parts of the world, and possibly threaten our homeland.”

The ranking member on the committee, Senator Jack Reed, spoke on the same occasion of the “breakdown of nation states in the Middle East and the rise of non-state actors like Al-Qaeda and [IS] that threaten the integrity of states throughout the region.”

From these two quotes there is no denying from where the threats come, and who the real enemy is. Hedging in this respect would prove counterproductive as far as the declared objectives of the coalition are concerned. I would argue that any attempt to soften the representation will make it all the more difficult to defeat IS. On the contrary, it will keep expanding outside both Iraq and Syria.

By way of example, and after the latest political developments in Yemen, it should not come as a surprise that the black flags of IS terrorism have appeared not far from Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, and near to a strategically located international strait, Bab Al-Mandab.

Ambassador Susan Rice, the national security advisor to President Barack Obama, introduced NSS 2015 on 6 February at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. She pointed out that the United States will pursue “a stable Middle East and North Africa by countering terrorism, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and reducing the underlying sources of conflict.”

Challenging times await not only the United States, but also the international coalition in the next two years. It is hope that by 20 January 2017, the date of the inauguration of the next US president, the coalition will have achieved its avowed objectives.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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