A few months ago I wrote describing the conflict in Syria as part of an Islamic Civil War – between Shiism and Sunnism. On the Shia side are Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, and now most of Iraq, while on the Sunni side are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Oman, Jordan and Bahrain sit uneasily in neutral ground. I thought now might be a good time to look back over the past few months and see how well events in Syria have fitted my thesis.
In Syria, Shiites (the Allawite western populace of Syria, supported by Iran and Hezbollah) are fighting a war of survival against two varieties of Sunnis, variegated by their religious purity. At one end “moderate” Sunnis (moderate only in comparison with the extremists, but not moderate in the way we see moderate Muslims in the UK) have adopted the warm and cuddly brand of the “Free Syrian Army” and are receiving reluctant support from the US and from moderate Sunni Turkey.
More extreme Sunnis, backed by Saudi and Qatar, are fighting both the Allawites and the moderate Sunnis (they see moderate Sunnis as being almost as bad as Shia). In our frame of reference these extreme Sunnis are pretty extreme in our terms – ready to murder Allawites out of hand if they get the chance, and having no interest in a liberal secular democracy.
Out on the extreme Sunni fringe (in the Salafi branch, technically) we can find ISIS, probably backed by extremist Gulf funders from various states, actively fighting everybody in sight. So far events in Syria seem to continue to fit the idea of a civil war between Sunni and Shia, albeit with an internal low intensity conflict between the different grades of Sunnism. Nationalities appear unimportant – it matters not to ISIS where you come from, only what your beliefs are. The same can be said of the Shia side – the Allawites will happily accept help from Iraqis, Kurds or Lebanese.
Moderate Sunni Turkey’s position on the sidelines (so far) is equivocal. One would have expected Turkey to be more active in support of the “moderate” Sunni rebels, but there are several reasons why it is not, and a few to suggest that it is about to start.
Turkey’s reluctance was partly a product of its “Kurdish Problem”. Turkey was quietly hoping that ISIS would do serious damage to the semi-independent Kurdish autonomous region, and so undermine the independent ideas of Turkey’s own large Kurdish population. Turkey itself tried aggression against the Kurds for decades, without result. Latterly, between about 2008 and this spring Turkey used reconciliation and cooperation, but now seems intent once more on seeing Kurdistan fail. For a while this year it looked as if ISIS might do the hatchet job for Turkey, and one view of Turkey’s inactivity in Syria was to that it wanted to leave space and time for ISIS to overrun Kurdistan. That didn’t happen, and now will not, leaving Turkey with the need now to do something to promote its moderate Sunni interests.
Secondly, Turkey’s agenda is to regain territory it lost in 1919 when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered. Mustafa Kemal tried hard to hold onto territories in present day Syria and Iraq, but was strongarmed out of them by the Anglo-French allies. If the Free Syrian Army succeeded in taking control of the Syrian “state” then a part of that victory would be a preservation of Syria’s 1919 borders, leaving Turkey no chance of quietly moving its border a hundred miles southwards. On the other hand, if the rebels look like being crushed by Assadi Allawites (on the Shia side of the fight) then a Turkish “protective force” would be justified in moving south, transferring a northern slice of Syria to de facto Turkish ownership – a result for both Turkey and the moderate Sunni cause. So, Turkey’s strategy would be to keep the Free Syrian Army weak enough to need help but not so weak as to collapse. That seems to be what is happening.
Allawite Syria came close to military collpapse in August. When Russia’s fast jets and Iranian auxiliaries swept in to save Allawite Syria’s skin Turkey’s calculus changed. With ISIS thrust onto its back foot, and the Free Syrian Army also in retreat, Turkey is now presented with the choice of “act now or act never”. We should therefore expect to see Moderate Sunni Turks oozing their way into North Syria, first as helpers but latterly as occupiers.
Reinforced by Iranian boots on the ground, and Russian flying boots in the air, the Allawites are now winning territory at a steady pace, but only in penny packets. The taking of individual hamlets makes the world’s news programmes, in the same way that the taking of Passchendaele did in 1917. However what we are not seeing (yet, anyway) is a wholesale extermination of ISIS ground troops. ISIS retreats where air strikes clear the way for Shia troops to occupy ground, both in East and West Syria, but there is no sign of an ISIS collapse in men or latent fighting power.
The Shiite/Russian alliance appears equivocal about what to do against the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is not a homogenous mass, but rather a collection of armed bands with a variety of agendas, ranging from secular democracy (no hope of that) to Wahabbi Sharia rule.
