*Özer Khalid is a Senior Consultant, Geo-Strategist and Freelance Writer. He can be reached on email@example.com or Twitter followed on @ozerkhalid
The opinions expressed in this essay are analytical and expert views offered by field specialists who have been duly cited and referenced at length, and do not necessarily always overlap with this author`s nor with Criterion Journal`s official stance.© Criterion Quarterly Publication and Özer Khalid. All Rights Reserved (2016).
(As has been proved, though ISIS`s militia might territorially be controlled and contained, their ideology remains borderless in a bandwidth-driven hyper-connected communication-centered social media crazed world, where propaganda reaches the farthest-flung corners of our earth in a matter of nano-seconds. Which is exactly why slick charismatic counter-campaigning, counter messaging, counter narratives are needed now more than ever before to reverse this alarming militancy, one mind at a time… The world`s powers, with conflicting vested interests, be they that of “empire-building”, influence peddling, politics, or economics, are using opposition rebel groups to their myopic advantage, fueling the flames amongst and between them and operating a “matrix of zero-sum game calculations” in a binary “we” or “they” survival of the fittest. George Orwell, with characteristic foresight, hit the nail on the head when declaring, “ war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous”. – Author)
A Caliphate Crumbling at the Edges
The so-called Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” might territorially be dissolving, but, despite its geographical down-sizing, it`s ideological appeal is scarcely diminishing, due to prior decades of unchecked theo-fascistic branding, charismatic recruiting, proxy funding, ideological brain-washing, youth radicalization tinged with a victimization narrative and potent foreign policy grievances – both real and perceived. In our day and age, ideas, especially stealthy lethal ones, are borderless, catchy and viral.
ISIS maybe “down” but are certainly not “out”, for they are re-grouping into new vessels to keep spreading a poisonous ideology, which is here for decades, if not generations, to come. The international community can target, carpet-bomb, surgically strike, drone or shoot their malevolent leaders, but the death of Osama bin Laden, Zarkawi and Anwar al-Awlaki is certainly not the end of radical fundamentalism. For we cannot shoot an idea. Ideas are bullet-proof and borderless. Ideas can only be countered with more enlightened educated ideas.
Radicalization is an idea which metastasizes with Medusa and Hydra-headed like abundance, you chop off one a hundred more emerge. After ISIS there are many in the Middle East, likely to take its militant place; Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam in Syria are but two mortal examples.
Radical insurgent militants like ISIS are certainly not leaving without a fight. On October 15th, 2016, for instance in Baghdad, ISIS targeted a funeral near Shalal market in al-Shaab district of Northern Baghdad, leaving 34 dead and 35 wounded1. As allied forces keep squeezing these terrorists from their nested safe havens, such attacks are bound to proliferate and intensify, whenever and wherever we least expect them.
ISIS` territorial setbacks are empirically evident whence juxtaposing their strongholds in January 2015 compared with October 2016, a period during which their land control has noticeably decreased by 25,300 square kilometers (or 16% of the territory ISIS held at the beginning of the year) – from 90,800 square kilometers down to 65,500 square kilometers. Whereas at its peak in 2014, 9 million people lived under ISIS` hellish iron fists, now an estimated 4 million are subject to survival under the death cult.
ISIS Land Control in January 2015 covering 90,800 sq km across Iraq and Syria.
Source: IHS Conflict Monitor, January (2015)
ISIS Land Control in October 2016 covering 65,500 sq km across Iraq and Syria.
Source: IHS Conflict Monitor, January (2015)2
ISIS in 2014 carved out a sprawling land mass with splintered arteries spread across Iraq and Syria. At the time, ISIS bore military ascendancy over 126 key positions but has now sizably been squeezed, forced out of 56 posts, including 5 major cities, which explains why its strategy has mutated from controlling territory in Iraq and Syria to delivering death and destruction abroad via indiscriminate terror attacks internationally, from Ankara to Bamako to Brussels to San Bernardino, giving birth to what this author terms Multi-National Terrorism (MNT).
ISIS lost Baquba in September 2014, got defeated by Iraqi security forces in Tikrit in March 2015 and Ramadi in January 2016, gave up Abu Ghraib in February 2016 and Falluja in June 2016. Kurdish forces also vitally gained control over Kobani, a key town linking the ISIS network from Syria to Turkey, undermining their sphere of influence in Northern Iraq. Presently, ISIS is battling tooth and nail to retain a strategic corridor at the Turkish border that allows a free flow of ISIS recruits and goods to, from and between Syria and Turkey.
ISIS are desperately fighting to retain land in their sanctuary strongholds of Mosul, Raqqa, Tal Affar and the Syrian government in Manbij and Deir al Zour. A defeat in Deir al Zour would imply a harsh blow for ISIS, as Deir al Zour, in eastern Syria, is a crucial artery connecting Raqqa to Mosul. Once recaptured, ISIS will find it much tougher to defend territory, leverage logistics and exploit natural resources. With every town and village that is lost the group also loses revenue yielded from extortion, extracting taxes and fines.
ISIS still crucially retains contested or controlled towns along the Euphrates River, bequeathing them pivotal access to roads and infrastructure linking territory across the fractured, porous and defunct broken states of Syria and Iraq. Seizing these towns would spell a significant drawback for ISIS. For instance, Mayadin, with 44,000 inhabitants, is vital to the so-called Islamic State as an uncontested administrative center that bears proximity to lucrative oil fields. Take that away and their finances get severely affected. Once their purse-strings are hampered their ideological posturing and recruitment drive inevitably get dented.
ISIS, to fund their international terrorist franchise, seized strategic infrastructure, waterways, hydro-electric dams, oilfields and natural resources, but those too are now dwindling as ISIS lost their iron grip over the Mosul Dam to Kurdish forces in August 2014 averting the threat of flooding entire cities and killing millions. ISIS no longer controls Al Badia cement plant (April 2016) and the Akashat Phosphate Mine (May 2016). The militant`s oil and gas revenues plummeted by 26%3 since last year but is still tantamount to USD $ 23 million per month, often siphoned off via smuggling4 into the nefarious black market5 and sold at dizzying premiums.
