The US and its allies launched airstrikes against the Islamic State targets in Syrian territory without the UN Security Council approval. Is Washington stepping on the same rake after more than a single fail? Why? Radio VR is discussing it with Alison Baily, Expert and PO at Oxford Analytica, and Saeed Naqvi, Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
According to New York Times, the strikes “represent a major turning point in President Obama’s war against the Islamic State and open up a risky new stage of the American military campaign. Until now, the administration has bombed Islamic State targets only in Iraq, and had suggested it would be weeks if not months before the start of a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria”.
Yet, two weeks ago Mr. Obama announced that he was authorizing an expansion of the military campaign against the Islamic State. Ali Haidar, National reconciliation minister in the Syrian government, said any military action in the territory of Syria without the Syrian government’s consent shall be regarded as an act of aggression. The position has been upheld by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his telephone conversation with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted no airstrikes should be carried out without Asad’s government consent.
Eventually, the Syrian government acknowledged that the US gave fair warning it would bomb Raqqah to the Syrian ambassador to the UN. The step implies the action has been taken unilaterally, the Russian Foreign Ministry indicated, hence the US and its allies are the ones to bear all responsibility for the consequences of the move. Well, first reports of civilian casualties are already coming in…
So, do we need to brace for yet another Iraq, or Afghanistan?
Says Alison Baily, expert at Oxford Analytica, the UK:
“President Obama has established a very specific objectives for these strikes, such as to degrade and destroy the capabilities of the IS group. But, really, this is not going to happen through airstrikes alone. The trouble for the Obama administration and also for the whole international community, which is very concerned about this group and the advances that it’s made, is that it is really very well embedded on the ground.
And, unlike in Iraq, where the US has a whole array of different allies on the ground, such as the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Government, in Syria it doesn’t have the same situation. The mainstream pro-Western Syrian rebels have been very severely weakened. And, of course, the US Government has very hostile relations with Damascus. And its position since the start of the Syrian war is that the Syrian Government is not legitimate. So, this really puts it in a lot of difficulty when we are talking about trying to carry out an operation against this group to destroy it.
So, do we need to understand that ground operation is going to follow?
Alison Baily: Ground operation by the US forces – certainly not. We could see primarily, I think, the US Special Forces. That is certainly not out of the question. Really, what the US will rely on is the sort of longer-term strategy of rebuilding the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army – this mainstream pro-Western Syrian rebel group that has strong links with the West. That is what the US and its Gulf allies are going to need to rely on here.
Today I read a statement by one of the key opposition figures – Abdul Seida – claiming that the airstrikes are playing into the hands of the Assad Government.
Alison Baily: Well, it really depends on which groups take advantage of any kind of weakening of the IS group. This could well play into the hands of the Assad regime, in the sense that it provides it with an increased international legitimacy, in the sense that it is now seen as a counterweight to extremist forces, rather than the source of the problems currently in Syria, of this very long-running and bloody civil war.
On the other hand, it could also actually benefit the Syrian rebels. They are the ones who have the force, the sort of man power, the troops on the ground that could deploy back into these areas. So, with training, with the armaments, with the US support, increased intelligence and coordination with the US, that certainly could over time benefit the Syrian rebels.
So, what is your forecast? Do we need to brace for more military action in that region?
Alison Baily: I think the US has begun today a very long and complicated, and open-ended involvement in Syria. We will see the strikes carrying on. I guess, in a sense, it is very similar to what we’ve had ongoing in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, where the US is carrying out strikes against the forces on the ground. And it is really restricting itself to air-to-air defense, to carrying out these attacks from the air and relying on the local proxies, whether that would be government forces in the case of Iraq, or rebel forces in the case of Syria, to actually move in and take secure, and hold that territory to prevent the return of the Islamic state forces.
But, like you said, all those countries are in fact a never-ending story. So, is this strategy really the best?
Alison Baily: Certainly, there is no easy answer for either Syria or Iraq. And ever since the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Obama has really been avoiding as much as possible intervening in Iraq again. And, as we saw last year, he’s certainly came to the brink of intervening in Syria over the chemical weapons attacks, but then called those off at the last minute.
There is a real fear and concern within the US circles over the cost and the actual feasibility of this kind of military involvement, that there is really no easy answer or quick fix here. But, essentially, we are at a point now where the threat from this extremist force, that has grown up in this vacuum, that has been left in these countries, is really too big now to ignore. And Obama and the regional states really feel absolutely compelled to act”.
