Islamic State’s plan, and the West’s trap

Cameron and Hollande

Prime Minister David Cameron with President Francois Hollande at the Elysée Palace in Paris, 23 November 2015. by Number 10 under CC Licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


In making his case for extending British military operations to Syria in the House of Commons on 26 November, Prime Minister David Cameron three times stated his determination to ‘learn the lessons’ of the last Iraq war. In the face of the urge to respond decisively to the Paris attacks, there is little evidence that sensible conclusions have been reached or that the psychology and strategy of the Islamic State (IS) have been understood. This briefing is an initial assessment of the issues raised by the vote that is likely to be held in the Commons on British involvement in Syria.


Over the past 14 years, Oxford Research Group (ORG) has published a series of analyses on potential or evolving conflicts and has acquired a reputation for accuracy in predicting outcomes. In September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, ORG warned of the potential for long-lasting war if the primary response to the 9/11 attacks was military. Its assessment of the outcome of a war with Iraq, Iraq: Consequences of a War, published six months before that war started in March 2003, predicted that it would:

  • Result in the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.
  • Lead to substantial regional instability, and increased support for al-Qaeda.
  • Draw US troops into urban warfare in Baghdad.

The report concluded that destroying the Iraqi regime by force was a highly dangerous venture and that alternative policies should be urgently developed.

This briefing examines how the Sunni resistance to the 2003-11 occupation of Iraq eclipsed al-Qaeda and changed the nature and strategy of extreme Islamist violence. It also analyses the impact of the post-2014 US-led air campaign against IS, the apparent change in IS tactics, and how the greater involvement of the UK and other actors may play into IS’s plan and trap.

From al-Qaeda to ISIS

Al-Qaeda evolved throughout the 1990s. By the end of the decade it had become a small but potent transnational revolutionary movement rooted in a perverse, unrepresentative version of one of the world’s main monotheistic faiths – Islam, one of the three ‘religions of the book’ alongside Judaism and Christianity.

Its ambitious aim was to cause the overthrow of the ‘near enemy’ regimes in the Middle East and southwest Asia, replacing them with ‘proper’ Islamist regimes; to see Zionism destroyed; and to so damage the ‘far enemy’ of the United States and its Western partners that a new caliphate would grow outwards from the centre of Islam.

At the heart of its doctrine was an eschatological worldview whose timescales were potentially eternal. Even so, one of its key early tactics was quite specific and immediate – violent actions within the ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies that would provoke massive overreactions and then sow dissension and chaos. 9/11 was the most substantial of these. The attack directly aimed at drawing the United States into occupying Afghanistan; instead, the US response was focused on using Northern Alliance paramilitaries as surrogate troops, and it took several years before the Taliban could return in strength.

Many of the violent assaults of the early 2000s – Karachi, Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, Jakarta, Sinai, London, Amman and many others – were undertaken by groups loosely connected with al-Qaeda yet often willing to act under its banner. By 2006, however, what remained of ‘al-Qaeda central’ had limited power, and over the following six years was superseded by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS’s territorial strategy and the Western response

ISIS’s new version kept the long-term aim of creating a worldwide caliphate. But from 2011, circumstances in Syria (after the start of the Arab awakening) and Iraq (after the American withdrawal) allowed for the rapid creation of an actual proto-caliphate. ISIS was therefore much more focused on territory, and won considerable success in the effort. This eventually resulted in a US-led coalition mounting a strong reaction in the shape of the air-war that started in August 2014: Operation Inherent Resolve.

The intensity of the war has been scarcely reported. It has involved 57,000 sorties and 8,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that, as of 13 November 2015, hit 16,075 separate targets. The overwhelming majority of the sorties were flown by US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy planes. The Pentagon estimates that 20,000 ISIS supporters have been killed. Furthermore, the withdrawal of Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates from airstrikes in Syria, mainly since these states became involved in a new war in Yemen in March 2015, means that this is now essentially a Western war on ISIS’ self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Such a concentrated war would create the expectation of IS being on its knees. Yet the Pentagon also estimates that the number of active IS paramilitaries is unchanged from 2014 at 20,000-30,000, while US intelligence agencies say that 30,000 people from 100 countries have joined IS (compared to 15,000 people from 80 countries by mid-2014). The air-war, in short, is not defeating IS.

IS switches tactics

Moreover, a significant change in IS tactics has occurred. It now combines holding territory with operating overseas in a manner reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s approach of a decade ago. In the past year IS has sought to make stronger connections with Islamist paramilitaries in several countries – including Libya, Nigeria (Boko Haram), southern Russia, Yemen and Afghanistan – and to bring them under its own banner. It is also promoting direct attacks elsewhere: among them two attacks in Tunisia (Tunis’s Bardo museum and Sousse’s beach resort), the destruction of a Russian tourist jet over Sinai, and bombings in Beirut and Paris.

There are almost certain to be more, not least as IS is reported to have established an organized wing of the movement with this specific aim. The plan has three purposes:

  • to demonstrate power and capability, including to supplant what remains of the support for al-Qaeda;
  • to incite as much Islamphobia and community conflict as possible, especially in France and Britain;
  • to provoke an even more intense war from the West, ideally involving Western ground-troops.

All this is relevant to the decision by David Cameron to seek approval for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to join in the bombing of Syria. It is highly likely that this will be supported by the House of Commons within the next week, unless individual members can rise above the understandable desire that ‘something must be done’. But it is significant that behind the rhetoric about destroying and defeating IS, the government’s intention in terms of the direct assault is actually far more modest.

When parliament’s foreign-affairs committee asked Cameron what the overall objective of the military campaign was and whether it was intended to be ‘war-winning’, he replied: ‘The objective of our counter-ISIL campaign is to degrade ISIL’s capabilities so that it no longer presents a significant terrorist threat to the UK or an existential threat to Syria, Iraq or other states.’ This falls far short of a military victory and no timetable is given even for this limited aim.

Back to the future

The decision to expand the war against IS is worth putting in historical perspective. By the end of 2001, three months after 9/11, the US coalition appeared to have destroyed the Taliban and massively damaged al-Qaeda. This enabled George W Bush to declare success in his state-of-the-union address in January 2002. Yet al-Qaeda went on to facilitate attacks worldwide, and the war against a resurgent Taliban continues to this day.

By May 2003, President Bush could declare ‘mission accomplished’ against Saddam Hussein’s regime after just six weeks, but an immensely costly eight-year war ensued. In 2011, President Obama felt Iraq sufficiently secure to withdraw all US combat-troops, but within two years ISIS was rampant. That same year, France and Britain celebrated the end of the Qadafi regime in Libya only for the country to disintegrate into a violent, failing state and weapons to proliferate across the Sahel.

What is frankly amazing is that the same mistakes are being made, and that Western leaders are falling into the same traps. There is no recognition at all that IS is intent on provoking an expanded war, that this is what it is going to get, and that its leadership will be well satisfied with its achievements.

Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group (ORG) and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.
Copyright (c) Oxford Research Group 2015.
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Why military intervention in Iraq would be a grave mistake


ISIL may act to incite Western military intervention. The US Army under a Creative Commons Licence

The former United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair and some United States politicians are making the case for armed intervention against the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) insurgents in Iraq, even if in most cases they are not recommending American and British troops on the ground. Barack Obama’s administration is, for now, cautious. But one element being entirely missed out from the argument is the possibility that ISIL actually wants intervention. It might be useful, then, to look at the situation from the perspective of an ISIL strategist attempting to chart the way ahead in light of its advance. 

ISIL has had a substantial presence in western districts of Mosul for some time, but the speed of the Iraqi army’s collapse around 10-11 June probably went far beyond the group's immediate expectations. There have been atrocities, but ISIL also has support - indeed, some refugee movements have been motivated by fear not of the ISIL presence but of counter-attacks on Mosul by the Iraqi air-force. As a result, many are now returning to the city.

This means that Iraqi government forces are highly unlikely to be able to regain Mosul in the weeks and months ahead. This also applies to Fallujah, though the far more economically important town of Baiji is a different matter – its oil-refinery and power-station may make this is the one significant centre the Iraqi government might try to recover.

In any case the collapse of Mosul has enabled ISIL to acquire considerable monetary resources (possibly exceeding US$400 million in banknotes) and substantial equipment and munitions. Moreover, the rapid transfer of arms and equipment from Syria indicates that ISIL is already planning consolidation.

It may now be that ISIL has only one more immediate aim: an attempt to overrun Balad air-base north of Baghdad. US trainers and other personnel have been hastily evacuated from Balad, leaving extensive stores of munitions and equipment that would enhance ISIL’s longer-term capabilities. That, rather than Baghdad, may well be a priority for ISIL’s limited forces.

The picture then is that beyond Balad and a few other towns, and an increased presence in parts of western Baghdad, major further gains by ISIL are highly unlikely.  For one thing, gaining control of predominantly Shi’a areas is much harder than taking over predominantly Sunni districts; for another, Iranian support will ensure that Baghdad remains secure in government hands.

Two related issues must also be noted. The first is that ISIL planners are among the most experienced paramilitary tacticians anywhere in the world, let alone the region - not least because of the experience they have gained in years of combat against western counterinsurgency forces.  

The second is the modest numbers of paramilitary fighters available to them - perhaps 10,000 in all. It is true that their rapid recent gains may draw some support from local clan groups, but the impact of this is likely to be limited numerically and to affect only the immediate area. In addition, Bashar al-Assad’s regime may use ISIL’s concentration of forces in Iraq to attack some areas in Syria controlled by the group.

All this points to the consolidation of ISIL’s extraordinary gains in the weeks ahead, even once some modest tactical withdrawals are taken into account.

The west’s temptation

More broadly, a priority for ISIL until the end of 2014 will be to recruit more experienced paramilitaries from across the region. The group will also want to attract volunteers from wider diasporas, though the latter require months of acclimatization and training to have much impact.

In the longer term, ISIL planners are looking to secure and consolidate an Islamist caliphate stretching across large parts of northern Syria and northwest Iraq. This will require increased support from abroad in the form of financial and material aid as well as the boost in personnel. 

The greatest help in advancing these aims would be open western military intervention in any form, even if restricted primarily to the use of armed drones.

Any such intervention will aid ISIL’s ability to propagandize such intervention as yet another example of the western ‘far enemy’ at work. The latter would encompass any Israeli action in Syria, allowing a propagandist theme used widely in 2003-06 to be recharged. This focused to great effect on the notion that Israeli aid for the US operations in Iraq (which was little acknowledged in the west but well-known in the region) was part of a ‘crusader-Zionist plot’ to great effect.

It is thus wise to face up to the distinct possibility that ISIL will endeavour in the period ahead to incite western and Israeli military intervention, in the process countering Obama’s reluctance to take this route. 

For this reason alone, quite apart from any others, such intervention would be a grave mistake. By contrast, avoiding the temptation would at least limit ISIL’s ability to further strengthen itself and thereby enhance its dangerous capabilities in the coming months.

This does not in any way help in trying to determine what are the best ways forward and what roles western states can most usefully play. On this question, though, it can be said that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are hugely more important than these states currently recognize.

This article was originally published in openDemocracy.

Paul Rogers is a professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, England. He is openDemocracy’s international-security editor and he writes monthly briefings for the Oxford Research Group.  Read his briefing on the Iraq crisis for the Oxford Research Group.

Mali: consequences of a war

Tuareg militants, seen driving near Timbuktu on 7 May 2012, share control of northern Mali with Islamist groups and al-Qaeda fighters.

Magharebia under a CC Licence


With the transformative developments in Mali in the past three weeks, and the worrying attack in Algeria, this special briefing updates and synthesises previous analyses from Oxford Research Group during 2012, including briefings in April – Nigeria, May – al-Qaeda, June – Mali and November – al-Qaeda.

The briefing on Mali was written in June, when the expectations were of an intervention by ECOWAS troops, supported and trained by French and other Western forces, but with direct Western combat intervention, likely to be limited primarily to a few hundred Special Forces. Even with that limited Western involvement the briefing argued that:

From the point of view of the leadership of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, military intervention would actually be welcome as further evidence of external interference, especially if there was French and US involvement.

there needs to be a far greater focus on negotiations… This is a matter of some urgency. Negotiations, though, must be undertaken while recognizing that the relative underdevelopment of northern Mali and the marginalization of the Tuareg people must be addressed.

The briefing on al Qaeda argued in November that:
Radical Islamist movements do not yet have transcontinental coherence across northern Africa, yet they form part of a phenomenon that is essentially a post-9/11 development and is increasing in intensity and geographical distribution. There appear to be many informal linkages, made far easier by modern communications and new social media, and they therefore connect informally with developments across the Middle East and South West Asia.

The concluding policy recommendation was that:
Military intervention in Mali should be avoided. It will inevitably involve Western military units, and this will enable Islamist propagandists to concentrate more on their message of repression of Islam by outside forces. The old concept of 'the far enemy' of the early 2000s could well get a new and unifying lease of life.

Key parts of the briefing on Nigeria (April) were:
• Boko Haram has some links with the al-Qaeda movement, is increasing in its impact on Nigerian society and is facing tough suppression by the Nigerian security forces.
• his use of force may be counterproductive unless underlying issues of socio-economic and other disparities within Nigeria are addressed.

Developments in 2013

At the start of this year, the EU was slowly planning its training mission for the Malian Army with the expectation that this would be a 12- to 18-month endeavour. It was also recognized that contingents from Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and other ECOWAS states would have very limited capability for expeditionary land warfare and would serve primarily as garrison forces. Serious action to regain control of northern Mali was not possible before the end of the hot rainy season in September. What Western and other intelligence missed, or at least seriously underestimated, were two key factors.

• Firstly, opposition to the Mali government and separatist aspirations in northern Mali are not solely rooted in Islamist ideology but have a far greater historical context stemming from an enduring sense of marginalization that has led to many past rebellions, especially by the Tuaregs. To see what is now happening in purely Islamist/terrorist terms is a widespread yet dangerous simplification.

• Secondly, between April and December last year the rebels in northern Mali greatly consolidated their control, including the development of underground bunkers and dispersed facilities. They were anticipating air strikes as soon as they started the advance in early January, and it is possible that the recent advance was partly to incite an immediate French reaction, knowing that this would increase support for their cause, including greater potential for financial aid from private sources in western Gulf States.

From a French perspective, though, intervention was essential, given the unexpected speed of the rebel advances in early January, which may have even surprised the rebels themselves. Moreover, France had broad international support, especially among Western allies, as well as strong support from Malians in Bamako and elsewhere in the more populated south of the country. French military intervention developed rapidly, and by mid-February, there will be 2,500 French military personnel in Mali, quite possibly backed up by a similar number from ECOWAS states.

Even so, and whatever the strength of the arguments for intervention, it must be recognized that this will be hugely welcomed by the wider jihadi movement and its propagandists. What should under no circumstances be underestimated is the impact of the air strikes, in particular. Coverage is much greater in the Arab media than in the West and coverage by jihadist propagandists through the new social media will be far more graphic.

Images of Mirage and Rafael strike aircraft and of the casualties and damage will form part of a much wider narrative, joining a decade of innumerable air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Israeli strikes in Lebanon, Gaza and Sudan (widely seen as attacks by US aircraft in Israeli markings).

