Tag Archives: Syria

MOAB’s and Afghanistan – Another Day, Another Munition Dropped

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By William Reynolds, a 2nd year undergraduate studying War Studies. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William has worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENA).

The recent deployment of a GBU-34 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) munition over ISIS territory in Afghanistan has grabbed headlines and sparked debate on President Trump’s strategy. Many attribute this deployment to a more muscular approach and possible signalling to both Syria and North Korea that the current administration is not messing around. This, of course, is reliant on one massive assumption: That Trump gave the order for the strike.

The MOAB is indeed one of the largest non-nuclear weapons that the US possesses in their inventory. However, the GBU-43 (MOAB) that was deployed has been incorrectly labelled as the most powerful in the US armoury. That honour falls to the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) at 30,000 lb (or 14,000 kg). Nevertheless, the MOAB cannot be considered to be in a ‘special category’ such as that which nuclear weapons inhabit. To the planners on the ground, the MOAB is simply another tool for the job. Indeed, during the Vietnam campaign is was not uncommon for the MOAB’s predecessor, the BLU-82 ‘Daisy Cutter’ to be deployed regularly against the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The MOAB simply falls into the same category as a Hellfire missile or 2,000 lb JDAM.

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It is with this in mind that we must question whether Trump explicitly ordered the deployment of such a munition. In general terms, an air strike is called in through a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who is deployed forward with the combat troops. FAC’s don’t necessarily control what ordinance is dropped. Close Air Support (CAS) strikes are not tailored fit for the platoon’s on the ground, rather they make do with whatever assets are assigned to that area of operations. Now a MOAB is most certainly not a munition deployed in the CAS role. Thus, there was pre-planning involved, possibly placed as a useable asset for the push into the ISIS-held region. Such munitions have proved valuable in the past when clearing out insurgents from rough terrain. The Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan and Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam springing to mind.

Ultimately, the buck could have theoretically stopped anywhere along the chain of command. It could have gone as far as CENTCOM Commander Votel, the regional commander in Afghanistan or simply the acting commander of the occurring operation. Whoever did indeed give the go ahead, it does not signal a clear change in strategy. The US has always been focused on killing the insurgent. Whilst not particularly favourable in population-centric warfare, they are certainly good at it.

What commentators on the Afghan war should be looking at was the recent deployment of US Marines back into Helmand province. Whilst numbering only 300, the deployment of Marines usually signals an urge to regain the initiative and go on the offensive. Marines are shock troops first and foremost. Their deployment may signal a change in strategy in the region. Indeed, the deployment to Helmand in itself is a signal of sorts. Helmand has always been the stronghold of the Taliban post-2004, with multiple British, American and Dutch offensives turning up little in terms of major gains for ISAF. The deployment of Marines in the region can only mean the focus shifting away from the maintenance of Kabul’s security.

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This possible change in strategy has further intrigued commentators who note that as of today (09/05/17) NATO has requested additional troops from the UK to be deployed in Afghanistan. This will not mean another British Battle Group will place their feet on the tarmac of Camp Bastion again. But it does signal a possible resurgence of military power into the graveyard of empires.

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Bibliography:

https://www.mca-marines.org/site/styles/gallery_photo_image/public/importedFiles/files/1_461.jpg?tok=ONvy9loy-USMC

https://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/624/media/images/78130000/jpg/_amoc-cct-2014-151-062.jpg-CampBastionMemorial

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Why ISIS will not succeed in Afghanistan

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By Lily Hess, a 2nd year undergraduate Student studying International Relations. She is currently studying abroad, and is the Foreign Editor of International Relations Today.

In 2014, a worrying development occurred in Afghanistan: The spread of ISIS’ Khorasan branch into several provinces, with its stronghold in Nangarhar. Following its stunning successes in Syria and Iraq, ISIS decided to expand its franchise outside the Arab world. The Khorasan branch encompasses South Asia in general — including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Afghanistan had appeared as a particularly promising country for expansion, given the limited control of its weak government and extensive history of jihadist wars against Western invaders and the “indel” regimes they support. ISIS’ strategy was to use its reputation, superior resources, and the internal discord of local competitors, like the Afghan Taliban, to recruit and integrate existing militants in Afghanistan to build up its own force there. [1]

Currently the Afghan Taliban and ISIS are at war with each other, while both also fight the NATO-backed Afghan government forces. Why didn’t ISIS decide to simply cooperate with groups like the Taliban, a jihadist group that is well-organized and holds long-established networks? This answer may stem back to the foundations of ISIS in Syria. The predecessor of ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda’s previous branch in Iraq. At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, al-Qaeda saw a ripe opportunity to expand its operations. It tasked the ISI with helping to establish its new Syrian branch, and the Jabhat al-Nusra was declared in 2012. [2] However, al-Qaeda kept ambiguous its connection to al-Nusra in order to give it more leeway to gain the support of other local fighter groups in Syria. At the same time, the leadership of ISI itself wanted to spread its operations into Syria and establish itself as a separate group from al-Qaeda. These tensions culminated to the point where ISI announced that al-Nusra was it’s Syrian subsidiary, but from then on its existence would be unnecessary because ISI would reform itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most of al-Nusra rejected this association, and in the process had to let loose that it was a branch of al-Qaeda. [2] ISI’s (newly ISIS’) announcement was followed with a series of large victories in Syria and Iraq, which propelled it to international attention. But it’s brutal tactics and hunger for sole control caused other militant groups, including al-Nusra, to increasingly oppose the new group. Al-Qaeda also denounced and dropped its Iraq branch, now ISIS.

 The hostility between ISIS and al-Qaeda has been transcribed into the South Asian theater, owing to the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But ISIS’ vitriol toward the Afghan Taliban also stems from what it believes are ideological deficiencies. It denounces the Taliban’s adherence to local tribal laws instead of a blanket application of a strict form of Sharia Law claiming  the Taliban a puppet of Iran and Pakistan’s intelligence service, in order to present its illegitimacy. Before the world knew that Mullah Omar had been dead for years, ISIS publicly assailed his “nationalist” worldview as opposed to trying to unite all Muslims. After he was found to have been dead, ISIS accused the Taliban of deceiving their followers and being untrustworthy for hiding his death. [3] Indeed, the revelations of Mullah Omar’s death stirred unrest within the Taliban as a power struggle ensued. When Mullah Mansour emerged as the leader, it disaffected a number of its members, some of whom then joined ISIS in Afghanistan.

On top of the discord within the Taliban, ISIS also has used other inter-group tension to recruit top fighters. The two original leaders of ISIS’ Khorasan branch are solid examples of these: The leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was a former chief of the Orakzai branch of the Tehreeke-Taliban Pakistan who was passed over for the highest position in the organization. The second-in-command (but since deceased), Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former commander in the Afghan Taliban, had perceived an unfair tribal representation in its shura council, and was frustrated over whether Mullah Omar was alive or not. By itself, ISIS also had the advantage of resources over the other groups. Owing from its victories in Syria and Iraq, the group became rich from oil, antiquities, kidnapping, extortion, and other activities. Furthermore, it was willing to spend large sums of money to expand its networks in South Asia. Finally, its sophisticated media campaign was far more advanced than the Taliban’s. [1] Overall, ISIS had the perfect opportunity to use it many advantages to unseat the Taliban and become the dominant insurgent force against the state and expand its “caliphate”.

However, since its early successes in recruiting militants to its cause, ISIS has been facing severe failures in Afghanistan. The main cause of this ultimately originates from its core brutality and intolerance for local practices of Islam and society. Afghanistan’s tribal variations and provinciality, which have long bedeviled the Afghan government’s attempts at constructing a national identity, now bedevil ISIS’ attempts at garnering local support. The group is a foreign import, and does not understand the local people as much as the indigenous Taliban. The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan — and the majority of Taliban fighters — are Pashtuns. ISIS has criticized the tribal code of Pashtuns called Pashtunwali, which does not help their recruitment of Taliban fighters. [3] While the Taliban can be harsh, ISIS is brutal to another level, to the point where it alienates the local population. In fact, ISIS has minuscule local support and no cooperation with other militant groups in Afghanistan. The majority of its fighters in Afghanistan are actually former members of the Pakistani Taliban that were driven out by Pakistani military operations in its tribal areas. [4] In the competition between ISIS and the Taliban, this gives the Taliban two legitimacy advantages: They can claim to be the indigenous and (comparatively) moderate group. Meanwhile, ISIS is being targeted from all sides as American drone strikes, Afghan operations, and clashes with the Taliban batter down the group. The Khorasan Branch is geographically far from its central leadership in Iraq and Syria. Owing to the recent challenges it faces there, it seems unlikely that the central command would place the Khorasan Branch as a high priority and send aid. The group has been virtually eradicated from South and West Afghanistan. [5] While the Taliban now holds more territory than ever since the US-led invasion in 2001, ISIS has lost more than half the districts it once held in Afghanistan. [6]

In the future, ISIS’ influence in Afghanistan is likely to steadily decline, especially if it loses most of its territory in Syria and Iraq. However, the risk of spread to other regions is always present. Many of the fighters are likely to return to their home countries eventually, and this may be troubling news for Central and South Asia. ISIS has recently been attempting to control territory in Northern Afghanistan in order to create a corridor for militants from Central Asian states it borders and Afghanistan. [5] While it is highly unlikely that ISIS will ever succeed in conquering Afghanistan and adding it to the “caliphate”, remnants of the group will disseminate to neighboring regions, where they can remain as a small but perpetual threat.

Bibliography:

Picture credit: Link: https://southfront.org/vilayat-khorasan-isis-takes-over-afghanistan/

1 = Jones, Seth G. “Expanding the Caliphate: ISIS’ South Asia Strategy.” Foreign Affairs. 11 June 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2015-06-11/expanding-caliphate

2 = Mendelsohn, Barak. The Al-Qaeda Franchise. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.

3 = Barr, Nathaniel and Bridget Moreng. “The Graveyard of Caliphates.” Foreign Affairs. 13 January 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2016-01-13/graveyardcaliphates

4 = “ISIS increasing recruitment from Pakistan, Afghanistan: US.” Financial Express. 24 March 2017. http://www.financialexpress.com/world-news/isis-increasing-recruitment-from-pakistanafghanistan-us/600632/

5 = “IS in Afghanistan: How successful has the group been?” BBC. 25 February 2017. http:// http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39031000

6 = Gidda, Mirren. “Why ISIS is Failing to Build a Caliphate in Afghanistan.” Newsweek. 25 March 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/afghanistan-isis-taliban-caliphate-kabulbombing

 

 

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Aleppo and Military Intervention: Could it have been done?

