Syria’s ceasefire and the challenges of war termination


The current ceasefire in Syria is under significant pressure and claims of local violations continue to grow. It has, at least, succeeded in reducing the scale of the fighting, which is welcome. The war has, since 2011, led to the deaths of over 300,000 people and displaced internally, or made refugees of, more than 10 million. But US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that the ceasefire is the ‘last chance’ for Syria is problematic. The ceasefire’s likely failure will not constitute an irrevocable watershed that will condemn Syria to perpetual violence. Instead, the problems with Syria’s ceasefire reflect the difficult realities associated with terminating civil wars. Even if the present ceasefire collapses, peace may still be possible. But past evidence suggests there are likely to be many similar failures along the way.

Terminating wars is rarely easy. The challenges of war termination do not necessarily reflect poor strategy or a lack of will but often reflect instead pervasive structural difficulties that defy easy solutions: the difficulties, for example, in creating a point at which all of the key belligerents believe that continuing the war will not benefit them; or in getting key domestic constituencies to accept that peace is necessary. But civil wars, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria, tend to last longer than inter-state conflicts because they exhibit particular war termination difficulties. In consequence, civil wars are more likely to end through military means than political negotiation. Whereas two thirds of inter-state conflicts end through negotiation and one third through military victory, in civil wars these proportions are reversed. The particular problems in ending civil wars include, amongst others, three key factors: their zero-sum character; the multiplicity of actors; and the influence of external players.

Civil wars often take on the characteristics of total wars – they often become zero-sum conflicts in which each side finds it difficult to conceive of legitimate political solutions that do not exclude the other. One reason for this is that in civil wars the key political actors share the same geographical and political space – they occupy the same state. Belligerents, therefore, usually are highly motivated because it appears in a civil war that there can only be one winner: as in Syria, the insurgent forces generally wish for regime change, whereas the regime will wish to extinguish the rebel forces. The consequence is that both sides are likely to have a high tolerance for the costs of war; agreements based on the status quo ante, a ‘white peace’, or political solutions based on limited concessions are unlikely to be acceptable. Thus Assad has stated that he is ‘determined to recover every area’ from the rebels; the rebels that they will ‘fight to the last bullet.’ This motivation is intensified over time by the polarisation that typically occurs between belligerents, with each side developing deeply held ‘enemy images ‘ of one another often along communal, ethnic and religious lines. Cycles of atrocity and counter-atrocity elicit feelings of fear, hatred and a desire for revenge. These events and negative feelings often are exaggerated, or sometimes manufactured, by ‘political entrepreneurs’: leaders that seek deliberately to make their constituencies fearful of others as a way of strengthening their cohesion and commitment, and as a mechanism to mobilise support behind the leadership. In Syria, for example, the Assad regime’s propaganda has been notable in painting in apocalyptic terms for his Alawite support base the consequences of defeat. In such circumstances, actors may not beleive that any legitimate political settlement can be reached with the opponent; or, even if they can, they often will not trust the other side not to cheat on its implementation. How, then, does one create a single political framework with actors that hate, fear, and distrust one another? Where limited agreements do occur, as with the current ceasefire in Syria, often agreement is reached only for limited tactical reasons – to mollify external sponsors, for example; to curry international favour; or to obtain time to regroup and re-arm.

A second general difficulty exhibited in Syria is the proliferation of political actors. This is not simply a two-sided war. Opposition groups, for example, have fluctuated in form over time, with organisations such as the Free Syrian Army or Ahrar al-Sham comprising of often fluid coalitions between disparate sub-factions united by only the most general aspiration of resistance to the Assad regime. One precondition for an end to a conflict is that the key actors agree on what the likely outcome will be of continuing to fight, whether that is victory for one side, or a fruitless stalemate. But the proliferation of armed groups in such conflicts in Syria makes for a multiplicity of different objectives and a multiplicity of different cost-benefit calculations regarding the options for peace or war. For example, the current ceasefire explicitly excludes such radical Islamist groups as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the al-Busra Front as was), giving them every incentive to try to undermine its implementation. At the same time, the loose control exerted over many of the sub-factions by their notional leaders can make it difficult to enforce compliance anyway.

