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Towards a Grand Anti-terrorist Coalition: Part 2

This second blog in a series of three looks at the ongoing efforts to put together a grand anti-terrorist coalition.

January 2016 will see a major new phase in the efforts of the international community to reach a settlement in Syria. On 25 January, the 17-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) will gather in Geneva armed with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, agreed just before the holiday break. This calls for Syrian unity and independence, a cease-fire, a negotiation process involving the government in Damascus and opposition groups not considered to be terrorists by the various parties, as well as free and fair elections in eighteen months in which all Syrians, including those in the diaspora, would be able to participate.

This agreement comes as the culmination of a series of developments since September 2015that have been pushing the two alliances led by Russia and America to get down to business with one another.

The first event was the crash of a Russian holiday plane over Egyptian Sinai on 31 October, taking the lives of 224 people. Almost immediately, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility. After first denying that this could have been a terrorist attack, notwithstanding statements by western countries suggesting the contrary without naming a culprit, Russia acknowledged on 17 November that a terrorist bomb had brought the plane down.

The second event took place in Paris on 13 November, a few days before Moscow’s volte-face on the Sinai shoot-down. In the city of light, 130 people were murdered in cold blood, another 300 injured, roughly a quarter of them seriously, in terrorist actions carried out in a football stadium, cafés, restaurants and a concert hall. Authorship was also claimed by the IS.

The most recent event occurred in California on 2 December when a married couple of Pakistani origin gunned down fourteen people, injuring another twenty-two, at a social event of the Department of Public Health in San Bernardino, where the husband had been employed. Before the couple went into action, they dropped off their six-month old daughter with his mother. Within the week, US authorities acknowledged that this had been a terrorist attack inspired but not necessarily organized by the IS.

Many similar incidences have taken place recently around the world but in terms of impact on public opinion and government policy these have probably been the key ones. What occurred over the Sinai, in Paris and San Bernardino have all had the effect of building momentum behind the idea that the most important global threat is the terrorism wrought by the Islamic State, and that the US, the Russian Federation, and their allies should as a result band together to bring it down.

Russia has worked hard to advance this agenda. After the attacks in Paris had taken place and the Kremlin had reversed its position on the responsibility for bringing down the Russian airliner over the Sinai, Moscow declared France an ally in the anti-terrorist struggle. The two countries agreed to share intelligence on targets in Syria. Russian and French naval assets off the Syrian coast began rubbing shoulders. French President Hollande embarked on a world wind tour of international capitals, including Moscow, in an effort to drum up support for an international coalition against the IS.

While there were many words of sympathy for France from NATO capitals, they offered up few measures of support as concrete as those emanating from Moscow. Among France’s NATO allies, the major exception was Germany with its decision to deploy military assets in support of France to both Syria and Mali.

The fourth event in this series was the shoot-down on 24 November of a Russian Su-24 over or near Turkish airspace. This has had a different kind of impact but one no less important, in that it has precipitated a major crisis between Moscow and Ankara.

Before this incident, NATO capitals were already increasingly nervous about President Erdogan’s policies and ambitions. Under his leadership, Turkey has displayed a growing authoritarian streak, with the government imprisoning journalists and muffling the media and civil society. After an initial opening to the country’s Kurdish population, Erdogan soon reversed tack. He also became identified with a certain ambivalence about the IS, turning a blind eye as foreign Jihadists have crossed from Turkey into Syria to join IS. So, the downing of the SU-24 will reinforce the view in some Allied quarters that Turkey is a problematical ally, one that can be more injurious to, than supportive of, NATO interests.

The ongoing altercations between the Russian and Turkish authorities have added fuel to the fire. Moscow demanded an apology that Turkey has refused to provide. Russia ended bilateral military, energy, and touristic cooperation with Turkey and stopped certain agricultural imports. President Putin even announced that its most-advanced anti-aircraft system has been deployed to Syria and dared the Turks to test its effectiveness. He labelled the Turkish shoot-down a stab in an erstwhile partner’s back.

So far, Turkey’s NATO allies have been discreet about their concerns. President Obama said that Turkey has a right to defend its airspace. The EU just signed a three billion Euro agreement with Turkey designed to reduce the westward flow of refugees. And while no NATO leader would say it openly, there must be a certain admiration for a country that has finally shown the gumption to take robust action against the Russian incursions into NATOairspace and territorial waters that have been endemic since 2014. Indeed, it should not be excluded that Ankara consulted with key NATO allies before deciding to take action against the SU-24.

Another question is why Russia did not see an eventual blowback coming. On 16 October, a drone, later identified by the US as being of Russian origin was shot down by Turkish forces over Turkish territory. This came after several earlier overflies of Turkish airspace. So, it was not complicated, if one wanted to precipitate a crisis in Russian-Turkish relations, to do so. President Erdogan has in the meantime gone on record as saying that his authorities had warned their Russian counterparts that the Turkmen community residing on the Syrian side of the border where the SU-24 came down were neither terrorists nor allied with IS in any way, but were a community that was close to Turkey’s heart.

Thus far, President Putin has succeeded in leveraging western concerns about IS and Al-Qaeda in an effort to create a grand coalition against terrorism. His Russia is one that westerners are again disposed to talk to, notwithstanding the recent decision of the EU and its western allies to continue the sanctions against Russia for an additional six months. He has not managed to turn Turkey into a pariah state that its western partners turn their back on – not yet. And he has also been warned, whether by design or by accident is not clear, that his swashbuckling foreign policy is not without it risks.

Against this background, what are the prospects for a breakthrough in the Syria negotiations? On one level, they are good. The war has gone on far too long. The situation in countries in Syria’s region has steadily deteriorated and there is a growing awareness that it desperately needs to be stabilized. Most of the key actors involved in this so-called peace process can use a foreign policy success.

That said, there are several albatrosses around its neck. President Assad’s status is still an open question. It remains necessary to agree which of the forces in opposition to Assad are not terrorists à la Al-Qaeda or IS. And then there are the tensions within the UN coalition. In addition to the Turkey-Russia file, there is the Sunni– Shiite conflict, recently enflamed by the execution of a Shiite cleric by the Saudis, an action which Iran has said it will avenge.

There is also the overall thrust of Moscow’s effort to establish the UN anti-terrorist alliance. In September 2015, President Putin framed this as a parallel to the alliance that reigned in World War II after 1941, when the West and Soviet Union united in an effort to take Hitler down. This was a just struggle and ultimately a successful one. Not to be forgotten, however, is that the anti-Hitler coalition of World War II was used by Stalin to engineer the erection of Soviet dictatorships across Central and Southern Europe, and to sustain that established in Russia some three decades before.

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 Reuters: Cem Oksuz/Pool.)

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