Who can defeat ISIS?

The so-called safe zone in Syria adjacent to its border with Turkey will now conceivably become a no-fly zone protecting Turkish infantry

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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The Syrian Army is wobbling. Bashar al-Assad said as much in an extraordinary speech that was not behind closed doors in which he acknowledged that his army was “tired” which is a curious but diplomatic way of putting it. The best assault forces he has left are the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Iran Revolutionary Guard. Neither of those two forces are particularly interested in taking losses fighting for territory that is not vital to defending the Alawite coastal heartland of Latakia and the land linking Damascus airport to Hezbollah-controlled portions of the Syrian- Lebanese border which enables Iran to securely supply Hezbollah. That is why Assad appears not to be contesting so much of Syrian territory that he does not have, from this perspective, strategic value.

But what if much of the Syrian Army simply starts to disintegrate and only elite Alawite units remain to hold a very vulnerable line around the capital? That happened in World War One when an exhausted and embittered Russian Army holding the Eastern Front against the Germans started to disintegrate and the Bolsheviks seized power and kept their promise to immediately make a separate peace with the Germans.

The so-called safe zone in Syria adjacent to its border with Turkey will now conceivably become a no-fly zone protecting Turkish infantry there theoretically providing training and arms to Syrian Rebel forces. But the primary objective of a Turkish- controlled, U.S. Air Force maintained no-fly zone was always the Turkish price for actually joining the war against ISIS in order to return a good portion of the more than one and a half million Syrian refugees in Turkey back into Syrian territory.

To that is added a new concern, occupying a key stretch of Syrian territory that would prevent the Syrian Kurds holding Kobane from linking up with Syrian Kurds holding an enclave on the border far to the east. Until the past few months, ISIS did that job and the Turks did little to nothing to help the Syrian Kurds hold off ISIS from taking Kobane. On the contrary, Turkey was allowing ISIS militants to maintain safe houses for ISIS foreign recruits going to Syria on the Turkish side of the border. Only now that is all ending.

Arab intelligence sources disclosed earlier this year that Turkish Intelligence was clandestinely running covered trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition across the border late at night to ISIS forces on the Syrian side of the border. And that claim is quite conceivable since only a few months ago Erdogan was declaring that the Kurdish Workers Party which had fought a thirty-year guerrilla war against the Turkish Army in the mainly Kurdish districts of Turkey and maintained fraternal relations with the Syrian Kurds was more dangerous than ISIS. Erdogan has also argued over the past few years that Syrian rebel energies should first concentrate on defeating Assad before taking on ISIS.

The so-called safe zone in Syria adjacent to its border with Turkey will now conceivably become a no-fly zone protecting Turkish infantry

Abdallah Schleifer

So who among ISIS' many enemies—the U.S., Iran via Hezbollah, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Syrian regime, the Kurds and Jordan will put sufficient, if any, “boots on the ground?” Sufficient, that is, to dramatically transform a campaign that at present harasses ISIS from the air but does not destroy it, nor prevent it from overrunning new territory in Syria even while losing some of its earlier acquisitions. The U.S., which leads the Coalition air campaign, has made it clear in will not be sending ground troops. Even its conduct of the air campaign is curiously vapid, running far fewer and less ferocious sorties against ISIS than it ran against Serbia in the Kosovo air campaign. As for the others, as Hussein Ibish recently noted (link www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/isil-cannot-be-defeated-without-concerted-turkish-involvement ) they all have other priorities. Saudi Arabia sees Iran and its proxies as the greater threat, Iran focuses on keeping Al-Assad in power, Al Assad’s forces have invariably focused on fighting the anti-ISIS Syrian rebels than upon ISIS, and the rebels reciprocate. The Kurds who are the most effective fighters against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are fighting to either defend or secure autonomy.

Only Jordan stands out. It is a perfunctory member of the anti-Iranian coalition and an overwhelmingly Sunni country that treats its Jordanian-Palestinian Christian minority well. It shares tense segments of its borders with Syria and Iraq that are either dominated or threatened by ISIS. It supports a functioning coalition of Southern Syrian rebel forces that has been far more successful against Assad’s forces in 2015 than any other rebel front and it has links with Sunni tribes in Syria that could be effectively armed. Jordan does not support the Muslim Brotherhood as Turkey and Qatar do in Syria, Libya and Egypt.

The Jordan Arab Army is a relatively small force – about 85,000 strong, but on a strictly man-to-man basis it is probably the best Arab fighting force. It was the only Arab army to defeat the Israelis in a series of battles during the 1948 War. One Jordanian battalion dug in just east of the Old City of then Jordanian controlled Jerusalem and fought hand-to-hand, inflicted half of all Israeli casualties in the 1967 War before being wiped out.

All of Jordan’s Hashemite rulers have had military careers and maintained close ties with the Jordan Arab Army, and the Hashemites - descendants of the Prophet - lead an army that incorporates traditional moderate Islamic values into the moral aspect of troop training and its air force is already attacking the perverters of Islam.

Last June, during Army Day celebrations, Jordan King Abdallah II presented the Hashemite flag to the Commander of the Arab Army for it to be carried alongside the Jordanian national flag, and the King declared that if necessary Jordan would carry its fight against extremism beyond its borders.

If I recall correctly, from the Jordanian frontier it is only an hour’s drive to Damascus. Jordan is a relatively poor country, but with serious funding and extensive and coordinated air cover from most of the other members of the anti-ISIS coalition, it would be the logical force to defeat ISIS in Syria.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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