A third, and related, issue is that civil wars also typically draw in multiple external actors. In theory, such actors can play a powerful role in bringing about peace: as the inception of the current ceasefire illustrates, Russia and the US have the ability to strengthen mediation efforts and to encourage or coerce clients to participate in a political process. External actors often are key in ending civil wars because (a) changes in the level of support of local belligerents from external actors can have a profound effect on their military capabilities, as evidenced by the impact of Russian support in turning around the situation for Assad; and (b) because external actors can mitigate distrust between warring factions by guaranteeing a political settlement through such mechanisms as security guarantees, economic incentives, peace support operations and so on. Often, however, external actors contribute to the prolongation of civil wars. As in Syria, it can be difficult to find common ground between regional or international players because they bear only part of the costs of the conflict and their involvement in a civil war can be only one dimension of important wider foreign policy objectives. Syria is a proxy conflict in which Iran, Hezbollah, and the Gulf States continue to struggle for influence; in which Russia struggles with the US to sustain its wider prestige; in which the US tries to continue its fight against radical Islamism; and Turkey continues the process of trying to defeat Kurdish separatism. For this reason, any solution to the war may depend as much upon changes in policy by external actors contingent on such things as changes in government, further prolongation of the fighting, and/or sudden unforeseen events that transform political calculations as it does the actions of local warring factions.

In conclusion, the current ceasefire is unlikely to last. But it is not the ‘last chance’ for peace in Syria. The difficulties with the current ceasefire are a reflection of the recurring problems of terminating civil wars. Further initiatives will occur; some of these also will fail. If a political settlement is arrived at, it is likely to emerge only in the longer term and only, sadly, after continued prolongation of the war.

Image: A Syrian soldier manning a checkpoint near Damascus during the April-May 2012 ceasefire, via wikimedia commons

Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.


Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.


Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UAE’s Jeffersonian Foreign Policy


A small Arab Gulf State is not the first place in the Middle East that one might expect to fashion a foreign policy according to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of the importance of separating church and state. Yet this is what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is doing. Key leaders in the state believe quite deeply in the importance of separating where practical the influence of organised political Islam from political affairs. This central premise has been guiding and driving the UAE’s foreign policy particularly since the Arab Spring.

In Libya the UAE joined in NATO’s operation unified protector to protect the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The UAE then became involved on the ground supporting specific types of groups and political actors. While Qatar, for example, tended to support Islamists of one variety or another, the UAE purposefully supported nationalist-orientated groups (such as the al-Qaqa Brigade and the conglomerate surrounding the Zintan brigades) ranged Qatar’s Islamists. More notably, the UAE emerged in mid-2014 as the central backer of General Haftar, the former Libyan military commander who returned from exile in the US to lead an anti-Islamist crusade – Operation Dignity. The UAE not only supported him and his movement diplomatically and with materiel, but the New York Times reported that UAE fast-jets and special forces were used to support Haftar in his fight against Islamists.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, support for nationalists or at least actors other than Islamists, is also evident in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Though there are exceptions, these are notable by their rarity and thus reinforce the overarching principle.

This Jeffersonian policy stems from lessons drawn by modern-day leaders from the domestic Emirati experience with political Islam. The local chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation – called al-Islah – opened in the UAE in 1974. It soon gained particular traction and influence in the northern emirates of the federal UAE that happen to be far poorer than those in the south (i.e. Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai). Al-Islah members from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the UAE’s northern emirates, even became federal ministers in the 1980s.

But this growth in power of a foreign-born social group unnerved leadership in Abu Dhabi. From the late-1980s onwards, leaders in Dubai and particular Abu Dhabi began to – as they see it – negotiate with al-Islah to lessen their overt influence on Emirati society. But these negotiations did not work and relations worsened between the two antagonists. Eventually, after foreign al-Islah members were deported and others were fired from their jobs, two Emiratis from the norther emirates took part in the attacks of 11 September 2011 and the fears of those in Abu Dhabi were realised. A greater crack-down ensued, yet still al-Islah refused to be cowed or follow its sister Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar that dissolved itself voluntarily in 1999. But the Arab Spring was the final straw. It was proof positive for the Abu Dhabi elite as to the insidious nature of Muslim Brotherhood organisations that seemed to wait at the fringes of societies, preaching about social issues only to take power as soon as the opportunity emerged. In reaction to the Spring, the Abu Dhabi-led government instituted aid packages and extra subsidies aimed mostly at the norther emirates to forestall any early grumblings of discontent, and they banned groups like al-Islah, and arrested hundreds of its members.

This experience then came to guide the UAE’s foreign policy as a whole under the rubric that organised political Islam should not be supported but needed to be opposed. While such a policy based on a key tenet of US political thinking may curry favour for the UAE the beltway, there are two key problems with the thesis. Firstly, a Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy can never be applied towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s behemoth neighbour that institutionally mixed religion and politics. This rhetorical problem becomes a practical problem when both states are engaged in the same environment as with their intervention in Yemen. Here, the two states are operating with different tactical principles in important strategic cities like Taiz. Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to use local al-Islah commanders in their wider war, while the UAE appears to be far more reluctant to empower such groups.

Secondly, and linked to this point, is the fact that the UAE will need to compromise given that so much of the discourse is dominated by religion throughout the Middle East. Pursuing an active and pure Jeffersonian policy will be, in other worse, something of a challenge overall. Though the UAE can certainly support nationalists or other non-Islamist groups, they will rarely be in the majority.


This post is based on Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates’ Secular Foreign Policy published by Foreign Affairs on 18 March 2016.

Thinking the Unthinkable over ISIL

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war in Syria have focussed on managing the conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition. On 22 February, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced a ‘cessation of hostilities’, brokered by the US and Russia, to begin five days later. When it comes to ISIL, the statement of the ISSG specified that:

Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

In other words, the diplomatic effort has attempted to ring-fence the war against ISIL and the less prominent threat of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But, what if the numerous parties mentioned in this statement simply cannot wage a concerted war against ISIL? Indeed, the war effort against ISIL comprises of a messy patchwork of competing interests. Russia wants to back Assad, as does Iran, through it’s urging of Hezbollah to deploy there. Iran also wants to deepen its influence in Iraq, which has been in the ascent since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey wants, above all else, to remove the Assad regime and check Kurdish gains, while the Kurds fight ISIL to safeguard their territory and to boost their autonomy. Western countries may implore others to focus their efforts against ISIL. But fighting ISIL is rather far down the list of priorities for others.

What if, in years to come, the piecemeal war effort against ISIL fails to roll back the group’s control of territory, and perhaps only manages to keep it under pressure and contained? Will ISIL then have to be spoken to? Contemplating negotiations with ISIL means thinking the unthinkable (a term coined by Herman Kahn during the Cold War). The idea is as much abhorrent as it is unfeasible to envisage, given the scattered territory controlled by the group, the violence it uses to manage its rule, and the hatred it engenders amongst so many around the world. A group so wedded to nihilistic violence and an apocalyptic vision, with a seemingly maximalist desire for expansion, surely could never be spoken to. This is certainly true, but one must not assume permanence in the situation as it is today. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could ISIL ever become a fixture on the map of the Middle East? The kind of permanent entity, seemingly impervious to being dislodged and degraded by military pressure, that others have no choice but to work around?

There are no prospects for this at all in the short or medium term. The West wants to destroy ISIL, not talk to it. Moreover, ISIL does not appear to want to exist in a world of states. But, in decades to come, if it can withstand the military campaign against it, ISIL, or its forebears, may need to be dealt with in ways that extend beyond aerial bombing. The unthinkable may be no less palatable in ten or fifteen years from now. But if ISIL still exists, it may become important to consider.