William Reynolds is a 2nd year undergraduate studying War Studies in the department of War Studies. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William as worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENA). 

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As the dust settles and the conflict draws to a close, there are those who wonder if the West did not do enough to prevent the actions that occurred within the war torn city of Aleppo. Indeed, social media is awash with calls for intervention and #SaveAleppo hashtags by, somewhat ironically, the very same people who expressed outrage when the RoE (Rules of Engagement) were extended for the RAF into Syria. Whilst the UN has placed sole responsibility for any civilian deaths on the shoulders of the SAA (Syrian Arab Army), Russia and allies in the field, the inaction of the West could easily be construed as a facilitator of possible crimes in the future. I will not be focusing too heavily on diplomatic means, as it is in this writers mind that such means have been tried and failed when it comes to Syria.

The Capability:

There are practically only two methods that the West could have employed to intervene in Syria; a UN mandated peacekeeping force or a coalition built force based around one of the three main power projectors in the region (the USA, France and the UK). Any action within Syria would almost certainly require a sizeable force on par with what was deployed with UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) in Bosnia. Furthermore, any ground intervention would have to be supported by a sizeable air contingent and would therefore necessitate the involvement of the USA as only they have the amount of airframes required to provide effective coverage over Aleppo and the necessary corridors of resupply (be it by air or land).

The second method would simply be a coalition led force, again involving the USA, to act within the region. This second option would have the advantage of being immune from UN handling of the situation, which arguably hamstrung UNPROFOR in Bosnia so much it proved detrimental to operations (as mentioned by Rupert Smith in Utility of Force), and have a unified structure under a NATO led system (similar to ISAF). As with all military operations, the fewer links in the chain of command that you can have the faster and smoother actions on the ground will be.

There is here the assumption that intervention would greatly enhance the risk of military conflict with Assad. Indeed, the legality of intervening in a civil war against a sovereign nation throws up some questions that need to be answered if any military action were to occur. Furthermore, one cannot help but think that the rebels would simply use the ‘thin blue line’ of peacekeepers in the same way as the Croatians did in Yugoslavia. As a shield to protect themselves from the actions of Assad until they regroup, reorganise and counter attack. In which case, would we not be directly involving ourselves in the outcome of the civil war?

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Map of Coalition Air Strikes – Focus of Capabilities to the North

Comparing to Srebrenica:

However, whilst the capability is there to deploy forces in an intervention role, one has to ask is it practical? Many have compared Aleppo to Srebrenica, often quoting the adage of ‘never again’ that was used at the time. There are multiple flaws in this comparison, indeed in comparing the two wars entirely. The Yugoslav wars were indeed a civil war, but divided along ethnic (in the cultural sense) lines. It was not simply Yugoslav versus Yugoslav, rather Croat against Serb and with Bosnia stuck in the middle. It was essentially states under a federal system, with their own histories, culture and religious communities, entirely unlike Syria. A rather haphazard comparison would be to say It would be like a civil war in the United Kingdom, but with the actors being the states that made up the union; Scotland, Wales, England and N. Ireland (sorry Cornwall, your time will come).

If we were to intervene in Syria, one would have to identify sides to place themselves between. Easier in Yugoslavia, almost impossible in Syria. The rebels have so many factions they might as well be conducting a civil war within the war they are prosecuting. Say what you wish about Assad’s regime, but at least you can identify a united front and act accordingly.

Furthermore, we must not forget that there were peacekeepers in Srebrenica in 1995. Much like Aleppo, the city was in a state of siege and despite the blue helmet presence, the Serbs refused to demilitarise around the city. Fewer convoys got through and eventually an evacuation ordered simply to avoid genocide via starvation. Even with UN support, the city fell and the massacre occurred. One should not judge the Dutch peacekeepers too harshly, their RoE was too constrained which led to them being unable to affect any change in their situation. Indeed, coupled with limited air support, the peacekeepers had no option but to leave.

If this happened in Srebrenica, where the West had air superiority and the capability to supply via air, what would be so different with Aleppo, where the Russians and Syrians control the skies?

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A thin blue line of Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica

The Political Will:

One must not discount the domestic issues that are faced by Western leaders when it comes to military intervention. Both Afghanistan and the 2nd Gulf War have left large scars on the societies of both the US and UK. Both the population and the military are exhausted from two protracted counter insurgency wars in the middle east, and the prospect of involving ourselves in another would amount to political suicide for the PM and President of the US. President Obama was elected with a mandate to pull US troops out of Afghanistan (for better or worse) and indeed, in 2013 David Cameron brought to the House of Commons a motion to allow military action against Assad if chemical weapons were deployed. Whilst legally he did not actually require a vote on this matter, the need for a mandate, and therefore multiple bodies to share in the blame if the action went ploin shaped, was paramount. He promptly lost the vote and Britain’s capability to intervene was severely hampered. Furthermore, one cannot forget the outcry that was caused by the notion of increasing the area of operations of RAF strikes against ISIS into Syria. If such commotion was caused by the prospect of committing violence against ISIS, one cannot image what action against Assad would entail.

An intervention would further the narrative of the West involving itself in Middle Eastern affairs. The concept of ‘white men with guns’ is prevalent in the psyche of many and again it seems to be those who protested the invasion of Iraq (and the attempted democratisation of the state) who are calling for intervention against Assad and his government. Is this not hypocritical?

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War Exhaustion has infected both the public and the military in the UK

Russia:

The elephant (or bear quite possibly) in the room is of course Russia’s involvement in the conflict. Arguably, the West has only itself to blame for being outmanoeuvred by the Russians in this regard. Obama had the opportunity to stake his claim in the Syrian conflict with the ‘red-line’ speech in 2012. However, when chemical weapons were deployed and US military might failed to materialise, not only did Obama lose his foot in the door but all credibility of US intervention was lost and arguably gave the green light for Putin to involve himself without threat of US involvement. Much like in the days of imperialism, Russia filled the void that had been left by the US and now that they are entirely entrenched in the area the West cannot intervene in the conflict without the threat of escalating the situation with Russia. Russian warplanes and advisers operate regularly in Syria and the fog of war could quite easily result in a military action between the US and Russia by accident.

So as to whether the West could have done something about Aleppo the answer is not clear. Multiple opportunities were present in the past, but the appetite for military intervention was just not there. As for whether it’s practical, a war with Syria would be winnable by the West, but the deployment of an intervention force deep into Syrian territory to block further violence would be a logistical nightmare and would greatly enhance the risk of conflict elsewhere with Russia. Practical politics, or realpolitik, always leaves a bitter taste in the Western liberal system. But sometimes the practicality of ones actions simply cannot afford to accommodate the morality of the situation, despite how right and good it may be.

 

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23892783 – 2013 UK vote on Syrian intervention

https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/12/02/analysis-sharp-fall-support-air-strikes-syria/ – Current YouGov opinion polls on airstrikes

http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/20/world/meast/syria-unrest/ – Obama’s ‘Red-Line’ speech

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre#Early_1995:_the_situation_in_the_Srebrenica_.22safe_area.22_deteriorates – Basic Facts on Srebrenica

http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/unprof_b.htm – UNPROFOR

http://web.stanford.edu/class/e297a/United%20Nations%20Peacekeeping%20Operations.pdf – UN Peacekeeping Operations

Smith, Rupert (2006), The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (London: Penguin Books)

http://syria.mil.ru/en/index/syria.htm – Numerous updates on Russian Operations in Syria from the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence

https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/daesh/about – UK actions against ISIS

https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/106/106.pdf – House of Commons Defence Committee: UK military operations in Syria and Iraq

Pictures:

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http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/file/show//Images/Balkan%20Transitional%20Justice/Places/dutch.peacekeepers.potocari.resized.jpg

http://static1.businessinsider.com/image/545e664b69beddee0cb4df46-1200-1715/rtr4cq0q%20(1).jpg

 

 

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A Pyrrhic Victory on Syria’s Diplomatic Front

by Lincoln Pigman, a student of War Studies at King’s College London and an organising member of KCL MENA Forum.

 

Nine months after Russia took the West aback with its entry into the Syrian conflict, the United States finally changed its tune, proposing an unprecedented level of military cooperation with Russia: coordinated attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra in exchange for the grounding of Syria’s air force. The offer, it seems, has been received warmly. Some in the West will welcome U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria, including prominent scholars and former U.S. diplomats. However, Washington’s reversal may prove counterproductive and even disastrous.

 

 

Committed to ousting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration long maintained a position of disapproval, condemning Russia’s contribution to the refugee crisis and accusing it of ‘directly enabling’ Islamic State. Given the notable decline in refugee arrivals to the E.U. since December, the former may no longer hold true, while the latter is challenged by Professor Max Abrahms of Northeastern University. In Abrahms’ view, which he shared in private correspondence, that ‘unoriginal and never documented’ accusation reflects an ‘ideological’ refusal to acknowledge ‘Russian contributions against Islamic State.’ Even so, other objections to Russia’s conduct in Syria remain valid, and give cause for reconsideration of closer ties.

 

One of the most obvious is Russia’s unfaltering deception. The Kremlin’s main lie concerns the aim of its intervention. Although coalition voices quickly realised that Russia’s principal target in Syria was the opposition, not Islamic State, Russia continued to state otherwise. In October 2015, Sergei Ivanov, chief of Russia’s presidential administration, promised that Russia was simply ensuring that ‘no ISIL members were left to travel to Russia, and that all fighters would end up lying in the ground in Syria.’ Crucially, Ivanov neglected to mention which fighters.

 

Five months later, Putin unexpectedly declared Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. Since then, Russian involvement in Syria has expanded from air strikes to special operations and demining efforts, while reported Russian casualties near Palmyra and Raqqa point to increased ground presence. Russia’s tireless disinformation efforts, always accompanied by calls for U.S.-Russian cooperation, offer no grounds for trusting Putin to enforce the stillborn cessation of hostilities or pressure the Assad regime to ground its air force. (That the proposed agreement mentions no compliance mechanisms makes Russian non-compliance even more likely.)

