Global Independent Analytics
Theodore Karasik
Theodore Karasik

Location: USA

Specialization: Geopolitics, Geoeconomics

War for Syria: Foresight on Future Security Architecture

Let’s face it: NATO is not able to support its ally in what is coming in the War for Syria.

Introduction

The War for Syria is heating up to a potential major confrontation that will have security implications for, theoretically, decades.  In reality, and despite a ceasefire that certainly will not hold, we now have three different fronts involved or about to get involved in the coming month or two: the Russian-Iranian alliance supporting the Syrian government and military, especially in key strategic battles plus an aggressive air targeting campaign against all extremists; the US-led coalition that is operating Operation Inherent Resolve plus small numbers of special operation forces helping various Kurdish factions against Islamic State, and now the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) led by Saudi Arabia.  This vortex of forces raise questions about the future of security architecture in the Levant and beyond that impacts alliances such as NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Saudi’s IMA in Context and Future

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom’s Defence Minister, held a rare late-night press conference on December 15, 2015, for Saudi journalists only. He announced the formation of a new 34-nation ‘Islamic military alliance’ to fight ‘Daesh’ (‘Islamic State’) and al-Qaeda. Mohammed bin Salman’s proclamation of this Sunni religious force, a grandiose project, stunned scholars, diplomats, and armchair pundits. Many are asking, what is the son of Saudi King Salman thinking?

There is one main answer: Mohammed bin Salman argued that the aim of the Islamic military alliance would be to provide mutual anti-terrorism assistance ‘all over the Islamic world,’ specifically in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Mohammed bin Salman argued, ‘Today, every Islamic country is fighting terrorism individually.’

Furthermore, the Deputy Crown Prince asserted that the new alliance ‘emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which affected the Islamic world first, before the international community as a whole.’ This Islamic aspect is important, as Mohammed bin Salman argued that the faith forbids ‘corruption and destruction in the world’ and that terrorism constitutes ‘a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security.’

Saudi Arabia’s Northern Thunder military exercise, launched two months to the date after the announcement of the IMA, and representing 20 countries of the Islamic security force, represents a powerful statement in terms of capabilities and intent for the Levant. This was the largest war game in the Kingdom’s history, apparently more than the Sword of Abdullah exercise held in 2014, with significant, qualitative military equipment.

Clearly, the exercise comes at a time for Riyadh and its allies to show effective hard power projection in preparation for the War for Syria.  The plan appears to be to use Turkey as the launch point for the IMA into Syria to take Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State.  Now the IMA is asking for American support in order to launch its operations.  However, it seems that whether the Obama Administration gives its blessing with assistance, the IMA will move in anyway simply on principal.

The IMA approach might be all well and good against but there are key questions about what comes during the Saudi-led operation and what comes next:  What if Turkish troops joint the battle?  How will the Russian-Iranian alliance react?  What if there is an accident by any side that results in additional deaths or destructions?  We already saw the result of Turkey’s foolish shoot down of a Russian jet fighter that is literally putting the Kremlin and Ankara on a collision course with rhetorical threats, economic sanctions, and Russia’s 200 million dollar military support program to Armenia, a historical ally. Will Russia, who already fired multiple Sea Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) at Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Syria decide to send a message to Saudi Arabia? It is important to note that many local analysts noted that Putin’s use of these SLCMs can also reach Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the IMA represents a spearhead of a Sunni-led military force to garner influence in Syria to protect Sunnis.  It is possible what we are witnessing is the beginning of the division of Syria into protectorates based on religion or ethnicity in the short term. That fact is a significant marker for the future security architecture in a new Syria. What will the future hold?

What about NATO and SCO?

Let’s face it: NATO is not able to support its ally in what is coming in the War for Syria. NATO is already in overstretch with the Ukraine situation in addition to further deployments in the Baltics and other key Eastern European states. NATO’s budget cannot handle opening a trust south to help Turkey even if Article 5 is requested by Ankara. To boot, NATO is very frustrated with Turkey’s double-game with ISIS that now threatens Ankara directly. The evidence is overwhelming about Turkey’s double game with Islamic State financing networks that are still ongoing in the Anatolian city of Gaziantep. If the Turkish military will go into Syria aligned with the IMA, such an action will raise questions not only about Turkey's role in NATO, but will put a barrier to its membership in the EU. Therefore, the US, and by default, NATO, wants Turkey to stop this dangerous behavior. It is unlikely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will change his behavior immediately. It is of concern now what Turkey’s future will be under these pressures up to including greater intra-Turkish infighting over Ankara’s Syrian policy.

While NATO seems to be in retreat on the War for Syria, SCO may be upping its game. We all know that the SCO as an alternative military alliance to NATO. The SCO, of course, has not figured in the War for Syria as a force yet. But there are political implications for the security group that includes Russia allies as well as China. Vladimir Yevseyev, the head of the SCO Department of the Institute of CIS Studies, said “Victory on the ground, which I believe will occur in the next few months, is necessary to ensure the success of the inter-Syrian talks in Geneva.  It is necessary to go ahead with the talks in the course of these months at least for the purpose of formulating a common stance, which will allow the sides to reach a compromise.”  It look like SCO academics are starting to focus seriously on the Levant given that Iran will be joining the security organization sooner rather than later as the Islamic Republic remerges from sanctions.

Specifically, China, as a SCO founder and member, is likely to use the SCO to get across its points and perhaps a military role in the War for Syria. On Syria, China is maintaining, for now, its usual policy of patience and heart. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. Security Council a few months ago, the world cannot afford to stand by, but must also must not “arbitrarily interfere” in the Syrian crisis. He emphasized the humanitarian challenge with vigor. Those comments seemed to be a message to Moscow on airstrikes and other activity, and could be interpreted as a pre-step towards SCO activation in showing that the anti-NATO has a place in forecasting future security architecture. Already, China is present in Syria in a very small manner: According to a security official of the GCC, the vessel is “just sitting” there, possibly in case Chinese diplomats or other officials in Damascus need help or evacuation out of Assad’s areas of control.

For the SCO, Uighurs are the key concern; and the Islamic State knows it. In July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. “Your brothers all over the world are waiting your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” he said.  In September, ISIS taunted China in its online magazine Dabiq, featuring “the sale” of Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant from Beijing. For China, as a member of the SCO, there is concern. Reports of ISIS recruiters in Hong Kong approaching Indonesians and using Malaysia as a hub for gathering potential fighters only forces China to be more cautious but calculating. The plight of the Uighurs is not new, but what is new is disenchanted Uighurs who take up the ISIS message of violence. Caliphate Uighurs number perhaps over 1,000, each a ticking time bomb from Beijing’s point of view that ultimately affects the SCO’s planning for the future. That view came into sharp relief in August 2015 in Bangkok, Thailand, when Uighur terrorists killed almost two-dozen people at the Hindu Erawan Shrine. Although not an outright ISIS attack, the Uighur bombing is a harbinger of things to come.

Significantly, for the SCO, is the impact of the War for Syria is in Central Asia. The SCO is very worried about Islamic State. The fear of course, is that, as IMA goes into Syria is that these fighters will return to their home countries. Now, the SCO may well see itself on the cusp of getting involved against ISIS in new ways in the near future.  We need to forecast clearly what the significance of this move may mean.  Will NATO retreat and SCO fill the void similar, on a larger scale, to how the United States failed to act robustly in Syria and Russia filled the void? That answer may be answered when the new US president takes office in late January 2017.

What Does the Forecast Hold?

To be sure, no one can actually predict the forecast because of multiple variables and events to occur throughout 2016.  But what is clear is that Russia is winning in the War for Syria and will not retreat. The long term plan for the Kremlin in the Levant is about energy and specifically LNG.  Syria’s LNG fields near Palmyra and offshore of the Syrian coast between that country and Cyprus. Also, the visit of the Qatari Emir and the Bahraini King to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past month shows that there is a lack of unity within the Gulf Cooperation Council on LNG’s future networks Combined with China and Iranian interests in LNG, this goal needs a security architecture guarantee and the Russian-Iranian alliance augmented by the SCO is a real potential outcome across a transregional area to include the Levant and Central Asia, and ultimately, beyond. For NATO, and the EU, the energy angle is a major security concern but Europe is bogged down in a migrant crisis that is sapping budgets and questioning European unity at this critical juncture in the War for Syria.

For the IMA, this SCO outcome especially with LNG at play, is not acceptable. We will need to see the IMA’s security objectives playout in the War for Syria first.  Afterwards, perhaps a few years from now, the IMA, headed by Saudi Arabia, may try to be an enforcer and offer a security architecture that includes the Sunni areas of Syria that will lead to the Lebanonization of a future Syria. But there is a black swan lurking:  a potential Saudi implosion due to the multiple problems facing the ruling Al-Saud. A spate of articles in the Western press is showing growing concern of the Kingdom’s future and its potential for disintegration. If the Saudi Kingdom implodes what will happen with the IMA?  Will Islamic State move into the Kingdom, specifically the Nejd, with vigor, to take advantage of the chaotic situation?  Will the IMA need to focus on the Kingdom instead of the War for Syria? There are some who argue that Saudi Arabia will become the new Syria and that the Kingdom will split into several regions with bigger questions about governance. These are important and critical questions and points. Clearly, NATO is not likely to get involved but the SCO may very well see an opportunity to shove the West out in new and dramatic ways. We live in an age now that where the impossible is now possible.

All in all, at this point, the forecast looks like Russia and China will be major security guarantors, via the SCO, as majority stakeholder in a Levantine future security architecture that stretches from Syria to China and critical points in between in Central Asia. The US and NATO appear to be out, for now, and likely in the far term.

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