Too Weak, Too Strong

Patrick Cockburn
London Review of Books
November 5, 2015

The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian
air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are
strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in
the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of
Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo,
Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in
Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the
co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every
day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack.
The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more
remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is
going to win.

The drama of Russian military action, while provoking a wave of Cold War
rhetoric from Western leaders and the media, has taken attention away from
an equally significant development in the war in Syria and Iraq. This has
been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in
Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State
and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried
out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which
made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has
demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and
Palmyra in Syria. There have been far fewer attacks against the Syrian
branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the extreme Islamist group Ahrar
al-Sham, which between them dominate the insurgency in northern Syria. The
US failure is political as much as military: it needs partners on the ground
who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those actually
engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are largely Shia – Iran itself, the
Syrian army, Hizbullah, the Shia militias in Iraq – and the US can’t offer
them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni
states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can
only use its air force in support of the Kurds.

The US faces the same dilemma in Iraq and Syria today as it did after 9/11
when George Bush declared the war on terror. It was known then that 15 of
the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for
the operation came from Saudi donors. But the US didn’t want to pursue
al-Qaida at the expense of its relations with the Sunni states, so it muted
criticism of Saudi Arabia and invaded Iraq; similarly, it never confronted
Pakistan over its support for the Taliban, ensuring that the movement was
able to regroup after losing power in 2001.

Washington tried to mitigate the failure of its air campaign, officially
called Operation Inherent Resolve, by making exaggerated claims of success.
Maps were issued to the press showing that IS had a weakening grip on
between 25 and 30 per cent of its territory, but they conveniently left out
the parts of Syria where IS was advancing. Such was the suppression and
manipulation of intelligence by the administration that in July fifty
analysts working for US Central Command signed a protest against the
official distortion of what was happening on the battlefield. Russia has now
taken advantage of the US failure to suppress the jihadis.

But great power rivalry is only one of the confrontations taking place in
Syria, and the fixation on Russian intervention has obscured other important
developments. The outside world hasn’t paid much attention, but the regional
struggle between Shia and Sunni has intensified in the last few weeks. Shia
states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never
had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states,
led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq. Shia leaders
dismiss the idea, much favoured in Washington, that a sizeable moderate,
non-sectarian Sunni opposition exists that would be willing to share power
in Damascus and Baghdad: this, they believe, is propaganda pumped out by
Saudi and Qatari-backed media. When it comes to keeping Assad in charge in
Damascus, the increased involvement of the Shia powers is as important as
the Russian air campaign. For the first time units of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard have been deployed in Syria, mostly around Aleppo, and
there are reports that a thousand fighters from Iran and Hizbullah are
waiting to attack from the north. Several senior Iranian commanders have
recently been killed in the fighting. The mobilisation of the Shia axis is
significant because, although Sunni outnumber Shia in the Muslim world at
large, in the swathe of countries most directly involved in the conflict –
Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than a hundred million Shia,
who believe their own existence is threatened if Assad goes down, compared
to thirty million Sunnis, who are in a majority only in Syria.

In addition to the Russian-American rivalry and the struggle between Shia
and Sunni, a third development of growing importance is shaping the war.
This is the struggle of the 2.2 million Kurds, 10 per cent of the Syrian
population, to create a Kurdish statelet in north-east Syria, which the
Kurds call Rojava. Since the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the three
Kurdish enclaves in the summer of 2012, the Kurds have been extraordinarily
successful militarily and now control an area that stretches for 250 miles
between the Euphrates and the Tigris along the southern frontier of Turkey.
The Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim told me in September that the Kurdish
forces intended to advance west of the Euphrates, seizing the last IS-held
border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus and linking up with the Syrian
Kurdish enclave at Afrin. Such an event would be viewed with horror by
Turkey, which suddenly finds itself hemmed in by Kurdish forces backed by US
airpower along much of its southern frontier.