 

Two grave problems doom such a demand. The first is the condition of Russian ‘pressure’ on Assad. Rather than insist that Moscow force Damascus to stop targeting rebels, making clear that only an end to attacks on the opposition can satisfy the agreement, the proposal’s language is moderated to such an extent that Russia could feasibly do nothing and claim that it had. Mere pressure does not equal success in bringing Assad to heel, and can amount to nothing more than a diplomatic slap on the wrist should Assad persist in his suppression of the opposition. Unless the U.S. operationalises pressure, specifying what forms it is to take, it may as well abandon the condition altogether.

 

Worse still, it is possible that ‘pressure the Assad regime’ is all that Moscow can do, making the U.S.’ demand impossible to satisfy. Some Syria commentators question whether Russia truly dictates developments on the ground, dubbing it Assad’s ‘hostage.’ A growing consensus admits that Russia seeks a diplomatic resolution to the conflict: one preserving Syria’s current government institutions but not necessarily Assad himself, as reasoned by the Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund. Now emboldened by Russia’s decisive intervention, Assad clearly refuses to accommodate Russia’s diplomacy and its post-conflict plans for Syria, violating the cessation of hostilities in April 2016 and defiantly insisting on retaking ‘every inch’ of Syria in June 2016. Both positions reflect maximalist goals and a rejection of Russia’s relatively limited objectives, an intransigence that would surely apply to demands that Assad cease targeting rebels.

 

The demand’s second flaw lies in its identification of roles in Syria. By exclusively attributing complicity in the targeting of rebels to Assad, the U.S. tacitly denies Russia’s role in bombarding the opposition. According to Airwars, a project that consults open source intelligence to map the impact of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, Russian air strikes have inflicted up to 5,686 civilian casualties as of July 4th. Russia maximises the lethality of its air strikes by targeting densely populated areas and hospitals, and using incendiary munitions: weapons whose use against and around civilians is prohibited by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, to which Russia is a signatory. The portrait of the war painted by Washington erases these casualties, and enables Russia to continue attacking rebel groups and non-combatants alike with impunity. U.S. silence legitimises Russia’s many transgressions, and is irreconcilable with a purported concern for Syrians’ welfare and advocacy of a rules-based international order.

 

In light of Russia’s disregard for collateral damage, Syrians will inevitably see U.S. support for Russia’s intervention as a betrayal. The first such betrayal, Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ after the sarin gas attacks of August 2013, ‘boosted Islamists … devastated the credibility of [opposition] officials who had tried to work with the West,’ and conveyed a clear message to Syrians: ‘No one’s coming to save you, not in any circumstances,’ writes Robin Yassin-Kassab in Burning Country. Similarly, today, supporting a belligerent viewed as ‘a colonial invader,’ Yassin-Kassab remarked over email, would consolidate the U.S.’ image as ‘another imperialist supporter of the regime which is tormenting [Syrians].’ Any peacemaking legitimacy possessed by Washington would forever vanish, in no small part thanks to its main concession to Russia: coordinated air strikes against al-Qaeda affiliate and anti-government militia Jabhat al-Nusra.

 

Although Russia and the U.S. both list the Islamist Nusra as a terrorist organisation, the intensity with which the two intervening powers attack it has differed greatly, creating a conflict of interests best highlighted by vocal complaints from Moscow. The U.S.’ new proposal to bilaterally coordinate air strikes against the organisation could be aimed at narrowing the diplomatic chasm between Russia and itself. Alternatively, its rationale could be restoring coherence to the U.S.’ position as an enemy of terrorism, removing all doubt by visibly targeting Nusra.

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However, a policy of partnership is unlikely to improve diplomatic relations with Russia. Despite Russia’s stated interest in continuing bilateral cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism, no peripheral concession can resolve the fundamental disagreement over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which will continue to define U.S.-Russian relations until a consensus on the future of Ukraine’s security is reached. Coordinated air operations in Syria alone cannot cancel out the diplomatic hurt caused by years of sanctions, and are near useless as a diplomatic bargaining tool.

 

Nor will the proposed U.S.-Russian partnership advance Washington’s fight against terrorism. In fact, attacking Nusra with Moscow could prove completely counterproductive. Those suspecting the U.S. and Russia – widely viewed as having appeased Iran’s nuclear programme and given it free rein in Iraq and Syria – in backing the Shia side of a perceived geopolitical-sectarian confrontation are likely to see joint attacks on the Sunni Nusra as yet another sign of a seemingly pro-Shia Western agenda. Consequently, ‘many … who previously tolerated Nusra for pragmatic reasons … will become more sympathetic to the group and its ideology,’ warns Yassin-Kassab, adding that ‘the U.S.-Russian coalition will undoubtedly provide a boost to Nusra’s recruitment and help it to embed more deeply in Syrian society.’ At the tactical level, striking Nusra only to bolster it is a waste of military resources. However, at the strategic level, transforming an actor in Syria so powerful that it currently controls entire swaths of territory is reckless. In the succinct words of Yassin-Kassab, it threatens to ‘greatly influence the future trajectory of violent jihadism on a global level.’

 

The proposed U.S.-Russian partnership in Syria brings to mind a number of outcomes. These include Russia duping the U.S.; Assad continuing his attack on the opposition; legitimisation of Russia’s transgressions; discrediting of the U.S. among anti-regime Syrians; and empowerment of Jabhat al-Nusra. Pursuing a military victory against the al-Qaeda affiliate without considering the partnership’s political ramifications reflects nothing less than the absence of a U.S. strategy in Syria.

 

If the U.S. is to work with Russia at all, it should focus on securing the Kremlin’s assistance in combating Islamic State, a peripheral matter to Russia, rather than make concessions on the vital interest that is the Syrian opposition—especially if there is no visible benefit in doing so. As Islamic State greets ‘the beginning of the end,’ weakened by over seven hundred days of coalition bombardment, the U.S. should not court disaster by entering into counterproductive unions. The future of Syria demands it.

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Military might: France’s ultimate grandeur?

By Pierre Dugué a first-year BA War Studies coming from France. He is interested in Western (Europe and U.S.) grand strategy, intelligence and counter-insurgency operations.

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French national ‘Bastille’ day’s military parade going down the Champs-Elysées

France and war is a rather long story

As we this year celebrate the centenary of the bravely-fought battles of Verdun and the Somme, France’s memoirs are nevertheless still overshadowed by the military humiliation of 1940 that led to the unconditional surrender of the power that had once ruled the world and made Britain tremble. Yet, France has been rebuilding its military might ever since the beginning of the Cold War – with De Gaulle securitizing a siege at the Security Council, the first nuclear weapons tested in the Pacific and Prime Minister De Villepin saying ‘non’ to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s intervention in Iraq. Although the days of Louis XIV and Napoleon have now passed, unlike what the media worldwide seem to infer [1], France is not done. Then what role should it be playing within the international system? Should it be a military one only?

 

A declining country?

‘Decline’ is a rather simple idea, it is however hardly effectively measurable on the long term. From 2007 onwards France’s economy has been shrinking leading to mass unemployment, restructuration and financial imbalance. Furthermore 2015, its anus oribilis, saw a huge decrease in France’s still fluctuating GDP (0.7%) [2]. Indeed, the two terrorist attacks and the state of emergency that ensued have had a considerable impact on tourism– one of the country’s main sources of income – and French commerce in general. Politically, the population is divided and utterly mistrusts Mr. Hollande – 75% unsatisfied [3]. Hence the fact that – with the 2017 presidential elections coming – the world fears the rise of the Front National, the far-right party. Actually, recent socio-political divisions – due to the rebirth of nationalism triggered by both terrorism and migration – have drawn the world’s attention to France and emphasized its blurred and diminishing influence within the EU [4]. In fact, the recent unsustainable situation in Calais coupled with migrant-related crimes such as the aggressions in Cologne have torn the French apart: half of the people’s position is now aligned on the FN’s, the other half has a strong anti-FN position. Consequently, Marine Le Pen demanded a referendum to be held à propos a potential ‘Franxit’ to ‘protect’ France against what it strived to create [5].

Considered unstable, weakened and dangerous due to economic, social and political factors at the national level (even more since the proclamation of the state of emergency that some relate to a new ‘martial law’ – establishing ‘no-go’ zones for instance [6]), au contraire France shines internationally in terms of foreign policy.

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French soldier at the Louvres museum after the proclamation of the state of emergency

 

France and international interventionism: the case of Africa

Although reluctant at engaging the army in any sort of conflict for many years, Paris has followed the U.S.-led coalitions in 1991 and 2001. The country constitutes a key asset to the UN and NATO when it comes to peace-keeping and humanitarian missions around the globe [7]. Besides, France has had its own missions that have reinforced the country’s international presence and decision-making, particularly in Africa. Indeed, four major military operations have been launched since Mr. Sarkozy’s mandate (2007-2012) onwards [8].

‘Operation Harmattan’ in 2010-2011 whose aim was to bring down Colonel Gaddafi’s regime – following the Arab Spring and the civil war – by involving air and sea powers in a campaign of surgical strikes against Gaddafi and Islamist-held areas. This nonetheless led to Islamist groups fleeing the country to thrive in Africa, benefiting from the weakening of some States. Hence the UN-approved ‘Operation Serval’ launched in January 2013 by Mr. Hollande which ousted AQIM from Northern Mali and helped maintain the integrity of the regime that had asked for assistance (Resolution 2085). France has also deployed troops in the Central African Republic (Operation Sangaris) in 2013-2014 where a coup d’état had drastically destabilized the country; an ethnic-religious genocide between Muslims and Christians was feared by the UN which approved this intervention (Resolution 2127).

These successful operations were backed up by the international community for they were mainly counter-insurgency missions aimed at restoring/maintaining one’s sovereignty in accordance with international law and principles. France has also been joining coalitions and has exercised coercive diplomacy to influence political decisions in order to put an end to humanitarian crisis, especially in the Ivory Coast before 2011. The protection of sovereignty and populations – although contradictory in some cases – are priorities to Paris.

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French soldiers deployed in the Central African Republic in 2013 (Operation Sangaris)

 

Grand strategy and military capabilities: the case of Syria

France’s grand strategy in the Middle East has been made clear: a governmental transition in Syria without Bashar al-Assad, the destruction of Daesh in Syria and Iraq and the support to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their interventions in Yemen and the Middle-East in general [ç]. To fulfil this political purpose, France has mobilized and deployed its military might over the region.