As I argue in an Adelphi Book, which is forthcoming in summer 2016, the perceptions held of armed groups can experience enormous transitions if they manage to perpetuate their existence for decades. Certainly, when Hezbollah carried out a suicide bomb attack on US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or when the Taliban came to global prominence after abetting al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks, nobody could have assumed the continued existence of these groups today. Few would have thought that Hezbollah would become part of Lebanon’s government. Or that the Taliban would absorb the punishment of a fifteen-year NATO military campaign, only to be the subject of an overture by the President of the USA for reconciliation talks.

There is currently no path and no prospects for ISIL to ever achieve any kind of status of this nature. It is absurd, off-putting and defeatist to even contemplate such a future. But that is precisely what thinking the unthinkable asks of us. If the civil war in Syria fails to abate, and the UN effort in support of Security Council Resolution 2254 fails to make progress, efforts to eradicate ISIL’s hold over territory in Syria will be hindered. This, tragically, is not so unthinkable. The patchwork nature of the anti-ISIL campaign is ISIL’s to exploit.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With UN Secretary-General Ban Before Hosting the International Syria Support Group Meeting in New York City, 18 December 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Syria: Bombing, Peace, and Then What?


Stabilisation is out of fashion: burned by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan there seems precious little appetite for engagement any time soon in complex nation-building tasks. Instead, the new ‘concept du jour is ‘Building Stability Overseas,’ a term that encompasses stabilisation, but also a whole range of other more discrete and less complex activities ranging from regional training teams to multi-lateral military exercises.

But, if genuinely we are serious in our commitment to political solutions to the crisis in Syria, it will be difficult to avoid confronting once again the problems of stabilisation experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amidst the controversies surrounding Britain’s debate about extending bombing into Syria, one recurring feature was the rhetorical devotion to the primacy of political solutions and follow-on stabilisation activities. Indeed, the motion passed by Britain’s parliament giving agreement to air attacks in Syria also identified explicitly that military action was ‘only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria’ and that this was a commitment that ‘underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction’. Moreover, as the consequences of our intervention in Libya have demonstrated, attempts at forms of a ‘light footprint’ approach to post-conflict operations may mitigate some of the risks to us but may result in the medium to long-term in outcomes just as problematic as more sustained interventions.

In theory, of course, our experiences over the last decade and a half should have produced a body of lessons that ensure that any future operation in Syria will go much more smoothly. Actually, though, we can’t assume that this is the case.

Thinking on how militaries might approach stability operations in the future reflects predominantly what has been called a ‘Planning School’ approach to such operations: consciously or unconsciously, this approach assumes that re-building the capacity of weak or failed states is a matter of preparation and technique – it is about such themes as planning, inter-agency co-operation, and a ‘whole-of-government’ approach; it assumes that success is a matter of the right doctrine and the right techniques; it reflects a rationalist, problem-solving approach. This approach is reflected in the actual development of military doctrine in such publications as the US Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations, and the United Kingdom’s Joint Warfare Publication 3-40, The Military Contribution to Stabilisation. In performing complex state-building tasks effectively, contemporary military doctrine highlights the importance of such ideas as host nation ownership; legitimacy; integration between different government agencies; effective multi-national coordination; understanding the human terrain; and flexibility and adaptability in approach. As General Sir David Richards, Britain’s then Chief of the Defence Staff, commented in 2009 about Afghanistan: ‘It is doable if we get the formula right and it is properly managed.’ But there is no consensus that this actually is this case.

For some, the difficulties derive from fundamental uncertainties about whether such operations can be done at all. For example, as Ann Hironaka discusses in her book Neverending Wars, the problem might be that since the end of the Second World War we have become slaves to the idea that states cannot be allowed to fail. As a result, we have been trying to sustain through intervention polities that do not any longer deserve to exist: ‘zombie states’. Historically, states have risen and fallen; often the former has been tied to the processes of the latter. Interventions fail, then, because they provide life-support for political entities that actually are dead in their current form. Future attempts at post-conflict stabilisation in Syria may founder, then, on the simple basis that ‘Syria’ no longer constitutes a political entity that can be resuscitated in any meaningful shape. Or it may be that the stabilisation operations that we envisage entail too many internal contradictions. How does one reconcile, for example, the need for peace with the need for justice and reconciliation? Reaching a political settlement may require cooperation with individuals and groups that have been, or are perceived to have been, complicit in serious human rights violations. Is it possible to construct an inclusive, peaceful political structure in Syria whilst at the same time excluding such figures as Bassar al-Assad or the leaders of other key warring factions? But can a solution that includes these figures produce a just and legitimate political order that will last?

