Global Independent Analytics
Theodore Karasik
Theodore Karasik

Location: USA

Specialization: Geopolitics, Geoeconomics

Russia’s “Withdrawal” from Syria: The Rise of the IMA?

Russia announced withdrawing from Syria. Although the definition of “withdrawal” is a subject to debate, the move signals a change in the Syrian chessboard that the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance may take advantage of

A Sunni Push

To be sure, five years into the Syrian debacle, there is new momentum for a real Sunni intervention unlike past more overt and covert support programs to Syrian opposition forces. This sectarian approach is the result of the geo-sectarian divide that has been percolating, first in Iraq in the late 2000s, and now between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Tehran’s occupation of Arab lands. Moscow’s “withdrawal” is seen as a positive development by Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states.

The December 2015 announcement of the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman represents a significant moment of unity in the Sunni world. Not only did the announcement put into place a foundation for Sunni states to coordinate their military capabilities but also to unite against threats from extremists. That Shiite Iran is being singled out is an important factor in the IMA’s formation.

The IMA’s development by Saudi Arabia is to set the stage for potential operations in Syria in the immediate term. The Kingdom sees that it is necessary to put forth a Sunni coalition to not only attack the Islamic State in Raqqa but also to guarantee that in any political outcome in Syria Sunni interests are guarded and promoted.

Some may scoff at the IMA’s potential. However, there is evidence of the will to fight based on Sunni unity. IMA states just concluded the Northern Thunder exercise at King Khalid Military City in Hafr Al Batin featured over two dozen Sunni countries participating in live action drills for various scenarios. This exercise is not novel; two years ago the Abdullah’s Sword exercise, also held at Hafr Al Batin, featured interoperability exercises and illustrated the Kingdom’s intent to coalesce forces for future contingencies across a broad range of operations. Significantly, the show of force in both exercises—in the northeast corner of the Kingdom-- is to send a sharp message to the Kingdom’s enemies that Riyadh is deadly serious about protecting Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies from state and non-state threats.

An important point is found in the Kingdom’s allies and their intent.  If IMA states believe that they can prosecute operations in any given regional theatre, then so be it. This type of thinking is now seeing a result in Yemen: The Iranian-backed Houthi threat in Yemen drove the Saudi-led coalition to halt the opposition drive by launching Operation Decisive Resolve and Operation Restoring Hope. There was no choice given that the Kingdom and its allies do not want to see a Hezbollah-type proto-state formed on the Arabian Peninsula.

Will the IMA become a NATO-like Organization?

There is some evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia is seeking to create a NATO-like organization to protect its security interests in a security partnership with other Sunni Muslim states.

There is the very fact that the IMA is seeking coordination to act as a security bloc. While NATO resulted from seeing a threat from the Soviet Union, the IMA is coalescing around the idea that there is an alien ideology that needs to be fought against. Salafi-Jihadists are first up on the threat list, and these types of terrorist groups are found from West Africa to Southeast Asia where IMA member-states are found. Some states—such as Indonesia—who were surprised by the IMA announcement may conclude soon that joining such an organization is in their best interests.

Nonetheless, the NATO-like organization may also see the Iranian threat through geo-sectarianism, and that fact may not be agreed upon by all IMA states at this time. Some IMA states see the economic opportunities with Iran as a strong deterrent to trying to counter Iran on regional affairs. Tehran’s behaviour may influence IMA states in the near to medium term especially regarding the outcome of the Syrian situation, the future of Iraq, the Yemen problem, as well as the Riyadh-Tehran competition in Africa and Southeast Asia and beyond. Here, the IMA as a NATO-like organization is seen as weak. Nevertheless, a core group of the IMA may function against Iran while the rest of the group would focus on Islamic State adherents and al-Qaeda franchises.

It should be noted that NATO and the core group of the IMA, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are building their relations. NATO places high importance on building cooperation with the Gulf States. The Alliance has already developed political dialogue and practical cooperation with four out of six Gulf Cooperation Council members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) through the Alliance’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which was launched in 2004. The visit of GCC Secretary-General Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani visited NATO headquarters in the past few days as NATO and the GCC continue their growing relationship.

Clearly, this relationship needs to be watched for NATO sharing lessons learned from the Alliances own experiences being passed to the GCC core of the IMA. We already know that both Qatar and UAE participated actively in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, which left a lasting impression on the two GCC states in terms of cooperation and coordination.

The IMA in Syria?

Now about an IMA operation in Syria against ISIS.  The IMA appears to be preparing for entry into the fight to go after the so-called caliphate’s capital, Raqqa. Various personnel numbers are being thrown around about what an IMA force may look like: From several thousand special operation forces to a much larger force to be augmented by airpower which is a necessary requisite. What the final force structure will be is subject to ongoing operations by the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, and, ironically, Syrian Arab Army operations supported by continued Russian air strikes in not only in around Palmyra but also in Raqqa itself. In other words, the strategic and tactical environment will evolve in perhaps unpredictable ways in the next few months.

The IMA, led by Saudi Arabia, wants the United States to provide the air cover but given American apprehension, the Obama Administration may deliver other support mechanisms to any IMA operation similar to US Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) in Yemen. The fact that the US may not provide air cover is not a show stopper for the IMA: the IMA will pursue their objectives with or without the United States. This fact is what Saudi Arabia and allies are learning rapidly from the Obama Administration’s intent to “empower” Sunni Arab states to take care of their own strategic and defense affairs: A point driven home at last year’s Camp David-GCC talks. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia next month will likely illuminate further what America’s position will be on the IMA’s requirements and timing. One GCC interlocutor told me that May 2016 is the likely window for a possible IMA intervention in Syria’s eastern region if conditions are favorable.

The scenario runs that with Iraqi Security Forces and others driving ISIS out of Mosul back into Syria towards Raqqa that only then the IMA will put their battle plans into action. There are key aspects of the logistics and length of time to crush ISIS in Raqqa and what comes after this Saudi-led operation. In the former, there is a logistics chain issue from where IMA will enter Syria and the very real prospect of urban combat that is never an easy task whereas in the latter, there will be constabulary requirements that the IMA will need to not only consider but implement. We know that ISIS members who flee Raqqa and their adherents will act out against IMA participants, and there will be a real world requirement to be pro-active against the prospect of terrorism.

Conclusion

Overall, an IMA intervention will accomplish a major goal of ousting ISIS from its narrative-driven Caliphate capital. What comes next is important for determining Syria’s future. While an IMA push in Syria is a net positive, a larger and more salient aspect is that key IMA states will have a real seat at the Geneva talks on Syria’s political future. This potential move means that IMA may be set to become a NATO-like organization.

What Russia does, in this scenario above, will need to be carefully analysed. The Kremlin can easily, within a day, augment its remaining forces in Latakia if necessary. The entry of the IMA, the intention and mission of the group, and its capabilities, may or may not clash with Russia’s interests. Most observers thought that Moscow and Washington would not be working together to settle the political questions surrounding Syria’s future a few months ago. So: Could it be possible that Russian jet fighters, who are still active in Syria, assist the IMA? We are seeing Arab states getting closer to Moscow, including Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, and the UAE, to name a few. The Emir of Qatar and the Bahraini King have both gone to Russia to discuss the future of the region. Even Saudi Arabia is negotiating with Russia on non-Syrian related issues such as nuclear energy. It should be noted that these states do indeed form the IMA’s inner ring.

Russia’s relationship with Iran in Syria may undergo some adjustments.  The potential entry of the IMA will test the relationship between the Kremlin and Tehran. A key question is where Russia will sit in the geo-sectarian confrontation given that historically the Kremlin sided with Shiite Iran because of the influence of Sunni extremists against the Soviet Union, and later their activity in the Caucasus and in Central Asia and, of course, the Russian Federation itself. If the Kremlin sees a positive push by the IMA to deal with Wahhabism run amok as seen in the extremist Salafi-Jihadists, there may be a shift in Moscow’s thinking. Don’t laugh: Undeniably, anything is possible in the topsy-turvy Levant.

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