Russian Gambit, Syrian Dilemma

In July, General John Allen, tasked by United States President Barack Obama to oversee the war against the Islamic State (I.S. or ISIS), said: “ISIS is losing.” It was a clear and direct statement that the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria had been able to degrade the capacity of the I.S. Allen’s comment was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by Obama himself. There was no hesitation in the U.S. administration that its strategy against the I.S. had produced positive results and would eventually result in the destruction of the I.S.

Before making his comment, General Allen was in Turkey, where he helped negotiate the use of Turkish bases for U.S. drones and aircraft in the bombing campaign against the I.S. The Turks, in return, got the green light to bomb Kurdish positions. That the Kurdish fighters had been in the lead on the ground against the I.S. did not seem to worry Allen. He saw the Turkish allowance for U.S. aircraft as an “important turn”. It was all that mattered. How did Allen come to the view that the “ISIS is losing”? He noted that he believes that the I.S. “has been checked strategically, operationally, and, by and large, tactically”. The word “belief” is crucial here.

Misused reports

Not long after Allen’s strong statement, 50 intelligence analysts who work at the U.S. military’s Central Command formally complained that their reports had been misused. They noted that their own assessments were less rosy than those of the upper administration. The Pentagon’s Inspector General has opened an investigation into these claims. Its spokeswoman, Bridget Serchak, noted: “The investigation will address whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression or improper modification of intelligence information.” Senior military officials at the Central Command—such as Major General Steven Grove, who ran its intelligence operation—are said to be targets of the investigation. The Central Command would not comment on the allegations.

U.S.’ strikes in Iraq and Syria

Over the past year, the U.S. and its allies have conducted almost 7,000 air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In a major speech in July, Obama said that the I.S.’ “strategic weaknesses are real. It has no air force; our coalition owns the skies.”

On this point, there is no dispute. The U.S. military releases regular information on targets that it has struck—a hundred tanks, 2,000 I.S. fighters. But such information is misleading, says a U.S. intelligence analyst who does not want his name disclosed. It is merely quantitative, not qualitative. Has the destruction of these tanks or the death of these fighters changed the ability of the I.S. to strike, he asks? The answer is no. The I.S. continues to make gains in both Syria and Iraq. The capture of Palmyra is a case in point.

The investigative journalists at the new group AirWars found that the U.S. and coalition bombing runs not only have destroyed tanks and killed I.S. fighters but have perhaps killed up to a thousand civilians. Chris Woods, a veteran of the BBC, who has covered the range of War on Terror conflicts, and who is now at AirWars, told me: “A narrative has been growing around these wars that they are somehow risk-free. I’ve been covering wars for many years and I am always wary of such claims.”

These civilian deaths provide the I.S. with material for its sophisticated propaganda—drawing in supporters who fear that there is little other choice for them. A survey conducted across Syria by ORP International found that a fifth of the population said the I.S. had a “positive influence” on their war-torn country. The continued gains made by the I.S., the failure of the U.S.-led air war and the exhaustion with the ongoing civil catastrophe in Syria are all likely reasons why people might feel that the I.S. is not so bad after all. There is a great parallel here with the fatalistic attitude in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power. A large part of the population felt that the “peace” brought by their brutal rule was far better than the chaotic conflict of the warlords that claimed thousands of civilian lives.

In Obama’s July speech, he said categorically that the I.S. “is surrounded by countries and communities committed to its destruction”. Of all the countries in the region, Turkey shares the most important border with I.S. territories.

Over the past three years, the Turkish-Syrian border has been porous for fighters from around the world, including from the region, who have gone on to join the I.S. Access to I.S. areas from Iraq and Syria is much harder. Turkey has formally denied allowing fighters easy access although trucks and buses continue to allow fighters and supplies to cross into I.S. territory from Turkey. If the Obama administration has been saying that the I.S. is no longer able to rely upon such easy borders, evidence from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) belies such statements. The CIA estimates that I.S. fighters number between 20,000 and 31,500—three times the number of such fighters from last year. This means that despite the U.S. and coalition bombing raids and despite the so-called entry of Turkey into the war against the I.S., it has been able to triple its army. There can be no better indication of the failure of the U.S. strategy on the I.S. than this CIA estimate (assuming, of course, that the CIA has the correct numbers).

Obama has openly said that the U.S. and coalition military campaign is not a sufficient way to defeat the I.S. “They have filled a void,” he said of the I.S. in July, “and we have to make sure that as we push them out that void is filled.” In Syria, the void in question is the ongoing civil war. “The only way that the civil war will end,” he said, “is an inclusive political transition to a new government, without Bashar Assad.”

Iran and Russia

A U.S. intelligence analyst told me that there was a great deal of anticipation for the strategic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal. He said that the U.S. intelligence community remained divided on this, but that there were analysts, such as himself, who believed that Iran would be an important and valuable ally in the fight both against the I.S. and the Taliban.

What kind of assistance could Iran provide? Iran is already offering important strategic leadership to Iraq’s military campaign against the I.S., and in Syria the Iranians have provided valuable battlefield analysis for the Lebanese militia, Hizbollah, and for the Syrian Army. What Iran has not been able to do—largely because of its sanctions-driven economic problems—is deliver military supplies to its allies in the region. But it is Iran’s interventions in Iraq that stemmed the tide of the I.S. blitzkrieg, this U.S. analyst noted.

Iran’s new proposal for a ceasefire brokered by the regional powers has raised interest among countries that border Syria and Iraq. Assad’s power is now considerably depleted. When Obama said a few years ago that “Assad must go”, in many ways the “Assad” then is not the “Assad” now. That Assad is already gone. He does not exist any longer. A weakened Damascus government is eager for some kind of diplomatic opening.

Iran’s proposal came alongside a new manoeuvre by the Russians, who have sent military hardware and advisers into Syria to bolster the fight, they say, against the I.S. It is hard for the U.S., at this time, to call for a Russian withdrawal because Russia has been saying that it is after all merely doing on the ground what the U.S. is doing from the air. Both are battling the I.S.

This essay originally appeared in Frontline.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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