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Unsavory Alliances: The Struggle for Power in Iraq and the Levant, and beyond: Part I

If we forget for a moment, the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and their sundry allies and accomplices, there are essentially two alliances on offer in and around the hotly embattled Middle East.

One is that led by the United States, set up in 2014 in response to the rapid rise of IS. This is a highly loose construct. The total number of members in this alliance has been said to number sixty-five. But the states intervening in the US framework against IS in Iraq and Syria with actions ranging from aerial bombings to training to humanitarian support are effectively sixteen in number. Seven – the US, Canada, France, Australia, the UK, Morocco and Jordan – are involved in both theatres. Three – Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark – are only active in Iraq, while six – four Sunni Arab states plus Turkey, and since this week, Germany – are present only in Syria.

The other alliance is that which Russia has been busy putting in place. After beginning to deploy new military resources to Syria in mid-September, on the 28th of that month, President Putin went before the UN in New York to call for “a genuinely broad alliance against terrorism, just like the one against Hitler.” In the meantime, Moscow has announced that it has created an intelligence-sharing centre in Baghdad in which Iraq, Iran and Syria are participating. The so-called 4/1 arrangement (1 being Hezbollah) speaks to the reality that while Shiites only represent some 15 percent of Muslims worldwide, in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, they are either an overwhelming majority or a significant minority.

It would be an understatement to say that these are two very different alliances. The Russian-led one claims that it has been invited to support Syria, unlike its American-led counterpart. For Moscow and its allies, Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad remains part of the solution to the country’s woes while for the US camp he remains part of the problem, even as the two sides have recently suggested an element of flexibility in their positions. Then, Russia has been privileging attacks on the non-IS opposition, at the same time claiming that it is equally interested in bringing down IS. The US side, on the other hand, has exclusively gone after IS and al-Qaeda affiliated groupings.

That said, the two alliances have more in common than they would care to admit.

First, take the issue of their legitimacy. Whereas it is true that President Assad was re-elected under highly dubious democratic circumstances in 2014, he has plenty of company within the US-led group. The Saudi Arabian government is anything but democratically elected. Turkey’s President Erdogan has been looking increasingly Putinesque in his wielding of power.

It is also apparent that for many of the parties in the two coalitions, their involvement is more about historical religious and ethnic rivalries that have little to do with building effective governance and constructing an inclusive society in Syria. Shiite and autocratic Iran is at loggerheads with Sunni and autocratic Saudi Arabia. Ankara appears to be more concerned about the impressive development of the Syrian Kurdish community through the civil war and how this may impact on its efforts to keep its own Kurdish community in check. The Syrian Kurds, incidentally, have become one of the most effective allies of the US in Syria. Shiite dominated Iraq is seeking to instrumentalize its role in the Russian-led camp to maintain its dominance of its country institutions at the expense of its Sunni population. And so on.

Neither of the coalitions has been very effective. In a devastating critique of US policy in the region posted on the website of the Center for International and Strategic Studies on 3December, a veteran American Middle East analyst, Anthony Cordesman, politely blastedthe overall lack of a coherent US approach and the failure to create credible forces capable of opposing the Islamic State or Syrian President Assad, notwithstanding the five billion dollars already dispensed to these ends. Cordesman’s bottom line was that US President Obama is focused on protecting his electoral promise of no more unwise and unnecessary wars in Muslim lands. He is right and so is Obama –or so I think – but of course that in itself does not effectively address how to deal with what is probably currently the world’s most beleaguered geopolitical space.

The Russian aerial campaign is also proving ineffective. A recent article in the National Interest pretty well summed up the prevailing assessment of most experts, which referred to a high number of bombing sorties and inaccurate bombings and “a penchant for attacking anyone but the Islamic State.”

A third point is that neither the Americans nor the Russians have anything close to a coherent strategy for their approach to the region. Both Syria and Iraq are seriously endangered states. Supporting Assad is a not a pathway to putting Syria back together again. Working with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to restore the political cohesion of Iraq is a fool’s errand.

The next blog in this three-part series looks at how three crucial events affecting key players in the two coalitions may be changing the relationship between them.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. (Image courtesy of the White House.)

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