The State of the War against ISIL: How the Differing Goals of the U.S., Russia, and Regional Powers are Shaping the Conflict in the Region

Konark Sikka, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) started in June 2014 and is now in its 20th month. As tensions between the United States and Russia remain high in the Middle East, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran are all getting increasingly involved. There is a complex web of relationships – both alliances and rivalries -among many of  the countries involved. A closer look at these alliances, rivalries, and subsequent goals in the region will reveal a better perspective of how the war may end up in the future in both Iraq and Syria.

konark map 1
Source: Institute for the Study of War

The United States’ Perspective

The U.S. is simultaneously pursuing two goals in the Middle East. Primarily the U.S. aims to defeat the terrorist organization ISIL, which has aggressively  gained territory in Iraq and Syria, claimed credit for the Paris attacks last November, and according to the U.N., violated a host of human rights. The second goal is to oust President Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria. The Syrian Civil War began after Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters. President Obama then eventually imposed sanctions on Assad. During the civil war, the Syrian military under Assad also used chemical weapons on civilians. The U.S. then started supplying Syrian rebels with arms and weapons. As the civil war progressed and both Assad’s Syrian army and rebel forces were exhausted, ISIL emerged and took over territory in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S., along with a host of allies, started the specialized Operation Inherent Resolve to counter ISIL. The operation includes drone and air strikes over ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq. Such air strikes recently took out stashes of hoarded cash ISIL made from selling oil on the black market. The cash was used to pay for operations and militants, and the loss places a huge strain on the resources of ISIL to continue its militancy. ISIL is reported to have cut pay to militants.

The Peshmerga, a Kurdish fighting force that has taken large swaths of land such as Sinjar in Northern Iraq from ISIL control, have been supported by the U.S. for a long time. The real battle in Iraq, however, now lies in Southern Iraq, territory too far away for the Peshmerga to support politically and with current resources.

konark map 2

Most of the U.S. military attempts against ISIL have been in Iraq with some success. ISIL lost control of the cities of Tikrit, Baiji,  Sinjar, and other territory in Northern Iraq late last year in regions where airstrikes have been most effective to date. Peshmerga ground forces in Kurdistan are also contributing to help operate clean-up missions and hold ground  against ISIL.

Russia’s Perspective

Russia’s support for the Assad regime can be traced to its operation of a naval base in the country. The Russia-Assad relationship dates back to Al-Assad’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, who allowed the Soviets to open a naval base in Syria in 1971. This warm water port enables Russia to project power in the Mediterranean region as well as the Middle East – a crucial location for Russia if they are to be a player on the international stage.

Russia has only conducted airstrikes, as sending in ground troops would over-extend their resources in an economy which is already precarious However, they are supporting Assad’s ground forces. The Russian air strikes have been targeted at western backed rebels, even though ISIL continues to hold large swaths of territory in Syria. Russian airstrikes have also been reported to hit civilian areas, adding to tensions between Russia and the U.S. allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the region.

The Regional Powers’ Perspectives

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are the three major regional stakeholders in the war against ISIL. Iran’s goal is also to keep Bashar Al-Assad’s regime intact, as Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam followed in Iran. Saudi Arabia has been attacked multiple times by ISIL terrorists and, with ISIL being in close proximity to their border, would benefit from an ISIL defeat.

Saudi Arabia has led 34 Sunni countries from the Muslim World in forming an alliance to combat terrorism. This is  mostly a cosmetic alliance for the moment however, with only a few members with a military role in the alliance.

Turkey’s goal is to limit the expansion of territory and power of the Kurds in Syria, as they have links to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who have previously been in conflict with self-determination for Kurds within Turkey. ISIL have been fighting at the Turkish border, leading to damage in Turkish cities. Turkey has been training the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, while also providing the U.S. with airbases to fight against ISIL and conducting airstrikes to battle ISIL.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are at growing odds as the two regional powers jostle for power in the Middle East. Iran has hitched its cart to Russia’s intervention while Turkey has joined the Saudi Arabia alliance. Iran sent ground forces into Syria and Turkey has conducted airstrikes in border regions. Saudi Arabia in the meantime is debating the use of ground forces in Syria, along with Turkey.

Future Possibilities

The U.S. and allies are steadfastly backing Operation Inherent Resolve, as the battle against ISIL continues. Progress has been made in Northern Iraq, courtesy of the Kurds, with ISIL’s momentum being stifled. With one region of Iraq now secure, it should be easier to banish ISIL from the other regions of Iraq.

Ending the conflict in Syria however, is a much more complex challenge. With Saudi Arabia and Turkey contemplating sending ground troops into Syria to battle ISIL, any such move will not be received kindly by Russia and could end in a protracted war. However, Russia is in poor economic shape, and if forced to retaliate, will not have enough gas in the tank to put ground troops in Syria. With the U.S. continuing to back the rebel army in Syria, and the Russian-backed Assad continuing to focus on the rebels over ISIL, status quo in Syria seems the most likely result. Now and for the near future, given the success that U.S. airstrikes combined with allied Peshmerga forces on the ground have had, the outcome of an ISIL defeat in Iraq is much more likely as the Iraqi army continues to be backed by the U.S.

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