Some of those bands have Turkish support, making them fair game for a Shiite alliance so long as the damage is not too public, but others have US and NATO support. Russia certainly has no desire to escalate its Syrian conflict to the level of a conflict with NATO, so has to tread very carefully around NATO’s aircraft and NATO special forces embedded with the Syrian Rebels targeting strikes and organising logistics support. This necessary caution will serve to deliver some ground held by “moderate” Sunnis to Turkish oversight and control, and it is likely that Damascus has already accepted this privately, while still seeking enough Russian attacks on the Free Syrian Army to keep it on the defensive and moving back to an acceptable line of stabilisation.
For Russia and its Shia allies a much cleaner, clearer and more productive objective is the annihilation of ISIS. Happily this objective also cleanly aligns with NATO members’ objectives. If correct, then expect Russia’s axis of operations to swing away from the Free Syrian Army towards ISIS soon.
For the Shias, a Syria divided between an Allawite/Shia west and an Iraqi/Shia East, with the loss of only a hundred mile slice to the moderate Sunnis in the north would probably be seen as a good outcome of this part of the civil war. For that to happen everyone with useable air power has to focus on ISIS, degrading ISIS’ fighting power to the point that Shia boots (Allawite and Iraqi) can then occupy ground with little opposition. That seems to be what is now happening.
The US is following Churchill’s dictum – that America will usually do the right thing, but only after trying all other alternatives (Churchill should know, he was half American himself). Having begun by treating Assad like a pariah, Washington is now realising that a secular (ish) Shiite (ish) popular (ish) regime in Damascus, willing to put fighting boots in the desert and to fight ISIS is probably worth preserving. It has certainly become an accepted idea in Washington that US ground troops should not be used, and if not them, then who? The only available alternatives are Allawite/Shia and Iraqi/Shia boots.
It is to be sure embarrassing for Mr Obama that the Russians came to that conclusion first, but that probably wont stop the US from acting now in the right direction – namely steady, accurate and effective Hellfire attacks on ISIS fighters wherever they show themselves. It is almost amusing watching the State Department and the UK’s Foreign Office tie themselves in semantic in knots in an attempt to make acceptable today what they described as despicable only a month ago, but the knot will be tied.
The UK’s opinion and values probably count for more than its kinetic effect, as its actions are almost irrelevant for lack of scale. UK defence cuts have been so deep that the RAF can barely deliver a single fast jet sortie per day, and the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s three aircraft carriers took another dozen sorties per day out of the UK’s potential. France is moving the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to Syria’s littoral, which will bring a handy dozen fast jet sorties a day to the theatre, though with a sortie range of about 200 miles that will translate to only a small number of actual weapons, probably two per sortie. France is also delivering sorties from the UAE.
The majority of the kinetic effort against ISIS will come from Russia, with 30 strike aircraft on the ground in Syria and 25 long range heavy bombers based in Russia allocated to ground attack. Ground-based aircraft can fly with higher payloads because they have long runways. Carrier-based aircraft takeoff weights, and therefore payloads, are limited by the need to take off from a very short deck. When you combine that fact with the longer distance that a carrier strike aircraft has to travel, payloads per sortie plummet to two, three or four weapons. Russia looks like it plans to deliver hundreds of air to ground weapon impacts per day.
Russia is also firing ship-based cruise missiles at ISIS targets. With a flight time of a couple of hours, no loitering capability, and single large warheads cruise missiles are useful against fixed infrastructural targets (of which ISIS has few) but of little use as tactical fire support. It looks to me as if this part of the campaign is more a PR exercise to show the world that the US Navy does not have a monopoly on Land Attack Missiles than a real contribution to the attack on ISIS.
Close behind Russia in scale will come the US, using drones to loiter over the battlespace with a large payload of highly effective Hellfire missiles, and strike aircraft based in Turkey and the UAE.
It is hard to be precise, but a rough calculation suggests that these uncomfortable allies will be able to deliver a sustained 250 individual weapon strikes per day. If the targeting is good (courtesy of US embedded targeters, Syrian army ground controllers, and US satellite and drone intelligence) then ISIS should continue to suffer heavy losses.