The oilfields exhibited below must now be seized with pressing urgency for they bankroll big-time ISIS` sprawling financial war chest. A further loss in oil revenue will inevitably spell economic fragility. ISIS`s three largest oilfields, Omar, Tanak and Al -Taim are now all in Syria and as an ensemble, measured in October 2016, render an output of 13,500 barrels of oil per day. Strategically striking at these oilfields will deal a significant immediate blow to their terrorist tentacles.
Source: Satellite images by DigitalGlobe and CNES/Distribution Airbus DS via Google & Bing (July, 2016)
In addition to oil, there are a myriad of other ways through which ISIS secures illicit funding.
In January 2015, ISIS reaped its largest weapons profit when it took over the Ayyash Arms Depot in Syria, clinching roughly two million rounds of ammunition, 9,000 grenades and 100 antitank missiles. However, the militants did not always reap the rewards of military acquisitions. Despite capturing a number of air bases, there is no evidence that they have flown any planes, mostly due to pilot manpower deficit.
Most of ISIS controlled land now falls within Syrian borders with a stretch of land splintering along the epic Tigris and Euphrates rivers into Iraq. However despite such territorial triumphs and financial squeezing, radicalism is very far from over, for it`s tentacles remain deep-seated and perniciously permeate much deeper than in the linear vicissitudes of geography and geo-strategy. Their charismatic recruiter’s symbols and messages prey and condition, with almost Pavlovian precision, upon vulnerable malleable minds in prisons, on social media, at relaxed university campuses and via the darker recesses of social media and the “deep web”.
The number of fundamentalists joining ISIS ranks might statistically be diminishing since 2014, but still remain alarmingly astronomical. A report published by the New York based security consultancy, Soufan group, estimates that 27,000 foreign recruits voyaged to over 86 countries, more than half of them from the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Ideas, especially dangerous ones, like a theocratic-fascistic caliphate, are generational, cross-cultural, divisive, sectarian, seem adventurous, boundary-less and are quick to besiege and brain-wash the minds of those at the very periphery of society, the unemployed, the aimless, jobless, the bullied time-rich cash-poor youth in particular. Radicalism at its core, is an insidious ideology, a living and breathing menacing mind-set in our midst. Many senior counter-terrorism programs have failed to take cognition of this glaringly obvious fact, which is why counter-terrorism programs must be holistic and broad-spectrum or are likely to fail, much like a myriad of counter terror programs before them.
As has been proved, though ISIS`s militia might territorially be controlled and contained, their ideology remains borderless in a bandwidth-driven hyper-connected communication-centered social media crazed world, where propaganda reaches the farthest-flung corners of our earth in a matter of nano-seconds. Which is exactly why slick charismatic counter-campaigning, counter messaging, counter narratives are needed now more than ever before, to reverse this alarming militancy, one mind at a time.
ISIS`s geographical containment is likely to usher in new problems in an already flammable Middle East6, a region born of blood, a tinderbox set to flames by years of imperialistic misadventure, political malfeasance and petro-political miscalculations at their worst.
ISIS – in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, to stoke their ebbing recruitment and to gain mindshare and media attention – will export their terror globally (away from Syria and Iraq where they are crashing and burning) and will activate their global chapters and franchises. This is exactly what happened on October the 14th , 2016, for instance, where a terror group named the “Sinai Province”, who have pledged blind allegiance to ISIS and are responsible for downing the Russian airliner which killed all 224 on board, claimed responsibility for killing 12 Egyptian security forces at a checkpoint 40 km from Bir al-Abd, in Northern Sinai.
The Middle East poses multiple policy conundrums. Due to foreign occupations, local corruption, proxy power struggles and irreconcilable agendas, the Middle Eastern map always was, and to many, will remain, a patchwork of hostile pent up societies, an arbitrary concoction7 of superficially super-imposed carved borders bruised with the epic failure of post-war inability at nation-building, minority acceptance, good governance, social integration and refugee resettlement.
Even once ISIS is contained and curtailed, militant radicalization in the Middle East is likely to gestate, permutate, evolve and take on new insidious forms, primarily because in politics, as in life itself, public statements seldom mirror behind-the-scenes smoke-screen covert agendas. This author, armed with in-depth research and first hand intelligence accounts, will endeavor to shed light on such political opacity.
Amidst such closed room diplomacy, cloak and daggers posturing in the dark underbelly of regional Middle Eastern instability, the military equation on the ground and geopolitical realities of conflicting world power interests currently do not bode well for peace in Syria. From an unhealthy greed for natural resources to political maximalism and declaratory grandstanding to neo-Cold war awakenings, all delay any taming of the terrorist tyrants, rendering long-term peace prospects arduous.
The Battle against ISIS
The battle vis-à-vis ISIS, a necessity as a matter of course, has come at too high a human premium. The innocent civilian loss of life is soul-sapping and gut-wrenching. As ISIS invaded Kurdish controlled areas in Iraq – murdering, raping, enslaving and butchering Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, and pretty much any non-Wahabbi with a beating human pulse – a U.S.-led multinational coalition launched airstrikes on IS strongholds in Iraq in August 2014.
The UN cites that at least 23,600 civilians have been killed by terrorism, violence and armed conflict in Iraq since January 2014. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated in September 2016 that more than 300,000 people, including 86,000 civilians, had been killed since March 2011 – cautioning that the body count might be 70,000 higher as many armed groups had not yet communicated fatalities.
The US-led coalition has conducted more than 9,600 air strikes against IS targets in Iraq since August 2014 and 5,054 strikes against Syria. In Iraq: the UK, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Jordan and the Netherlands are also taking part in air strikes, and all these countries have witnessed ISIS inspired terror attacks, “lone-wolf, self-starter” or otherwise, including Jordan in the summer of 2016, when ISIS engaged in the unspeakable Ramadan blood-letting.
