The Rise of IS: The view from the Turkish-Syrian border

The good news is the IS may disappear as quickly as it appeared. The bad news is those fighters may be headed home.
By: /
September 26, 2014
Fellow with the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy

What a difference a few weeks can make in the Middle East.  Suddenly, it appears that the United States and former supporters of the Syrian opposition have switched sides much to the benefit of the Syrian regime in Damascus.  Of course, this is not the case but the Syrian government has to be pleased with the way events have unfolded in the past week.  Back in 2011, the aim was to topple the Syrian regime.  Now, a lifeline has been thrown to Bashar al-Assad.  To understand how all this has come about it's worth turning back the clock a few years to March, 2011.

That month, mass protests against the Syrian government erupted in Damascus and Aleppo and soon after unrest spread to more cities across Syria.

In the beginning, the protests were mostly peaceful in nature and centered on a desire for democratic reforms and the lifting of emergency law. However, the protestors’ focus soon turned to overthrowing the Assad government. In response, the Syrian Army cracked down and hundreds were killed and arrested.

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 UN mediated ceasefire period but after numerous infractions by both sides, the peace plan collapsed in early June 2012. Soon after, battles were taking place across the country and to make matters worse a Turkish F-4 fighter jet, allegedly flying in Syrian airspace, had been shot down by a Syrian air defence unit, killing both pilots.

Syria, declared the UN, was now in a state of civil war.

Assad’s demise? Not quite

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 fighters and many others connected with the opposition.

Then, around the time of my first visit to the border, the Assad regime was definitely on the defensive but rumours of its imminent demise had been greatly exaggerated. For example, the western media often parroted whatever the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. The SOHR, 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 SOHR information, wagering that Assad would be gone by August 2012.

Many countries also believed they could safely cheer on the opposition from the sidelines without getting too involved themselves. Yet, if the experts in Washington and elsewhere had taken the time to visit the Syrian government’s official website in 2012, Iran’s Press TV or read reports from journalists embedded with the Syrian military, the inclination to so easily write off the Syrian regime would have quickly faded.

For example, every defection from the Syrian government, especially when high-ranking military officers fled, was 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 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. There was a good deal of fanfare in Ankara when two more senior Syrian Colonels arrived in Turkey but I later found out they were dentists.

As the Assad regime slowly rallied in 2013 and the United States canceled plans to launch air strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons, the mood in the Syrian opposition became decidedly gloomy. In October 2013 opposition representatives asked me point-blank why the West had abandoned them. More foreign fighters were entering Syria from Turkey they added – foreigners who were more interested in establishing an Islamic caliphate than fighting the Assad regime. This view of foreign fighters was vastly different from what I had been told the year before. In 2012, foreign fighters had been welcome. They were, said a member of the opposition I met in Reyhanlı, Turkey, the “boots on the ground” that America and others refused to supply.

Turkey fending for itself

The amount of support Turkey has given to foreign fighters and specifically extremist elements remains a topic for debate. As for my own experience, I met plenty of foreign fighters in Turkey. On one occasion while driving in the town of Yayladağı, I passed three men with long beards and wearing combat uniforms strolling down the street in full view of a Turkish police checkpoint. Of course, not every foreign fighter was or is a member of the Islamic State (IS), something I think the media forgets.

The Turkish government, like everyone else, expected the Assad regime to fall quickly – although no one had a plan for what might happen once he left (much like the situation in Libya). Ironically, it’s very possible if Assad had been toppled, the security situation in Syria, and by extension Iraq, could be far worse than it is right now. Nevertheless, with the United States refusing to embroil itself in Syria and the opposition falling apart, Turkey was left to fend for itself. Perhaps, out of sheer exasperation, a decision was made in Ankara to support anyone offering the best chance of toppling the Syrian regime?

In defence of the Turkish government, it’s simply not that easy to control its long border with Syria, nor do they have all the resources to do so. Turkey might have the second-largest armed forces in NATO with some 600,000 personnel but 400,000 of them are conscripts who serve for 12 months. Meanwhile, some of the best available units are deployed on Cyprus or around Istanbul while much of the 2nd Turkish Army and elements of the 3rd Army are tied-down countering the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in eastern and south-eastern Turkey. As a result, it would require considerable effort to launch and sustain cross-border operations into Syria, even with NATO support.

United against the ‘Islamic State’

However, the international community has finally come together, not to get rid of Assad but to destroy the IS instead. Speaking of the IS, what were they thinking by taking-on the Free Syrian Army, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian regime, the Iraqi government and the United States all at the same time? The IS also took 46 Turkish citizens hostage who had been stationed at the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held them for over three months.

Moreover, what motivated the IS to consider capturing Mosul, a city of 2 million whose citizens quickly demanded they turn the power back on and pick up the garbage? You simply can’t do all this and run a caliphate with only 30,000 fighters. Not for long, that is.

In fact, the group has made countless strategic errors that have been overshadowed by a few tactical victories against weak and disorganized opponents. However, the Americans have now started to organize everyone and even have the Qatari and Saudi governments bombing the very people they were likely supporting not that long ago.

As a result, I would venture the IS will disappear as quickly as it came. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that all those foreign fighters, including Canadians, will be coming home, likely via Turkey.

I would suggest it’s in our own best interests to provide as much help as possible to Canadians returning from Syria and Iraq. Many will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and will likely need psychological counselling if we are to have any chance of re-integrating them back into Canadian society.

At the same time we should be looking to learn from their experiences in order to better counter the recruiters of the future. If some have committed acts of terror then let the legal system handle these cases.

It’s also worth remembering that many returnees would have been fighting for FSA units, which Canada and the international community continue to support. For example, after the Canadian Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in March 2012, Foreign Minister Baird intensified his anti-Assad language. In a statement released from his office he 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, it wasn’t that necessary to watch YouTube videos in 2011 or 2012 to convince some Canadians to go to Syria when our own mainstream media and government consistently publicized acts of terror carried out by the Syrian regime.

The conundrum of what to do with Assad will also return once the IS is no longer a factor. Oddly enough, and as I mentioned already, we can thank Assad and his allies that the current caliphate doesn’t extend across the entirety of Syria. I also can’t help thinking that as American aircraft and cruise missiles entered Syrian airspace to bomb IS and other targets that the biggest cheers in the region were coming from the Syria’s military headquarters in Damascus.

Nevertheless, the question now is should we continue equipping the Syrian opposition, conceivably pro-longing the civil war for years to come and by extension destabilizing the entire region? And, what about the millions of Syrian refugees and those displaced by the fighting? When will they be able to go home?