Chaos in Syria

Canada’s former defence attaché to Turkey reflects on the rise of ISIS, and the falling apart of Syria
By: /
April 2, 2015
Fellow with the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy

After three very enjoyable years in Turkey, I recently retired from the Canadian military after a 36-year career and headed home. My wife and I first visited Turkey in the summer of 2009 on a cruise that stopped in Istanbul for one day and Ephesus for another. It was our 25th wedding anniversary and we both agreed that one day we would return. However, in the summer of 2009, my mind was on other matters because soon after the cruise ended, I was on my way to Afghanistan to be Canada’s deputy defence attaché.

I hadn’t been in Kabul very long when the phone rang. It was a colleague from Ottawa, who wanted to know if I would be interested in a three-year posting in Ankara. I called my wife almost immediately after I hung up and we both realized that this was an opportunity not to be missed. So, in July 2010 I went back to Ottawa for intensive Turkish-language training. Whether it was luck or divine intervention I don’t know but in July 2011 my wife and I arrived in Ankara and I commenced my new job as the Canadian military attaché to Turkey.

Perhaps it was divine intervention that brought me to Turkey. My grandfather, Frederick John Kilford had fought at Gallipoli in 1915 with the British Middlesex Regiment and was later wounded during the Second Battle of Gaza in 1917. I had also completed my PhD at Queen’s University in early 2009 and a good deal of my studies focused on Turkish civil-military relations. My interest in Turkey opened many doors and with the Ambassador’s permission I often spoke to visiting foreign defence colleges and other international groups about Turkish history, politics and regional issues.

The war begins

During my stay in Turkey, I also watched with growing concern as the situation in Syria quickly deteriorated.

In March 2011, mass protests against the Syrian government had erupted in Damascus and Aleppo and soon after unrest spread to more cities across Syria. In the beginning, the protests were mostly peaceful and centered on a desire for democratic reform and the lifting of emergency law. However, the protestors’ focus soon turned toward overthrowing the Assad government. In response, the Syrian Army cracked down.

As the violence continued, seven defecting Syrian officers, led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the end of July 2011. Their intent was to lead an organized effort to topple the Syrian regime and by the end of 2011 an estimated 20,000 fighters had joined their ranks.

Turkey, angered with the Syrian government’s conduct, offered the Syrian rebel army a safe haven and the Apaydin refugee camp in Hatay became their new headquarters. The Syrian National Council, a coalition of anti-government groups formed in August 2011, also found sanctuary in Turkey.

One year after the fighting first commenced, the Syrian Government and the FSA entered a United Nations (UN) mediated ceasefire but after numerous infractions the peace plan collapsed in early June 2012. Syria, declared the UN, was now in a state of civil war.

Around this time, in June 2012, I made the first of many visits to the Turkish-Syrian border to see and report on matters for myself. Over the next two years, I would meet with numerous Turkish government and military officials, Syrian commanders and fighters and many others connected with the opposition.

Three years ago, the Assad regime was definitely on the defensive but rumours of its imminent demise were greatly exaggerated. For example, the western media often parroted whatever the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) was reporting. The observatory, run out of a house in Coventry, England, by a Syrian expatriate was clearly pro-opposition and I recall many of my colleagues in Ankara, based on observatory information, wagering that Assad would be gone by August 2012.

Every defection from the Syrian government, especially when high-ranking military officers fled, was also seen as a clear sign the regime was about to collapse. However, the defections mostly served to undermine the opposition not strengthen it.   With Colonel Raid al-Assad running the FSA there was a reasonable chance of some success.   But, as more defecting Syrian senior officers arrived in Turkey they wanted to be in charge. Many of these generals had little to no fighting experience, were too old to lead or were simply civilians with some sort of military rank.

Foreign fighters or welcomed opposition?

As for our role in all this, after the Canadian Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in March 2012, then Foreign Minister John Baird intensified his anti-Assad language and threw his support behind the Syrian opposition gathering in Turkey. For example, one statement released from his office said that those turning a blind eye to the killings of the Assad regime would have the blood of the Syrian people on their hands. So, back then, Canadians heading to Syria to fight the regime didn’t need slickly produced YouTube videos to convince them to take up arms they just needed to read our own government’s press releases and official statements.

Still, three years ago, the Syrian civil war was very much a home-grown affair. In a one-star, cigarette smoke-filled hotel room in Hatay I met with a Damascus businessman who was busily arranging arms deals on multiple cell phones. At one point he jokingly tossed me one and said that if I really wanted to find out what was happening in Syria I should speak to the fellow on the other end of the line who was about to go into battle. At the other extreme, I met with a Syrian-American in a rented Hatay apartment who had come to Turkey on his own initiative with money and supplies for the Free Syrian Army.

During other visits to the border, I met many members of the Syrian opposition and I recall, on one occasion, being told that foreign fighters were regarded as the “boots on the ground” in place of western troops that were obviously not going to come. These foreign fighters from such places as Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Chechnya had much needed combat and organizational experience.

Later on, in desperation I think, a blind eye was turned in many capitals to the influx of foreign fighters in the hope that they would succeed in toppling the Syrian regime. As we now know, if this was indeed the strategy, it has obviously failed. These same foreign fighters, coupled with Sunni rebels and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military from Iraq, would eventually hijack the agenda in Syria and in Iraq for that matter.