The Syrian Kurds say that their People’s Protection Units (YPG) number fifty
thousand men and women under arms (though in the Middle East it is wise to
divide by two all claims of military strength). They are the one force to
have repeatedly beaten Islamic State, including in the long battle for
Kobani that ended in January. The YPG is lightly armed, but highly effective
when co-ordinating its attacks with US aircraft. The Kurds may be
exaggerating the strength of their position: Rojava is the safest part of
Syria aside from the Mediterranean coast, but this is a measure of the
chronic insecurity in the rest of the country, where, even in
government-held central Damascus, mortar bombs fired from opposition
enclaves explode daily. Front lines are very long and porous, so IS can
infiltrate and launch sudden raids. When in September I drove from Kobani to
Qamishli, another large Kurdish city, on what was meant to be a safe road, I
was stopped in an Arab village where YPG troops said they were conducting a
search for five or six IS fighters who had been seen in the area. A few
miles further on, in the town of Tal Abyad, which the YPG had captured from
IS in June, a woman ran out of her house to wave down the police car I was
following to say that she had just seen an IS fighter in black clothes and a
beard run through her courtyard. The police said there were still IS men
hiding in abandoned Arab houses in the town. Half an hour later, we were
passing though Ras al-Ayn, which the Kurds have held for two years, when
there was the sound of what I thought was shooting ahead of us, but it
turned out to be a suicide bomber in a car: he had blown himself up at the
next checkpoint, killing five people. At the same time, a man on a motorbike
detonated a bomb at a checkpoint we had just passed through, but killed only
himself. The YPG may have driven IS out of these areas, but they have not
gone far. Subscribe to the London Review of Books

Innumerable victories and defeats on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq have
been announced over the last four years, but most of them haven’t been
decisive. Between 2011 and 2013 it was conventional wisdom in the West and
much of the Middle East that Assad was going to be overthrown just as
Gaddafi has been. In late 2013 and throughout 2014, it was clear that Assad
still controlled most populated areas, but then the jihadi advances in
northern and eastern Syria in May revived talk of the regime’s crumbling. In
reality, neither the government nor its opponents are likely to collapse:
all sides have many supporters who will fight to the death. It is a genuine
civil war: a couple of years ago in Baghdad an Iraqi politician told me that
‘the problem in Iraq is that all parties are both too strong and too weak:
too strong to be defeated, but too weak to win.’ The same applies today in
Syria. Even if one combatant suffers a temporary defeat, its foreign
supporters will prop it up: the ailing non-IS part of the Syrian opposition
was rescued by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in 2014 and this year Assad is
being saved by Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. All have too much to lose: Russia
needs success in Syria after twenty years of retreat, while the Shia states
dare not allow a Sunni triumph.

The military stalemate will be difficult to break. The battleground is vast,
with front lines stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. Will the
entrance of the Russian air force result in a new balance of power in the
region? Will it be more effective than the Americans and their allies? For
air power to work, even when armed with precision weapons, it needs a
well-organised military partner on the ground identifying targets and
relaying co-ordinates to the planes overhead. This approach worked for the
US when it was supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in
Afghanistan in 2001 and the Iraqi peshmerga against Saddam’s army in
northern Iraq in 2003. Russia will now hope to have the same success through
its co-operation with the Syrian army. There are some signs that this may be
happening; on 18 October what appeared to be Russian planes were reported by
independent observers to have wiped out a 16-vehicle IS convoy and killed
forty fighters near Raqqa, Islamic State’s Syrian capital.

But Russian air support won’t be enough to defeat IS and the other
al-Qaida-type groups, because years of fighting the US, Iraqi and Syrian
armies has given their fighters formidable military expertise. Tactics
include multiple co-ordinated attacks by suicide bombers, sometimes driving
armoured trucks that carry several tons of explosives, as well as the mass
use of IEDs and booby traps. IS puts emphasis on prolonged training as well
as religious teaching; its snipers are famous for remaining still for hours
as they search for a target. IS acts like a guerrilla force, relying on
surprise and diversionary attacks to keep its enemies guessing.


Over the last three years I have found that the best way of learning what is
really happening in the war is to visit military hospitals. Most wounded
soldiers, eyewitnesses to the fighting, are bored by their convalescence and
eager to talk about their experiences. In July, I was in the Hussein
Teaching Hospital in the Shia holy city of Karbala, where one ward was
reserved for injured fighters from the Shia militia known as the Hashid
Shaabi. Many had answered a call to arms by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
after IS captured Mosul last year. Colonel Salah Rajab, the deputy commander
of the Habib battalion of the Ali Akbar brigade, who was lying in bed after
having his lower right leg amputated, had been fighting in Baiji City, a
town on the Tigris close to Iraq’s largest oil refinery, for 16 days when a
mortar round landed near him, leaving two of his men dead and four wounded.
When I asked him what the weaknesses of the Hashid were, he said that they
were enthusiastic but poorly trained. He could speak with some authority: he
was a professional soldier who resigned from the Iraqi army in 1999. He
complained that his men got a maximum of three months’ training when they
needed six months, with the result that they made costly mistakes such as
talking too much on their mobile phones and field radios. IS monitored these
communications, and used intercepted information to inflict heavy losses.
The biggest problem for the Hashid, which probably numbers about fifty
thousand men, is the lack of experienced commanders able to organise an
attack and keep casualties low.