For others, stabilisation might be possible, but only if we adopt radically different approaches from those that we espouse today. Roland Paris, for example, has been critical of the emphasis in stabilisation on democracy and markets, and advocates instead, a focus first on establishing strong central government. This ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’ perspective notes that democracy and free markets are adversarial and even conflictual forces. Processes of political and economic liberalisation exacerbate social tensions and undermine stability in the short and medium terms. Weak democracies find it difficult to manage the cut-and-thrust of market liberalism. For example, in Iraq democratisation seems to have reinforced sectarian identities. In order to overcome this problem, Paris argues that in future liberal interventions need to ensure that elections take second place to building the strength of the host government institutions: the judiciary, police, legislative and executive frameworks. Only when a state has the means to manage through peaceful means the conflicts caused by democracy should we then pursue political liberalisation. But such an approach in a future Syria seems fraught with difficulties, not least because it risks creating an authoritarian government that would have no interest in introducing political pluralism and which might simply replicate the problems that have led to the collapse of the Syrian state in the first place.

The problem for us is, therefore, that in the furore surrounding whether or not to bomb Syria, the debate focused on the significance of a follow-on political process and subsequent reconstruction effort, but not whether the latter actually can be made to work. Too much of the debate on Syria has focused on the problems of obtaining a peace settlement. Actually, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have shown, the real problem might be what comes after.

Image: Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender escorts the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush in the Middle East. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Deadly rivalries in Syria, Iraq and Turkey

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Bill Park

The politics surrounding the Syrian and Iraqi crises are a mess. The recently announced Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups is riddled with deadly rivalries and serves only to intensify the sectarian flavor of Syria’s struggle and of the region’s politics. Furthermore, it incorporates jihadi groups that are barely more tolerable than Islamic State (IS) and that undoubtedly intend the west harm. NATO member Turkey backs some of these groups, partly because of their role in fighting regime forces but also in the hope that they can obstruct the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the PYD from advancing further westwards and controlling yet more of the Turkey-Syrian border. However, a consequence of Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber is that Moscow has embarked on a massive bombardment of these Ankara-sponsored groups, which serves both to strengthen the PYD’s position and weaken the opposition to Assad. Given that Washington regards the PYD’s fighters as the most effective force on the ground against IS, this aligns Russian and the US with the Syrian Kurds and against Turkey. On the other hand, Washington’s focus on degrading IS but by and large leaving other opposition groups unscathed, despite the jihadi and anti-western nature of many of them, serves to align the US with Saudi-backed sectarian Sunni groups and entices it towards a forlorn search for ‘moderates’ amongst them. Furthermore, while supporting the PYD despite Turkey’s disquiet, the US simultaneously supports Ankara’s vicious campaign of bombings, curfews and political repression against the PKK, sister party to Syria’s Kurdish PYD. No end to this campaign is in sight, and it is threatening to take on Grozny-like proportions as well as erode what is left of Turkish democracy. Ankara’s campaign extends to PKK bases inside northern Iraq, which is increasingly embarrassing to the KRG leadership, which number amongst Washington’s best friends in the region. Then again, the KRG’s peshmerga, regarded as the best ‘boots on the ground’ against IS in Iraq, are weaker than they could be because the US will only arm them via Baghdad, and which opposes the provision of heavy arms to the KRG. This continuing US commitment to Baghdad in effect aligns it with Tehran, and has led Washington to join Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow in demanding the withdrawal of Turkish forces from a Sunni-supporting base near Mosul. However, unlike those capitals, Washington does not support the Assad regime.