But how many fighters does ISIS have? The CIA has published an estimate in the 30,000 range. Kurdish Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein thinks it is more like 200,000, but he has good reasons to exaggerate. The ground controlled by ISIS had a peacetime population of around 10 million. If we take men between the ages of 17 and 50, then that generates a military “potential” of 2.3m, with an estimated additional 25,000 muslim men migrating to Syria to fight this year. Military potential does not easily translate into military units. Men must be trained, indoctrinated, equipped and paid. It would be a massive logistic achievement for ISIS to have mobilised one tenth of its latent military potential in two years. ISIS’ military effective strength is certainly larger than the 30,000 CIA number, and probably less than 200,000, with a replacement rate of something like 5,000-10,000 men per month.
A well-targeted air strike might on average kill or disable five men – surprisingly few, but bear in mind that ISIS is not stupid, and will be training its men to dig in and spread out to reduce the impact of any single weapon. Also bear in mind that a Hellfire delivers a very small 9 Kg warhead. Iron bombs are much larger – 250kg or 500 kgs are standard – but less well-guided. Allowing for badly targeted strikes (maybe two in three weapons failing to hit ISIS fighters), a strike rate of 250 weapons per day, and an average five killed/disabled per hit, the air campaign might kill or disable 400 ISIS fighters each day. That sounds like a lot, but is probably only slightly more than the rate at which newly trained ISIS fighters are emerging from training camps.
What these unsavoury numbers tell us is that the coming air campaign against ISIS can do no more than dislodge fighters from positions to allow Syrian and Iraqi troops to move in. Any hopes that an air campaign might “destroy” ISIS (code for extermination) are misplaced. A campaign ten times as intense might begin to have that effect, but I don’t see any possibility of that.
So, what should we expect from the combined air campaign and Syrian/Iraqi ground forces? ISIS will probably be contained, and will begin to be pushed back to more comfortable distances from Damascus and Baghdad, but it’s likely to retain control of its barren caliphate. If so, the result would be a score draw in the Islamic civil war – A largely Shiite Syria with an acidic but contained Sunni middle ground connecting Sunni Saudi Arabia to Sunni Turkey.
Which leaves us with the question of the Kurds. Fitting neatly into no side on the Islamic civil war, the Kurds seem just to want to be left alone in an autonomous homeland to produce oil in peace from their well-endowed fields. Sadly, thanks to Gertrude Bell and Messrs Sykes and Picot in the 1920s, Kurdistan has diasporae in Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which make their reluctant hosts fearful. Turkey has wrestled with its Kurdish minority and neighbours for nearly half a century. For most of that time the solution has been violent, ending with a short-lived rapprochement up until this year. Iran’s Kurds have been quiescent, and Syrian Kurds (and Yasidis) were resigned to being Syrian until ISIS turned up and started either murdering or enslaving them. Kurdistan’s irregular forces have proved to be rather effective, holding their own (just) with little help from outside, raising the question in their neighbours of whether their domestic Kurds might begin to push for secession.
Now, with an end to the Syrian branch of the Islamic war finally just in sight, it is becoming widely if privately accepted that the Kurds are not going to climb quietly back into an Iraqi provincial box. Ankara reacted to the possibility of a true Kurdish state with an aggressive military assault on Kurdish forces. If it hoped to achieve anything material it was being naïve (the Kurds are too determined and too hard to be knocked back by a short campaign, however vicious).
There is some evidence that the Turkish attack was designed just to persuade wavering voters to switch back to the AKP and Erdogan. That strategy, if it was a strategy, worked in spades, with Erdogan now in a majority government.
After the play today’s reality is that Kurdistan is once more a material part of the “boots on the ground” machine that will contain and diminish ISIS. Rumours can be heard that Washington has promised to back Kurdish independence in return for those boots, and they certainly ought to be true, for the Kurds are unlikely to go quietly into the good night of becoming once more a province of a Shia Iraq, and we need those Kurdish boots to fence ISIS in to its north and northeast.
Iran could suppress Kurdistan, and provoke its own Kurdish minority, or allow Kurdistan to prosper, and so tempt its Kurdish minority to secede. Perhaps a workable middle ground will be to allow Kurdistan to prosper and then to encourage Kurdish Iranians to migrate into it if they wish, taking their personal capital with them. That would keep the peace in both Kurdistan and Iran, build personal friendly links between Iran and its émigrés, foster trade with Kurdistan, remove non-Shias from Iran, and increase Kurdistan’s ability to contain ISIS.
