Does the Creation of a Broad Coalition in Syria Stand a Chance?

The antiterrorist coalition it created in the autumn of 2014 to fight ISIS proved ineffective because it confined itself to air strikes against highly mobile and well-trained militants.

It is increasingly clear that the US has no Syria strategy of its own. The antiterrorist coalition it created in the autumn of 2014 to fight ISIS proved ineffective because it confined itself to air strikes against highly mobile and well-trained militants. The hope that the US-trained moderate armed opposition would fight ISIS was dashed as well.

For example, a 75-man squad, Division 30, which the Pentagon armed and trained to fight ISIS at a camp in Turkey, joined a radical organization, Jabhat al-Nusra, as soon as it crossed the Syrian border in the early hours of September 18, 2015. The US-trained militants surrendered all their weapons, including 12 machinegun vehicles. In so doing, their commander, Anas Obaid, said that he had tricked the Americans because he needed weapons.

Presumably, this is how the Americans arm and man Syria-based pro-Saudi radical groups to strengthen their Washington-oriented centralizing nucleus. Thus, the US and Saudi Arabia are putting into practice a plan to create a “new Syrian opposition” on the basis of the available Islamist segment. The same thing is taking place in Jordan, where the Americans, jointly with the Jordanian secret service, have long supplied weapons and personnel, including former members of the Jordanian special forces, to Ahrar ash-Sham, an Islamist group that has recently joined Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian division of Al Qaeda).

Interestingly, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have suggested a “peace plan” for Syria of their own, which implies an involvement in peace consultations with Damascus a number of small Islamist groups which signed, on September 18, 2015, a Declaration of the Document of the Five Principles of the Syrian Revolution under the aegis of an obscure Syrian Islamic Council. These groups have put forward the following mandatory preconditions for talks with Damascus: resignation of the present Syrian Government; disbandment of the Syrian National Army and the secret services; and renunciation by the Alawites of their privileged status. As is clear, all of this cannot serve as a basis for further talks. Actually, they are simulating the negotiating process.

These developments are taking place against the backdrop of radical Islamists absorbing the so-called “moderate” opposition.

Under the circumstances, Russia had to interfere in an emerging situation that was shaping up unfavorably for the entire Syrian people. It launched massive arms supplies to the Syrian National Army and sent technical specialists and advisers. But this proved insufficient for containing the radical Islamists, who were approaching Syria’s most densely populated areas. This was why Russia decided to provide air and fire support, including by delivering strikes by ship-based cruise missiles.

Nevertheless, the Russian army will not conduct large-scale land operations against the radical Islamists. This role is reserved for the Syrian National Army, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and allied forces contributed by the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurds and Druze and Iraqi Shia and Hazara. It is their successful combat operations that provide a chance for peace in Syria. A peace process in the country, including in the context of a contemplated Geneva-3, is only possible against the background of their victories.

They are opposed by the radical opposition, which receives support from Turkey and the Arabian monarchies of the Gulf. Currently, the “Islamic State” controls 40 percent of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) and Jabhat al-Nusra, another 15 percent (more than half the country in all). The Syrian Army holds a mere 20 percent of the national territory, but it is home to between 80 and 85 percent of the entire population of Syria. The Kurdish militias control 15 percent of the country. Its desert areas are controlled by local tribal militias allied with some party or another to the conflict.

To support the Islamists, the Arabian monarchies use not only their huge financial resources but also their control of the media. Saudi Arabia, for example, is fully in control of 80 percent of the Arabic media, with Qatar controlling another five percent. Under these circumstances, it is quite easy for them to wage an information (or rather disinformation) war against the Syrian Government. Damascus is opposing this onslaught with the help of the Syrian Electronic Army. President Bashar al-Assad is supported by Moscow and Tehran, but the Western media are still demanding his resignation despite the absence of any real alternative to him. In this way they are actually supporting the radical Islamists.

As a consequence, the US finds itself in a difficult situation. Its simulated fight against ISIS and other radical organizations forced Russia and Iran to become more involved in the Syrian armed conflict. This leads to the emergence of a real coalition composed of the Syrian and Iraqi national armies, the Kurds and other allied armed groups, including the moderate opposition, against radical Islamists. Supported by Russia and Iran, this coalition is fully capable of restricting the activities of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, if not defeat them.

Under these circumstances, Washington has to maneuver to prevent Syria’s transformation into a second Libya, while doing all it can to remain on good terms with the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. And even the Incirlik Air Base that Turkey put at America’s disposal failed to give the Americans an edge in Syria, because they had to accept the existence of the Islamic State’s stable logistical corridor to Turkey, their actual rear base, and the Turkish air force attacks on the positions of the Syrian Kurds, who are continuing their fight against the radical Islamists.

The Russian-led real antiterrorist coalition is behaving differently. The Syrian National Army and its support forces have launched a mass-scale counteroffensive simultaneously in the Idlib, Haleb (Aleppo) and Hama provinces with air and fire support from the Russian Armed Forces. Similar support will be provided for the Syrian Kurds pushing towards the city of Raqqa, the main logistical outlet for smuggling Iraqi oil to Turkey. In this situation, the Americans fear ending up on the sidelines and losing the initiative in Syria. This is why they stepped up the intensity of their air strikes in the Raqqa province.

Thus, it is hardly possible in the short term to form a broad international coalition in Syria to fight ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamist organizations. The reason is not only that Russia has launched a military operation. A more important factor in this context is that the radical Islamists continue receiving extensive support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Militants are still trained in Jordan, but their training in Turkey has been suspended. Notice that all these countries are members of the US-led antiterrorist coalition. This practically rules out any possibility of pooling all forces in the fight against the “Islamic State” and other radicals, but it enables a coordination of this effort, primarily between Russia and the US.   

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.