So what are we dealing with currently in Syria and Iraq? So called ISIS have become determined, well equipped, well organized and well-funded. This organization became prominent “following the June 2014 military advance over northern Iraq(International Crisis Group, 2014:3) The so called Islamic State now controls a huge expanse of territory in Iraq and Syria in addition has control over sustainable investment into their brutal enterprise. After the fall of Mosulfor example the so called Islamic State looted $2 billion dollars from the banks that existed in that area(Chulov, 2014:1). The considerable sums that are involved in the funding of ISIS is staggering, any organization let alone a terrorist organization could achieve many of its objectives with such substantial funds. As of the 16th of November ISIS controlled roughly a quarter of the territory in Syria as displayed in the map below. Some scholars argue that ISIScould almost be “entirely self financing at this point”(Arango & Schmitt, 2014:11)
What is currently being done to combat ISIS?
The current approach to combat ISIS is not a comprehensive approach but a series of ad hoc short term response mechanisms. It all depends which country you are talking about when you talk about the aim to combat ISIS.
The Russian approach is a clear deployment of troops and a sustained bombing campaign of the so called Islamic State. These have been recently confirmed by the Russian Ministry of Defence when they confirmed that artillery and helicopters in addition to the Russian jets were being deployed in Syria as of the 17th of November 2015(Ripley, 2015:1) However this move has been widely criticized by western leaders as a cover to remove the ‘moderate opposition forces’ who oppose Assad, therefore securing Russia’s ally in the Middle East.
However if we interrogate this idea of the ‘moderate opposition’ the concept falls upon a number of stumbling blocks. The main one being, there is no cohesive body that reflects the character of the ‘moderate opposition’, this alone makes it very difficult to identify which groups should be seen as legitimate and which groups are not legitimate. In addition mixed amongst the ‘moderate opposition’ is a number of terrorist cells, the only idea that brings these groups all together as one is that they all oppose Assad. As the Global Research Forum argues up to “90% of the rebels supported by Washington are terrorists”(Global research, 2015:1). However, it is not true to argue that the Syrian opposition is mostly linked with Al-Qaeda as many in the Syrian government would like you to believe. This is almost certainly a myth, but after years of conflict in extreme circumstances it is reasonable to assume that many of the different groups have developed extreme views since the beginning of the civil war three years ago. As Michael Kelly argues when referring to the many opposition groups can be “considered extreme” but this does not mean that are necessarily linked to Al-Qaeda(Kelly, 2015:1).
However this is true of ISIS also, this makes it increasingly problematic identifying which forces should be supported and which ones should not be. Vladimir Putin came forward on the 16th of November and argued that Russia is willing to support “opposition groups” that are fighting against terrorist groups(Wintour, 2015:1). However lets not mistake this for the support of a moderate opposition but the support for groups which are not moderate but have the same goal as Assad, to remove the terrorist threat.
The West’s attempt at tackling ISIS
The West’s approach so far has included three principle components in broad terms(each individual country has some variations on this plan).
- Sustained bombing campaign of ISIS targets
The western direct response to ISIS has been a sustained bombing campaign against ISIS. This has been sustained over a number of years now, the aim is to give air support to the Kurds, ‘moderate opposition groups’ and the Iraqi army. However in recent years since the bombing campaign started, the terrorist threat has increased and has certainly not diminished.
Historically bombing campaigns with very little ground troops have not been very effective at achieving a decisive victory. The Battle of Briton, the bombing campaign in Vietnam and the Korean War were equally unsuccessful at providing a decisive victory. So why does the British government now think that further bombing into Syria will provide any strategic value? Politicians and military specialists have always ensured when they spoke about the bombing campaign, that the bombing campaign was not enough to combat ISIS. Only a few weeks ago a select committee(the majority of those who chair it are Conservatives) argued that;
“Cameron’s critics argue a relatively small number of British bombs will make no military difference when thousands of munitions are being dropped by the US, Russia, France, Jordan and a host of other states…(Greenslade, 2015:1)
- Supporting and arming ‘moderate opposition groups’
As outlined above, the term ‘moderate opposition group’ is almost a myth as a result of the prolonged and desperate conflict that has been conducted over the last couple of years.
- Supporting and arming the Kurdish forces in the north of Syria and continued support for Iraq’s government forces(as ISIS ignores national frontiers this makes this point relevant).
This component is essentially the West’s boots on the ground. The flow of arms to these groups has been sustained over many years. This strategy for the most part has been moderately successful, as ISIS have been pushed back somewhat in the areas where the Kurds and the Iraq’s government have the most influence. However ISIS is still expanding in other areas and has arguably increased in strength over the years. So clearly these forces although very effective are not enough to provide a conclusive eradication of ISIS.
So this is the problem, many have criticized the West’s approach, but what is the alternative? Well over the last five years I have been developing a theory that is designed to do exactly that, provide an alternative in scenarios which almost all options are undesirable.
Hybridization of foreign policy
Syrian government and opposition compromise
The first primary aim of those people involved currently in the Vienna is to reach a political compromise. So what should this political compromise be? First of all I will outline exactly what Hybrid state building entails.
What is hybrid state building?
- The principle aim of a hybrid government is to combine two different political systems together to create a ‘hybrid’. Within the context of current conflicts this means introducing democratic controls steadily over a number of years in states which have become accustomed to violence as the principle means of resolving conflict.
- During this transitional phase, governments must ensure that minority groups have a fixed executive position in government.
- Powers should be devolved to local entities which can be based upon tribe, religion and culture.
- These powers must be controlled by the central government on issues of tax raising powers.
- The principle responsibility of these devolved entities is to maintain stability and security, representatives must be held to account on this issue.
- Civic powers should be devolved, these include civil matters, central government should limit itself to ensuring security and the flow of taxation to the centre. If local actors abuse their powers, the central government can use this as leverage.
- Hybrid government should be seen as a transitional phase, where democratic controls can be phased in. As culture can take some time to change especially after years of conflict, it is important not to rush constitutional changes.
So these are the broad principles of hybrid state building as articulated in my research, so how exactly will this make a difference in Syria and Iraq when combating ISIS? Well there are four important compromises the two sides have to make.
- The US and the UK(amongst others) must insist that the opposition groups must compromise by allowing Assad to stay in power – at least in a limited way in the territories that Assad can control. The non-ISIS opposition forces are currently in a very difficult situation, effectively fighting on two fronts, to the east ISIS and to the West President Assad backed by the Russians. So these opposition forces if they want to survive in any form they must compromise, this does not mean giving over sole legitimacy to Assad but to acknowledge that Assad must remain at least for a transitional period.
- The Russian government must leverage President Assad to give executive power to the Kurds, Sunnis, Christians and Shiites in Syria. This can be achieved with the compromise outlined above. This does not automatically mean that the President should step down, but these critical groups cannot be overlooked from a governments perspective. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war President Assad has lost two thirds of the territory as shown in the map above. The Syrian government can only control so much- but amongst all the actors involved the Syrian government must play an important role in Syria at least in the short term. This is not an ideal situation but at the moment there really is no other option but to make this compromise. The government must effectively become hybrid entity – devolving power that impacts the Sunni’s, Shiites, Kurds and Christians to allow them to self govern while transition is being established. In addition it has become apparent to some scholars that the tribal leaders if given an alternative power base that they have a real stake in- will choose to side with the new order rather than with ISIS(Cigar, 2011:chapter 4). How this transition will work in practice will be outlined below.
- The United States cooperating with Iran must push the Iraqi government to give executive power to Sunni, Kurdish and Christian minorities. Much like the situation Assad finds himself in, the Iraqi government has failed to compromise. The Iraqi government must allow minority groups to have a significant say in the government institutions. In addition these minority groups should also have civil powers devolved to them, allowing the minorities to protect their own cultural and religious institutions and practices. However the onus must be on the Iraqi leadership as they will be the “most important entity in any strategy to defeat IS”(Terrill, 2014:21)As Andrew Terrill goes on to argue “there must be a reasonable level of Sunni representation in the national institutions in Bagdad”(Ibid). This does not mean the break up of Iraq, the central government should just have more modest goals over the ruling of the country. Sunni regions must receive greater autonomy, including local self-defence(Ibid) These modest goals will be outlined in the next section.
- Humanitarian corridors must be created in the zones that cannot literally be controlled by the opposition or the government. However this must be achieved under a UN mandate, a legal basis for this action must be established. Is it possible to achieve this under the present circumstances? The Russians have vetoed almost all resolutions aimed at action in Syria. However times have changed since the downing of the Russian passenger jet by ISIL in Egypt, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to work with the Russians on a proposal to intervene in Syria. ISIS has now created an alarming amount of enemies, therefore collective action is more likely to have a legal basis(Terrill, 2014:21).This proposal must be formulated in such a way that outlines how its only aim is to provide safe zones and will not cause the toppling of the regime which is what happened in Libya. For an effective solution to become a reality, the Russians must be convinced that any action taken is not a disguise to depose Assad. The recent passing of the United Nations Security Council resolution which accepts that all countries must do everything in their power to combat ISIS demonstrates that progress can be achieved. A further resolution on a humanitarian corridor has the best chance to pass if it is specific and articulated in such a way that protects Russians interests in Syria. The primary concern should be to defeat ISIS and to protect civilians we should not forget this.
