Between 29 September and 21 October 2015, the U.S. led coalition conducted 95 airstrikes on Syrian territory against the Islamic State (U.S. Central Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, briefing 22 Oct 2015). On 27 October, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. would step up its campaign against the Islamic State with the “‘three R’s’ – Raqqa, Ramadi, and Raids”, involving notably ramping up U.S. and coalition air strikes as well as “direct action on the ground” – the “Raids” (“Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opening statement on counter-ISIL Senate Armed Services Committee”, October 27, 2015), anticipating the announcement of the deployment of a very small special force on the ground in Northern Syria (Reuters, 31 Oct 2015). As a result, a new U.S. backed joint Arab-Kurds offensive started in Al-Hasakah on 1 November 2015 (Lambert, UPI, 1 Nov 2015) – however with potential adverse unintended consequences (“Local activist: south Hasakah IDPs prefer fleeing to IS territory” Syria Direct, 1 Nov 2015).
The change of U.S. strategy, most probably, came, in part, in reaction to the level of Russian military operations. Indeed, between 30 September and 22 October 2015, Russian airforce carried out “934 combat sorties and destroyed 819 terrorists’ facilities” (Russian Defence Ministry, briefing 22 Oct 2015), the strikes being identified and perceived as shelling various targets, from civilians to “moderate rebels” to Jihadis and Islamic State’s components, according to the various actors involved, as explained previously.
The impact of the operational military entrance of Russia in the war against the Islamic State, accompanied by a re-energisation of the diplomatic process around Syria, can thus already be felt. Russian operations are not however without risk.
The first risk related to these operations in Syria is, actually, similarly faced by the U.S.-led coalition campaign, if defeating the Islamic State is the main objective. This risk consists in focusing exclusively on Syria, or in believing such an exclusive focus is possible. We shall explain, moving progressively from Syria to a first circle of regional actors with this article, and then to a global or near global war theatre with the next ones, why it is impossible to deal with the Islamic State threat with solely a narrow, local, territorial objective. Meanwhile, we shall point out elements indicating that not only Russia but also the U.S.-led coalition consider, at least up to a first geographical circle surrounding Mesopotamia, the larger ramifications of the war against the Khilafah. The main question mark regarding the way this risk is handled remains the real attention given to the global reach of the Islamic State, beyond the immediate regional Middle Eastern actors involved, as we shall see with the second part of this analysis.
The extent to which the incorporation of these larger strategic elements results from a planned design, thought ahead of the operations for Russia and the U.S.-led coalition, or, alternatively, for all actors save Russia, from a reaction involving more or less strategic vision and planning to the intensified activities of Russia as a major player in this war, will remain beyond our scope and capabilities, as we would have to wait until archives are opened to establish one or the other with certainty.
Focusing on Syria
As military operations develop, a renewed flurry of diplomatic activity is taking place around Syria, aiming at preparing for a future political solution to finally end the war.
We thus had a quadrilateral meeting between Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. in Vienna on 23 October 2015 (e.g. Max Delany and Nicolas Revise, “Little progress at US, Russia, Saudi, Turkey, Syria talks“, AFP, 23 Oct 2015), where agreement to “reconvene with a broader meeting in order to explore whether there is sufficient common ground to advance a meaningful political process” was reached (John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, “Remarks to the Press in Vienna, Austria“, 23 Oct 2015). Russia notably pointed out the need to include Iran, which intervenes militarily on the ground in support of the Syrian Army of Bashar al-Assad’s government, Egypt, as well as other concerned actors (RT, 23 Oct 2015; e.g. Nabih Bulos, “Syrian army and Iran fighters in major Aleppo assault”, The Guardian, 16 Oct 2015). The U.S. accepted Iran’s presence and Iran, invited by Russia, was thus present at Vienna II (U.S. State Department, John Kirby, Spokesperson, “Daily Press Briefing”, 27 Oct 2015; Sputnik, 28 Oct 2015), besides Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, the European Union and France (Angus McDowall and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “Arch-rivals Saudi Arabia, Iran to discuss Syria face-to-face for first time,” Reuters, 28 Oct 2015). If differences between various actors remained at the end of Vienna II, a joint statement at minima was nonetheless reached, and a decision to continue the discussions taken (Hurriyet Daily News, 1 Nov 2015)
In the meantime, on 27 October, the French government of President Hollande, remaining inflexible regarding the necessary exclusion of Bashar al-Assad from any solution, even temporary, decided to host a lower level “working dinner” on Syria, including “the main partners engaged with France in dealing with the Syrian crisis: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Germany, the United States, Italy and Britain.” (RFI, 27 Oct 2015). Russia, considering its support to Al-Assad, was not invited.
