29.10.2014 Author: Pogos Anastasov

Coalition against the Islamic Coalition: The search for a strategy

5532The absence of advance of the hastily formed coalition between the USA and its Arab allies becomes more and more obvious. Despite the fact that close to a dozen states (Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Jordan, Canada, the Netherlands, UAE, the USA, France) are taking part in air attacks the radical Islamists continue their offensive.

Although they have failed to occupy strategically important Kurdish town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), which has been fought over for more than a month, they have been successful in seizing one settlement after another in Iraq’s Anbar Province, which is inhabited generally by the Sunni. Iraqi troops trained by American experts are leaving military bases of Saklawiya, Albu Aita. The terrorists occupied the town of Hit between Haditha Dam and Ramadi, the capital of the province. Separate achievements of governmental forces cannot change the overall picture.

The jihadists, supported by a part of Sunni population, have already adjusted to everyday air attacks. They act flexibly, moving around rapidly, not letting the opponent to deliver blows to their assembled forces. They form small mobile groups and penetrate Iraqi towns; afterwards they force Iraqi armed forces out.

Moreover, the constant bombardment of the “Islamic territories” allows IS terrorists to portray themselves as victims of the “crusaders” and gain more popularity with Sunni Muslims, and not only with them. Western intelligence reports a growing number of people from western countries travelling to Syria to take part in “jihad”. What else could be expected? The West has been spreading the anti-Assad propoganda for three years among its own people, automatically converting all Assad’s emenies, including IS, into allies of the West. The USA and its allies’ policy has partially changed (IS and Jabhat al-Nusra as well as little known group Khorasan are finally declared enemies of the West), but the inertia of social consciousness continues to produce naive fighters against the “dictatorial” regime in Damascus. These easily fall a prey to the terrorists.

Washington is well aware of the inefficiency of its bombing campaign and is trying to fix at least the clear and visible defects of the coalition and to establish a minimum coordination among its members. Having repeatedly failed in their efforts to overcome the objections of Turkey against its participation in the fighting against IS (Ankara continues impeding the US support to the Kurds in Kobani, does not allow the coalition to use Incirlik airbase, and also demands the US agreement to declare a no-fly zone over northern Syria and a buffer zone along its border with the state in exchange for its participation in the operation). Washington seeks cooperation with its other partners in the “Afghan scheme.”

They have formed a chain of command, which is headed by Centcom (Unified Command) in Tampa (Florida), below it are the Air Command located in Qatar (Udeid base) and the Army central Command of Kuwait. At the same time they have created a system of Special Forces control (special troops). The above mentioned ten states, already at war with the Islamists, are likely to receive military logistical support from Albania, Bahrain, Egypt, Hungary, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, and Qatar.

Other coalition states including Spain, Ireland, Switzerland (neutral country status is forgotten!), Norway, Austria, New Zealand, and Japan will provide humanitarian aid.

The coalition authors and planners are counting on ground troops and Iraqi Kurdish forces to gradually force IS out of its positions, with air support from the coalition.

There is, however, a host of shortcomings in this strategy. First of all, as was mentioned above, Ankara impedes the coalition in every way possible in providing assistance to the Kurds, regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (to be more precise, its Syrian unit – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria), which is fighting against IS, as a terrorist organization. The only move Turkey has made to meet the US plans was to let the Kurds not connected to the KWP pass from Erbil to Kobani.

France does not act any better. It stands apart within the coalition and is unwilling to cooperate with Washington, which creates additional confusion in the ranks of the Allies. Paris is concerned about the fact that already one thousand citizens of the French Republic fight on IS side, including among its leadership. Therefore, it is determined to resolve its own problems and choose targets to deliver attacks on its own; however, it possesses very modest forces. The total of 6 aircraft, one reconnaissance aircraft and one air tanker are involved in the operation on the French part (even Belgium and Australia have more – 7 and 8 planes, respectively). The French have also sent their Special Forces and heavy weapons to the Kurds as part of the “Operation Chammal”. However, the efficiency of this operation is very doubtful. It is very difficult for Paris to increase its efforts, since its major forces are concentrated in Mali, where French contingent of 8,500 people take part in anti-Islamist Operation Barkhane.

Ankara’s objections, low level of coordination within the coalition, small French contribution, the weakness of the Iraqi army and, in fact, guerrilla character of Peshmerga forces put into question the allies’ chances of achieving success in the three-phase, a they plan it, military operation. During the first phase, from 8th of August to the end of 2014, they plan to stop the IS offensive, during the second phase, at the beginning of 2015 – to launch a counter-offensive, and during the third phase – to retake territories occupied by IS.

However, aside from the purely military aspects, the coalition is doomed to failure for other, much more serious, reasons. First of all, it completely ignores the ability of Iran and Syria to make a contribution to the fight against IS, since they are objectively the strongest allies in the confrontation with IS. In this connection, the coalition seriously lacks legitimacy: its activities are not officially endorsed by the two countries and there is no UN Security Council resolution. The operation in Syria is conducted without approval of this main international body.

In general terms, there is no comprehensive approach: the IS threat is viewed purely as a military one, not enough attention is paid to the counteraction in terms of ideology, as well as to the elimination of political reasons of radicalism in the Middle East, from unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict to the necessity to modernize the political institutions of numb Wahhabi monarchies of the Gulf. Western planners excluded those from the plan of “democratic revolutions”, which led to the rising tide of chaos in the Broader Middle East.

In the long run, everything rests on Washington’s desire to use the operation against IS not to fight terrorism, but to get back its supremacy in the world and to “discipline” its NATO and regional allies. If Washington does not reconsider its goals of restoring a unipolar world, the still unnamed operation against IS will turn into absolute chaos and terror in the region.

Pogos Anastasov, political science expert, orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.