In March 2011, as the fragile order of the Middle East crumbled to the sound of its exultant citizenry marching in the streets, a bitter and deadly conflict began in Syria that would become first a civil war and then a region-wide conflict.
In this environment of mayhem and wanton destruction an organisation that had, for some years, been waiting in the shadows, leapt to the fore with all the barbarity that the mind of man can conjure. This organisation is ISIS; the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and its aims are an echo of an earlier age. The title of ISIS’s dubious magazine, Dabiq, gives an indication of their beliefs; in Islamic (specifically Sunni) eschatology, Dabiq is the scene of the final apocalyptic battle that heralds the end of the world. Their final aim is to bring about the apocalypse by drawing the ‘crusader nations’ into a titanic struggle that will necessarily fulfill these prophecies.
In the first years of the Syrian conflict such a notion seemed bizarre. In the past year, however, the conflict has become an international conflict, drawing more and more nations into the struggle against the terror group. The United States have been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria for nearly two years now and they have been joined in the past year by the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany. The strangest development however, is the intervention of the Russian Federation. President Vladimir Putin has thrown the weight of the Russian armed forces behind his ally in the region, Bashar al-Assad, the embattled dictator-president of Syria. It is many years since such an expeditionary force has been sent so far from the Land of the Rus which must surely mark a watershed for modern Russia and is a marked escalation in Putin’s attempt to revive Russian prestige.
What makes Syria/Iraq doubly interesting (and doubly dangerous) is the fact that these fellow combatants, ostensibly facing the same foe, are not, to use diplomatic language, on the best of terms. Such a situation is potentially catastrophic; we now have major military powers acting in an uncoordinated manner across a vast swathe of Iraqi and Syrian territory. There are thousands of drones, bombers and fighter jets roaming the skies above the Levant with little or no co-ordination between the combatant powers. What, then, are the dangers? The first dangers are obvious: collisions between aircraft, accidental strikes on allies etc. and anyone one of these actions could lead to rash acts of aggression or a rapid escalation in the conflict. In one way, this is a similar scenario to that of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, excepting the fact that there is little immediate scope for the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, this situation is even more dangerous than ’62, in so far as this is already a
‘hot’ war and there is already a significant amount of military hardware in play. It would not take much to cause an incident; in fact, I would go so far as to say that such incidents are inevitable. One human error is all it would take; one misidentified aircraft, one stray fighter-jet – and we could be on the cusp of a great power conflict.
The danger is even more complex than a simple ‘mistake– reaction’ dyad, however, for there is also the danger of alliances and their escalatory value. On the 24th November, Turkish jets shot down a Russian Federation SU-24 jet which had briefly entered their airspace. This has resulted in a bitter diplomatic spat between Russia and Turkey which was recently worsened by Russian claims (and Turkish counter-claims) that President Erdogan’s government is helping to prop up the nascent ISIS caliphate by buying their oil. Now, normally such a disagreement would constitute little more than a side-show but for the fact that Turkey also happens to be a member of NATO. If Turkey and Russia came to blows because of another Turkish incident or a Russian over-reaction then we could be facing an all out conventional war which may not be confined to the Syrian theatre. The treaty that underpins NATO obligates the members of the organisation to come to the aid of any member that is attacked; if an incident occurs in the Levant then this quite obviously raises the possibility of a domino effect similar to that which began the Great War between the Triple Entente and the alliance of the Central Powers.
One must also add into this devils brew of confusion the existence of close to a thousand different rebel groups in Syria. In recent months the great powers operating in Syria and Iraq have been playing the strange game of ‘bomb-the-ally’. The Russians bombed multiple US-backed rebel groups, the US bombed positions of President Assad’s Syrian Army (Russia’s ally) and Turkey has been using the confusion to follow-up its vendetta against the Kurds by bombing the Peshmerga. Which, given that the Peshmerga (coupled with the USAF) essentially prevented the genocide of the Yazidi and are also the single-most effective indigenous fighting force in the region (barring ISIS) is akin to waiting for the fireman to put out your neighbours fire and then shooting him.
What then is the solution to this conflict? I am a mere layman and this is perhaps the strangest and most complex conflict in the last half-century so I shall not pretend that my solutions are anything other than an amateur attempt, but I shall propose them anyway. Firstly, the Russian, British, American’s and European should form a military alliance alongside the forces of Assad and all should commit ground troops in considerable numbers. In this scenario the Russian and Syrian Army forces in the West would push out from Aleppo in a series of lightning raids against the cities north of Al Jaboul Lake (especially Al-Bab) and hold positions on the shores of Lake Assad. Of course, these forces in the west should scrupulously avoid Dabiq. Simultaneously, in the east a mixed force comprised of the Kurdish Peshmerga, US forces, British armour and infantry and the other European forces (alongside Iraqi and Iranian forces) would mount simultaneous assaults on Mosul, Raqqa, Fallujah and Ramadi. I suggest a surprise assault on Raqqa following the airborne insertion of 16 Air Assault Brigade and their American and French counterparts in the desert region approximately 15km northeast of Raqqa. Thus, with their main strongholds taken and their supply lines under constant attack from the air, ISIS would crumble. Of course, to any military strategist such a plan is probably laughable (or is it genius?) but in any case, what happens after the defeat of ISIS is almost more important than how they are actually defeated. Below I shall detail some suggestions for the peacetime political settlement.
Firstly, an autonomous region would need to be provided for the Sunni’s in northern Syria; a Sunni state within a federal Syria. A similar settlement would have to be reached in northern Iraq. Secondly, the predominantly ethnically Turkish areas in northern Syria should be ceded to Turkey but only in exchange for the foundation of a Kurdish state based around the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. For the present, it would also be advisable (however unpalatable to some) to keep President Assad in power, especially as this would prevent further anarchy and provide a focal point around which to rebuild Syria. Of course there are also the numerous rebel groups to consider, if their demands are not met by the creation of autonomous regions within Syria and they refuse to lay down their arms, they must be fought with until they sue for peace. This would necessarily involve the Western powers in a protracted deployment of forces in the Syria-Iraq theatre and the rebuilding alone would require much Western investment (though a bit of Gulf money wouldn’t go amiss either, given that they spend it on nothing but fostering proxy-wars and buying Chelsea apartments). But when one involves ones nation in a struggle such as this and when one risks the lives of British servicemen in a foreign field, the least you can do is have a goal and an exit strategy. It is not obvious that any such strategy currently exists which has the worrying implication that we simply have not learned from our bitter experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
It may be that the great powers (and France) are blundering into a feud to which there is no end and which could be disastrous. Perhaps we are unwittingly bringing about the circumstances spoken of in the Hadith and a multi-national army of ‘Rome’ will be defeated at Dabiq, heralding the apocalypse. In all events, as ever, to do nothing is immoral but to act is also immoral. The great powers are in grave danger whatever they do and the civilians of the Levant are in even greater peril. Equally we cannot simply delay a decision forever. To echo the words of Cato the Elder, ‘ISIS delenda est’.