Confusing? Things will get still more so if IS ever is ‘degraded’, which in any case is a meaningless hope as the problem is less IS than jihadiism throughout the Muslim world. Syria’s Sunni groups will fight each other as well as the regime – which Moscow and Tehran will ensure remains in place in some form. The US and its regional allies will struggle to find themselves on the same page in such an intra-Sunni struggle. To add to the complexity, the more the US accepts the reality of Damascus – and it is now showing signs of doing just that, and needs to if a diplomatic agreement is to be found – the more it will alienate its regional Sunni allies. The US will feel obliged, under Turkish pressure as well as that of almost all Syrian Sunni Arab groups, to betray the PYD, which can see the writing on the wall and is already shifting towards Moscow, which will support a decentralized Syria as the best means of maintaining an Alawite presence in the country’s governance, and will also cherish the opportunity to spite Ankara. In Iraq, the territorial struggle between Baghdad and Erbil will resume, only this time Tehran-inspired Shia militias will provide the chief opponents to the peshmerga on the ground. In fact, this fight has already commenced. Which side will Washington take in this struggle? Only the next US president might know, and none of the likely Republican candidates appear to know anything at all about the region’s complexities. Russia will have incurred the wrath of the region’s Sunnis – in fact it has already done so – while the US will be puzzling over how it managed to simultaneously find itself uncomfortably on the same side on so many issues as Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad, yet also distrusted by its regional Sunni allies for not joining them emphatically enough against Assad and, in Turkey’s case, Syria’s Kurds, and for leaving Iraq’s Sunni Arabs still disenfranchised. Meanwhile, any ‘degraded’ IS will simply reappear, perhaps in a new guise, in other trouble spots – Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan, Tunisia, most frighteningly Libya, as well as the west’s cities of course. This is what we have to look forward to in 2016 and beyond.

Image: the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, via wikimedia commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Russia: coming in from the cold?

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Tracey German

As 2015 draws to a close, Vladimir Putin can reflect on the distance that Russia has come in terms of international relations: having found itself isolated from the West at the beginning of the year, following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is now at the centre of a global coalition to tackle IS, as well as UN peace plans for Syria. However, despite these apparent diplomatic successes, Russia faces a series of pressing challenges over the coming year, which could undermine its desire to play a leading role on the international stage. The rouble and the price of oil have continued to plummet, knocking millions off the value of the Russian economy, inflation and unemployment are on the rise, and international sanctions are beginning to bite, pushing the country into recession. The economic crisis has emphasised the vulnerabilities associated with an economy that is over-reliant on energy exports, whilst demographic pressures, interethnic tensions, and growing economic, political and social disparities threaten the stability that Putin has sought to establish.

The continuing sabre-rattling between Russia and Turkey serves as a useful distraction from these domestic problems, a dangerous situation for all, with the risk of further tensions high. Furthermore, with reports of increasing numbers of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, there is the risk that waning Western attention will facilitate Russian activities there. NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit is likely to focus on the security of eastern allies and the issue of further enlargement, both issues which will lead to continued tension between Russia and NATO, over the latter’s attempts to strengthen relationships with countries such as Georgia. Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means. The Russian political narrative will remain dominated by anti-Western sentiment as Moscow seeks to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area.

Image: Russian Su-24 jet aircraft at Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia, Syria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…The Middle East and the Institutionalisation of ‘Least Bad’ Options

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr David Roberts

In recent years, after the hope of the Arab Spring, Libya went from a swift revolution to a bitter civil conflict. Syria descended into utter Hobbesian chaos radiating refugees foisting crises on countries near and far. Egypt returned to the status quo ante. Tunisia continues to flirt with a successful political transition but suffers from regular, deadly terrorist attacks. Algeria remains frozen in its autocratic mould. The situation for the Palestinians is dire and hopes for a two state solution are as dim as they have ever been. The situation in Iraq inexorably deteriorates as the medieval fascists in Islamic State continue their rampage. And the Arab Gulf States are increasingly mired in a deep sectarian funk and have engaged in a brutal war in Yemen that will lead the way, as it were, for the downward trajectory to continue.

Yemen remains wracked by fighting. The campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been enormously costly in terms of lives and loss of infrastructure. And the state that was already on the cusp of humanitarian disaster is now resolutely in the midst of complete catastrophe. 82% of the population, some 21.2 million people, are classified as ‘in need’ by the UN, a near-unfathomable number more than those ‘in need’ in Syria. Worse still, when the conflict is over, the Gulf Arab states dealing with low oil prices and domestic budget shortfalls will struggle to rebuild what they have broken. Otherwise, the Houthis – the quasi-Shia group that the Gulf coalition is so eager to crush – though taking a pounding, are employing classic guerrilla warfare tactics, melting into cities, and hunkering down in their tribal and often mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise that became a household name with its attempted attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009, has enjoyed a resurgence without any concerted pressure from a central state. All these factors coalesce to make Yemen a depressingly likely candidate to follow Syria and Iraq down the road of becoming a state in name only that harbours and incubates terrorist groups that pose a grievous security threat to the wider international community.

Searching for positives is an exercise in hope over expectation. One would have to be excessively Pollyanna-like to expect that the cease-fire in Yemen or the peace talks in Libya to make a drastic difference. And one would have to be near-certifiable to expect, for example, the UK’s recent announcement of airstrikes against IS targets in Syria to make any kind of strategic difference. Perhaps a better imagination is needed to conceive of truly positive, important developments in the MENA region in 2016. But the experience of recent years simply does not lend itself to optimism. Instead, policymakers are left with depressing calculations of ‘least bad’ options that seem to worsen as the months go by. The region’s turmoil has to end at some stage, but there are no reasons to expect that this will be in 2016.

Image: Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria, via wikimedia commons.

Russian Messaging and Intention in Syria: Perception Through Strategic Culture?


Russia’s intervention in the morass of Syria’s civil war was as dramatic as it was sudden. To date, much of the Western punditry has been pondering the question, what is Russia’s aim? Is it to attack IS, support Assad or challenge the West? Is it sending a message to global audiences of Russia’s re-emergence as a putative superpower, or feeding a domestic agenda? The simple answer is that it is all these things, and more.

Despite many strengths to the Western-centric thinking, there is a tendency to see events in binary terms of either/or: either the Russian regime is doing this, or it is doing that. As Russian and Soviet scholars, including James Sherr and Robert Bathurst, have pointed out there is often a duality to Russian action, although perhaps it is better to describe it as being polysemous: having multiple meanings, some of which do not perfectly overlap or synchronise. As Sherr commented; To the Russian mind, contradiction is part of life itself, not a sign of intellectual failure. It is something to be utilized, not overcome.

This post takes a brief look at Russia’s multiple objectives and messages behind its actions in Syria, suggests some of the reasons behind them, before outlining the dangers behind such actions, and why they are not physical so much as cultural and informational.

Russia operations in Syria fall broadly under the umbrella of conventional operations. However there is a clear link between Russian conventional and hybrid war in this way: regardless of whether the tool is one of physical violence or of non-physical conflict, Russia uses conflict to send clear and powerful political messages, supported by informational warfare (a concept I explore in a podcast here), and which are interlinked to wider events, both in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. To understand them more fully it is better to relax the ‘either/or’ dichotomy, and to see Russian actions in a more polysemous form.

So what are signals that Russia is sending in Syria, and what are the purposes?

First, there is the ostensible reason presented to the United Nations: that the Russian regime will work with the legitimate government of Syria and its allies to counter international terror in the shape of IS. Clearly Russia does not want to see Sunni terrorism spreading, especially given Russia’s significant Muslim population. However, simultaneously there is another message. The BBC and others reported that Russia’s first strikes were not on IS but on the ‘moderate’ armed opposition, which is backed by the US. Russia’s message appears to be this: the overthrow of Assad will not be tolerated, and US proxies who present a threat will be targeted. President Putin’s determination on this point follows recent Russian experience. First, the overthrow of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, where Russia feels that it was misled. Second, the bombing of Serbia a decade and a half ago, an event which significantly boosted anti-Western feeling and exposed Russian political and military impotence.

