Russian intervention in the Syrian crisis has caused a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the region, with Russian warplanes such as the TU-22M3 bomber and Su-25 attack aircraft and other sophisticated weapons systems including cruise missiles from its naval assets being used to attack Islamic State targets.  

This has aided the Assad regime, and has led them to regroup its army to launch a counter-offensive in the areas where there are ISIS strongholds and other rebel strongholds.  

Furthermore the Syrian state army (aligned with President Assad of Syria) have become highly professional, with much experience on the battlefield carrying out counter-insurgency warfare.  

The horrific events in Tunisia, in which British 30 tourists were killed in 2015 created a stronger impetus for Britain to act.  This event and the increasing threat of more ISIS attacks since London, Manchester, Brussels, Barcelona, and Paris have persuaded some that a more muscular foreign policy is needed not just to contain the ISIS threat, but to roll it back.   

Therefore in terms of grand strategy: the emphasis has shifted away from merely containing ISIS to rolling it back territorially – so as to destroy the enemy on the ground.  As we have seen ISIS retreat, its territory has shrunk both in Syria and in Iraq.  However, that does not mean that ISIS is now extinct.  Far from it.  It means that military planners are now seeing a new level to the conflict.  

While limited action has composed of airstrikes, special forces operations and drone strikes by the West and also Russia which have forced ISIS to become embedded into the civilian population, it created conditions harder for Russian military as well as our own to know who to target which means the probability of civilian deaths goes up as a consequence.  Particularly controversial has been the Russian bombing of Aleppo.  While achieving in most part of its military goal to rid the city of terrorists, it has killed many thousands of civilians.  

There is also a wider political issues at stake. As Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz in the 18th century said “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.”.  Therefore any military action should and must be backed up by a credible long term political plan for the Middle East including key stakeholders in the region.  Furthermore we are now in a precarious situation where Assad’s forces are coming close to British and American special forces.  Wrong move to ignite a wider war in region.

Currently, the Wider Middle Eastern region is in a state of flux with failed states stretching from Libya, Syria, and now Iraq becoming a hotbed for activity for ISIS.  ISIS are filling this political vacuum and far from being contained by limited military action has grown like a cancer with affiliate terrorist groups as far afield as Bosnia in Europe, and Chechnya militants and Boko Harem in Africa now claiming identity with this group. Our political strategy has become a contradiction in terms with the Coalition military attempting to maintain the status quo while our political strategy in the past has served to do the opposite.  

Our political strategy has been to apply a European nation-state democracy which served as a political blueprint leading to the invasion of War in Iraq in 2003 in the hope of democracy spreading to other states such as Syria and beyond.  This so called Domino theory was presumed to lead to a more stable and prosperous region. However, with the advent of the Arab Spring in 2010, and old Arabic autocratic regimes were threatened with rebellion, the uprising in Libya, with Gaddafi forces supposedly firing on civilians as well as rebels, provided the legitimation needed for NATO to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in Libya.  All of which has created more of a fertile ground for extremism to flourish, as there was no political end game.  

While the Arab spring came to Syria, the regime entrenched itself, and it became a proxy war fought out by the likes of the Western states, United States, France, and United Kingdom to name a few, as well as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Russia providing aid and lethal weapons to differing sides.  This meant this became a war of attrition with no political end in sight.   While the Western powers hoped for Assad to go, this does not look likely, and it is now predicted by experts and commentators that soon with the help of Russia, Assad will declare a strategic victory against ‘ISIS’ consolidating his own political position, and leaving the future of the country uncertain.  Lately Israel launched an unilateral military action against a supposed chemical weapons depot in Syrian military hands, which could have sparked an escalation in the crisis.  

A new political compromise is needed which (1) recognises the key actors such as Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other affilliated groups, and (2) disable and destroy any potential for any new recruits to ISIS through political, diplomatic means, backed up by military means if necessary.  (3) By encouraging key actors in the Syria crisis to talk to the West, they could triangulate their activities better to destroy ISIS, and also start the ball moving for political negotiations to take place after Assad has declared ‘strategic victory’ in Syria.  While Assad may become victorious, the country is divided as ever, and the biggest challenge will be not to let it destabilize further and destroy itself inside out. 

Therefore, two factors remain constant in this latest episode on the so called ‘War on Terror’. Firstly, ISIS while territorially shrinking in the Middle East has remained undefeated and has spread to other countries, while accelerating its attacks on European cities.  Secondly, while ISIS territory is shrinking in the Middle East, this causes another power vacuum which means that a political solution is needed there, to help bring about stable governance.  Another factor though needs to be added, and that’s the Russian dimension.  

The West needs to be able to achieve strategic dialogue with Russia, to avoid direct confrontation between Russian forces as well as civilian deaths, and to prepare for an Assad victory in Libya in what remains a much divided country.  It may mean, that the West also has to deal a diplomatic compromise with Assad.  Furthermore in Iraq, the West will have to see whether it will truly be able to operate militarily independently from help of others, or will the West get dragged in there.  However, what remains the most important in the short term is the West to achieve a dialogue and communication with Russia before a conflict becomes more global.  While the risk of this becoming so is small is origin, it’s not totally unthinkable.    

We now have to plan for a post-victory Assad Syria, while on its periphery are fractured states, from Bosnia, to Libya, to Iraq, to the continent of Africa where ISIS could still grow and flourish.  While the military goals of the West may have stayed largely the same, in terms of the destruction of the enemy ISIS, the dimensions of the conflict have fundamentally altered since Russia decided upon military action and sided with Assad by assumed its own role in ‘fighting terrorism’.  That’s why the stakes are even higher now, than they were a year ago, as this conflict has become one of a regional proxy war, as well as a global power competition between the West and Russia, and a conflicted defined by terrorism.  A political solution is needed now more than ever before.

When ISIS is all but destroyed in Syria, and Iraq, the battlegrounds will no doubt shift to Libya, and other parts of Africa, which I predict will become the new battleground for the Islamist extremists.

Oliver is a student at the University of East Anglia studying for a PhD in International Security. His interests include strategy, grand strategy in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific, international relations and politics, maritime strategy, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency warfare, and maritime policy.
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Mike Saul
Mike Saul
4 years ago

The Shia Sunni schism which has existed for nearly 1400 years will continue to fester leading to regional conflict.

It may even lead to full scale theatre conventional war, that is why the gulf and Arabian states backed by Egypt are arming themselves to such a level.

Let’s hope our addiction to fossil fuels is greatly diminished when it happens.

4 years ago

On dialogue and compromise, Russia possibly. The sociopaths known as Iran and Hezbollah no and never. Not under any conceivable circumstances.
Iran and Hezbollah have conducted multiple terrorist acts against civilian, political, and military targets. Any level of trust is naïveté bordering on mental illness.