Alliances of Convenience: The implications of a regional strategy against ISIS

Western governments emphasize the importance of regional actors in devising a solution to Syria’s civil war, but the interests of those involved — from the Saudi government to the Kurds — are drastically different from our own.

By: /
June 22, 2016
Kerry in Saudi Arabia
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, gestures next to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during a meeting on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Who says there is disagreement about what to do in Syria? As I suggest in a  recent policy brief in the International Journal, there is actually a relatively solid consensus regarding at least one aspect of any putative solution to the crisis: the need to engage, support and cultivate local and regional actors in the fight against the Islamic State, thereby setting the stage for a workable political solution to restore stability to the country as a whole.

This strategy, however, is not without its dangers, no matter how widely endorsed it might be; in a region as chaotic and volatile as the Middle East, inviting more people to the party ultimately threatens even greater instability moving forward.

In February, the Liberal government articulated Canada’s commitment to “training and advising local security forces to take their fight directly to ISIL,” referring to, in particular, Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the north of Iraq. The Obama administration, for its part, has been consistent in its emphasis on building a regional coalition of, in particular, Sunni Arab nations with an ostensible vested interest in combating the Islamic State.

As the tenuous cease-fire in Syria crumbles and violence resumes in earnest, both governments are likely to re-iterate their commitment to working with local partners, implicitly (and explicitly) downplaying any direct involvement by Western forces.

Many of these so-called partners, including perhaps most importantly Saudi Arabia, seem more and more ready to take up the call. In February of this year, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri announced not only that the Saudis would be resuming and ramping up air strikes against ISIS, but also that they were willing to commit ground forces to the campaign if requested by the U.S. and approved by other members of the coalition. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called this increased commitment “very welcome news” and further emphasized that “Saudi Arabia and its regional partners have a clear stake in this fight, and I hope its neighbors in the Gulf also intensify their counter-ISIL campaign in the coming days.”

More recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has had to negotiate with the Saudis and others in an attempt to temper their support for some of the more extremist elements of the anti-Assad opposition; Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, for his part, advocated providing more sophisticated weapons to the rebels, including ground-to-air-missiles, something the U.S. has consistently resisted. If the Saudis continue to escalate in this and other ways, Secretary Carter may very well come to rue his call for regional partners to “intensify” the campaign. As the admonition goes, ‘be careful what you wish for.’

Why such a concerted emphasis on local and regional actors? ‘Letting the locals handle it’ is an intuitively appealing and rhetorically powerful argument. For politicians, the notion that local actors should bear the burden of conflict plays to the public’s perception of fairness while simultaneously allaying fears of more foolhardy foreign entanglements. Indeed, the genesis of this approach in Syria is almost certainly the experiences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; as a result of these failures, robust interventionism is very much out of vogue (consider, for example, the clear pejorative connotations of the term ‘boots on the ground’ in nearly all political debates over the last several years).

"The pursuit of short-term tactical gain could very well come at the expense of long-term strategic disaster."

Yet encouraging increased involvement from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other actors in the region may be missing the forest for the trees. Even if such a strategy were able to produce tangible benefits in the campaign against the Islamic State, it increases the prospect of continued and even amplified instability with respect to the broader Syrian civil war. The pursuit of short-term tactical gain (in the fight against the Islamic State) could very well come at the expense of long-term strategic disaster.

Already, the Syrian conflict has become host to myriad regional rivalries and outside interventions, broadly positioned along a sectarian Sunni-Shia divide. The Assad regime, bolstered by Iran (and by extension Hezbollah) and Russia has solidified itself since the Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, turning the tide against largely Sunni opposition groups (some of which are Western-backed but which also include al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups). Given close Iranian military involvement already, the amplification of Saudi involvement, whether via proxy groups or more directly through conventional military means, threatens a wider, regional, sectarian conflict that could engulf much of the Middle East (axes of which are already on display in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain).

The notion that sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia is endemic, primordial and/or somehow inevitable is fundamentally erroneous, but this divide can exacerbate violence when it is mobilized and employed for political purposes, particularly insofar as it resonates with populations for whom religion is a key component of cultural identity. Once so mobilized, conflict resolution can become exceedingly difficult.

The dangers of such a prospect are already percolating. In contrast to Secretary Carter’s sanguine reaction to Saudi Arabia’s announcement of increased involvement in Syria, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif explicitly warned against the deployment of Saudi troops in Syria, simultaneously calling for an end to the Kingdom’s bombing campaign in Yemen (yet another theatre of Iran-Saudi confrontation).

Iran’s role in Syria, as is widely known, involves support for the Assad regime. As such, the Saudis simply do not bifurcate the conflict in the same way the U.S. and other Western nations do (military campaign against the Islamic State on one hand, negotiated political solution vis à vis Bashar al-Assad on the other). Because of this, Riyadh is actively involved in supporting some of the more nefarious and extreme components of the opposition to Assad, and even hinted (in conjunction with their commitment to supply ground troops to defeat ISIS if asked) that Assad’s removal by “force” might be necessary. Far from keeping the two dimensions separate (as Washington and Ottawa would prefer), therefore, Saudi intervention is likely to combine (or at least blur the lines between) them.

Whatever Western politicians and analysts might wish Saudi interests to be, the fact remains that Riyadh views the Syrian conflict (as well as the conflict in Yemen and conflicts elsewhere in the region) through the prism of its international rivalry with Iran. It is often difficult to appreciate this dynamic because such an obsessive focus does not always correspond with an objective, rational assessment of military or political realities. The international coalition in Afghanistan, for example, found it difficult to understand Pakistan’s persistent support of the Taliban (as a hedge against its international rival India in Afghanistan), because it seemingly went against their objective interests in the region. Here too the West might expect Saudi Arabia to prioritize the Islamic State, or on the other side, for Iran to support Saudi involvement against it (Iranian backed militias have been, after all, central to the fight against ISIS in Iraq). These assumptions are simply unlikely to play out in reality.

In a similar vein, the belief that the Kurds will press the fight against the Islamic State beyond the geographical limits of what is traditionally recognized as ‘Kurdistan’ is unrealistic; meanwhile Turkey, a NATO member, continues to view Kurdish militias as terrorists, targeting them militarily whenever possible. Nor are the Kurds as widely popular in the region as they appear to be in Ottawa and Washington, as Hassan Hassan recently noted with respect to the perception of Sunni civilians in northern Syria.  

Ultimately, easy solutions to the Syria crisis simply do not exist. Re-examining the assumptions underpinning ‘consensus’ policies such as that which seems to be emerging with respect to the coalition fight against ISIS illustrates how even the most obvious (and widely endorsed) options have major problems and potentially disastrous consequences. The collective impulse to limit Western involvement in Syria was understandable given the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, but non-intervention has also proven itself to be problematic.

Now, in large measure still captive to that impulse, the U.S., Canada and other Western nations are out-sourcing important components of the campaign to nations who have drastically different priorities. Yes, local players have ‘vested interests’ in the conflict, but those interests are simply not our own. Now they needn’t crash the party, but have been formally, and repeatedly, invited.

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