Transitional Hybrid government- how will it work in practice and are there any guarantees?
Well there is actually precedent for this form of government historically, in fact the Middle East has been ruled by hybrid governments for a large part of the last thousand years. The most prominent example is the Ottoman Empire. My historical analysis in my PhD has focussed on the idea that the Ottoman approach to state building could have some utility in the current era, it only needs to be adapted. What I have found is that the Ottomans had an effective system for managing many different communities in relative peace. The primary mechanism for this was the millet system:
The millet system utilized broad principles to ensure stability for over seven hundred years.
- The representatives of the individual millets were allowed to be involved in “rights to collect tax, education and run judicial and religious affairs”(Pears:1917:26)
- The Ottomans “were content to tolerate the existence of a wide variety of local practices” they were more interested in “efficiency than uniformity”(CleveLand 1994:45).
- Religious leaders were allowed to set up their own court system. These courts were allowed to deal with civil matters such as marriage but had to leave ‘penal issues’ to the state courts(Inalcik 1991:418-419).
- Religious leaders such as the Patriarch of the Christian Church become a representative of the state and his own community. However the Patriarch was first and foremost portrayed as an Ottoman representative, “he was given the rank of vizier(third rank below the Sultan) and provided with Jannissaries(Sultans personal bodyguard) to protect him(Gielgud, 1866:6,9).
The Ottoman system therefore establishes cultural precedents and historical proof that an altered hybrid system of government can provide concrete alternatives to maintain security.
However as outlined in the previous sections, this must be adapted to the modern context and specific recommendations must be made(as outlined above) to demonstrate that their is an alternative to the current approach to defeating ISIS and it cannot be more of the same. A political solution is the only way that the real causes of the Syrian and Iraqi civil war can be addressed. Political dialogue and compromise will be the only way to guarantee a better life for those living in Syria and Iraq today.
- Kelly 2015 “Syrian rebels are not Alqaeda” (http://www.businessinsider.com/syrian-rebels-are-not-al-qaeda-2013-9?IR)
Chuloc 2014 “The terrifying rise of ISIS: $2 billion in loot, online killings and an army on the run”(http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/16/terrifying-rise-of-isis-iraq-executions, accessed 19/11/2015)
- Wintour 2015 “Vladamir Putin would back moderate Syrian opposition fighters” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/16/vladimir-putin-would-back-moderate-syrian-opposition-fight-isis )
T, Ripley 2015 “Russia confirms forward deployment in Syria”(http://www.janes.com/article/56107/russia-confirms-forward-deployments-in-syria, London)
- Terrill 2014 “Understanding the Strengths and Vulnerabilities of ISIS” (http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/Parameters/Issues/Autumn_2014/5_TerrillAndrew_Understanding%20the%20Strengths%20and%20Vulnerabilities%20of%20ISIS.pdf, 22/11/2015)
For outstanding work on Iraqi tribalism see Norman Cigar, Al-Qaida, the Tribes and the government: Lessons and Prospects for Iraq’s Unstable Triangle (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2011)
Greenslade 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/nov/18/bomb-isis-in-syria-newspapers-even-on-the-right-are-not-united, 22/11/2015)
International Crisis Group 2014 “Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-box” (Policy Briefing Number 38(Bruseels Belgium:ICG:3)
- Arrango and E. Schmitt, 2014 “US Actions in Iraq Fuelled Rise of a Rebel(New York Times, August 11)
The Data Team at the Economist, 2015″The Plague of Global Terrorism” http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/11/daily-chart-12 (Accessed, 22/11/2015)
- Pears, 1917 ‘Life of Abdul Hamid’( London: Constable & Company Ltd)
- CleveLand 1994 ‘A History of the Modern Middle East’ (Oxford, Westview Press)
- Inalcik, 1991 ‘The Status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch under the Ottomans’(Turcica, 407-437)
- Gielgud 1866 “European Turkey and Its Subject Races” (The Fortnightly Review, Vol V1)
Posted 27th November 2015 by Mark Kirkham