Next, Russia’s intervention with Iran and Assad gives it a leading role throughout the Middle East as the military power, and military supplier, to Shia and Shia-backed regimes. This is a powerful new role given the on-going frictions in Syria, in Yemen and elsewhere, between US-backed Saudi Arabia, and Iran, now working closely with Russia. As well as a potential boost to the Russian military-industrial economy, Russia gains a political vehicle; into Lebanon (via Hezbollah), to Iran and into Iraq (via Iranian influence over the now Shia-led government), and increased leverage over the Sunni Gulf States (almost all of whom have Shia minorities) with the message; like it or not, Russia needs to be listened to. In addition, it gives it a role opposing the Western world, and in particular the US. If picking your enemies says something about you, Russia is showing that by taking on the global superpower, it must in some way be a global (super)power too. In military terms it’s David versus Goliath, but that is beside the point; this is about Russian, Middle Eastern and global perception. The reality is that Russia has now re-emerged as a significant player in Middle Eastern politics.

There are more operational and less global messages Russia is sending too. First, Russia’s clarity in its political line – all anti-Assad forces will be seen as terrorists and attacked – would appear to send a message to Syria audiences; are you for or against Assad? If successful, this action will split the ‘moderate’ opposition, and undermine the US/Western role in Syria.

Then there is the broader global information warfare which Russia has become exceptionally skilled at fighting. Moscow’s belief in the power of information operations is not new. Propaganda was at the heart of the Bolshevik cause in the early 20th century, and indeed throughout the life of the Soviet Union. Here perhaps the central message to damn Western policymakers is the accusation that Sunni extremism is a product of the West. This accusation dates back to Western support for the Afghan Mujahidin against the Soviet Union, bolsters Russian accusations of Western dilettantism in international policymaking, and speaks to Russia’s heightened sense of threat, which in turn feeds the sense of antagonism and hostility which is being used by the Russian regime to reframe Russian political culture.

This brings us to perhaps the critical point; the internal ‘sell’ to Russian audiences at home. In the media frenzy in Russia which has accompanied its bombing in Syria, Michael Weiss highlighted the link between the creation of an enemy – the United States – and its puppets. According to this point of view, both the Ukrainian ‘neo-Nazis’ and IS are two of the ‘Frankenstein’ monsters created by the USA. He quotes Lenin’s maxim not to separate foreign and internal policy, and indeed that is an exceptionally apt phrase. Russian foreign policy is being used to dramatically reshape – or perhaps reinforce – Russia’s political culture to turn it, and the Russian people, away from so-called Western liberal values to a more unique sense of Russian values. Scholars such as Lilia Shevtsova believe that foreign policy is a means to domestic control. Without the creation of external enemies, the Putin regime cannot survive; “foreign policy is the main instrument of domestic agenda,” she argues. That comment was made in regards to Ukraine but it is as apt for Russian policy elsewhere which fits domestic narrative; that Russia has enemies, that it needs to be strong, that the West is not a role model, that the West threatens Russia, and that Russia’s glory is its defence and security services.

This final point speaks to Russia’s battle over its identity, which since the days of Peter the Great has arguably been built on its concept of itself in relation to the West. Does it embrace or reject the West? Buddy-up, or to confront? In Putin’s mind, Russia’s role is to challenge the West, to confront it, and in doing so re-create Russia in an illiberal, anti-Western guise, rather than a more conciliatory pro-Western model hoped for after the last Cold War.

When one talks about the dangers of Russian action, it is clear that there are physical dangers, such as the risk of ground or air confrontation, seen most recently in the two Russian incursions into Turkish airspace. However the greatest long-term threat is Putin’s determination to use foreign and domestic policy to feed off each other in the creation of a Russia whose all-powerful elites and subdued population believe their country exists to challenge the West. Those dangers are as yet unknown, but creating a ‘wartime’ mentality risks becoming self-fulfilling.

Image: Dmitry Medvedev and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria 11 May 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attribution: