Co-authored with Yusuf Buluc (*)
February 10, 2016
On February 4, 2016 Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, an adviser to the Saudi Defense Minister and also spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen reportedly stated, during an interview, that the Kingdom was ready to participate in any ground operations that the anti-ISIL coalition may agree to carry out in Syria. He also said that to win against Islamic State, the coalition needed to combine aerial operations with ground operations.
In response to questions about this statement, US Defense Secretary Carter said that increased activity by other countries would make it easier for the United States to accelerate its fight against Islamic State militants. “That kind of news is very welcome,” he told reporters and added that he looked forward to discussing the offer of ground troops with the Saudi Defense Minister.
The Saudi statement was later echoed by UAE officials who said that their country was prepared to deploy troops, “but not in the thousands”, to fight ISIL in Syria should the US-led coalition were to agree.
The Saudi statement has led to some speculation. It was reported in the Turkish press, for example, that the Saudis were working on plans to gather an army of 150,000 to enter Syria from Turkey and that Egyptian, Jordanian and Sudanese troops will serve in this army in addition to the Saudis. The possibility of troops coming from Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei was also raised. And, PM Davutoglu recently visited Saudi Arabia, accompanied by Turkey’s Chief of General Staff who was wearing combat fatigues which led to further speculation regarding the nature of possible Turkish force contribution.
At the end of the 26th Arab League summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, participating leaders had announced the establishment of a unified Arab force to address regional security challenges. The project was also addressed at the US-GCC summit meeting held at Camp David in mid-May. Leaders agreed to set up a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, taking into account the Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force” to mount or contribute in a coordinated way to counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and stabilization operations in the region.
With no external power ready and willing to put enough boots on the ground, the concept of fighting ISIL with a collective Arab force would have been a credible incentive for its creation and a test for the much desired political cohesion of the Arab world. After all, Iraq and Syria are Arab countries, the combatants are essentially Arabs and such a force could have helped prevent political/cultural complications related to “external interventions” which may otherwise surface at a later stage. However, Russian intervention in Syria has turned this into an even more complex undertaking.
US-Russia cooperation remains vital to ending the Syrian conflict. Whatever it is worth, there is now a roadmap for political transition in Syria. This has to be supplemented with a shared military strategy to fight ISIL since the two are inseparable components to the same end. Should Washington and Moscow succeed in this endeavor and put into that strategy some muscle in the form of tactical and logistical support the world may be pleasantly surprised to see a good number of ISIL militants disappear in the sand even before any offensive is launched.
Fully aware of the complexities that are inherent in putting together an “all -Arab ground force” and employing it with maximum effect, in the absence of more credible alternatives, the following issues must be addressed and resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
• The US and Russia need to reach a formal and clearly defined accord on the composition and the mission of such a force in consultation with the potential force contributing states, as well as Syria on whose sovereign territory the force will operate. They should also agree if and how they would give it logistical and battlefield support.
• Designed to fight an illegitimate phenomenon like ISIL, the legitimacy of the force would be paramount. Both its concept and formation as well as its employment must be sanctioned by a UNSC resolution.
• Deployment should be subject to and follow the achievement of a country-wide ceasefire in Syria, with credible measures to be put in place for its sustainment.
• The mission of the force should be defined in the UNSC resolution as “defeating ISIL”. Any involvement whatsoever in the Syrian war should be strictly prohibited, accompanied with measures that will draw clear and enforceable lines of separation between other forces in the field.
• For purposes of comprehensive planning and execution of military operations, Iraq and Syria must be defined as a single theatre.
• Iraqi security forces should be a principal component of such a force in order to avoid sectarian sensitivities. Saudi Arabia and her Gulf allies lack the manpower and the battlefield experience to make a substantial contribution to such a force. Egypt and Jordan must shoulder a greater share.
• Issues like strategic and tactical command, control and communication, intelligence processing, interoperability, headquarter facilities which are so critical to force employment should be addressed.
• Operations should be launched from Jordan and Iraq and not from Turkey. Arab countries have never approved Turkey’s involvement in intra-Arab affairs and Turkey’s involvement will overshadow the singular “Arab” character of the force. Turkey, however, may continue to offer İncirlik air base to coalition aircraft for strikes against ISIL.
• Turkey and her NATO allies need to seal off the entire Turkish-Syrian border to prevent any attempts of infiltration by the members of ISIL, as this would be a vitally important measure as defeat will force ISIL to disperse.
These are evidently difficult issues which render the creation of the force highly complex. Though they are not insurmountable. The prize of defeating ISIL, existential threat to all in the region and beyond, must give impetus to finding solutions.
(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy