Anti-ISIS coalition needs ground troops in Syria
DUBAI - Most world powers do not see a prospect of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), or Daesh as it is popularly known in Arabic, without a ground operation that builds on precision air strikes.
Indeed, the initial military response to the rise of ISIS triggered policy debates on the effectiveness of air power and whether air power alone could defeat the group.
The utility of air power for intelligence-gathering and precision targeting against ISIS has proven its worth, and a growing chorus of countries continues to deploy contingents to support air strikes against ISIS in Syria. At the same time, the limits of air power have become apparent as it becomes clear that a decisive defeat cannot be inflicted on ISIS without some manner of military activity on the ground.
For extreme scenarios — for example, such as a total regime collapse — Turkey and Jordan would already have contingency plans to move into Syria to establish buffer zones. Lebanon and Iraq may have put together similar plans or could be utilised as launch pads for military manoeuvres designed to establish buffer zones by other countries.
US Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have called for a 100,000-strong ground force constituted mainly from regional militaries to fight ISIS in Syria. At a minimum, 50,000 troops would be needed to effectively take on the terror group in ground combat, as precision air strikes force it out into the open.
Meeting the troop numbers required is one of many complex challenges but a large pool of countries is available as potential contributors. The United States, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait represent the core would-be members of a potential anti-ISIS coalition deploying into Syria.
The Egyptian position has been to downplay the idea of sending troops into Syria as it focuses on confronting the ISIS threat in its Sinai peninsula. However, it is likely that the Arab Gulf and United States, whose support remains critical for Egypt, would pressure Cairo to pull its weight as a major Arab power and join an international force for a ground operation in Syria.
Similarly, Morocco, Sudan and Mauritania may be asked to come forward as coalition members.
A formidable coalition force could be strung together if a clear, achievable and well-resourced military plan could be laid out by the United States, whose role is decisive given that any anti-Daesh coalition would only be able to function with US leadership and the technical capabilities and resources only the Americans can bring.
The need for boots on the ground to combat ISIS has been known to political and military leaderships for some time. The reticence until now is explained partly by a lack of appetite of individual countries for a potentially tricky war mission but also on how best to frame and communicate a war narrative against ISIS in Syria in a way that is coherent, consistent and likely to sustain public approval at home.
For example, the entire Arab bloc, Turkey, the United States and European countries all agree that it is the perpetuation of the Assad regime that has effectively created Daesh. If the impact of a coalition ground campaign against ISIS only facilitates and perpetuates the Assad regime, then it could well end in complete failure.
As ISIS has already inspired terrorist attacks around the world and split public opinion on how to confront the challenge it is posing, a failed military campaign in Syria could have counterproductive and disastrous results. Without carefully planning entry into Syria for an anti-Daesh coalition, it is difficult to predict how the coalition will interface with the large number of groups operating inside Syria.
On one side, there are armed groups, both secular and Sunni-extremist types, such as the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the Khorasan Group, Syrian Turkmen brigades and a host of different Kurdish groups. Yet Syria is also an operating ground — on invitation of the Assad regime — for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Hezbollah and a host of other religiously driven Shia groups.
Now that the Russians have established a base camp in Syria and stood up the S400 surface-to-air missile system, effectively giving its commanders the ability to shoot down anything in Syrian airspace, Moscow may be finalising a significant troop deployment of its own.
The buck now stops with the Russians, with whose intransigence even the United States cannot force an entry for any anti-coalition it would like to lead into fight inside Syria. Perhaps only a series of ISIS-inspired attacks in the West can make a US-led anti-ISIS coalition a reality and force Russia into making way for it into Syria.