Source: IHS Conflict Monitor, 19 September (2016)
In Syria too the innocent human fatalities have been devastating. The US-led air campaign commenced in September 2014 with coalition forces including Australia, Bahrain, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and the UK. Though not formally part of the “allied” coalition, Russia began intensive air strikes in Syria in September 2015.
The Institute for the Study of War reports that Russian fighter aircraft have attacked deep into anti-Assad territory, assisting the Syrian government forces to surround rebels, especially in the city of Aleppo, where the humanitarian carnage has been eye-watering and soul-wrenching.
The graph below depicts a year-on-year comparison of the coalition air strikes.
Predictably, it is innocent Syrians, like the innocent mothers, sisters and children in the Valley of Kashmir, who are paying the ultimate premium of war. A total of 470,000 Syrians were massacred by the end of 2015, with another 1.9 million Syrians wounded; the economic loss incurred between 2011 – 2015 stands at USD $ 255 billion.
Additionally, 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced with 4.8 million Syrians becoming refugees in neighboring Muslim-majority Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and some European countries. The war has nearly annihilated the majority of Syria’s economic assets, infrastructure, institutions and human capital – pushing the country literally back to a pre-modern bronze age.
The World Powers: Geo-Strategic Calculus and Vested Interests
A vortex of competing claims and geo-strategic interests in Iraq and now in Syria specifically, and in the Middle East per se, brew foreign policy grievances, some genuine, others exaggerated, which fuels toxic terrorism and malevolent militancy, eventually inflicted on innocent civilians and exported to European, U.S. and world cities. Counter-terrorism efforts, therefore, often take one step forwards, two steps backwards, beset by this non-ending agenda-laden “quagmire” where self-serving states look out for their own calculated pre-meditated narrow national interests.
The world`s super powers, with conflicting vested interests – be they that of “empire-building”, influence peddling, politics, or economics – are using opposition rebel groups to their myopic advantage by fueling the flames amongst and between them and operating a “matrix of zero-sum game calculations” in a binary “we” or “they” survival of the fittest. George Orwell, with characteristic foresight, hit the nail on the head when declaring that “the war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous”.
In the nuanced pre-mediated game theory of international relations such binary myopia conceptually does not take stock of broader advantages to be accrued from logical win-win John Nash equilibria and limits itself to Nash`s “non co-operative games” which is anathema to what Robert Wright envisaged as “non-zero sum calculations”, whereby society seeks the collective common utilitarian good for the masses rather than the well-being of a select few. Wright theorized that a society becomes increasingly non-zero-sum as it evolves in complexity, depth, specialization and interdependence. This, however, has not played out in Syria and the broader Middle East.
Assad, in addition to mass genocide against his own Syrian citizens, has shown little appetite for quelling radicalism, as many former al-Qaeda operatives strongly back him and are provided illicit back-handed financial firepower by him.
Most world powers possess an old network of formal and (more importantly) “informal” relations throughout Syrian regime structures and Syrian society which perpetuate violent insurgency.
The Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, is littered with half-hearted “lip-service” based occasional ceasefires made and broken by ever-warring super-powers in a cyclical and cynical power projection process.
The schisms between a crude and cruel, heavy-handed, barrel-bombing Al-Assad government and a multitude of rebel groups have so intensely broadened over the blood-stained war that they keep flouting any immediate well-meaning chance at political reconciliation.
The Syrian Genocide, for all intents and purposes, has been taken over by external third parties – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S. and Russia – that train, develop, equip, financially support, supply arms and ammunitions and intervene to assist their concerned allies in a binary “us” versus “them” calculus of national self-interest. By implication therefore, Syrians scarcely have a say over the war and their future destiny.
The voice that counts most, those of the Syrian people, has been silenced. Their dignity has been deprived and delegitimized by powers all too busy playing a non-ending “Game of Thrones”. This is because a host of pre-meditated geo -strategic and economic calculations are at play, which external powers are willing to preserve and protect no matter how high the human cost. Recent rifts between President(s) Putin and the French Monsieur Hollande, with mention of taking Russia to the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Aleppo is an example of political squabbling and posturing while Syrian mothers and children die unacceptably.
The recent soul-sapping human genocide in Eastern Aleppo in October 2016 proves that self-centered geo-politics delays and deters humanitarian concerns and access to some of the most besieged areas, worsened by the Syrian government`s stalling on granting permission for aid deliveries.
Since the Iran-Iraq war, Hassan Rouhani and Tehran know all too well that Syria has been its staunch (and often) sole strategic Arab ally. This stellar alliance has withstood the test of time despite ideological (secular Ba’athism versus Islamic) and cultural (Arab versus Persian) differences, and was further cemented after a bi-lateral defense cooperation agreement inked in June 2006 – a military pre-emptive measure seeking to diminish any post-2003 U.S. threats to Tehran and Damascus. Such pre-emption also helps explain why Tehran has become bed-fellows with Moscow in the preservation of Assad.
Iran’s principal interlocutor in Syria has always been Assad. Since his assumption of power in 2000, Assad invested more time and effort in strengthening his relationship with Tehran and Hezbollah than with any other country or party — an investment that, in his opinion, is now vindicated.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remains in charge of Iran’s Syria policy, and staunchly sees Assad as a guarantor that Syria will not become a pivot for mounting a regional anti-Iranian anti-Hezbollah agenda.
President Rouhani and the Ayatollahs deem the loss of Syria to anti-Assad rebel forces an insurmountable affront to the strategic support Damascus furnishes to the anti-Israel Lebanese resistance group – Hezbollah. Tehran hastens to the defense of the Al-Assad government to protect two interests: i) to maintain its strategic gravitas in the Middle East as a safeguard against Western military pressures to totally disarm its nuclear prowess, despite the Geneva nuclear deal with the U.S. in July, 2015 and ii) to protect its national security in a deep ocean of hostile unfriendly powers – the Arab adversaries on the west coast of the Persian Gulf, the presence of U.S. military forces encircling Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a resurgent Turkey, given the clout of President Erdogan now in his fourth term, along with a hostile Israel to the north.