Following the U.S. on its ‘war on terror’ for the sake of democracy, freedom from want and fear and international stability, France has now been fully engaged in Syria since September 2015 under the name ‘Operation Chammal’ [10]. At first hesitant at engaging its armed forces – going through an ‘identity crisis’ concerned with France’s international place in the future – Paris has launched a series of airstrikes against IS-held positions in Syria in September 2015 following its prevailing doctrine of protecting populations and sovereignty against insurgencies [11]. Ever since November 2015, France has intensified this military effort especially targeting Raqqa, and has actively participated to the withdrawal of Daesh troops from territories now in control of the rebels or the Kurds [12].

In order to effectively conduct these operations, France is endowed with military bases covering both the Mediterranean and the Middle East: the airbase of Calvi in Corsica and the military base in the UAE territory [13]. Furthermore, the deployment of nuclear submarines and the French ‘Charles de Gaulle’ nuclear aircraft-carrier enhances that capacity of deployment as well as it allows joint operations to be carried out especially with the RAF and the U.S. Air Force [14].

Cooperation is key and Paris is insisting on the need for a joint commandership to be established. François Hollande has demanded that intelligence be shared between agencies to maximise the effectiveness of the coalition. The DGSE (French intelligence agency) is most likely to be training rebel troops and gathering intelligence on the ground along with the CIA and the MI6 – although unofficial, special units are constantly being sent to the ground. Nevertheless, cooperation may be compromised. In fact, France has been trying to limit the involvement of Turkey in the conflict due to suspicions concerning the Erdogan regime financing Daesh and feeding their effort against the Kurds. Likewise, France appears to not be supporting Israel – it is on the verge of recognising Palestine a State [15]. Both policies heavily differ vis-à-vis the U.S. grand strategy in the region. It therefore weakens the coalition and slows down the resolution of the Syrian conflict, but affirms France’s independent authority within the international community as a powerful nation.

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The ‘Charles de Gaulle’ sailing out of Toulon harbour to be deployed off the Turkish coast

 

The army to save the day?

What conclusions are we to draw from this obvious dichotomy of a country nationally divided and rather disregarded, but internationally brilliantly effective and therefore key to the community of States? Are the armed forces France’s raison d’être? It is clear the army and the nuclear arsenal have participated in its acknowledgement as a great nation in the international system. But that goes even further. Actually the influence of the military – usually abroad – blurs the traditional distinction made between the national and international spheres (state of emergency excluded). French scientific-military genius and warlike engineering skills have tremendously contributed to strengthening the economy in the long term [16]. Indeed, companies such as Airbus (combat helicopters), Thalès (military innovations), Safran (aeronautics), Dassault (military aviation) and Nexter (FAMAS rifle) are very influential in the stock market. As a matter of fact, the purchase of Dassault-crafted ‘Rafales’ by both the Qatar and Egypt has rectified France’s commercial balance in 2015 [17]. Besides, commemorations and military celebrations such as the Russian-style military parade held every year on national day gather the usually divided population to celebrate the country’s History and glorious days to come.

Paris should, in the future, play a more straightforward military role within supranational instances (UN, NATO), but also as a nation that is aware of its capacity of imposing its – and therefore the West’s – will. France’s military might is probably its ‘ultimate’ grandeur to the sense it is the greatest and most influential/decisive both nationally and internationally, nonetheless it is far from being its last.

Reducing the country to its army is missing out a lot. Paris is now expecting a 1.5% growth in its GDP for 2016 and the breath-taking waves of patriotism that ensued from both terrorist attacks are explicitly indicating that France is not a declining country. The troubled period it is facing is everything but new. For instance, remembering the presidential elections of 2002 when the FN ended up facing Jacques Chirac in the final round; France mobilized and voted Chirac at 81%. As divided and unstable as you want to see it, France still has this exceptional ability to rebound and to make the right decisions at the right time. Because obviously, France is not done and remains key to the international community of States.

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The Eiffel Tower had been lightened in red-white-blue following November’s attacks

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11171314/France-is-a-nation-in-decline-and-Britain-could-be-next.html

[2] http://www.insee.fr/fr/mobile/conjoncture/tableau-bord-conjoncture.asp (First graph)

[3] http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2016/01/24/la-cote-de-popularite-de-hollande-en-baisse-celle-de-valls-en-legere-hausse_4852555_823448.html

 

[4] http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/societe/2016/03/18/31003-20160318ARTFIG00359-crise-migratoire-la-rupture-historique-qui-pourrait-emporter-l-europe.php

[5] http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/2016/02/20/01002-20160220ARTFIG00014-le-fn-promet-un-franxit-sur-le-modele-du-brexit.php

 

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/12/paris-lawsuit-fox-news-reporting-no-go-zones-non-muslims

 

[7] http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/defence-security/french-defence/france-and-nato/

 

[8] http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2011/04/07/01003-20110407ARTFIG00735-les-forces-francaises-engagees-sur-plusieurs-fronts.php

 

[9] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-34372892

 

[10] http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2015/09/15/01003-20150915ARTFIG00403-frappes-contre-daech-en-syrie-comment-la-strategie-de-la-france-a-evolue.php

 

[11] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/27/middleeast/syria-france-isis-bombing/

 

[12] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/15/middleeast/france-announces-raqqa-airstrikes-on-isis/

 

[13] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23849386

 

[14] http://www.euronews.com/2016/01/22/charles-de-gaulle-aircraft-carrier-docks-in-uae/

 

[15] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/30/france-recognise-palestinian-state-if-peace-effort-fails-ultimatum

 

[16] http://www.lefigaro.fr/conjoncture/2014/08/07/20002-20140807ARTFIG00253-commerce-exterieur-aeronautique-spatial-etautomobile-en- pointe.php

[17] http://m.lesechos.fr/redirect_article.php?id=021575436493&fw=1

 

 

Photos credits:

 

1-Military parade: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18842638

 

2- French Soldier and the Louvres: http://www.smh.com.au/world/paris-attacks-day-four-world-leaders-step-up-fight-against-islamic-state-20151116-gl0h67.html

 

3- Operation Sangaris: http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2013/12/07/operation-sangaris-recit-images-retablissement-paix-centrafrique_n_4404164.html

 

4- Charles de Gaulle : http://www.globalresearch.ca/frances-aircraft-carrier-group-charles-de-gaulle-to-leave-for-middle-east-to-fight-the-islamic-state/5489260

 

5- Eiffel Tower: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/paris-terror-attacks/eiffel-tower-glows-french-colors-honor-victims-n464286

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The Canadian conundrum: End of Canada’s airstrikes and the rise of grand strategy

by Nicolas Seidman, a first-year War Studies student at King’s College London.

The saying goes – give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The Canadian government has ceased all airstrikes against ISIS in order to focus on, what it sees, as more effective means to increase long term regional stability. Prime Minister Trudeau stated that by February 22nd all six of its fighter jets would be withdrawn.[i] He does this despite Canada’s membership to the US-led airstrike coalition against ISIS. The question can therefore be asked: Does this undermine the efforts against ISIS? Does this show unwillingness of Canada to fight ISIS? In short, No.

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To begin with, allied forces[ii] have engaged in only 31.9% of all airstrikes in Iraq since August 2014.[iii] The rest are conducted by the United States Air Force (USAF). Of those 2271 allied airstrikes, Canada is the third lowest country to contribute, with just 246 in total.[iv] This means that it has engaged in more or less 2% of all total airstrikes. If anything, Canada helps most by maintaining a perception of cohesion amongst the coalition. Denmark and Belgium are the only countries engaging in less airstrikes. Canada’s contribution is dwarfed by the rest of the coalition – not to mention the US. This should therefore come to no surprise that Canada has figured out other ways to help the coalition’s goal of defeating ISIS. It will continue to supply air-refuelling and surveillance assistance to its allies, however will branch off into other areas. It strives to address issues that jeopardize long-term stability. Trudeau perceives the use of bombing as a ‘short-term military and territorial gains’ but not for ‘long-term stability for local communities.’[v]

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CF-18 fighter jets, accompanied by a U.S. Air Force jet, are refuelled by a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker on Oct. 30 over Iraq.

Canada looks beyond the now and into the when.

When ISIS is either defeated, destroyed or overthrown, it is necessary to ensure there is a concrete political and physical infrastructure to keep the region propped-up. Trudeau pledges more than $1.6 billion over the next three years to increase humanitarian aid and security in the region for the goal of improving stability.[vi] This includes $840 million over three years in humanitarian assistance and $270 million over three years to “build local capacity” in Jordan and Lebanon, where there are a large number of refugees. This assistance will help combat local radicalization by improving the standard of living for many. Similarly, local capacity-building is to ensure stronger governance via education, economic growth and infrastructure. This reflects Trudeau’s understanding of grand strategy and the overall political objective as to why the West is even fighting in the Middle-East. The grand strategic goal can be said to be a stable transition from ISIS controlled territory to a well-governed entity that can supply both a good standard of living as well as security. Airstrikes are one of many tools of hard power (i.e. military means) to obtain a political objective. However it is not a strategy in itself. The shift toward soft power (i.e. non-military means) by Canada shows that this conflict brings about many more dimensions than military engagement alone. That being said, we must not forget that local forces must be able to reinforce the authority of the reinstated power.

By increasing the efficiency of local forces Canada hopes to fill the security gap necessary for future regional stability. Currently the most vital ground force combating ISIS is the Peshmerga forces.[vii] Canada hopes to improve their ability to combat the jihadists through more training and armament. Trudeau declared an additional 230 Canadian armed force personnel and a triple of current Special Forces to train the local Kurdish force. He extends his confidence in their capabilities that Canada will supply SALW (small arms and light weapons) such as rifles and machine guns to more effectively engage in combat.[viii] Eventually, Western troops are going to pull out of the Middle-East. When that happens, (if even in our life time) the capability of local and regional security forces to retain order must be strong.

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Canadian Armed Forces members stand in front of the new Camp Patrice Vincent commemorative wall at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on November 11, 2014. Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera

 

Not a rift but a shift

Trudeau’s decision to shift its focus away from hard power and into soft power does not undermine the coalition or the overall ability for the West to combat ISIS. If anything the US’ approval of the Canadian change of plans shows there is an understanding that the operational level needs change; epecially in September 2015 when there was something of a ‘tactical stalemate’ according Martin Sempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.[ix] Canada’s recent decisions could influence other policy-makers to rethink their own strategy. The threat of ISIS has been looming over the World for some time. With some would say no end in sight. Maybe Trudeau has a point, eh?