Could there be a less obvious agenda to yet another US-led military campaign in the Middle East?
Says Saeed Naqvi, Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi:
There is a huge-hush about the whole thing. What is the ultimate intention of the USA and the other countries which are supporting it? Except for France, Hollande has said something, but England, which is always behind the US, has said “no”. Germany has said “no”. Turkey has said “no”. So, who are these coalition partners? Are these the same coalition partners who had initially started the civil war inside Syria?
One of the purposes of this bombing is to enable the win. While the second part – what is the US planning just now? I mean, Saudi Arabia has been very-very quiet. The ISIS, everybody knows that they have pictures of ISIS in 2013, of al-Baghdadi and Senator McCain. There are pictures available. These are the photographs, he’d gone there and discussed these matters with al-Baghdadi. And that was in 2013.
So, again, the US starts out with one intention, and now these same people have become the Frankenstein that it now wants to control. First, it creates the Frankenstein. Now it wants to control it.
This is a very strange state of affairs which has been continuing not just here. They have forced the hands of the two contestants in Afghanistan to somehow come to an agreement yesterday, because they knew this was going to happen inside Syria. That agreement itself is going to fall apart. Everybody knows that.
So, I do not know what the Americans are actually up to. My only guess is that ISIS and its leader – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – he calls himself the caliph and the territory that he controls the caliphate. How do we know that this caliphate would not lurch towards Saudi Arabia? Because no caliphate makes any sense unless it controls Mecca.
Is there something existential happening inside Saudi Arabia that the Americans are out to control and to prevent? Because, you see, in addition to ISIS something very dramatic has happened in Yemen, where Houthis (which is a Shia group) have virtually taken over Sana'a – the capital of Yemen.
Now, Houthis, as we all know, were plaguing the Saudi regime in the area of Saada, which is abutting Saudi Arabia. So, Saudi Arabia seems to be facing an existential crisis which somehow has got to be prevented. And I think this is the only thing.
But it is a speculation. I do not have all the evidence. But the fact that everybody else is not getting involved in this and the two, who were the most enthusiastic when the American intention was announced, when Obama made a speech four or five days ago, the two countries which were the most enthusiastic in supporting it were Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Israel and Saudi Arabia, no one else. They are forcing the hand of the regime in Baghdad. The grand leader Ayatollah al-Sistani has come out and said that not even in Iraq should we allow the Americans to coordinate their bombing, because this is the way to take over our country. He said this a day before yesterday. So, therefore, I do not know what is going on. I'm only guessing and this is my tentative guess.
Dr. Naqvi, the Syrian opposition says that this kind of operation – this bombing – plays into the hands of Bashar al-Assad. Where is the logic?
Saeed Naqvi: These kinds of statements can be tactical statements. You can stand up and say – oh, we are being hit, when actually you know that your enemy is being hit. One day the Americans decide to bomb opposition, and that happens to be a key position of the Syrian army.
So, therefore, it is an open-ended chaos and at the moment what is also underlying, is what Iran is saying. Iran is not with them. Iran would not like to be fighting with them, because the Iranians would be seen to be participating in a sectarian fight.
So, the Iranians, when they were asked, have said “no”, that they will not participate in this. But they would certainly like al-Baghdadi either to be controlled or if Baghdadi is actually… you see, don’t forget that Wahhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood – these are the two sharpest conflicts going on in that area, as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. This is the red herring, this Shia-Sunni thing.
I would urge everybody to go back to November 1979. In the same year that the Islamic Revolution took place in Tehran, the Grand Mosque in Mecca had been occupied by a fellow called Juhayman al-Utaybi. He had taken over the mosque and the hundreds of people. This was chaos. There is a book called the Siege of Mecca. That in fact set the cat among the pigeons, as far as the Saudis were concerned, and that battle has been the consistent battle.
Why was Saudi Arabia so keen on bringing down Morsi in Egypt? Because Morsi represented the MB, the same ideological bent that had occupied the mosque in Mecca.
So, it is being put out that the Sunni and Shia is the basic fault line. No! The basic fault line, as far as the Saudis are concerned, is the MB – al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn – and the Wahhabi sect which dominates in Saudi Arabia. This is the basic conflict. And the coming into being of a very muscular Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS gives strength to the Brothers more than to the Wahhabis.
What are the Brothers saying? The Brothers are saying – we are a more pure version than the Wahhabis. And if he, as I said earlier, if he lurches towards Mecca, there will be a support for him inside Saudi Arabia”.