Pushing back against Isis

02 November 2014

While the US’ allies in the region have joined the coalition against Isis, each has a differing agenda on Syria. Meanwhile, Iran, the one country that could really help, is being ignored

Every day in the past month, US military aircraft have been dropping bombs on Syria or Iraq or both. The number of strikes on any one day has ranged from six to 25, but the targets are always the same: fighters of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).

Washington has not been acting entirely alone, drawing in help from Western allies such as France, the UK and Australia for the offensive in Iraq. For the Syrian part of the campaign, support has come from regional partners such as Jordan and the GCC states. The Pentagon says it is spending $8.3m a day on the operation, but while Washington certainly does not need financial help, it does need the political and diplomatic cover that comes from its allies, particularly those in the region.

It is very important that the action is seen not simply as Western, but as a regional battle against the advance of Isis

Michael Fallon, UK Secretary of State for Defence

The idea of a coalition only really picked up momentum on 16 September, when President Barack Obama appointed retired general John Allen as his special envoy, with the aim of building and sustaining the pushback against Isis in Syria and Iraq. Since then, more than 60 countries have signed up, according to the US State Department.

Maintaining unity

But the conflict is so complex and the motives of different actors so varied that maintaining a coalition is a challenging task. Indeed, there are probably as many priorities as there are actors. Some countries are more concerned about the situation in Iraq than in Syria, while others think the main problem in Syria is not Isis but President Bashar al-Assad. Countries also differ over which Syrian rebel groups should be supported, and some worry about what might happen domestically.

To date, just a handful of Middle East governments have signed up to take military action alongside the US, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. The US State Department says others such as Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco and Oman are also involved in the coalition, although it is not saying exactly how.

The extent and the importance of these Arab countries’ military involvement is a matter for speculation. While Jordan and some GCC states have been involved in bombing raids in Syria, most of the sorties have been carried out by US aircraft. Middle East governments have also been helping with equipment supplies and training, although, again, the details remain unclear.

It is probably in the political and diplomatic spheres that they have been most important, at least when viewed from the perspective of some Western countries, a point made by Michael Fallon, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 20 October. “Political support for the coalition’s efforts is extremely important, particularly from the countries neighbouring Iraq and Syria,” he said. “It is very important that the action is seen not simply as British, American or Western, but as a regional battle against the advance of Isis.”

Military support

That said, the military dimension is also important at times. Washington announced last year that it would start offering military assistance to rebel groups inside Syria and it has also been supplying Iraqi government forces over the summer. Often, such aid is managed in coordination with other countries in the region.

“We do not describe the specifics of what types of assistance we provide to the opposition,” said a senior US administration official during a telephone briefing with the media on 20 October. “We’ve also been able to coordinate the types of assistance we provide to the Syrian opposition with friends and partners in the region.”

One instance of that coordination came in late October, when American planes delivered small arms, ammunition and medical supplies to rebel fighters in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. The weapons themselves were supplied by Kurdish authorities.

On the training front, Turkey recently agreed to host training camps for Syrian rebel groups and it also seems likely that training has taken place in Jordan, even though Amman has been trying hard to avoid getting drawn too heavily into the fighting.

“The Jordanian government [has] resisted a lot of pressure, particularly from Saudi Arabia but other states as well, to allow greater movement from its northern border into Syria,” says Christopher Phillips, associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, a London think-tank.

“They feel that, by resisting, there has been a degree of containment of the conflict. And while they have allowed a degree (although they deny this but the Americans don’t) of training of rebels to take place in Amman, there is still a relatively limited engagement.”

Alongside all this, there are other steps that Middle Eastern countries are being pressed to take, including clamping down on funding for Isis via the GCC and the flow of Islamist fighters through Turkey.

There has been some public acknowledgement of the need to tackle such issues in both cases. For example, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says more than 6,000 suspected Islamist fighters have been placed on a no-entry list into Turkey.

Meanwhile, in a speech on 3 October, Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE ambassador to Washington, said more action was needed to clamp down on Isis financing. “We must confront the extremists on new fronts,” he said. “That means stopping extremist funding. Over the long term, disrupting their funding will do more to slow down extremists than any amount of air strikes.”

There are sound reasons for the region’s governments to try and choke off domestic support for the jihadist group. The threat of an Islamist movement leading to political instability is something that plenty of them worry about.

“There is a genuine concern of a domestic Isis threat,” says Phillips. “That is a genuine concern for Jordanians and that is reflected in Turkey as well – this idea that actually it’s not simply Isis’ military power that is a security threat, but its ideological power.”

But there will be problems for the Gulf states if the campaign against the group is too successful. Chiefly, any weakening of Isis could strengthen the Al-Assad regime, both by taking out one of its main opponents and by freeing up Al-Assad’s forces to fight against more moderate rebels. Given the desire of many regional governments to see the president go, it is a difficult balancing act that the US and its allies are facing.

Iran dilemma

Perhaps the most important regional actor, however, is not a US ally at all. Iran holds a great deal of influence in Damascus, but Washington appears reluctant to talk to Tehran about the Syrian war or the fight against Isis, at least in public. That leaves some seasoned observers dismayed. “It is very strange to see, from where I am sitting, that the US and a lot of other countries are trying to destroy Isis in Iraq but they don’t want to talk to Iran,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, at a conference at Chatham House on 14 October. “Iran has more influence in Iraq than the US, and more influence in Syria than Russia.”

The reluctance to engage fully with Iran on this issue is symptomatic of the wider reality, with different actors seemingly intent on pushing for a military solution to the Syrian conflict. For as long as that is the case, there seems little chance of peace breaking out. What is needed is for everyone involved to think more seriously about how to resolve the conflict rather than how to fuel it. That is as true of the regional actors as the big international players such as the US and Russia.

“What you have now are only war plans; there are no peace plans,” said Brahimi. “The Russians and the Iranians are supporting the regime to win the war and everybody else is trying to support the opposition to win the war. We need that peace plan and that peace plan will need the participation of Syrians of course, but also of their neighbours.”

The Kurdish Peshmerga step up to the task

Compared with the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish armed forces, known as the Peshmerga, have performed relatively well against the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis). While the Iraqi army put up almost no resistance during the summer, Kurdish forces have been confronting the group along a border of more than 1,000 kilometres.

However, its abilities are limited. Some 33,000 Peshmerga fighters are grouped into 10 brigades under the Ministry of Peshmerga, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), according to Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute, a US think-tank. A further 70,000 fighters are in smaller units controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. In addition, 30,000 serve in the Zerevany paramilitary police force.

The brigades are equipped with Saddam Hussein-era heavy weapons including artillery, tanks, personnel carriers and anti-tank weapons. They also took hold of more modern US-supplied armoured trucks, support vehicles and artillery when Iraqi forces melted away in the summer. Peshmerga units outside the brigades make do with far more basic equipment.

The KRG has called for allies to supply them with better equipment. On 14 August, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for President Masoud Barzani, released a statement saying “Kurdish forces are in an asymmetrical warfare against an organised and well-armed terrorist group. With no doubt, rapid equipment of Peshmerga forces with heavy and sophisticated weapons will change the equation in the battlefield in [their] favour.”

Later that month, arms and equipment were pledged to the Kurds from the US, the Iraqi federal government, Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France and the UK. The US has also provided military advisers and other support personnel. Germany too has stepped in, promising e70m ($89m) of assault rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons and ammunition. According to the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank, most of this is decommissioned German army equipment.

More will be needed in the future, but in the meantime, Peshmerga forces have scored several victories over Islamist forces in recent weeks. The most recent came in late October, when they recaptured Zumar, a town 64km southwest of Mosul.

In numbers

60 Number of countries that have joined the coalition fighting against Isis

$8.3m Amount the US spends a day on its military operation against Isis

Isis=Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Sources: Pentagon; US State Department

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