I think morale among the moderate Syrian opposition forces finally broke in September 2013 when the United States did not follow-through with missile attacks against the Syrian regime following their use of Sarin gas the month before on an opposition held area in Damascus. When I met with several Syrian opposition groups, mainly commanders, in southern Turkey in November 2013 I was asked repeatedly why the West had abandoned them.

a blind eye was turned in many capitals to the influx of foreign fighters in the hope that they would succeed in toppling the Syrian regime

Looking back, I can see why the Turkish government might have felt abandoned too, after first attempting to seek reform in Syria through diplomatic means and then courageously backing the Syrian opposition when diplomacy failed to exact a change of leadership, or at the very least behaviour in Damascus.

A thought to the future of Syria

On the other hand, it also became exceedingly clear to me that apart from wanting to get rid of Bashar al-Assad there had been next to no consideration in Turkey or elsewhere as to what might happen the day after.

Surely, I ask myself, it is reasonable to assume that before the American Ambassador in Damascus was told to stir things up during a visit to Hama, Syria in July 2011 that someone in Washington had a plan for Syria’s future? Ditto the French Ambassador who was in Hama on the same day. As the news service France24 reported at the time, anti-regime protesters had been “galvanized” by their presence. But if the protestors, and Turkey for that matter, believed the United States and France were ready to back their revolution with more than just tokenism they were soon disappointed.

For me, this speaks volumes about the way in which the lives of “others” were obviously regarded in Washington and Paris at the time and even today.   Indeed, as much as the attack on Charlie Hebdo, for example, horrified us, it’s worth remembering that the civil war in Syria, according to the latest UN figures, has cost at least 220,000 Syrian lives so far. Millions more are refugees. And still, the United States insists on training Syrian opposition fighters in numbers that will never be sufficient to turn the tide but just the right amount to ensure the killing continues.

After Hama then, the moderate Syrian opposition was progressively abandoned, especially when the going got tough. In their place, and almost out of nowhere, came a transnational, foreign supported Sunni terrorist movement — a movement largely controlled by Iraqi Sunnis, sidelined, ruthlessly targeted and purged as they were by then Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Indeed, ISIS is a product of Sunni repression in Iraq and for them the Syrian civil war was a gift.

Indeed, the breakdown of security in Syria allowed extremist groups such as ISIS to operate freely. And, in time, fighting the Syrian regime gave way to the greater desire to establish a caliphate, which was duly proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014.

Death of a thousand cuts

As it goes, I fully understand why Sunnis in Syria and Iraq wanted to establish their own space just as Kurds in Syria and Iraq do. The so-called caliphate is a product of the Arab world’s continual political violence, its foreign supported despots, and endless foreign invasions. We should not be at all surprised by its appearance.

But I can’t imagine what the leadership of ISIS was thinking when they decided to fight with the moderate Syrian opposition, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian regime, the Iraqi government and the United States all at the same time? Now many observers will say that this is precisely the point — to wage constant war, to especially draw in the United States and to begin the countdown to their version of the apocalypse. And, undoubtedly, the group has attracted its fair share of psychopaths, adventurists and the disaffected from around the world.

Much of what has befallen these ill-fated people is the product of our own misguided mischief making. We need to acknowledge this fact

But then again, for an organization bent on the destruction of its enemies and ultimately itself, ISIS exhibits the characteristics and faces the same challenges of any traditional state. The surprise capture of Mosul, a city of 2 million, with just 800 fighters was a bigger surprise to them than anyone else — and as ISIS soon found out, Mosul’s citizens demanded the power be turned back on and the garbage picked-up. And right now, and as the leadership of ISIS is acutely aware, it can’t fight on every front and run a country with only 30,000 fighters. As a result, there will be no apocalyptic battle to end all battles on the plains of Syria. Instead, the Islamic State will die the unpleasant death of a thousand cuts as its enemies press-in from every side.

As we know, the Islamic State has been built on a foundation of incredible cruelty and medieval brutality. But make no mistake cruelty and brutality is not exclusive to ISIS. The main difference is that ISIS publicizes what is does while others seek to cover up their crimes. This is something to keep in mind as we become more engaged, militarily, in the region. Yes, we have fighter jets, reconnaissance aircraft and a refueller involved right now in the hunt for ISIS. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Canadian Special Forces troops provide advice and training to the Kurdish Pesh Merga or army. However, I really think the military should suggest to the government that as many lawyers as possible are sent to the region — armed with their law of armed conflict manuals and plenty of good advice for our new allies — especially when the tide turns and those we are currently supporting are tempted to repay ISIS and its supporters in kind.

As we all know by now, the Canadian government is continuing and even expanding the current mission as the original mandate ends. Is this the right thing to do? As much as I would advise steering clear of entanglements in the Middle East, I think we have little choice but to go on for the sake of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni population, the Kurds, Iraqi Yazidis and Christians. Much of what has befallen these ill-fated people is the product of our own misguided mischief making. We need to acknowledge this fact.

We should also seek, foremost; to give what we hope is an inclusive Iraqi government a chance to re-establish security as best it can. Only then can difficult decisions about the country’s future be made, especially regarding the future of the Kurdish portion of Iraq.

In Syria, in my view, it’s time to tell the opposition that the fighting is over, allow the Syrian regime to re-establish control and determine what degree of autonomy Syria’s Kurds will have in future — no doubt a discussion that will cause no end of grief in Turkey. But, undoubtedly, there will be no solution to the wider region’s troubles unless all of the regional players, key among them Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran come to the table and agree to put an end to a growing sectarian divide.

If this cannot be achieved then I can easily imagine us looking back in a few years and concluding that the anti-ISIS campaign was a relatively straightforward affair compared to the post-ISIS chaos that followed.

This piece is derived from a talk given by Dr. Kilford on March 18, 2015, to the Victoria branch of the CIC.