Despite domestic economic malaise due to global oil price suppression, Tehran`s unwavering support for Assad is blatant as it bank-rolled Syria`s government by providing at least $6 billion per annum since 2013 in addition to credit lines to finance imports of food and energy. Without such financial largesse, Assad`s regime might have toppled long ago. Tehran persuaded Hezbollah to deploy troops to defend their common ally – the al-Assad government.
What the Ayatollahs seek in Syria, as a bare minimum, is a rock-solid set-in-stone guarantee that any government in Damascus must accommodate Iranian interests and that antagonistic Arab powers headed by Riyadh must not enjoy the upper hand in Damascus to limit Iran`s use of Syria as a supply conduit to Hezbollah keeping Tel Aviv on her toes. Neither Riyadh nor the West are willing to concede such minimum Iranian geo-strategic imperatives and this is exactly what compels Mahmoud Alavi and his team at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence not to back away from their post-Arab Spring Syria policy.
Syria has been used and abused as a battleground for the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh, Tehran’s nemesis, promotes itself as “the regional Arab leader”, a position it is willing to defend at die-hard costs, both militarily and financially. The demise of Saddam’s Iraq in 2003 vis-à-vis U.S. forces – a traditional bulwark against Iran – and the decline of Egypt as the Arab world’s natural leader after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and instability in Turkey after the botched mutiny over the Bosphorus on July 15th, 2016, have prompted Riyadh to fill in the leadership vacuum.
In Syria, the Saudis have sought the goals of containing Iranian influence by toppling the Al-Assad government and to install a pro-Saudi
Sunni Salafist Wahhabi government to delink Iran from Hezbollah, an objective the U.S. and Israel also share.
Back in late 2013, Riyadh launched the “Army of Islam”, an umbrella organization of fifty Wahhabi Salafist militant groups, to simultaneously fight the Al-Assad government and the so-called ISIS caliphate. This is extremely dangerous, for it is often from the offshoots of such insurgents that terrorism incubates new and deadly incarnations.
Riyadh has refurbished the rebels with arms and money. The Saudi rulers still remain steadfast to toppling the Al-Assad government– an objective Tehran vehemently opposes by insisting that only the Syrians should determine the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Turkey is another key contender in Syrian policy. Ankara`s initial stance posed challenges for Iran but coincided with the Saudi objective of ousting the unsavoury Assad and backing the Syrian branch of Muslim Brotherhood forces – reasonably undermined after the fall of Morsi and their mass imprisonment in Egypt under General Sissi. Ankara sided with the ethnic Turkoman rebel groups while being understandably concerned about the strengthening of armed terrorist Kurdish separatist forces in southwestern Turkey (such as the PKK) as well as their neighbouring clout in Syria and Iraq.
After the Istanbul, Suruc and Ankara terror attacks, Ankara`s prime objective has been to intensify the assault vis-à-vis ISIS, especially in Mossul, as well as to keep Syrian Kurds, led by the socialist-leaning YPG under a watchful gaze and deprive them of any opportunity to conjure up a Kurdish mini-state in northeastern Syria. Armed Kurdish militants also vehemently opposed any reasonable diplomatic engagement with Turkey, as when Syrian Kurdish parties boycott Syrian opposition conferences in Antalya.
In the wake of the abortive July 15 coup, Turkey seems to gradually be pivoting toward Russia; a seismic strategic shift that closely supports Russian and Iranian goals in Syria.
Source: Bing Maps (2016)
The U.S., as always, is a key influencer in the Syrian outcome. The White House initially pursued a regime change policy, vividly witnessed in their media engineered campaign “Assad must go”, but lacked credible willpower to ardently pursue it. Apparently, the White House and Pentagon were more concerned about a palatable alternative to the secular Baathist Al-Assad regime; neither did it want to politically digest a Saudi-supported theocratic government in Damascus nor accept a barbaric ISIS controlling major pockets of Syria.
Altered U.S. priorities mirror that of Israel – a bias for an enfeebled Al-Assad government constantly pitted and fighting against a plethora of insidious rebel groups and presiding over a “rump state”, with territorial jurisdiction limited to the Damascus province, which would pose zero threat to Tel Aviv and crucially weaken Tehran and its key ally, Hezbollah.
Moscow`s foray into Syria significantly alters the trajectory of the civil war by overtly intervening to prop up the Al-Assad regime. Moscow`s muscle-flexing sent seismic shockwaves across the international community, further challenging Washington`s waning sphere of influence in the Middle East.
The Kremlin`s political grand-standing in Syria signals a neo-Cold War brewing in the Middle East and the Caucuses. It is a historic déjà vu of Soviet -era military activism for capturing global “spheres of influence”, an opportunistic one-upmanship, a calculated attempt to fill in the gradual U.S. exit from the region plus a necessity to combat theocrats and religious fundamentalists in Chechnya, the Caucasus and in the Middle East to guarantee national internal Russian security.
The unequivocal message is that Russia, after a heavy-handed intervention in Crimea and Ukraine, is now a serious power-broker in the Middle East. After entering the Syrian fray in 2015, the Kremlin will do anything to shore up support for Assad`s regime.
Though the Russians bombed ISIS in central Syria near Dayr Az Zawr (Deir el-Zour) and Idlib and used Su-34 and Tu-22M3 bombers to target ISIS and the Nusra Front militants in Aleppo, most of their other strikes have buttressed forces loyal to Assad. Two dozen daily air sorties to support the Syrian dictator`s advance on the eastern city of Palmyra is a vivid example of Russia`s pro-Assad posturing.
Moscow is likely to keep scaling up its presence, such as a bolstered naval base in Tartus and the Hmeymim air base in October 2016 (as exhibited hereunder). Putin will keep the Russian S-400 air-defense systems and the long-range Tu-22M3 bombers to keep a watchful eye on Turkey, especially in air combat.
International Navy in the Mediterranean Sea: Naval Powers in the Middle East
Source: The Waterman Files (2016)
Combat Radius of the Russian Air Force in Syria
Source: Southfront (2016)
Russia hitherto utilized Iranian bases to transfer supplies and refuel jets. Their bombers launched off close to the Iranian city of Hamedan, around 175 miles southwest of Tehran, flying over Iraq to reach Syria. In Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying that Tehran and Moscow have exchanged “capacity and possibilities” in the fight against ISIS. Russia and Iran have witnessed even more rapprochement with a newly empowered, nuclear delayed, post-Geneva sanction-lifted Tehran.
Of course, Moscow is way too savvy to be held hostage by a faltering Syrian regime. The Kremlin knows all too well that Assad is damaged goods. They, however, are using Assad to keep an eye on growing religious fundamentalism in the Caucuses, to quell regional theocracies, to rein in Chechen and Turkic rebels, especially those fighting within Syria, to expand their naval base in the Syrian seaport of Tartus gaining historic influence in the Mediterranean – broadly signaling to Washington that “empire games” and “Cold Wars” are far from over.
Meanwhile, Assad relishes the symbolism of a handshake and photo ops with both President(s) Putin and Rouhani at a time when he is declared persona non grata in the comity of international relations.
Russian diplomacy on Syria has re-established it as a poignant regional influencer. Moscow’s co-sponsorship of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a coalition of 20 countries and organizations designed to broker a diplomatic solution, enhances the Kremlin`s status as a global power to be reckoned with and guarantees that future political compromises in Syria safeguard its interests.
Moscow keeps deploying the bulk of its firepower to target non-ISIS affiliated rebel groups, with the aim of consolidating the Syrian regime areas that are crucial to its survival. Moscow knows that ISIS is more of a threat to the U.S. and Western interests than to the Kremlin. Recently, for instance, Russian bombers launched a wave of airstrikes on the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Syria, killing at least 20 civilians according to Syrian opposition activists. That is 20 civilians too many.
Russia, shelved its firmness on excluding Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam from the cessation of hostilities and decided to live with the “creative ambiguity” that excluded the so-called Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, “or other terrorist organizations designated by the U.N. Security Council.” However, once the ISIS contagion is circumscribed, it is these very outfits, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, who are likely to ferment militancy and incubate violent insurgency as time unfolds.
Make no mistake: the Nusra Front is Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The very same bearded brigade who inflicted 9/11 and countless other tragedies. The group recently rebranded themselves to “Fath al-Sham” to severe the umbilical chord with the global terror network in an “apparent” attempt to evade Russian and U.S.-led airstrikes. Russia and the U.S. have rightly dismissed the name change as “window-dressing”.
No ceasefire, transitional government solution, political concession, or diplomatic mandate can ever afford to include any slick PR “window-dressing” by “Fath al-Sham”. For the civilized world pays for it with the blood of its innocent people.
The fate of Assad will be Putin’s key test with Iran. Both Tehran and Moscow will try their utmost to retain Assad in his ill-begotten Palace. Where they still differ is whether a power-sharing compromise that guarantees their respective interests in Syria is possible without Assad playing a role in it — though not “leading” it. A power-sharing framework that incorporates regime elements but not Assad might be palatable to the Kremlin, but is not so to the Ayatollahs.
Russia and the United States are still detrimentally divided over crucial issues, including the composition and mandate of any future Syrian transitional authority, on whether a federal model could apply, Assad’s role during any transition, which rebel groups to define as “terrorists” and the role of transitional justice during peace talks.
A geo-strategic “convergence of interests” on Syria must take place by mutual concessions between Russia and the United States on the one hand, and regionally between Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. While many armchair cynics will dismiss this as “unrealistic”, such arts of compromise, against all odds, have been brokered in Northern Ireland and South Africa, to cite but two real-world examples. Only a broad coalition and convergence of interests between the USA, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, no matter how temporary, could instrumentally pave the way for a peace process in Syria.
Till then, unilateral, uncoordinated and piecemeal actions against ISIS create fissures in foreign policy, help religious radicals intelligently re-group and give them time to find new vessels such as Fath al-Sham from which to inflict their terror, as the October 14th, 2016 mortar attacks in Northern Sinai and the suicide bombing on October 15, 2016 in Baghdad testify.
A Rebalancing Configuration in International Relations
Interestingly and unsurprisingly, China from behind the scenes, to counter Washington and her allies, also sees eye- to-eye with Russia and Iran when it comes to Syria. An instructive case in point was when, at the request of Russia and China, no references were made to Assad in U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, which provided a roadmap for a cease-fire and a peace process to terminate the conflict in Syria.
The convergence of geo-strategic interests we witness in Syria are being mirrored in South Asia. A congruence of temporary interests between Russia, China, Turkey and Iran pivot these countries toward Pakistan, intensified further by the Pak-China Corridor (CPEC) project, in which Iran also wants a shareholding and which India constantly tries to sabotage.
Russia`s recent joint military exercise with Pakistan signals a rebalancing act in international relations away from New Delhi which is cozying up to Washington. The Pak-Russian joint military exercise dubbed `Druzbah` conducted in October 2016 at a field near Attock, reinforces this new configuration in world politics.
A new dawn therefore heralds in a fluid ever-shifting chess game of international relations, whereby you have China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran to one side and the USA and India (trying to lure Afghanistan) to the other. Likely reconfigurations are prone to be reproduced, as the quicksand of national interest keeps shifting in an ever-volatile, uncertain, resource-thirsty and self-serving world.
New Delhi`s unacceptable atrocities and human rights violations in Kashmir and RAW`s staged false flag operations at Uri, in Zakura along with the whole surgical strike theatrics – aside from reaping Modi electoral dividends in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections – deliberately intensifies tensions in an increasingly volatile nuclear South Asia.
Tehran, Moscow, Ankara and Beijing (very much behind the scenes) for the foreseeable future, remain indispensable and indisputable signatories to any political agreement in Syria, be it power sharing, a federal formula or otherwise.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that while Moscow wants Syria to remain united, “it is the Syrians themselves who must choose power structure of their country.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu`s lofty words of “allowing us (the US and Russia) to find common ground and start fighting together for bringing peace to that territory,” must evolve from declaratory sound-bites into actions. Only then will there be a cessation of hostilities, improved humanitarian access to lay the framework for a lasting peace formula and a political and diplomatic solution to arguably the worst tragedy humanity has seen since World War II.
In 2017 and beyond, Moscow will try to broker Assad’s compromise. They might even grant him exile and asylum. Moscow may want Damascus to parlay its ISIS military gains into negotiating leverage with the possibility of a transitional government. Moscow and Tehran, much like the foreign office in Islamabad, are likely to lobby for a diplomatic settlement with the participation of all political stakeholders.
In 2017, Putin’s ability to play rainmaker and peacemaker in Syria will be tested in two ways during negotiations. First, he must reach an accommodation with the United States. Secondly, he must persuade his friends in Damascus and Tehran to abandon their maximalist positions about a political solution to the conflict.
The diverse and contradicting interests of exogenous and endogenous, internal and external parties in Iraq and Syria are systematically nipping any required political chemistry for a lasting Syrian peace process in the bud. The only point on which their interests strike a chord is the urgency to combat and contain the ISIS menace. Whilst ISIS is being squeezed territorially, its ideological premise is much tougher to contain globally, with the ubiquity of social media and a mushrooming of multiple other militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam along with a deceptively re-branded Nusra Front.
There will never be any perfect political chemistry for peace in the region. However, as a bare minimum, a bi-lateral rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is needed, for a shift from “maximum antagonism” towards, at the very least, a “minimum understanding” on regional issues.
If this was achieved with the seemingly intractable IRA in Northern Ireland and the ANC in South Africa, it most certainly can transpire between Riyadh and Tehran. Though both will continue competing on a broader geo-political scale, both can realistically recognize each other’s “minimum interests”. Such a foreign policy milestone can avoid and deter the stomach-churning human tragedies unfolding in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Let there be no starry-eyed illusions nor delusions. The Middle East is, and will remain, a flammable political tinderbox where hopes are dashed, dignity is denied, dreams are derailed and heart-wrenching humanitarian crisis stain our collective human conscience as powers merrily jostle for power, petrol, position, promotion and status projection.
Muslim majority lands are cursed to suffer the convulsions of one human earthquake after another. From Afghanistan to Pakistan, from the Mediterranean to Egypt (North Sinai) to blood-stained Yemen through to the ravaged terrorist safe-haven basket-case of Libya, the atrocity is alarming and soul shattering.
By this author`s estimates, there are, at present, 12 diverse air raids bombing five separate Muslim majority countries to “export freedom and democracy” as well as “degrade and destroy” enemy combatants. This begs a broader (more sinister) question: can we really bomb our way toward democracy? Of course not. Which is why history is doomed to routinely repeat itself.
First as tragedy.Then as farce.Humans seldom learn from history`s revealing and timeless lessons.
Meanwhile, the west reacts with racist disgust when a million refugees reach their borders on rickety life-threatening boats– and refugee-accommodating brave souls with spines like Angela Merkel suffer electoral defeat as gratitude.
Due to Middle Eastern crises, refugees have to flee persecution, protecting life and limb, kith and kin, only to be treated at sub-human standards, washed ashore like Aylan Kurdi, becoming victims of human smuggling and child prostitution or organ trafficking to living like sardines in the jam-packed jungles of Calais.
Insular politicians of countries like Hungary harp on about how their “pure hinterland” is the “frontier of Christianity” as they seal their borders. Trying to live in a self-contained hermetically-sealed cocoon is not only a naïve policy, in 2017 it is practically impossible. For ideas are porous and know no geographical boundaries.
The world, wherever we look, is witnessing unwelcoming isolationist xenophobic vibes: from Brexit, to Trump-mania, from Theresa May`s proposed placing of all “foreign workers” on separate lists (as if they are a sub-human species), to Boris Johnson`s alarmist sound bites, to the rise of the resentful far-right everywhere, to Brussels` bullying Turkey to stem the refugees pouring into Europe without acknowledging that Turkey is already accommodating two million refugees and more.
There is, as usual, no gratitude, no game plan, no guidance, no long-term strategy for a new Middle East, or a comprehensive safe-passage for such refugees, so they are, for the foreseeable future, doomed to a life of Dickensian squalor.
What the Middle East, and the wider world, is painfully experiencing is nothing less than an Armageddon; a tragic situation which an Iranian – Saudi rapprochement can avoid, and which a U.S. and Russia détente process can catalyze. Currently, Moscow and Washington are unsuccessfully trying military means to solve the Syrian conflict and to counter terrorism, which is, over the long haul, squarely a civil, political, social and ideological contagion awaiting enlightened diplomacy, education and good governance. The sooner the regional and external parties join hands, the better for the Syrians and for the Middle East region.
From the ashes of the Second World War, the Allied countries pre-planned for the post-war world – architecting a unique “United Nations”– giving birth to true global co-operation, admittedly far from perfect, but the closest most workable global entity we have for humanitarian aid and access, progress and prosperity. Such foresight is exactly what the international community must devise for the Middle East, involving, emboldening and improving upon existing alliances such as the OIC, D-8, RDC and the GCC.
After the culmination of World War 1, which made ashes out of the Ottoman empire (a real Caliphate unlike ISIS` mind you) – American policy makers (briefly) flirted with the interesting idea of one pan-Arab nation; where the Muslims, Jews, Christians and a host of other minorities would become citizens of a land stretching from Morocco to the Mesopotamian-Persian border. Obviously the US lost interest in such Wilsonian “democratic dreams”, while the Brits and French elbowed in to cherry-pick and colonize territories and peoples of their choosing.
Thereafter, and ever since, Muslim majority lands have witnessed the age of humiliation; of Western domination, divide, rule and conquer; of corruption and sleaze; of dictators, despots and demagogues; of ISIS like Godless mercenary merchants of death and destruction, culminating in a grisly “caliphate” which is spreading Zika-like venom around the globe.
What the Middle East now requires are not more aerial bombings but intellectual soul searching by local stakeholders, including those refugees who have fled, for what kind of a “homeland” they want to return to (one day) and reside in.
The time is ripe for the dawn of a new Middle East founded less on oil and gas and more on education; less on lucrative drilling and more on libraries; not on dictators’ palaces but on universities; not on torture cells but on classrooms where faith and religion are enhanced and enriched by knowledge. One pen, one book, one teacher is the only way forward.
Schools and universities are going to be more deadly to ISIS than any shelling, firepower, drone or surgical air-strike. From education comes justice. And justice – only true unadulterated justice – will ideologically render ISIS type ideologies defunct. This is merely a renaissance of what took root in Andalusia, 700 years ago, and now merits a generational cross-cultural life-long re-awakening.
Adel, Loaa (2016) “Baghdad Operations: Shaab suicide bombing toll reaches 69 casualties” Iraqi News, October 15, 2016.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (1968) Ed. [and with an introduction by] Anatole Rapoport. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
Clausewitz, Carl von. War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess (1962) Ed., trans. Edward M. Collins [Colonel, USAF]. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
Charbonneau, Louis (2012) “Exclusive: Iran flouts U.N. sanctions, sends arms to Syria: panel”. Reuters, 16 May, 2012.
Chomsky, Noam (2004) Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda,
Chomsky, Noam (1996) Class Warfare, Pluto Press.
Chomsky, Noam (1997) Media Control, the Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda,
Seven Stories Press, pp. 1-58.
Shakespeare, William (2010) Julius Ceasar, The Literature Network. Jalic, Inc.
Matyshak, Martin (2015) “With ISIS Making Millions, U.S. Boosts Its Attacks on Oil Fields”. The Fiscal Times. 13 November, 2015.
Lizzie Dearden (2015) “Isis in Syria: US air strikes destroys 283 oil tankers used for smuggling to fund terror group”. The Independent. 25 November, 2015.
Banco, Erin (2016) “How ISIS Oil Ended Up On US Streets”, IBTimes, 29, March, 2016.
Bobrovnikov, Vladimir (2011) “Ordinary Wahhabism” versus “Ordinary Sufism”? Filming Islam for Post-Soviet Muslim Young People. Religion, State and Society, 39(2-3), pp. 281-301.
Jay, Kareem (2015) “Suruc Ankara atacks and ISIS”, Al-Arabiya, 22 October, 2015. Shohat, Ella (2007) “Redrawing American Cartographies of Asia”. City University
of New York.
Hanafi, Hassan (2007) “The Middle East, in whose world?” in the Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies.
Laciner, Dr. Sedat (2006) “Is There a Place Called ‘the Middle East’?”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 2, 2006.
Koppes, CR (1976) “Captain Mahan, General Gordon and the origin of the term “Middle East””. Middle East Studies. 12: pp. 95–98.
Milashina, Yelena (2014) “Беслан. 10 лет после теракта”. Novaya Gazeta. September 1, 2014.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research Report (2016)
Nuruzzaman, Mohammed (2016) published in the National Interest, August, 2016.
Nash, John F. (1950). “Non-Cooperative Games” PhD thesis. Princeton University. Wright, Robert (2001) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Pantheon books, pp.
Bassam, Laila (2015) Assad allies, including Iranians, prepare ground attack in Syria: sources Reuters.com, October 1, 2015.
Lalevee, Thierry (1984). “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in power bid”. Executive Intelligence Review. LaRouche Publications. 11 (35): 44.
Lizzie Dearden (2015) “Iranian commander Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani was killed by Isis while advising Syrian regime”. The Independent, 9, October, 2015.
Jennifer Rubin (2016) “The Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war”. Washington Post, 6 January, 2016.
Tax, Meredith (2015) “The Revolution in Rojava”. Dissent Magazin.
Fraser, Suzan ( 2015) “Turkey says warplanes strike IS targets across the border in Syria”. U.S. News and World Report.
Khalid, Ozer (2016) “A Sultan Stays, The Botched Mutiny over the Bosphorus”, ARY Digital News, 22 July, 2016.
Etzion, Eran (2016) “Israeli-Russian Relations: Respect and Suspect | Middle East Institute”.
Slim, Randa (2016) “Putin`s master plan for Syria” Foreign Policy, 18 March, 2016. Fisk, Robert `A plan must be made for ‘life after Isis’ in the Middle East`, the
Independent, Monday, 8 February 2016.
The Waterman Files (2016) International Navy in the Mediterranean Sea: Naval Powers in the Middle East.
Southfront (2016) Combat Radius of the Russian Air Force in Syria. CAT (2016) Islamic State Revenue, June, 2016.
Satellite images by DigitalGlobe and CNES/Distribution (2016) Airbus DS via Google and Bing, July, 2016.
U.S. Central Command (2016) Coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria, 19 September, 2016.
- Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (1968) Ed. [and with an introduction by] Anatole Rapoport. Baltimore: Penguin Books. Clausewitz, Carl von. War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess (1962) Ed., trans. Edward M. Collins [Colonel, USAF]. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
- Adel, Loaa (2016) “Baghdad Operations: Shaab suicide bombing toll reaches 69 casualties” Iraqi News, October 15, 2016.
- The IHS Conflict Monitor complements IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre and the IHS Syria & Iraq Futures report to deliver comprehensive, independent insight into the complex, evolving situation in Syria & Iraq.
- Matyshak, Martin (2015) “With ISIS Making Millions, U.S. Boosts Its Attacks on Oil Fields”. The Fiscal Times. 13 November, 2015.
- Lizzie Dearden (2015) “Isis in Syria: US air strikes destroys 283 oil tankers used for smuggling to fund terror group”. The Independent. 25 November, 2015.
- Erin Banco (2016) “How ISIS Oil Ended Up On US Streets”, IBTimes, 29, March, 2016.
- According to Shohat, Ella (2007) in “Redrawing American Cartographies of Asia”. City University of New York, Hanafi, Hassan (2007) “The Middle East, in whose world?” in the Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies and Laciner, Dr. Sedat (2006) “Is There a Place Called ‘the Middle East’?”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 2, 2006, the very term `Middle East` is implicitly “Eurocentric” in connotation and implication. For an etymology of the term Middle East review Koppes, CR (1976) “Captain Mahan, General Gordon and the origin of the term “Middle East””. Middle East Studies. 12: pp. 95–98.
- Haeri, Safa (2004) “Concocting a ‘Greater Middle East’ brew”. Asia Times. 3, March, 2004.
- As reported by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, a Damascus-based think tank.
- Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (1968) Ed. [and with an introduction by] Anatole Rapoport. Baltimore: Penguin Books. Clausewitz, Carl von. War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess (1962) Ed., trans. Edward M. Collins [Colonel, USAF]. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
- Nash, John F. (1950). “Non-Cooperative Games” PhD thesis. Princeton University, May 24, 2015.
- Wright, Robert (2001) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Pantheon books, pp. 1-435.
- In the opinion of Nuruzzaman, Mohammed (2016) an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, West Mishref in Kuwait, published in the National Interest, August, 2016.
- Bassam, Laila (2015) Assad allies, including Iranians, prepare ground attack in Syria: sources com, October 1, 2015.
- For more on the IRGC review: Lalevee, Thierry (1984). “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in power bid”(PDF). Executive Intelligence Review. LaRouche Publications. 11 (35): 44.
- Nuruzzaman, Mohammed (2016) an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, West Mishref in Kuwait, published in the National Interest, August, 2016.
- Such support has cost Tehran dearly. Consult for instance Lizzie Dearden (2015) of how the “Iranian commander Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani was killed by Isis while advising Syrian regime”. The Independent, 9, October, 2015.
- For more on time-tested Iranian and Syrian co-operation: Charbonneau, Louis (2012) “Exclusive: Iran flouts U.N. sanctions, sends arms to Syria: panel”. Reuters, 16 May, 2012.
- Jennifer Rubin (2016) “The Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war”. Washington Post, 6 January, 2016.
- Sanger, David E.; Kirkpatrick, David D.; Sengupta, Somini (2015) “Rancor Between Saudi Arabia and Iran Threatens Talks on Syria”, 29 October, 2015.
- Nuruzzaman, Mohammed (2016) the National Interest, August, 2016.
- After the famous Rojava Revolution, the battle-hardened YPG Kurdish females are known to wear their feminism with pride. View also Tax, Meredith (2015) “The Revolution in Rojava”. Dissent Magazin.
- Fraser, Suzan ( 2015). “Turkey says warplanes strike IS targets across the border in Syria”. S. News and World Report. 24 July 2015.
- Jay, Kareem (2015) “Suruc Ankara atacks and ISIS”, Al-Arabiya, 22 October, 2015.
- Battling hand-in-glove with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
- Rather than the term “abortive coup” this author deems July 15th 2016 a “botched mutiny” botched mutiny find out why by going through Khalid, Ozer (2016) The Botched Mutiny over the Bosphorus, ARY Digital News, accessible at http://blogs.arynews.tv/a-sultan-stays-a-botched-mutiny-over-the-bosphorus/ published on 22 July, 2016.
- On Tel Aviv and Moscow`s foreign policy relations consult: Etzion, Eran (2016) “Israeli-Russian Relations: Respect and Suspect | Middle East Institute”.
- Chomsky, Noam (2004) Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda, Paradigm Publishers. Chomsky, Noam (1996) Class Warfare, Pluto Press and Chomsky, Noam (1997) Media Control, the Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, pp. 1-58.
- For more on theocracy and Wahabbism in the Post Soviet era review: Bobrovnikov, Vladimir (2011) “Ordinary Wahhabism” versus “Ordinary Sufism”? Filming Islam for Post-Soviet Muslim Young People. Religion, State and Society, 39(2-3), pp. 281-301.
- And temporarily was about to withdraw from Syria, see Laura Pitel, Nadia Beard (14 March 2016). “Vladimir Putin orders Russian military to begin withdrawal from Syria”. The Independent. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
- Slim, Randa (2016) “Putin`s master plan for Syria” Foreign Policy, 18 March, 2016.
- The closest air base to Hamedan is Shahid Nojeh Air Base, an estimated 31 miles north of the city. The base has seen Russian aircraft land there before where Russian Su-34 “Fullback” strike fighters and Russian Il-76 “Candid” transport planes land. The airbase is large, has a 15,000-foot runway, extensive taxiways and multiple hangars and bunkers, and is ideal for offering discrete ground support to Russian combat missions. Though Iran’s constitution, ratified post 1979 Islamic Revolution, does not allow the establishment of any foreign military base in Iran, nothing prohibits Persian officers from giving carte blanche to ally foreign countries to use local airfields.
- An example of such Chechen rebellion which Russia had to face was during the Beslan North Ossetia school massacre of September 2004, culminated with the death of at least 385 people where 186 children died. Chechen Ingush terrorists group and the the Riyadus-Salikhin Battalion, sent by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who demanded recognition of the independence of Chechnya and UN and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. Milashina, Yelena (2014) “Беслан. 10 лет после теракта”. Novaya Gazeta. September 1, 2014.
- The Zakura attack was most likely staged by BJP RSS and RAW against Pakistan to exploit China`s Xi Ping arrival in Goa. A typical tried-and-tested ploy.
- Fisk, Robert `A plan must be made for ‘life after Isis’ in the Middle East`, the Independent, featured in Indy Voices, Monday, 8 February 2016.