Syria and the Islamic Military Alliance
Five years into the Syrian debacle, there is new momentum for a real Sunni intervention
Five years into the Syrian debacle, there is new momentum for a real Sunni intervention, unlike past programs to support Syrian opposition forces. The Dec. 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.
The announcement put into place a foundation for Sunni majority states to coordinate their military capabilities and unite against extremist threats. That Shiite majority Iran is being singled out is important.
The IMA’s formation by Saudi Arabia sets the stage for potential operations in Syria. Riyadh sees the necessity of a Sunni coalition to attack the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its capital Raqqa, and to guarantee that Sunni interests are guarded and promoted in any political outcome in Syria.
Some may scoff at the IMA’s potential, but there is evidence of the will to fight based on Sunni unity. The recently-concluded Northern Thunder military exercise in Saudi Arabia featured over two-dozen Sunni countries participating in live drills for various scenarios.
This exercise comes two years after the Abdullah’s Sword exercise, illustrating Riyadh’s intent to coalesce forces for future contingencies across a broad range of operations. The show of force in both exercises sends a sharp message to the kingdom’s enemies that it is serious about protecting Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies from state and non-state threats.
IMA member states believe they can prosecute operations in any regional theater. This thinking is seeing results in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthi threat drove the Saudi-led coalition to launch operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope. Riyadh and its allies do not want to see a Hezbollah-type proto-state formed on the Arabian Peninsula.
The IMA appears to be preparing to go ISIS in Raqqa. The size and structure of such a force is subject to ongoing operations by the US-led coalition, as well as the Syrian army supported by continued Russian airstrikes. In other words, the strategic and tactical environment will evolve in perhaps unpredictable ways in the next few months.
The IMA wants Washington to provide air cover, but given American apprehension, it may instead provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. The IMA will pursue its objectives with or without the United States, particularly given Washington’s stated desire for Sunni Arab states to take care of their own strategic and defense affairs.
While an IMA push in Syria is a net positive, a larger and more salient aspect is that key member states will have a real seat at talks on Syria’s political futureDr. Theodore Karasik
US President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia next month will likely illuminate what America’s position will be on the IMA’s requirements and timing. One Gulf interlocutor told me that May 2016 is the likely window for a possible IMA intervention in eastern Syria. The scenario runs that with Iraqi security forces and others driving ISIS out of Mosul back into Syria toward Raqqa, the IMA will then implement its battle plans.
ISIS members and adherents who flee Raqqa will act out against IMA participants, and pro-activity will be required against the prospect of terrorism. What comes after the IMA ousts ISIS from Raqqa 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 member states will have a real seat at talks on Syria’s political future. Their goal is to oust Iran from that future. This may be more difficult than operations in Raqqa, but perseverance will pay off.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik