On the ground in Syria, we see various rebellion groups fighting against Assad and among themselves. Besides the notorious ISIL/ISIS (IS), there are different groups which are aligned with the just as notorious Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Al Qaida (AQ) or both and in all cases there are also at least indications of alliance with IS in the battles against Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) in Syria. Assad gets support from Iran and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and various volunteers in the same manner as other combatant groups do. In the middle of this turmoil, Kurdish Armed Forces (KAF) have carved out an area of Syria in which they basically engage in battles against all but mainly against IS and SAF.
In Iraq, the KAF have long before the conflict in Syria started already carved out the Northern area which was at time even protected by a no-fly-zone and seriously contested by Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) between the 2 Iraqi wars. In the middle of the vacuum created by those Iraqi wars and the withdrawal of the Western International Coalition (IC), IS was able to conquer large parts of Iraq and defeat IAF rapidly before their campaign was finally brought to an halt. Iraq becomes direct support from Iran in its struggle against IS and indirect support from remaining small units from IC.
In the air, the picture is entirely different. In Syria and Iraq, the International Coalition conducts daily missions and the local Air Forces only play a minor role in the combat operations. IC mainly operates from bases in Jordan and Iraq with support from naval vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Besides ongoing negotiations with NAVO-partner Turkey to use its bases for operations in Syria and Iraq, Turkey itself has engaged in sorties in Northern Iraq which appear to focus mainly against Kurdish forces and/or PKK.
And since a few days, Russia has entered the equation in Syria and continuous to expand its operations Syria and is obviously preparing to do the same in Iraq. In Syria, Russia has opted for direct air support from bases in Syria and added naval launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea earlier this week. A similar or even wider combination can be expected for Iraq in case Russia would join the campaign there. With this new development and further expansions to be expected in the near future, it is interesting to take a closer look at the constellations so far in Syria and Iraq.
Looking back at the displayed military power of the United States in the past decades, it is clear that the United States is holding back in Syria and Iraq even though the United States is performing the majority of the IC missions against targets in Iraq and Syria. Besides many discussions about the effectiveness and even willingness to directly target IS and AQ in both countries, there is also the question why the United Stated is obviously withholding deployment of its full military capability.
During Desert Storm, the United States assembled an impressive expeditionary force and air armada with its Allies and defeated IAF within weeks. As soon as the United States decided to enter the Balkan War, Serbia was forced to its knees within days of all-out bombardment of its capital, military capabilities and infrastructure. The US-led campaign in Afghanistan is a different caliber because the armed forces of Afghanistan were basically non-existent when the conflict started, so let us not use this campaign for the comparison.
The second War on Iraq did however show what the United States are capable of when it deploys its military might and is committed to defeat its opponent. Within days every thinkable target in Baghdad and across Iraq was set ablaze in what was proudly announced as “Shock and Awe”. Although the US-led coalition was entirely different compared to Desert Storm, the Allies still played a minor role in this campaign. The next demonstration of its capabilities was given in Libya, which was stripped of its military capabilities within days and Air Superiority wasn’t even contested at the moment that the United States dispatched its armada hours after France and the UK started the war against Libya.
Military analysts agree that only Russia and China would be able to withstand the conventional military might of the United States for more than a few days when the United States deploys the result of decades of the worldwide largest defense budget. So why are IS and AQ in Iraq and Syria mainly uncontested? How is it possible that IS can marge across open areas uncontested to launch its next assault without having to endure the fate of for example retreating Iraqi forces during both Wars on Iraq?
Is it because the United States is not willing to enter the war once more and clean up the results of the vacuum it created itself? Some argue that the United States isn’t willing to directly target IS and AQ in Syria because they themselves fight against Assad which the United States wishes to topple without doing the dirty work themselves. Others argue that the United States see IS and AQ as a temporary and regional problem and the fact that it would take once again ground forces to defeat both is withholding the United States from actually actively targeting them.
There is much to say that both reasons apply and are keeping the United States from deploying its full military might. No matter what the real reasons are, it is however clear that the United States has not yet entered the equation with its full military might and doesn’t seem to be willing to do so. Now that Russia has started to deploy its military forces in Syria and appears to be preparing to enter Iraq anytime soon, the United States might change its stance on Iraq and Syria. It wouldn’t be a big surprise when they would decide to leave the campaign entirely just as much as it wouldn’t surprise anyone really when the United States would now enter the battle with all its capabilities to avoid success of the Russian campaign(s).
Russia is at least clear about its objectives. Fight all opposing forces of Assad in Syria and on request of Iraq possibly fight all opposing forces in Iraq. Much to the chagrin of the United States, this includes those forces which the United States have been actively supporting in the past years. This could very easily escalate into a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States but on the other hand, can also be blown out like a candle in the wind without any consequences. All will depend on the question that is on the mind of every analyst these days: will the United States and Russia be able to set aside their differences and agree on cooperation over Syria and Iraq. My guess: they won’t…
A still very unclear factor in the equation is the current and future role of Turkey. So far, Turkey was the strongest regional opponent of Assad and actively supports the opposing forces. Its military campaign in Norther Iraq seems, at least for now, mainly focused against Kurdish forces and against PKK which committed several terrorist attacks against Turkey. Will Turkey play the leading role in forming a coalition between the United States and Russia? Very unlikely because that would mean to accept Russia’s demand of supporting Assad and turn against the opposing forces which Turkey have supported. Will Turkey open its bases for the IC and actively participate in the campaigns in Syria and Iraq? Also very unlikely since Turkey’s economy depends on Russian supplies of gas and oil and simply can’t afford a confrontation with Russia and on the other hand, Russia now more than ever desires unrestricted Bosporus passage. It is therefore more likely that Turkey will gradually decrease its support of opposing forces in Syria and focus its own campaign on weakening the Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.
Israel is another unknown and unpredictable factor in the equation, holding ties with the United States and Russia at varying levels and active contestant in the conflict with its grip on Syrian Golan Heights. Will Israel show the same restrained response as it did while hit by Scud missiles during Desert Storm when it would be attacked by any of the combatant parties in Syria? Very unlikely given the deep conflicts with just about every power in the world over the Iran-deal. Will Israel actively enter the conflict? It might when IS gains more ground in Syria and becomes a direct threat but it appears logical that both the United States and Russia will do what is necessary to prevent this to avoid further and uncontrollable escalation. So we can assume that Israel’s involvement will remain limited to the occupation of the Golan Heights and an occasional strike against Hezbollah targets within Syria.
So that leaves the conflict mainly in the hands of the United States and Russia. It could mean that they finally sit down and work out their differences eye to eye. It could also be the beginning of a gradual escalation to World War III as I described in an analyses several years ago. Scenario: Middle East, escalation of different military campaigns in a single Theater of Operations.
- In case the United States and Russia will actively target IS and AQ in cooperative manner in one way or the other, this can lead to partnerships which will slowly resolve all other conflicts between them, including Ukraine.
- In case the United States and Russia will continue to contest each other’s role in this and other conflicts, this can lead to a direct confrontation followed by global escalation.
- Or it might come close but not too close and the next conflict will bring Option 1 or 2, possibly even without solving this conflict first, e.g. a “Korea scenario” for Syria and further escalation in Iraq or Afghanistan…
I hope for Option 1, plan for Option 2 and expect Option 3…