Western bombing of targets in the area controlled by the Islamic State (IS) organisation has commenced. US and allied planes have struck at both military and infrastructural targets in the area controlled by the IS and have had an impact.
There are two main problems for Western policy-makers; the first tactical, the second strategic. The first problem is that the West has no ground assets in Syria capable of destroying the IS, but the West also hopes to avoid committing its own forces on the ground.
The second is the related, but broader, problem that the West has failed to properly identify the dynamic governing the conflict in Iraq, Syria and increasingly also Lebanon. Swept along by humanitarian sentiment, the West first wanted to target the Assad regime, and has now designated the Islamic State as the ‘bad guy’ of choice. But fury regarding the undoubted atrocities committed by a number of different players in Syria and Iraq does not constitute a coherent and effective policy.
Let’s consider each of these problems in turn.
It is beyond doubt that US air power has the capability to inflict severe damage on the infrastructure of the Sunni Islamist quasi-state established by the ISIS organisation, and that this is being achieved. This is in line with the objective – as outlined by President Obama – of ‘degrading’ the Islamic State.
But the president also said that the US goal was to ‘in time, destroy’ the IS quasi-sovereignty.
It is much harder to see how this can be done from the air. History contains no examples of states which were destroyed solely from the air (though more limited objectives have been achieved through the deployment of air power alone).
The problem is that the heartland of the Islamic State is in Syria, specifically in the province of Raqqa. In the case of Iraq the West possesses ground assets – the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – who have already begun to make some headway against IS forces. However these forces will not be willing to cross the Iraq-Syria border in order to challenge IS in its Syrian heartland – where, if it is to be destroyed, the destruction must take place.
In Syria the West possesses no clear ally on the ground to perform this task. The moderate Sunni Arab rebels are extremely weak. The Kurdish YPG, while stronger, is also currently on the defensive against IS. The stated policy of the US is to strengthen ‘trusted’ elements among the Syrian rebels; 15,000 selected rebels will be trained by the US in Saudi Arabia, and will then be re-inserted into the Syrian battlefield, to fight IS.
This is an entirely incoherent policy, for the following reasons; 15,000 fighters, even if trained by the US, will not be sufficient to make a real impact on the Syrian battlefield. The CIA estimates that Islamic State has around 30,000 fighters and many analysts think the number is almost certainly much higher.
There is a deeper issue. The response of Syrian rebel organisations to the US bombing of the ‘Khorasan’ group in Idlib province illustrates that the problematic nature of the rebels goes beyond the question of their military effectiveness. Many rebel groups including those like the small Harakat Hazm movement, which have themselves been the recipients of American aid, condemned the US bombing of Khorasan targets. This is because in the view of the rebels, ‘Khorasan’ is simply a branch of the Jabhat al Nusra group. And Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official franchise of the core al Qaida group in Syria, is regarded by the rebels as a comrade in the struggle against the Assad regime.
These facts raise the serious possibility that support by the west for one faction of the rebels against IS could end up amounting to the employment of Western air power as the air-wing of one group of Syrian Sunni jihadis, against a slightly less savoury variety. This, to put it mildly, would be a negative development.
Finally, given the weakness of the rebels, it is also distinctly possible that a policy of air war alone against the Islamic State would end up benefitting not the rebellion but the rather more potent forces available to Assad, Hezbollah and the Iranians. That is, these elements could use the weakening of IS to reconquer the east of Syria and achieve a victory of their own in the long Syrian civil war. This also would hardly constitute an achievement for the West. Rather, it would resemble the process in Iraq in 2003 whereby the Saddam Hussein dictatorship was removed and the main beneficiary was the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The second, strategic problem is the failure of the West to accurately define the core nature of the conflict. What is taking place in Iraq, Syria and increasingly also in Lebanon is a single, cross-border sectarian war, effectively pitting a Shia alliance led by the Iranians and including Hezbollah, the government of Iraq, Iraqi Shia militias and the Assad regime against a much more confused and disparate Sunni camp, of which IS is a mutated product.
The Kurds are a third player in this conflict. They seek not to take part in this larger war but to insulate themselves from it, and to liberate and defend areas of majority Kurdish population in northern Iraq and northern Syria.
This war has come about because of some fundamental and unresolved problems inherent in the creation of the states of Iraq and Syria. Neither are historic entities. Both were carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French. Disparate and incompatible populations were contained within their borders. No genuine sense of common nationality really developed. These states were held together by brutal and powerful police states, which ruled in the name of Arab nationalism.
The regime in Iraq was removed in 2003 and the regime in Syria was weakened by internal unrest in 2011. As a result, a conflict has broken out along the old fault lines of sectarian identity. This conflict is helped along and exacerbated by the regional ambitions of Shia Iran, and by the desire of Saudi Arabia to check Iranian ambitions, also partly on sectarian grounds.
Once the conflict is understood in this way, its cross-border dynamics become clearer and more predictable, and the role of the West also becomes clear. Most importantly – in the core Sunni-Shia war, the West has no ally.
The Shia bloc constitutes the most powerful anti-Western alliance currently in existence in the Middle East. Among the Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, are some of the most floridly brutal organisations ever to have emerged anywhere – such as ISIS – as well as others who rank among the most ineffectual. The victory of either camp would not constitute progress in any form for the people living in the states in question.
Rather, a Western policy which seeks to mobilise allies to contain both forms of political Islam would be prudent. This would involve support for the states and entities surrounding the arena of the war – including Israel, Jordan, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and the Kurds of Syria.
Such a policy is unlikely to emerge until policy-makers have a clear picture of the dynamics at work. The Middle East is currently in the midst of a historic process, in which rival versions of political Islam are battling over the ruins of the post-war regional order. The outcome is not yet clear. The task is to reduce and contain the damage.