Meanwhile, bilateral discussions over the phone or directly between actors continue (e.g. Russia-Saudi Arabia: “Telephone conversation with King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud”, President of Russia website, 26 Oct 2015).
A political solution would presuppose that the cessation of hostilities is on the agenda of those very actors waging war on the Syrian territory, from the still fighting various factions and groups of various obedience to the Islamic State, which does not appear as immediately obvious, to say nothing of the utter destruction of state capabilities and related lawlessness. Yet, even if the end of the war is nowhere near, one of the virtues of diplomacy is to get various actors to discuss and thus, potentially, to lower current tension – and related potentially escalating actions – as future objectives can come to be imagined as not fundamentally antagonistic. Meanwhile, practical cooperation may come to be planned. Thus, through diplomatic efforts, and to anticipate, the Syrian focus becomes immediately enlarged to include neighbours and has to address the specific concerns of each of the countries involved.
Looking at military operations alongside diplomatic efforts, it would seem that we are presented with two goals to achieve, which are linked, but far from being identical, i.e. solving the Syrian conflict and vanquishing the Islamic State.
According to what would appear to be the Russian logic, the Syrian conflict would have to be solved, first, to win against the Islamic State, thus to achieve the second aim. The rationale for this line of thought is most probably that the Islamic State breeds on chaos and strife and that without the civil war in Syria it would never have been able to expand and gain a territorial foothold. It may have declared a Khilafah, and it may promote a different, new kind of polity, fully alien to the current order – or disorder – grounded in both the material and non-material realms, yet without a material and geographically based foundation, the Islamic State may only wither away (see “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War“, RTAS, 19 January 2015). Directly, it would lose territory, fighters and thus the state administration it has so far succeeded in building (from embryonic to developed according to wilayats, see “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat“, 4 May 2015; “Means of Violence“; 15 June 2015; “Money, Wealth and Taxes“, 13 July 2015, RTAS). Furthermore, not having anymore a real basis for an Islamic State, then it would de facto lose the legitimacy for its Khilafah (Ibid. “Worlds War”). Consequently, it would lose influence and the ability to mobilise groups and individuals through material support, religious duty and any other power of attraction it may wield (“The Islamic State Psyops – Attracting Foreign Fighters (1)” & “Foreign Fighters’ Complexes (2)“, 23 & 30 March 2015, RTAS). As a result, fighting the Islamic State, once there is peace in Syria, or rather peace between all the actors save the Islamic State in Syria, would likely become much easier and victory would ensue. From a Russian point of view, the primary objective, temporally, would thus be to pacify the Syrian territory starting from the West, while working on a diplomatic solution.
This certainly does not imply leaving fully the Islamic State unscathed until a first peace is obtained, on the contrary, but considering it, initially, as only one enemy among others. To leave the Islamic State unharmed would be, in military terms, absurd. If the Russian Federation aims at initially supporting the Bashar al-Assad government as sole path to work towards a functioning Syrian state and at defeating the Islamic State, then it cannot strike in a way that would eliminate all enemies of Bashar al-Assad save the Islamic State. Indeed, in that case, the Islamic State would take the opportunity to reinforce itself. The future threat to the initial two aims would thus be enhanced. This would be an absurd risk to take. Thus, the Islamic State must be, to the least, treated as an enemy and fought.
