Spheres of Operation and the Levant’s Competing Counter-Jihadi Coalitions

photo map of levant

by Gordon M. Hahn

Initially, Western governments and mass media put out reports that Russia’s first air sorties in Syria “were not targeting the Islamic State” (IS or ISIS or Daesh) and that this demonstrates Putin has no intention of fighting jihadists but has intervened in Syria to prop up the Bashar Assad regime. Soon, reports emerged — not just from Russian official sources but from sound pro-American research centers — confirming quite the opposite. More importantly, it is in fact misguided to focus counter-jihad strategy, tactics, and operation solely or inordinately on the IS. Indeed, this is what the US-led coalition’s air campaign has done by focusing on IS, and it has done so primarily in Iraq and less so in Syria; perhaps a winning proposition in a war against Assad but not against jihadism.

The two competing coalitions now in the Levant need to work out separate spheres of operation in order to ‘de-conflict’ their respective air campaigns and protect allied forces on the ground from friendly fire. They also need to prove that they are more about countering the global jihadi revolutionary movement that removing or protecting Assad.

First, IS is not the only jihadist group among the various Syrian rebels. The most prominent and radical non-IS jihadist group is Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Another important group is the Islamic Front (IF). Neither the JN nor IF is a ‘moderate’ force (www.voanews.com/content/al-qaida-pursues-longer-term-strategy-than-rival-islamic-state-jihadists-study-says/2984053.html and www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/JN%20Final.pdf). The other so-called ‘moderate’ rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is dominated in its political wing by the Muslim Brotherhood and often fights side-by-side with JN and IF. A frequent tactic is for JN forces to run reconnaissance, initial contact raids, and suicide bombings to prepare the ground for a joint rebel assault. We know that weapons sent to the FSA by the West and its Arab allies have ended up in the hands of JN and IS. Moreover, both JN and less so the FSA occasionally fight together with IS against Assad government forces. So it is somewhat artifical to separate the groups when it comes to operations against the Syrian army. The bottom line for Putin and Assad is that the FSA is allied against Assad and often sides with (but also at times fights against) the jihadists of JN and the Islamic Front, if not IS.

On the second day, it became clear that Russian air strikes were targeting both IS and other jihadi installations and forces. Russian air strikes hit IS targets in Deir Ezzour and Raqqa provinces, including a Syrian Air Force base which fell to IS earlier this year. Raqqa city, it should be noted, is IS’s capitol in Syria. Russian targets also included  areas around Jabal al-Zawiya and Jisr al-Shughour, which are under the control of Jaish al-Fatah (JF, the Army of Conquest), which includes several Al Qa`ida-allied jihadi groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Ahrar al-Sham (AS), Jeish al-Islam (JI) and other jihadi groups. Many of these groups include fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and the former USSR. An interactive map detailing Russian air strikes in Syria can be found here (https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=z4PF1SFiMPjQ.kFa_qMMdFl48).

Yesterday, my analysis made on the first day of bombing was confirmed by other reliable defense analysis sources reviewing the second and third day of Russian sorties. A Carnegie Endowment expert wrote the following:

Identifying which specific attacks can be attributed to Russian pilots is made more difficult by the fact that Assad’s air force operates in the same airspace, aided by Russian reconnaissance. While Putin has upheld at least some pretense of distinguishing the radical jihadis from other insurgent factions, Assad makes no distinction at all among the armed groups opposing him. It is hard to tell a Syrian strike from a Russian strike, not least because both nations use similar or even identical equipment. Russian-made jets and helicopters.

(In) the Rastan Pocket itself, the Islamic State is not in control. The group has had—and may perhaps still have—some type of presence in the area, but it appears to be strongly dominated by other Sunni rebel groups. They are a disparate mix that includes al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also independent Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, some Muslim Brotherhood loyalists, and a number of smaller local factions. In early 2014, the Rastan area filled up with additional fighters evacuating the Old Town of Homs City, as part of a ceasefire with the government. Many of these groups are overtly hostile to the Islamic State, but the picture is very murky and there have been reports of a silent presence in the area. As recently as June, one group of Islamic State loyalists was run out of the Talbiseh area by a rival faction known as the Tawhid Army.

Another first-day airstrike took place in Latamneh, north of Hama. This is near the fighting in the Ghab Plains, which involves both al-Qaeda and Western-, Turkish-, and Gulf-backed rebels. While the Rastan Pocket, or parts of it, can be presented as something of a gray area, this is not the case in the Ghab region. Except for sleeper cells and such, the Islamic State has no presence in this area. That is in stark contrast to its main jihadi rival, al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which plays a prominent role in the Ghab-Hama fighting.
One local faction in Latamneh, Tajammou al-Izza, has published a video of Russian-made jets shelling the village and, apparently, their positions. It is not a jihadi group. To the contrary, Tajammou al-Izza claims to have received backing from the Military Operations Center in Turkey, where nations including the United States cooperate to “vet” rebel factions in order to ensure that they are not linked to transnational jihadism. The group has also issued propaganda videos showing members in the process of firing American-manufactured antitank missiles of a type not issued to rebels that do not enjoy a U.S. stamp of approval.
 