[i] “Canada Set to Cease Air Strikes Against Isis As Justin Trudeau Says Syrians ‘need Our Help – Not Our Vengeance’ | Americas | News.” The Independent. Accessed March 3, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/canada-set-to-cease-airstrikes-against-isis-as-syrians-need-help-not-vengeance-a6862491.html.

[ii] France, UK, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and Canada

[iii] “Airwars.” Airwars – Monitoring the Coalition Air War Against ISIS. Accessed March 3, 2016. http://airwars.org/data/.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “ISIS Airstrikes by Canada to End by Feb. 22, Training Forces to Triple – Politics – CBC News.” CBC.ca – Canadian News Sports Entertainment Kids Docs Radio TV. Accessed March 3, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justin-trudeau-canada-isis-fight-announcement-1.3438279.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Inside the Kurdish Fighting Forces: the U.S.’s Proxy Ground Troops in the War Against ISIS – The Washington Post.” Washington Post. Accessed March 3, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/02/02/inside-the-kurdish-fighting-forces-the-u-s-s-proxy-ground-troops-in-the-war-against-isis/.

[viii] “War on Isis: Canada to End Air Strikes Against Daesh in Iraq and Syria on 22 February.” International Business Times UK. Accessed March 3, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/war-isis-canada-end-air-strikes-against-daesh-iraq-syria-22-february-1542678.

[ix] http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/616656/dempsey-future-of-isil-increasingly-dim

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Saudi Arabia and Iran: A Middle Eastern Cold War?

Andrei Popoviciu is a first year International Relations student in the War Studies department at King’s College London. He has a particular interest in conflict, human rights, international and regional relations with a special focus on Middle Eastern affairs. He is also the Social Media Editor of International Relations Today.

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The conflictual relationship between the Islamic Shia Republic of Iran and the Sunny Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been thoroughly analysed by scholars and deemed to be one of the most enigmatic and controversial relationships in the Middle East. Aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, interactions with the West (especially the US), oil export policies, nuclear weapons programmes and involvement in regional conflicts have been the main headlines that guided and influenced the relationship between the two Muslim states that is yet to be considered stable. Their affairs are considered antagonistic and tense mainly because of the abundant differences in political ideologies and agendas that are reinforced by dissimilarities in religion and governance. The Sunni Kingdom is known to have potent ties with the US and western countries such as the United Kingdom whereas the Shia Islamic Republic is more of a region-focused actor that dismisses external intervention in regional affairs and is the harbour of anti-Western values. The turning point that unsettled the relationship of the two states was the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which created such a deep gap between the two that its reminiscences are felt even today. Relations eroded furthermore because of the Saudi Arabian ties with the US, which gave the Sunni Kingdom the title of the US interest focused state of the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, Iran is believed to worsen the diplomatic dialogue because of its keen interest on regional dominance and its nuclear programme. This piece endeavours to analyse the depth of the relationship and the variables that influence the dialogue between the two countries.

Affairs between Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently been tainted by the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The dispute arose in January due to the execution of the cleric in Riyadh on the 3rd of January, the incident setting a storm of protests and events that only worsened what is seemed to be an improvement in the relations of the two states. Nimr was executed in Saudi Arabia alongside other 46 people on charges of terrorism and incitement of violence in the Sunni Kingdom. Iranian protesters vandalised the Saudi embassy as a response and created a series of diplomatic reprisals and arguments. Iran was accused by Saudi Arabia of instigating a “sectarian strife” in the region and was heavily adjudged of interfering with Saudi affairs. This event reinforces the idea of a gap between the two and as Saeid Golkar, an Iranian expert at the Chicago Council on Global affairs told Al Jazeera “the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia is only getting wider by the day” making it “more difficult for the two nations to establish a rapprochement in the short term”. The Iranian public opinion called upon the Saudi decision and called it disgraceful. Ahmed Alibrahim a Saudi affairs specialist told Al Jazeera that “Saudi would not have cut its diplomatic relationship with Iran” if it weren’t for the attack on the embassy.

Furthermore, both nations are major oil & gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy repeatedly. They both have very different perspectives in this area, Saudi Arabia being focused more on long-term collaboration with the global oil market by setting temperate prices whereas Iran is more engrossed in a rather short-term initiative by setting high prices. This only shows the separation in perspectives and agendas on the aforementioned issue and strengthens the contrast between the two.

There have been occasions and efforts to try and resolve the diplomatic relationship but they were always worsened by the nations’ involvement in the Syrian conflict and other events and actions that are believed to have affected their relations. Fawas Gerges, head of the Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) said that the current diplomatic conditions of the two countries will negatively affect the Syria talks and “nothing will come out” of them as Saudi and Iran are still conflictual. However, the two, declared that the escalating dispute would not affect international efforts to end the war in Syria and they will still be part of the plan endorsed by the UN Security Council.

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But what could the long-term consequences for the Syrian Conflict and for the Middle East be? Could a more serious conflict be hold off because of the Syrian war? The instability between the two has posed serious questions on how allies will act in the region. It is important to recognise such variables as a conflict between the two would be disastrous and asymmetrical.

Moreover is it important, as stated above, to take into consideration the possibility of a military conflict. What would the prospects be in the case of war? Presumably, if the US stayed out of it, Saudi Arabia would lose. First of all, the monarchy keeps its military force low due to fear of being overthrown, hence Iran’s significant advantage when it comes to military power. Second of all, Iran owns a series of anti-ship missiles that are in air range of the Persian Gulf, thus being able to strangle Saudi’s petrol flow. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s pipeline wouldn’t be able to deliver the same amount of petrol that ships do through the gulf, this giving Iran the upper hand in the situation. Thirdly, the petrochemical industry of the Sunnis is within flying distance of Iran’s military base, this giving Iran the possibility to destroy the petroleum industry within days. Fourthly, Saudi Arabia has quite a significant population of Shias, building up to 15% of its 30,770,375. The minority could rise a huge issue of trust in case of a conflict, taking needed troops away from the combat with Iran. Of course, these factors are to be treated as hypothetical due to the fact that the US would never permit such events to occur without making use of every diplomatic option available.

Another important aspect of their relationship is religion. Is it the cause behind the uprising tensions and could it be one of the core reasons behind the conflictual states of the diplomatic dialogue of the two nations? When Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, it didn’t know how and if Iran’s Shia-dominated government would react. Hence, Iran and Saudi Arabia severed their diplomatic relationship, supposedly, due to their rooted religious beliefs which happen to differ. This supposition is very easy to make since the religious feud has been going on for hundreds of years; but are the reasons behind the execution related to the religious division between the two? Or is it the regional and domestic political agendas the reason behind every action both Arab states engage in? The Saudis see Iran’s nuclear deal with the US to be a threat to their regional dominance. Due to this deal, Teheran’s economy and its relations with the US are about to improve, thus making Riyadh aware of the benefits it is going to lose to Teheran (no more political, economic and military training from the US). Iran will not take Saudi Arabia’s place as a western ally but Riyadh will have to be more careful when countering Iran’s actions in this situation. Furthermore, Saudi power is on the decline, as it can be clearly seen by the military failures in Yemen, whereas Iran is slowly gaining political influence and regional power. Riyadh spent huge amounts of money and was still not able to defeat the other forces who do not have the western support, the money or the weapons to efficiently fight back, hence its wish to degrade Iran and restabilise their influence.

“Playing the anti-Shia and anti-Iran cards is a pretext for the Saudi government to crack down on domestic opposition, call on its regional allies to take sides against Iran, and deflect attention from its geopolitical, military, and economic failures. So far, their strategy might be working. However, trading short-term domestic stability for an indefinite period of regional instability is a roll of the dice. There is no guarantee that sectarianism can be reined in once it has been unleashed.”

 Reza Marashi, Vice News

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Despite these insurgencies and the tense political atmosphere, the countries need to solve their issues by pursuing diplomacy and not through proxy wars, military combat or other strategies that might do both harm. It could be said that the west plays an important role in the two nations’ diplomatic dialogue and that without the US involvement in their relations a conflict could spark in the already unstable region.

I think mostly it’s going to be very important for Western actors to recognise the need to strike a balanced approach in this escalation.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, Iran expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR)

The ironic thing is that weeks before the current diplomatic hassle, Iran and Saudi Arabia were actually making noteworthy progress in their relations that would have paved the way for the arrival of Riyadh’s new ambassador to Teheran.

What is intriguing is the European Union’s stance in this conflict. The EU wants to maintain the continuous gas and oil flow to its Member States and to protect commercial interests in the region, but has neither the power nor the commitment to take sides in a long battle of egotistic intentions between Teheran and Riyadh. Hence, will the lack of consistency in both countries policies towards one another stop or will it continue until a third party intervenes? In other words, is foreign intervention necessary to resolve the diplomatic conflict between the two powerful nations or is it a regional issue that needs the sole attention of the two parties involve.

SOURCES

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/fears-grow-saudi-iran-row-160110125118818.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/10/iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east-war-nimr-al-nimr-execution

https://news.vice.com/article/why-the-fight-between-iran-and-saudi-arabia-isnt-about-religion

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35251833

 

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Counter-terrorism, Syria and Military Intervention: A Chinese Perspective

Dean Chen is a first-year BA International Relations student at King’s

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As the British Parliament has authorised air strikes in Syria, we are coming to a very interesting situation: four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are currently carrying out military action against a common enemy. The last time when this happened was during WWII. The only missing one, China, which was widely regarded as a rising world power, seems to be mute about the situation in Syria. This piece will try to offer readers a Chinese perspective on counter-terrorism and the situation in Syria. It believes that China is not ‘mute’, but rather playing a constructive role in these issues, although her ways and underlying logic might not be well understood by many. By the end of this piece, it is hoped that readers will have a more comprehensive understanding of China’s stance and policy concerning the above issues.