Omar Abdullah, an 18-year-old militia volunteer, was in another bed in the
same ward. He had been trained for just 25 days before going to fight in
Baiji, where his arm and leg were broken in a bomb blast. His story
confirmed Colonel Rajab’s account of enthusiastic but inexperienced
militiamen suffering heavy losses as they fell into traps set by IS. On
arriving in Baiji, Abdullah said, ‘we were shot at by snipers and we ran
into a house to seek cover. There were 13 of us and we didn’t realise that
the house was full of explosives.’ These were detonated by an IS fighter
keeping a watch on the house; the blast killed nine of the militiamen and
wounded the remaining four. Experienced soldiers, too, have been falling
victim to traps like this. A bomb disposal expert in the ward told me he had
been examining a suspicious-looking wooden bridge over a canal when one of
his men stepped onto it and detonated a bomb that killed four and wounded
three of the bomb disposal team.

The types of injury reflect the kind of combat that predominates. Most of it
takes place in cities or built-up areas and involves house-to-house fighting
in which losses are high. Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers described being
hit by snipers as they manned checkpoints or being injured by mines or booby
traps. In May, I talked to an 18-year-old Kurdish YPG fighter called Javad
Judy in the Shahid Khavat hospital in the city of Qamishli in north-east
Syria. He had been shot through the spine as his squad was clearing a
Christian village near Hasaka of IS fighters. ‘We had divided into three
groups that were trying to attack the village,’ he said, ‘when we were hit
by intense fire from behind and from the trees on each side of us.’ He was
still traumatised by finding out that his lower body was permanently

For some soldiers, injuries aren’t the only threat to their survival. In
2012, in the Mezze military hospital in Damascus, I met Mohammed Diab, a
21-year-old Syrian army soldier who a year earlier in Aleppo had been hit by
a bullet that shattered his lower left leg. After making an initial recovery
he had gone back to his home village of Rahiya in Idlib province, which was
a dangerous move since it was under the control of the opposition. Hearing
that there was a wounded government soldier in the village, they took Diab
hostage and held him for five months; they even sold his metal splint and
gave him a piece of wood to strap to his leg instead. Finally, his family
ransomed him for the equivalent of $1000 but his leg had become infected and
so he was back in hospital.

In one sense, the soldiers and fighters I spoke to were the lucky ones: at
least they had a hospital to go to. Thousands of IS fighters must have been
wounded at Kobani, where 70 per cent of the buildings were destroyed by
seven hundred American airstrikes. In Damascus, whole districts held by the
opposition have been pounded into rubble by government artillery and barrel
bombs. Since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights, 250,124 Syrians have been killed and an estimated two million
injured out of a population of 22 million. The country is saturated by
violence. In September I went to the town of Tal Tamir outside Hasaka City,
near where Javad Judy was shot. Islamic State had retreated, but people were
still too terrified to return to their houses – or those houses that were
still standing. A local official said he was trying to persuade refugees to
come back. Their reluctance wasn’t surprising: the previous week an
apparently pregnant Arab woman had been arrested in Tal Tamir market. She
turned out to be a suicide bomber who had failed to detonate the explosives
strapped to her stomach under her black robes. Lumiere, Durham. The

The Russian intervention in Syria, the greater involvement of Iran and the
Shia powers, and the rise of the Syrian Kurds has not yet changed the status
quo in Iraq and Syria, though it has the potential to do so. The Russian
presence makes Turkish military intervention against the Kurds and the
government in Damascus less likely. But the Russians, the Syrian army and
their allies need to win a serious victory – such as capturing the
rebel-held half of Aleppo – if they are to transform the civil war. Assad
won’t want his experienced combat units to be caught up in the sort of
street-by-street fighting described by the wounded soldiers in the
hospitals. On the other hand, the Russian air campaign has an advantage over
that of the Americans in that it has been launched in support of an
effective regular army. The US never dared to attack IS when it was fighting
the Syrian army because Washington didn’t want to be accused of keeping
Assad in power. The US approach has left it without real allies on the
ground, aside from the Kurds, whose effectiveness is limited outside Kurdish
majority areas. The crippling weakness of US strategy in both Iraq and Syria
has been to pretend that a ‘moderate Sunni opposition’ either exists or can
be created. For all America’s fierce denunciations of Russian intervention,
some in Washington can see the advantage of Russia doing what the US can’t
do itself. Meanwhile, Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the
US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in its main
purpose. — 23 October

Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia
Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.
He regularly reports on the Middle East
for the British newspaper, The Independent. He won the Martha Gellhorn
Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006 and the Orwell Prize
for Journalism in 2009. His latest, The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New
Sunni Uprising
, published by OR Books, is available at

Article source:
Copyright © LRB Ltd., 2015

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