Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.
Thursday’s remarks by President Trump regarding a possible US withdrawal from Syria coming ‘very soon’ has sparked concern in Washington and beyond. US involvement in Syria has been a hotly debated issue among Trump’s advisers and aides. Some feel that if the US is to withdraw from Syria, it needs to be phased, and staggered to reduce the risk of creating a vacuum, similar to what happened in Iraq after Barack Obama withdrew US forces in 2011 which contributed to the rise of ISIS. Other administration members support an immediate, and complete removal of the US presence in Syria. For weeks the president has been hinting to his advisers about his desire to pull US troops out of Syria, a major turn from the administration’s supposed current Syrian policy. Trump’s remarks might be based on the presumption that with the war against ISIS in Syria is nearing an end there is no other purpose for keeping US troops in Syria. Many Pentagon and State Department officials believe otherwise, pointing to the worsening situation in northern Syria and a desire to use US forces and other means of support to help in stabilizing the region.
With the Easter holiday upon us, I’m cutting this update short, but will return to the subject Tuesday morning. Syria is heating up again, and not only because of President Trump’s remarks.
In the aftermath of the mosque attack in the Sinai last week, Egypt’s allies and neighbors are expressing surprise, frustration, and grave doubts about the ability of Cairo’s security forces to effectively combat the Wilayat Sinai affiliate of ISIS. The mosque attack was one of the deadliest acts of terror in Egypt’s history with over 300 dead and appears to have completely blindsided Egyptian security services. This is the second major failure by security forces in the past month. In late October 50 Egyptian policemen were killed in a botched raid against a Muslim Brotherhood hideout west of Cairo. After battling the Muslim Brotherhood and Wilayat Sinai militants for years now it is hard to comprehend exactly how these groups are carrying out such murderous attacks with ease.
For Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the mosque attack is a challenge that needs to be met swiftly and with decisive force. Sisi came to power promising security, stability, and prosperous times for Egyptians in exchange for nearly-complete political control of the country. He has failed to deliver on any of the three promises, mainly due to his inability to stamp out the insurgency going on in the Sinai. Even before Sisi entered the political realm, the Sinai was a hotbed of terrorism. It’s the modern day equivalent of the Wild West in many respects. Wilayat Sinai, Al-Qaeda, and numerous other Islamist groups are active on the peninsula. Following the 2013 coup that saw former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi ousted from power, the level of violence skyrocketed.
The United States is growing frustrated with Egypt’s lack of progress in battling the insurgency. Israel is concerned because an unstable Sinai is a threat to its security. Saudi Arabia is watching the situation closely, worried that Iran’s next venture could very well be increased support for the Sinai militants if the Egyptian military and security forces fail to get the upper hand. These are three of the many good reasons why the Sinai situation should be watched closely in the coming months.
Following the Kurdish independence referendum last month it was expected that a subsequent clash between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments would likely take place in or around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government does not consider the oil-rich city to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government has a different take entirely on the matter and Kurdish voters in Kirkuk were allowed to take part in the referendum.
On Monday, the confrontation materialized when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and, according to Iraqi government statements, seized key objectives from Kurdish forces including K-1 Air Base, and the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field. Reports of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga troops conflicted with official Iraqi claims about the Peshmerga withdrawing from Kirkuk without fighting.
The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS was seizing control of vast stretches of Iraqi territory. With Iraqi forces back in Kirkuk it would appear that Kurdish dreams of an independent state in northern Iraq are all but dead. Not that there was ever going to be a realistic chance for a Kurdish nation-state to be formed. Iraq was having none of that. Fearful that the referendum by the Kurds would be the first step towards an eventual breakup of Iraq, Baghdad has moved decisively to prevent that from happening.
The United States, close allies with the Kurds, as well as Iraq, played no role in the Kirkuk operation. There is still lingering anger over Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, refusing the US offer to preside over negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the referendum. Washington continues to sit quietly and do nothing, allowing Barzani’s political situation to deteriorate. There is some desire within the Beltway to hasten his political demise, and officially end the Barzani era in Kurdistan. From the State Department to the Pentagon and Langley, more influential voices are coming around to the notion that Kurdistan’s future will be better without Barzani in control.
The campaign to liberate Mosul has come to a successful conclusion. The iron grip that ISIS once held on the northern Iraq city has been lifted. The city and its inhabitants are free following a drawn out nine-month long effort. The Iraqi army, and its coalition allies paid dearly for every street, and neighborhood secured. ISIS understood all to well that this was the endgame in Mosul. Its fighters there accepted their fates and fought with the ferociousness of cornered animals, because that is more or less what they were. Some fighters and senior ISIS officials made it out of Mosul before it fell back into Iraqi hands, but the majority elected to stay on and battle until the bitter end.
Today is a day of celebration for Iraq. Mosul represents a turning point in the war against ISIS, as well as being a watershed moment in the history of post-Saddam Iraq. The Iraqis bore the brunt of the campaign to liberate one of its major cities. The simple reality that Iraq controls Mosul right now is astounding when one considers that a few short years ago ISIS was making seizing territory right on the outskirts of Baghdad.
In the aftermath of the Mosul campaign, what happens now? Iraq’s government and army have made major strides since those dark days, but they still have a long road ahead of them. Suicide and car bombings have become a regular part of life for Iraqis. Periodically, ISIS launch coordinated bombings that inflict large numbers of casualties and erode the rock of stability that Iraq is trying to carve out for itself. Will a battlefield victory against ISIS translate to better security and less attacks? Or will the opposite hold true?
Then there is the matter of Iran. Iranian influence within the borders of its one-time rival has been extensive and will likely last in the post-ISIS era. Tehran’s intentions remain unclear, but given Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it is safe to assume that it is plans to maintain a significant presence in the region for some time to come. The United States and Saudi Arabia are wary of Iran’s moves in the area to say the least. The nightmare scenario for both nations is to see Iraq gravitate closer to Tehran and ultimately wind up as a vassal state to Iran one day.