China is not immune to terrorist threat. In November 2015, a Chinese citizen was beheaded by ISIL. In 2014, a terrorist attack in Kunming (a city located in Southwest China) resulted in 33 deaths. In 2013, a suicide attack at Tiananmen Square in Beijing (widely regarded as the political heart of China) killed 5 people. Domestic terrorist organisations have long been present in China. The most famous ones are the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ and ‘East Turkestan Liberation Organisation’ whose main sphere of activity is Xinjiang Province in Northwest China. Xinjiang has a large Muslim population and these organisations aim to establish a fundamentalist Islamist state in Xinjiang. Since their establishment, they have claimed responsibility for hundreds of terrorist attacks. In addition, it is believed these organisations have connections with Al Qaeda, and several hundred jihadist fighters from China have joined ISIL. The counter-terrorist situation China faces, is one that combines the threats of violent terrorism, religious fundamentalism and separatism, linked to international terrorism network.

The Chinese government is taking strong measures to combat terrorism. According to Chinese media, Chinese military and police have successfully destroyed 181 ‘violent terrorist groups’ in Xinjiang. [1] Actions are taken to cut connections between domestic terrorist organisations and international terrorist networks, especially stopping radicalised individuals from joining ISIL. By tackling domestic terrorist groups and stemming the flow of fighters joining ISIL, China is making her own contributions to international counter-terrorism. The underlying logic of China’s approach is consistent in her foreign policy: by solving her own problems and advancing China’s development, China is effectively contributing to solving international problems and fostering global development.

Needless to say, terrorism is benefiting from the chaos in Syria. If terrorism is to be eradicated, the coordination of counter-terrorism policy with conflict-resolving policy in Syria is essential. The following part of the essay will look at China’s policy regarding Syria.

Peaceful means of conflict-resolving, dialogue, political solution, non-intervention are key words of China’s policy towards the Syrian conflict. China vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions proposing sanctions and military intervention targeting Syria. China has consistently supported UN-led peace initiatives, including the Geneva Communique, the second round Geneva dialogue and the Arab League-UN joint special envoys. These actions are reflections of the stance that China has consistently upheld, which can be illustrated by the following statement:

‘Our fundamental point of departure is to safeguard the purposes and principles of the UN Charter as well as the basic norms governing international relations, including the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in others’ internal affairs, to safeguard the interests of the Syrian people and the Arab states, and to safeguard the interests of all countries, small and medium-sized in particular. This is China’s consistent stance in all international affairs. It is not targeted at a particular issue or time.’ [2]

These actions and statements strongly suggest China’s highly principled views of resolving the Syrian conflict: (1) the conflict should be resolved through peaceful dialogue involving both sides, and military means should not be adopted; (2) the principle of non-intervention and sovereign equality should be the number one principle of international relations, and no other principle should be above it. [3]

In light of new developments of the Syrian conflict, especially the unexpectedly swift rise of ISIL, China’s attitude is undergoing changes. The beheading of a Chinese citizen by ISIL earlier this year has invoked louder calls for the Chinese government to adopt more proactive policy regarding Syria. On November 20th 2015, China voted in favour of UN Security Council resolution S/RES/2249 (2015) in support of UN member states’ action to ‘redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL’. [4] However, this change in attitude should not be exaggerated. The deep concerns of China have not yet changed: she is concerned that military intervention in Syria could establish a dangerous precedent for military intervention against sovereign states; she is also concerned about the abuse of power by certain states to promote regime change for geopolitical purposes. [5]

In conclusion, regarding counter-terrorism and the Syrian conflict, China adopts a relatively restrictionist policy: she is largely focused on tackling domestic terrorist threats, and consistently advocated the principle of state sovereignty and political solutions to the Syrian conflict. The underlying logic of China’s policy is that by solving her own problems and exercising restraint in international relations, China is effectively contributing to solving international problems and maintaining international peace. China is often criticised for dodging international responsibility, but perhaps her approach might provide different perspectives for considerations.

[1] See “新疆反恐:一年已打掉181个暴恐团伙” [Counter-terrorism in Xinjiang: destroying 181 violent terrorist groups in one year] November 20, 2015 http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2015-11-20/1124844389.html

[2] Explanatory Remarks by Ambassador Wang Min after General Assembly Vote on Draft Resolution on Syria, Permanent Mission of the People‘s Republic of China to the UN, August 3, 2012, http://www.china-un.org/eng/hyyfy/t958262.htm

[3] Swaine, M.D., 2012. Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict. [online] Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/swaine_clm_39_091312_2.pdf

[4] Security Council resolution, Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts, S/RES/2249 (November 20, 2015)

Available at: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2249(2015)

[5] Swaine, M.D., 2012. Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict. [online] Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/swaine_clm_39_091312_2.pdf

 

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Post-Paris Domestic Dialogue: Posturing and Prejudice in France and the United States

By Lincoln Pigman, BA War Studies at King’s College London.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks of November 13th, observers and analysts took to projecting the post-Paris world. Journalists and academics alike overwhelmingly focused on international cooperation against Daesh, ignoring the future of national security discourses in France and abroad. However, since the attacks, international dialogue has produced little save a United Nations Security Council resolution ‘calling upon’ and ‘urging’ member-states to counter Daesh, a document that serves only to license intensified French bombing of Syria and Iraq.[i] In contrast, domestic developments have seen an empowered right in France and the U.S., key coalition states, exploit pervasive insecurity and prejudice, winning popular support and forcing the left to grow more aggressive in its discussion of national security and counterterrorism policy. A hawkish shift bears significant implications for the future, risking full-scale intervention against Daesh and threatening the revitalisation of the post-9/11 surveillance state. The former promises a recruitment boom for Daesh; both undermine the West as a beacon of liberal and humanitarian values. As such, it is imperative that observers track and analyse the domestic impact of the Paris attacks.

In both the United States and France, the Paris attacks have played into the hands of rightist elements: the Republican Party and the Front National. Both occupy significant positions in their respective political systems. The Republican Party represents 41% of the American population,[ii] while recent political victories of the Front National, such as 2014’s European Parliament elections[iii] and December’s regional elections,[iv] reveal its increasing popularity. Much of the support enjoyed by the Republican Party, leaderless until primaries end in June, and the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, comes from a conflation of narratives: of vulnerability to terrorism and the proliferation of Islam.

In France, where xenophobia runs high, Le Pen’s attacks on religious and ethnic diversity resonate with conservatives. In 2010, Le Pen appealed to historical memory and pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment when she equated the public practice of Salaat to the Nazi occupation of France:[v] an incursion both cultural and violent. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Le Pen returned to this theme, asserting that the diversification of France and the border policies of the European Union, whom she likens to the Soviet Union,[vi] had made France ‘no longer safe.’[vii] Le Pen successfully conflates issues of cultural diversity and national security, eliciting accusations of bigotry from the left. However, it is the response of the right that translates into political capital: praise for her honesty in a toxic climate of political correctness.[viii] Her tactics are mirrored across the Atlantic, where Republican presidential candidates exploit the Paris attacks to similar ends, appealing to misperception of Islam and fear of terrorist violence.

BESTPIX France Deploys 10,000 Troops To Boost Security After Attacks

With fourteen Republicans running for President, the GOP and its platform of hawkish foreign policy and anti-Muslim social policy enjoy no shortage of media coverage. In fact, candidates are rewarded by screen-time and a rise in the polls for bigoted statements and political posturing, a mechanism that has led to infighting as candidates attempt to out-offend one another. Unsurprisingly, few hesitated to take advantage of the climate of fear and insecurity produced by the Paris attacks. Donald Trump promised to implement a database of Muslims in the United States,[ix] predicating the policy on recollections of Muslims publicly celebrating (‘dancing on the streets,’ even[x]) during the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Although Trump has yet to prove that anything of the sort occurred, his continued lead in the polls[xi] affirms the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment within the conservative base, and, more importantly, suggests that conservative constituents are open to the expansion of the post-9/11 surveillance state.

Other candidates have picked up on the latter, with Bush and Rubio calling for the restoration of the National Security Agency’s powers under the PATRIOT Act.[xii] In addition to embracing classics of the War on Terror such as ‘enhanced interrogation’[xiii] and state surveillance of Muslims,[xiv] the GOP has also tailored its discourse on national security to new developments: namely, the influx of refugees generated by the Syrian crisis, which neatly encapsulates concerns over terrorism and distrust towards Muslims. All fourteen GOP candidates backed the thirty-one governors who refused entry to Syrian refugees, a stance predicated on the discovery of a Syrian passport at the scene of one of the Paris attacks.[xv] That French and Belgian nationals perpetrated the Paris attacks bore no impact on the stance of the Republican Party and its support base. Nor did the fact that none of the perpetrators of jihadist attacks on U.S. soil during, or since, 9/11 entered the country as refugees,[xvi] leaving no precedent for refugees-cum-terrorists attacking the United States.

Whether empirically substantiated or not, it seems, Republican justifications for expansion of the American surveillance state and the curbing of civil liberties resonate with the conservative public. However, liberal observers would be remiss in dismissing the narratives of the right as mere rhetoric, particularly in light of the passage of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which stipulates additional background investigation of refugees entering the United States from Syria and Iraq.[xvii] The success of the SAFE Act affirms the potential for alarmist and inflammatory rhetoric to translate into policy, even in the face of vocal opposition from the President himself. This underlines an important point; having established the dominant narratives of the right in France and the U.S., it is crucial for observers to understand the impact of rightist narratives on the left-wing. For in both countries leftist politicians occupy the highest seat of political power, that of President. Their reactions to rightist discourses affect not only the future form, but also the present shape, of national security and counterterrorism policy.

The success of the Obama and Hollande administrations in offsetting fear and rightist narratives differs significantly. While impassioned, Obama’s response to post-Paris criticism of his Daesh strategy, delivered from the G2O Leaders Summit in Turkey, failed to resonate at home. An ‘unusually angry’ Obama (rightly) accused his critics of political posturing, and of favouring ‘shooting first and aiming later’ over a policy of containing Daesh.[xviii] However, his appeal to prudence, informed by the consequences of American operations in Iraq and Libya, did little to prevent the aforementioned passage of the SAFE Act, or to quell dissent against Obama’s plan for accepting ten thousand Syrian refugees.[xix] With post-Paris approval of his ‘handling’ of Daesh at forty percent[xx] and the revelation that Daesh sympathisers perpetrated the San Bernardino shooting of December 2nd, Obama’s flexibility and freedom of manoeuvre appear ever-tenuous.[xxi] Hollande, on the other hand, won a moral victory when he reaffirmed France’s commitment to accepting Syrian refugees—thirty thousand, no less.[xxii] However, two considerations leave the present author apprehensive concerning France.