In other words, Russia would appear to have bombed a U.S.-backed rebel group on the very first day of its air campaign. …
 
But evidence soon arrived from an unexpected source: the Russian Ministry of Defense. Soon after the strikes, the ministry released a videotape showing an attack on a hillside target. Using online map services, Russian bloggers were quickly able to pinpoint the location as Latamneh.
Because the Nusra Front is a prominent part of the rebel mix in this area of Syria, Russian officials may well be able to claim innocence and say that Tajammou al-Izza is effectively an al-Qaeda ally. Whether this particular attack was a case of mistaken identity or not, one Russian goal seems to be to goad Washington into an unwinnable public debate about exactly how distant its Syrian clients should be from al-Qaeda. Both Putin and Obama know very well that many Western-backed groups work side by side with the jihadis, albeit often out of desperation and despite instructions to the contrary from their funders. The U.S. government and its allies argue that they are still worth supporting, in order to build up nonjihadi capacity for the future, but that line of reasoning won’t fly with the tabloids. Whether rhetorically or kinetically, highlighting the unsavory sides of Western intervention in Syria is certainly in the Russian interest (http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=61493&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRons6TKZKXonjHpfsX76eolW6Sg38431UFwdcjKPmjr1YIITsp0aPyQAgobGp5I5FEIQ7XYTLB2t60MWA%3D%3D).

Again, this does not mean that Putin is not primarily interested in saving Assad, but it does mean that he has multiple motives. It is unlikely Putin would have intervened solely to save Assad and strengthen Russia’s hand in the Middle East. As detailed numerous times on this site, both Al Qaida and JN, on the one hand, and IS, on the other, have allies in Russia’s Caucasus. The Caucasus Emirate (CE or IK) mujahedin are allied with the former; the Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State (CVIS of VKIG) with the latter. Putin is equally focused on this battle in both its parts as he is on strengthening Assad and exposing American fecklessness in the region.

The fact is that the United States has too narrow perspective on the fight against global jihadism. It is unnecessarily compartmentalized. The narrow focus is now on the Islamic State. President Obama ordered the U.S. military to carry out a campaign not against all jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, but only against IS. The US Department of Defense website states that its mission as ordered by President Obama is to fight IS. Moreover, that campaign has focused inordinately against IS in Iraq, delivering far fewer sorties against IS in Syria, not to mention other jihadi groups. The Defense Department reports:

As of 4:59 p.m. EDT Sept. 29, the U.S. and coalition have conducted a total of 7,162 airstrikes (4,583 Iraq / 2,579 Syria).

  • U.S. has conducted 5,590 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (3,125 Iraq / 2,442 Syria)
  • Rest of Coalition has conducted 1,572 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (1,439 Iraq /133 Syria)

The countries that have participated in the airstrikes include:

  • In Iraq: (1) Australia, (2) Canada, (3) Denmark, (4) France, (5) Jordan, (6) The Netherlands, and (7) UK
  • In Syria: (1) Australia, (2) Bahrain, (3) Canada, (4) France, (5) Jordan, (6) Saudi Arabia, (7) Turkey and (8) UAE

As of Sept. 29, U.S. and partner nation aircraft have flown an estimated 56,819 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria (www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0814_Inherent-Resolve).

That means that U.S. policy has been to allow some extremist jihadi forces to continue their fight against the Assad regime (and local population in Syria), while endeavoring in utter futility to train and equip a very small and marginal part of the ‘Syrian opposition’ it misconceives to be moderates. Those ‘moderates’ are almost exclusively Muslim Brotherhood. So where are the moderates? In other words, President Obama is repeating the failed approach he adopted in Egypt where he embraced the Muslim Brotherhood, only to see the population reject the MB and a new regime arrive in power suspicious of U.S. policy and ready to embrace Moscow.

Moreover, from the DoD’s list of countries participating in sorties in Iraq and Syria, it strikes one that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have only conducted sorties in Syria not in Iraq. They are all opponents of Assad’s Syria. This gives the U.S. coalition even more of the appearance (or reality) of being more of an anti-Assad air campaign rather than an anti-IS air campaign.

In the process of ‘deconflicting’ the activity of the two coalitions in the Levant, it might be worth working towards a division of labor or spheres of operation whereby the Russian-led coalition focuses on striking jhadists in Syria and the U.S.-led coalition focuses on fighting jihadis in Iraq. However, to achieve that the West and its Arab partners would have to temporarily abandon their dream of removing Assad until such time as the jihadis are weak enough that the Syrian and Iraqi states can be put back together. The West and Arabs will, however, be taking a risk that the Assad regime might become so destabilized that it no longer feels it needs to negotiate with the opposition at all, not less negotiate Assad’s extraction from the regime and the formation of new coalitional ruling configuration. They are unlikely to take such a risk.

This means that it will be difficult to de-conflict the two coalitions’ operations, and this runs the risk of accidental ‘friendly’ fire by a member of one coalition against another, which is fraught with deepening U.S.-Russian and Western-Russian tensions on the background of a still unresolved Ukrainian conflict. What is needed is a major international conference of leaders or their top representatives to sort out a common approach or at least more similar approaches to a political resolution in addition to talks on deconfliction.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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About Gordon M. Hahn