Turkey, with something like 50% of its territory lived in by Kurds, does not have the same option, but being a member of NATO, an aspirant member of Europe, a neighbour of Russia, a moderate Sunni state and with some pretensions to compliance with international law probably cannot and will not take its anti-Kurdish sentiments to the point of actually attacking Kurdistan.
Turkey would benefit from a strong peaceful Kurdistan on its eastern border – offering a landlocked, massively oil-rich client state, whose export lines would run across Turkish territory, whose capital flows would pass through Turkish banks, and whose economy would happily trade peacefully with Turkey’s own. Indeed, that was Turkey’s direction of travel until Erdogan lost his majority in the last election, and I expect that Turkey will begin to travel in the same direction once the dust settles a little.
The overall outcome of this train of thought looks something like this:
- An Allawite/Shiite (but largely secular) quasi democratic Syria, occupying the western half of Syria down to the Mediterranean. Probably ruled by President Assad, but not by any means necessarily so. Any reasonably strong Allawite leader would do. Some of Syria’s oil reserves will fall into this half.
- A Turkish-occupied zone in north west Syria, 150 miles long and 60 miles deep. While technically a protectorate, in practice this zone will become a long-term part of Turkey in practice if not in name. Perhaps in the medium term it will hold some sort of plebiscite and vote to join Turkey proper.
- A Shia/Iran/Iraq-occupied eastern Syria, mostly desert with the rest of Syria’s (not very productive) oil fields.
- A Kurdish-occupied triangle in the north-east corner of Syria.
- An ISIS Caliphate sandwiched in the middle, approximately contained on all sides with permanent low intensity conflict around its ragged edge. The Caliphate will not be isolated, with a flow of goods and cash across its Northern border with Turkey and its southern border with Saudi Arabia. Shiite forces will wrestle to encircle ISIS in both north and south, so the Islamic War will continue in the Syrian desert, but with a much lower intensity than now.
This arrangement would result in a moderately peaceful for most of the populations involved, and the return of the millions of Syrians currently camping in Turkey. ISIS would certainly project random acts of violence into Syria and Kurdistan, and probably into Europe and the US as well, but those are probably inevitable in any situation, so not a reason to avoid an uncomfortable but stable peace.
It seems to me that the preservation of President Assad is a small price to pay for the containment of ISIS, peace in most of the region, and the return home of Syria’s refugees. Not least since he has considerable support among Allawite Syrians. To be sure, the 2014 election result was suspect, but in spite of those doubts, objective reporters agree that Assad still has the broad support of a near majority of Allawite Syrians (indeed, one section of Allawite opinion regards him as too soft).
Outside Syria we are beginning to see moves towards a discussion of peace, via the cuddly-sounding International Syria Support Group, but this group leaves out most of the parties involved in the fighting and appears to ignore reality in favour of myths (including the myths that: Assad is evil; the Free Syrian Army is moderate; the Kurds are not a nation; the only reason the war is continuing is because outsiders are supporting its protagonists; Allawite Syrians would welcome a Sunni government; Sunni Syrians would welcome an Iraqi Shia government; Turkey’s motives are benign; and probably a few more that I’ve overlooked).
What else might go wrong? Quite a lot. If the US threw its weight firmly behind the Free Syrian Army and started delivering air strikes on the Allawite Syrians the latter would lose the fight. That would leave some pretty extremist Sunnis in charge of a very rebellious country – Iraq’s insurrection would look like a teddy-bear’s picnic in comparison. Worse, US and Russian forces might come into conflict, with consequences too horrible to contemplate. ISIS would thrive.
If Turkey decided to up its kinetic input to the war and actually invade Syria in support of “moderate” Sunnis we could end up with Turkish forces fighting Russians (a NATO member being the aggressor in this case). That, too, is frightening to contemplate, perhaps providing the trigger which would lead Moscow to self-justify a preemptive invasion of Georgia. I have no doubt that stentorious notes are passing between Washington, London and Ankara demanding that Turkey does no more than creep into the edges of northern Syria, if that.
If we consider remoter possibilities, Turkey might decide that it should use its not inconsiderable navy to blockade Syria’s coast to weaken Allawite opposition to Turkey’s Sunni clients in the Free Syrian Army. That too would bring a NATO member into active conflict with Russia’s logistics tail defended by Russia’s considerable if untested navy.
That is the trouble with wars – they can so easily spin out of control. Much safer for all concerned to look for the quickest, least bloody and least complicated outcome, and accept a few compromises along the way.