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First, in terms of social policy, Hollande’s commitment to the ‘defence of freedom’[xxiii] and the very values assailed by Daesh in Paris has been inconsistent at best and negligent at worst. Much of the goodwill generated by Hollande’s pledge to accept refugees disappeared following the French government’s prohibition of the right to assembly, an act met by fierce resistance during the Paris Climate Conference.[xxiv] Likewise, the state’s decision to close down three mosques and four Muslim prayer rooms, ostensibly because of a risk of radicalisation, speaks to intolerance.[xxv] France’s application of broad new powers granted under an expanded state of emergency law, which has seen two-hundred and sixty-three people taken in for questioning and three-hundred and thirty put under house arrest,[xxvi] has also raised concerns among NGOs like Human Rights Watch, who warn that ‘Now more than ever, France should be irreproachable in its respect for human rights’ and that ‘Excessive restrictions would be a gift to those who seek to instil fear, undermine democratic values, and hollow out the rule of law in France and in Europe.’[xxvii] It seems callous to further erode Europe’s moral standing at a time when disillusionment over democracy and tolerance in Europe attracts so many to fighting with Daesh.

Second, Hollande has increasingly regressed into military language when discussing national security, a marked shift from his compassionate tone following January’s attacks. Yesterday, Hollande encouraged France to ‘not paint people with a broad brush, […] reject facile thinking, […] and eschew exaggeration,’[xxviii] but today, he promises to ‘destroy [the] army of fanatics,’[xxix] that ‘the Republic [will] destroy terrorism.’[xxx] ‘France is at war,’[xxxi] Hollande asserts, and one wonders whether his embrace of aggressive language owes more to the success of Le Pen’s hostility than to the urgency of France’s situation. Although Hollande has yet to militarise discussion of the refugee crisis, he would not be the first to. Not since October, when British Prime Minister David Cameron cited Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which addresses acts of aggression and threats to peace, in defence of Operation Sophia: a military operation ‘tackling’ the influx of refugees, who, it follows, pose a threat to European peace.[xxxii] The potential is there, and with Hollande’s coalition partner in London and his opponents in Paris behaving increasingly bellicose, his rightward shift is far from inexplicable.

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In the United States, Hollande’s rightward shift finds its counterpart not on Pennsylvania Avenue, but on the stages of Democratic Party televised debates. Since the Paris attacks, contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley have struggled to present a convincing plan for defeating Daesh, prompting harsh criticism from even leftist commentators. The Atlantic queried whether ‘Democrats have a strategy against ISIS,’[xxxiii] TIME characterised the three candidates as outright ‘incoherent on ISIS’[xxxiv], and The New Yorker concluded that ‘None of the Democrats has a strategy for ISIS’[xxxv]  While incoherent, all three candidates attempted to respond forceful. The otherwise pacifist Sanders promised to ‘rid our planet of this barbarous organisation,’ and Clinton similarly pledged to defeat ‘the scourge of terrorism’. O’Malley, however, went far beyond the platitudes of his rivals, insisting that the war against Daesh ‘actually is America’s fight.’[xxxvi] Compelled by pervasive fear of attacks on U.S. soil, the Democratic Party appears increasingly disinterested in maintaining its post-Iraq anti-war platform this election cycle, a problematic development given how militarising discourse on Syria makes non-military measures, like deterring states from purchasing oil and antiquities from Daesh, less appealing to policy- and decision-makers.

It remains unclear as to whether the newfound hawkishness of the Democrats extends to the expansion of the post-9/11 surveillance state, which C.I.A. director John Brennan called for shortly after the Paris attacks. Brennan denounced the ‘hand-wringing’ of political figures over intrusive government spying and implied that the Snowden revelations had primarily benefited the ‘murderous sociopaths’ of Daesh.[xxxvii] Brennan’s claims overlook both the presence of a significant surveillance system in France, which nonetheless failed to prevent the Paris attacks,[xxxviii] and Daesh’s use of encrypted communications, which complicates and often precludes government surveillance, as explained by King’s College London’s own Thomas Rid.[xxxix] However, practical considerations such as these have neither discouraged David Cameron from suggesting putting the Snoopers’ Charter on fast track[xl] nor kept politicians, American or otherwise, from taking measures that encroach on civil liberties while doing little to improve national security. It is therefore all the more imperative that post-Paris national security discourses remain grounded in reality, not misperceptions and misrepresentations of the security threat posed by Daesh, or thinly-veiled prejudice.

Pressured by terrified (terrorized, even) constituents and a bellicose right-wing in the wake of the Paris attacks, the liberal administrations and establishments of the United States and France stand on the verge of a rightward shift. Renewed interest in an American surveillance state and in cultural homogeneity in France bear implications for the shaping of social and national security policy alike, and in France’s case, European integration and the Schengen project, to which France has vocally committed itself. If the left is to preserve its platform of tolerance and democratic principles, it must assert said platform, welcoming refugees, cultural diversity, and resisting the temptation to regress into jingoism. It must pursue a course of action against Daesh predicated on diplomacy as equally as, if not more than, force, and avoid militarising discourses on Syria. As the language we utilise grows increasingly aggressive, so do the mindsets of our electorates. It cannot be forgotten that Daesh’s aim in committing acts of terrorism is to spur the escalation of foreign intervention: ‘boots on the ground,’ which would only serve to legitimise it within the region. Even if the truly liberal democracies of the West seek to avoid full-scale intervention against Daesh, they must take care to employ language that does not inadvertently eliminate all other options, an outcome facilitated by a climate of belligerence and fanaticism. In the words of Chatham House’s Ben Saul, ‘We need to hold our nerve and answer terror with liberty, and not the twilight of freedom’—or of rationality and prudence, for that matter.

[i] Reuters, ‘Security Council unanimously calls on UN members to fight ISIS,’ The Guardian, November 21, 2015.

[ii] Mladen Antonov, ‘More Americans identify with Democratic Party than GOP, poll shows,’ CBS News, July 6, 2015.

[iii] ‘France in shock: the National Front’s victory,’ The Economist, May 26, 2014.

[iv] Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Front National wins opening round in France’s regional elections,’ The Guardian, December 6, 2015.

[v] ‘Marine Le Pen: Muslims in France “like Nazi occupation,”’ The Telegraph, December 12, 2010.

[vi] ‘Marine Le Pen: “I don’t want this Soviet Union,”’ Spiegel, June 3, 2014.

[vii] Aurelien Breeden, ‘Le Pen: “The French are no longer safe,”’ The New York Times, November 14, 2015.

[viii] Ben Judah, ‘Marine Le Pen’s Power Will Grow After Paris, No Matter What Voters Do,’ The Independent, November 22, 2015.

[ix] Mehdi Hasan, ‘Why I Miss George W. Bush,’ The New York Times, November 30, 2015.

[x] Reuters, ‘Donald Trump: I was “100% right” about Muslims cheering 9/11 attacks,’ The Guardian, November 29, 2015.

[xi] Philip Bump, ‘Donald Trump is polling better than ever. Here’s why,’ The Washington Post, December 4, 2015.

[xii] Rebecca Kaplan, ‘The 2016 presidential candidates: how they’d fight ISIS,’ CBS News, November 23, 2015.

[xiii] Ed Pilkington, ‘Trump and Carson back use of waterboarding in fight against ISIS,’ The Guardian, November 22, 2015.

[xiv] Ibid. XII.

[xv] Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, ‘G.O.P. governors vow to close doors to Syrian refugees,’ The New York Times, November 16, 2015.

[xvi] Sergio Pecanha and K. K. Rebecca Lai, ‘The origins of jihadist-inspired attackers in the U.S.,’ The New York Times, November 25, 2015.

[xvii] Elizabeth Williamson, ‘Refugee vote a failure for Obama,’ The New York Times, November 19, 2015.

[xviii] Dan Roberts and Patrick Wintour, ‘Obama rules out Syria ground invasion in passionate defence of ISIS strategy,’ The Guardian, November 16, 2015.

[xix] Eric Lichtblau, ‘White House affirms Syrian refugee plan despite Paris attacks,’ The New York Times, November 18, 2015.

[xx] Scott Clement, ‘President Obama’s approval drops in the wake of Paris attacks,’ The Washington Post, November 24, 2015.

[xxi] Dan Roberts, ‘San Bernardino shooter’s alleged Isis link: Obama’s worst political nightmare,’ The Guardian, December 4, 2015.

[xxii] Ishaan Tharoor, ‘France says it will take 30,000 Syrian refugees, while U.S. Republicans would turn them away,’ The Washington Post, November 18, 2015.

[xxiii] Francois Hollande speaking in Washington, November 24, 2015.

[xxiv] Anatoli Scholz and Christiaan Ate Paauwe, ‘Paris: Protests clash with police at cancelled COP21 march,’ Café Babel, December 1, 2015.

[xxv] Alissa J. Rubin, ‘France shuts down three mosques and four Muslim prayer rooms,’ The New York Times, December 2, 2015.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] ‘France: New emergency powers threaten rights,’ Human Rights Watch, November 24, 2015.

[xxviii] Francois Hollande speaking in Paris, January 9, 2015.

[xxix] ‘Hollande: “We’ll destroy army of fanatics,”’ EU Observer, November 27, 2015.

[xxx] John Lichfield, ‘Paris attacks: Francois Hollande warns Europe must control borders to prevent “dismantling of the EU,”’ The Independent, November 16, 2015.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Jethro Mullen, ‘EU military operation against human smugglers shifts to “active” phase,’ CNN, October 7, 2015.

[xxxiii] Peter Beinart, ‘Do the Democrats have a strategy against ISIS,’ The Atlantic, November 17, 2015.

[xxxiv] Joe Klein, ‘The Democratic debate: incoherent on ISIS,’ TIME, November 15, 2015.

[xxxv] Ryan Lizza, ‘None of the Democrats has a strategy for ISIS,’ The New Yorker, November 16, 2015.

[xxxvi] Ibid. XXXIV.

[xxxvii] Scott Shane, ‘After Paris attacks, C.I.A. director rekindles debate over surveillance,’ The New York Times, November 16, 2015.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Thomas Rid, ‘Mass surveillance can’t catch terrorists. That’s the uncomfortable truth,’ The Telegraph, November 16, 2015.

[xl] Ibid.