The battle around Aleppo is one example of the way this fight may take place, without any certainty regarding the issue, because this is war (e.g. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Go Forth, Lightly and Heavily Armed”: New Mobilization Calls by the Islamic State in Aleppo Province“, Jihadology.net, 30 Oct 2015). The contradiction found in some of the reports may only be apparent and result from different sources, focuses, as well as, of course, from the need for battlefield psyops: on the one hand, the Islamic State “has reportedly captured a key section of the last regime-held supply route into Aleppo city, cutting off land-based supplies to regime forces fighting in a recent Russian-backed offensive to encircle the provincial capital” as reported by Syria Direct (26 Oct 2015), and on the other the Islamic State fighters are cut off from their line of supplies and will have to withdraw from Aleppo, thanks to Russian air strikes, while confusion is sowed in their ranks, as asserted by the Chief of Staff of the Bashar al Assad regime’s Syrian Army and reported by Russian agency Tass (26 Oct 2015).
The overall logic – to pacify western Syria first, which will result in winning against the Islamic State, second – may have its virtue, however it is likely to only reflect part of reality. Another part of reality, the one that is concerned with the war the Islamic State wages outside Syrian borders is not explicitly mentioned and thus risks being forgotten or imperfectly integrated in the strategy.
First, as both the U.S.-led coalition and the Russian Federation are well aware, the Islamic State originated not in Syria but in neighbouring Iraq, and thus, assuming the best logic is to solve first some initial causes, assuming one has identified all of them, then one must also consider Iraq. This is even more indispensable because, since the Spring 2013 when then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) took over al-Raqqah and became ISIS, it also conquered part of Iraq (e.g. MEMRI, “Special Dispatch No.5264“, 8 April 2013; Aymenn al Tamimi, “Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Raqqah: Demonstrations and Counter-Demonstrations” Jihadology, 24 June 2013; Aymenn al Tamimi, Review of “ISIS: The State of Terror”, 27 March 2015, Syria Comments). Thus, if the rationale, as far as the Islamic State is concerned, is to deprive it of any material and territorial basis for power, then the conflict in Iraq must also be solved. Even if we remain with as objective to only fully pacify Syria, the contiguity of territories, hence the possibility of seeing Islamic State fighters taking refuge in Iraq or to see supplies coming from Iraq, demands that Iraq be fully considered.
From Syria to Mesopotamia
As in Syria, it will be imperative to bring back a real positive peace in Iraq – by opposition to a shallow negative peace, furthermore fuelling sectarian fear and conflict, which only breeds war – and, before that, to end the war there, this time initially waged between the Iraqi state and the Islamic State.
The U.S.-led coalition started its action in Iraq, as it was called by the Iraqi government (BBC News, “Iraq formally asks US to launch air strikes against rebels“, 18 June 2014), and is active, thus, on the two Mesopotamian fronts. Russia, similarly, can be seen as integrating the Iraqi front in its Syrian strategy, as intelligence would be exchanged with Iraq (Associated Press, “Iraq is going to share intelligence on ISIS with Russia, Iran, and Syria“, Business Insider UK, 27 Sept. 2015) and as Iraq authorised Russia to strike Islamic State convoys coming from Syria into Iraq (Middle East Eye, “Iraq authorises Russia to strike Islamic State inside country“, 24 Oct 2015).
As a result, Russia finds itself “dragged” into the conflict in Iraq – unless it was envisioned from the start – as the U.S.-led coalition found itself “dragged” in the war in Syria. Actually, if we look at the map that is displayed on the wall during the briefings of the Russian Ministry of Defence, we see a map of Mesopotamia (see next picture), which most likely indicates that Russia does consider to the least both Syria and Iraq, thus Mesopotamia for its military operations. Assuming this map is truthful and not created especially for the briefing and thus to propagate specific information (which may nonetheless be correct), this map, although incomplete as we may not see the most western part of Syria also gives analysts and the public a rare insight into the maps used by the military and, here, more specifically, the Russian military. We should more particularly note what is most probably an Islamic State presence in the southern part of Diyala province, on the border with Iran, as well as a stronger presence of the Islamic State west of Palmyra than usually portrayed on open source maps. The capture of Maheen in southwestern Homs from the Syrian governmental forces on 1 November 2015 confirms the Islamic State presence in this area (BBC News, 1 Nov 2015).