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Fighting the Islamic State: The case for boots on the ground

 

Patrick Visser is a second year, American-Dutch War Studies Student, voted class most likely to stage a coup two years running”. He loves wars: big wars, small wars, can’t get enough of ’em. After writing this article he will undoubtedly be called a neoconservative.

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It is indicative of how scarred the western psyche has been by the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan that the simplest, most effective way of ending the Islamic State has been dismissed out of hand by the public, decision makers and virtually all serious commentators. The idea of putting “boots on the ground” is not something that is looked at in terms of its costs and benefits, but with a shudder, as something that is unthinkable. This is not good enough. When dealing with a terror as malignant as the Islamic State all options must be considered, especially as boots on the ground may be the only way of ending the conflict quickly and defeating their ideology.

When I propose boots on the ground, I am not talking about small scale special forces units to carry out raids and call in airstrikes as we are seeing now, these are a necessary part of the existing strategy, but too few in number to make a real difference. Nor am I talking about Lindsey Graham’s insane plan to create safe zones with up to 20,000 US troops,[1] which would expose our soldiers to heavy casualties, while doing little to actually solve the problem. I am arguing for a massive, multi-divisional deployment of overwhelming force on the lines of the 2003 march to Baghdad, to conduct a shock and awe blitzkrieg with the express purpose of defeating and conquering the Islamic State. Actual numbers should be determined by military necessity, not political convenience and while this force would necessarily be led the Americans, all parties, including the Russians, Iranians and all the Arab states, should be invited to participate. Around 100,000 men is a reasonable estimate, it could be done with less but this would expose our troops to unnecessary risks.

What makes this different to the disaster that was the 2003 Iraq War? Simply put, time. This force would not be expected to engage in nation building or stay in the country once it has destroyed the Islamic State, the goal is not to transform Iraq and Syria into nice places to live but to remove the threat to ourselves and the affront to humanity that is the Islamic State.

What makes IS a far more serious threat than its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq is its control of territory. It might not be Islamic, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that it is functioning as a state, with a government, a well-equipped army, a taxable and conscriptable population, and a booming economy.[2] It is terrorism on an industrial scale, an order of magnitude removed from the pinprick attacks of older terrorist groups. Fortunately, Western militaries are very very good at breaking states. Nobody does conventional war as well as we do- just ask Saddam. The military feasibility of the conquest of the Islamic State is not in question, and if the 2003 War is anything to go by it could be completed in under 6 weeks with fewer than 300 KIA.[3]

How does this solve the underlying problems in Iraq and Syria? It doesn’t, but it is not meant to. The immediate, domineering problem of fighting IS has meant that none of the underlying problems could be faced anyway- you can’t bring together Iraq’s Sunni’s and Shia in an inclusive government while al-Anbar province is under IS rule. What the defeat of the Islamic state would do is buy time and breathing space to resolve these problems, preferably in conjunction with a settlement in Syria (in which it must now be accepted that Assad must play a role). Once IS loses Raqqa, Mosul and its other population centres, it won’t suddenly cease to exist and it is sure to retreat into the desert and revert to its previous role as a “normal” terrorist group and insurgency, but merely forcing this is already a major and important victory, as without the resources of a state it is a far less menacing threat, both regionally and abroad.

The conquest of IS’s territory would shatter the legitimacy the group has achieved by declaring itself the new caliphate, as for a caliphate to be recognised under Islamic law it must be able to enforce Sharia over the temporal sphere.[4] Indeed, al-Baghdadi’s genius is that he realised people are far more willing to sacrifice for the here and now, rather than Bin Laden’s hazy dream of a world caliphate in the distant future, generations away.[5] Taking this away from the Islamic State removes its most important recruiting tool and sets the jihadist cause back years. It is all well and good to go to Iraq or Syria when you feel you have personal agency in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth, with the added bonus of getting 30-or-so Yazidi slave wives, it is quite another thing to go to fight and die for a losing cause with the entire might of the world’s most powerful army raining down on you.

The Islamic State’s ideology also creates huge vulnerabilities to Western firepower. According to their doctrine, they see the West as the “new Rome” with which they eagerly await a showdown alluded to in the Hadith on “the plains of Daqib” a town in northern Syria that IS was especially delighted to bring under it rule.[6] In a larger sense, they cannot simply melt into the countryside like most insurgencies, as this would throw away the legitimacy they are so painstakingly trying to build up. They are ideologically mandated to test their mettle against our metal. Let’s see how that works out for them. As they are forced to stand and fight, IS militants will be exposed to our overwhelming firepower and slaughtered en masse, not only is this extremely satisfying from a moral standpoint, it will inhibit the group’s ability to bounce back after it is defeated. In Afghanistan in 2001, after the Taliban was forced to concentrate to resist the advance of the Northern Alliance and then smashed by Western firepower, it took so heavy casualties that it could not constitute a major threat to the government again until 2006. In the same war, al-Qaeda never fully recovered from losing its training camps and the majority of its fighters.[7] It is true that attrition, the infamous “body count” cannot alone solve the problems of terrorism, but it does buy time, time in which other actors can work to resolve those problems.

It is often argued that the Islamic State is able to function because it has at least the tacit support of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni population and that once the US leaves, IS will be able to just walk back into the areas it previously controlled. I counter that in the aftermath of a US campaign IS will not have enough fighters left to “bounce back” and would point out that they managed to take al-Anbar Province and Mosul last year, not because the wider Sunni population rose up and drove out the Iraqi government, but because IS fighter beat the embarrassingly bad Iraqi army on the field of battle and then imposed control on the Sunni population. The Islamic State is deeply unpopular in most of the areas it rules and is only able to impose control through fear, not because its citizens have bought into the message of hate that it spouts.[8] For a long term solution we must look to one of the most successful initiatives of the Iraq War- the al-Anbar Awakening, where local Sunni militias, supported by the US and (reluctant) by the central government were able to decisively defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2007 and 2011.[9] Indeed the single greatest enabler for the rise of the Islamic State was the sectarian Maliki governments reckless disbanding of these militias, that left the Iraqi Sunnis unable to defend themselves when AQI (now IS) recuperated.[10] This must be reversed in the aftermath of a successful US led campaign for the victory to last.

Why does the conquest of the Islamic State require American troops? Cannot the same be done with local actors, supported by US airpower, which is the thrust of the existing strategy? Will not US intervention just stir up further anti-western sentiment and help the Islamic State? These are all valid questions, but I would argue that there is no local actor that can do the job. The Iraqi Army is a bad joke, and too dependent on Iranian assistance, which delegitimises it in the eyes of Iraq’s Sunnis; The Kurds are good fighters, but there are not enough of them and they are mostly and understandably focused on protecting Kurdish interests, not the stability of the wider region; The Syrian resistance is a non-factor; and Assad is overstretched and undermanned, and entirely concerned with his own survival. While the US is not popular, it is at least trusted by all factions not to started committing genocide.[11] Indeed, IS has aroused an extraordinarily large coalition against itself, all of whom would be served by US intervention. The idea that Iraqi’s will suddenly start fighting the US, against their own interests, requires a very low opinion of their intelligence- an opinion that I do not share. All the more so as it will be made clear from the outset that the intervention has a strict time limit and once IS is conquered the territory is to be returned forthwith to Iraqi and Syrian control. Charges such as “imperialism” will be thrown around, as they always are, but they are unlikely to gain much traction.

It is possible, likely even, that IS will eventually be ground into dust under the current strategy, the diverse forces arrayed against them are too large to be resisted over the long run. The problem with this is, firstly, that it will take too long, time in which IS can continue its atrocities and carry out attacks in the West, and also that the moral impact of a grinding defeat, with IS able to portray itself as holding off the whole world and fighters able to escape back home to carry out Paris style rampages, is far less devastating to their cause that a short, sharp disaster, where their kingdom is brought crashing down around them in a matter of weeks, their bravest fighters killed in droves and their ideology revealed to be no match for the forces of civilisation. Such a defeat would undermine the morale of Jihadi groups across the world and be a major coup in the global war on terror.

What about the idea that such a campaign would set a precedent? That having done it once we would have to do the same thing for the next Islamic State, and the one after? I would argue that the precedent that we will smash unmitigated evil wherever it rears its ugly head is a good one, both in terms of common morality and in furthering international stability. Especially as the potential for working multilaterally with traditional adversaries such as Russia exists against the Islamic State and such action could be legitimised by the UN Security Council. In any case, precedent is a pretty weak argument to rest opposition on as there is no rule that you have to act in the future as you did in the past, and as people have very short memories when it comes to foreign policy.

In all honesty, the plan I have proposed is not going to happen. We are war weary after the decade long struggle since 9/11 and for most people IS is just something unpleasant we hear about on the nightly news whenever they launch an attack (on the west- their daily massacres in Iraq and Syria barely register) or behead an aid worker. This is something to be mourned, we have become gun-shy, a legacy of our reckless intervention in Iraq. This caution is commendable when it stops us from blundering into disastrous foreign policy adventures, but is a tragedy when it blinds us to an evil that we have the power to put an end to. I will leave you with a quote from Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility”. We have great power, but we have shirked our responsibility. IS wants to be considered a state and play at conventional war. Fine. Bring it.

 

[1] Jenifer Rubin Sen. Lindsey Graham offers a new ‘construct’ to defeat the Islamic State, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/11/17/sen-lindsey-graham-offers-a-new-construct-to-defeat-the-islamic-state/

[2] Helen Lock, How Isis became the wealthiest terror group in history, The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/how-isis-became-the-wealthiest-terror-group-in-history-9732750.html

[3] There is reason to believe that a campaign against the Islamic state would be even easier, as they lack many of Saddam’s heavy weapons and armour, have few men under arms and are geographically smaller.

[4] Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[5] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.193-195

[6] http://searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=041&translator=2&start=0&number=6924; Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[7] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.424-428

[8] Munqith al-Dagher, How Iraqi Sunnis really feel about the Islamic State, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/24/how-iraqi-sunnis-really-feel-about-the-islamic-state/

[9] Lt Col Michael Silverman, Awakening Victory, the entirety of

[10] Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a new authoritarianism, p99-101

[11] Dr Steven Biddle, Iraq After the Surge, http://keats.kcl.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/1483392/mod_resource/content/1/Biddle%20Testimony%20-%20Iraq%20after%20the%20Surge.pdf

 

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