It may well be that, because the Islamic State does not separate Iraq and Syria but, on the contrary, sees them as the geographical seat for its most developed wilayats (“Structure and Wilayat“, ibid.), then it is impossible to consider Syria without Iraq or Iraq without Syria. Doing so would mean ignoring how the enemy thinks, is organised and fights. It may well be possible that a cooperation of sorts needs to be organised between the various actors to be able to operate, together, on the two fronts, and this cooperation might be on the way to be organised, on the sidelines of Vienna.
The challenge, however, does not stop here. As with the Iraqi frontier, the other Syrian borders must be, as much as possible, controlled, again to avoid the possibility for supply lines as well as the escape of fighters in case of victorious battles, which could then either allow them to regroup and counter-attack or to spread war elsewhere.
From Mesopotamia to Mesopotamia and its neighbours
The main country concerned are here Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Each of them implies, in their dealing with Syria and with the Islamic State, a series of complex problems that must be considered according to each situation. It is impossible to detail them all here, but we shall point out a few examples.
Turkey has become a Gordian knot in its own right, notably as it fears for its own territorial integrity should the Kurds, an essential actor and element in the fight against the Islamic state both in Syria and in Iraq, declare an independent state in Syria. Indeed, as titled by Reuters, “Erdogan says Turkey won’t let Kurds ‘seize’ northern Syria” (24 Oct 2015) and thus, after having broken over the Summer the truth with the PKK, to which the Syrian Kurds are linked, did not hesitate to strike the Kurds in Syria for now officially twice end of October 2015 (The Economist, “The truce between Turkey and Kurdish militants is over“, 26 July 2015; Hurriyet Daily News, “Turkey strikes Kurdish PYD in Syria twice: Turkish PM“, 28 Oct 2015; H Lavoix, “State of Play, the Kurds in Syria“, 29 April 1013, RTAS).
Meanwhile, the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran over regional leadership, mixed with a risk to see a further rise in Muslim sectarianism limits the options of the actors, especially considering that the Islamic State can and does play the sectarian weapon (e.g. the allegations, for example in Dabiq #11, that all are conspiring to bring about a “new Safavid empire”, see more details in “Russia at War with the Islamic State in Syria – Perceptions of Strikes“, 12 Oct 2015).
Lebanon, in the meantime, and if we believe the very interesting map (see above) published by the Russian Sputnik (Rossiya Segodnya’s branch aimed at non-Russian speakers launched in November 2014. The Russian agency remains Ria Novosti) and grounded in the Institute for the Study of War June 2015 map, revised with Ria Novosti information, knows now not one but two areas that would be controlled by the Islamic State, while the four zones where it is attacked by the Islamic State did not change.
Jordan, for its part, and despite all the problems created by welcoming 629627 refugees (data 19 Oct 2015; UNHCR), has maintained stability. Jordan is not only part of the U.S.-led coalition, and paid dearly for it as we all remember the horrendous end of the Jordanian pilot burned alive by the Islamic State (e.g. BBC News, 3 Feb 2015), but also, on 24 October 2015, agreed with Russia “to coordinate military action in Syria, setting up a “special working mechanism” in Amman, which “concerns southern Syria and aims to ensure security of the Kingdom’s northern frontiers,” according to Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Mohammad Momani (The Jordan Times, “Jordan, Russia set up mechanism of military coordination concerning south Syria“, 24 Oct 2015).
Thus, so far, and despite an initial first goal that was apparently restricted to peace in Syria, we moved to a necessary strategy that must encompass Mesopotamia and its first ring of neighbours. If we take the various agreements and diplomatic exchanges seen above, this dimension seems to be indeed considered by all involved actors, if with different fates. The capability to successfully solve problems and unite all actors, would it be only until the defeat of the Islamic State is complete, will be crucial in achieving that very goal.
This is, however, again, not enough. Since, on 29 June 2014, ISIS became the Islamic State and declared its Khilafah (Pietervanostaeyen, 29 June 2014), its global reach and influence has changed. And these changes must also be integrated into a global strategy, as we shall see next.
Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
Featured image: Still from the 28 October 2015 briefing to the press, Russian Ministry of Defence, Youtube Channel.