The Mali intervention may now be primarily French, but will be seen as more broadly Western, with UK and Canadian logistics aid, UK provision of reconnaissance aircraft and reports of US offers of drone deployments supporting this.

Furthermore, clear linkages will be made between Mali and the consistent attempts of the Nigerian government to suppress the Boko Haram and Ansaru movements even as it contributes troops to the war in Mali. This element too should not be under-estimated.

Three developments are likely:
• For planning purposes the Western intervention in Mali should be expected to last years rather than weeks. Recent military advances and the re-taking of northern towns are likely to lead on to a bitter guerrilla war, and reports of Malian Army atrocities against Tuareg communities will further fuel opposition.
• Just as with Syria, as the war develops, it should be expected to attract dedicated and fervent young paramilitaries, including young men with combat experience.
• As Western forces become more committed, and especially as there is graphic footage of the impact of airstrikes, Mali will be seen in more radical circles across North Africa, the Middle East and parts of South Asia as yet one more example of a Western assault on Islam.

Long-term sustainable stability for Mali will not be possible without serious efforts to address the longstanding and deep grievances that stem from marginalization of the northern territories and its peoples, especially the Tuaregs. The French together with the Malian military and authorities will need to address this issue, because there will be no unified Mali, if no solution is found to accommodate the interests of the Tuaregs and other northern populations. Socio-economic and political marginalization of the North has deep-seated roots, and the ethnic/cultural dimensions (Tuaregs historically enslaved black Africans) of this issue cannot be ignored. There is a significant and well-documented history of rebellion and resistance by Malian Tuaregs towards the colonisers (France) and later the central government.

The Malian government remained unwilling or unable to implement development projects necessary to alleviate Tuareg poverty and marginalization, failing to adhere to the terms and conditions of peace agreements reached under the Tamanrasset Accords (1991) and National Pact (1992) and the Algiers Accords (2006). A new talks process facilitated by the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, on behalf of ECOWAS, began in Ouagadougou on 4 December 2012 engaging the Malian government, Ansar Dine and MNLA. The talks, which had been due to resume on 10 January, have been postponed. Further engagement is essential.

It is the population’s resentment towards the central government over the marginalization of the northern territories, which has helped Islamists gain support there. The chances of finding a solution to combatting Islamic extremism in northern Mali would have been significantly better had the Malian government looked at ways of collaborating with the Tuaregs. The only viable long-term solution is co-operation and economic development for the region.

Policy options

There are three immediate policy implications:
• Counsel against the use of air power in attacking targets deep in rebel-held areas. The rebels are prepared for this, it will have minimal effect whatever the military claim, and it is the greatest single aspect of Western action that incites wider support for the rebels.
• Recommend that the short-term function of French and other Western forces should be defensive, ensuring solely that rebel forces make no further advances.
• Frame all policy in terms of a willingness to negotiate while recognizing the underlying problem of long-term marginalization. Islamists have latched on to deep and long-standing resentment and will best be undermined by fully recognizing this.

There is no pretence that this will be easy, especially as it is clear that Western political opinion has moved a long way towards a simplistic view of this as part of an anti-jihadi war. The more it sees Mali in this light, the more it will become just that, with dangerous long-term consequences. Indeed, if Western leaders speak in terms of an existential and generational conflict across North and West Africa and act accordingly, that is precisely what they will get.

Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group (ORG) and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. Anna Alissa Hitzemann, Project Officer and Peaceworker on our Sustainable Security programme, contributed analysis of the Tuareg dimension to this briefing.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford Research Group's website on 28 January. Crossposted under a CC Licence.

The rise of Jihadism in Syria

This briefing analyses the growing significance of the foreign and home-grown jihadists in Syria. There may be over 1,000 foreign fighters in Syria now as the war becomes more violent and may continue for some time. Even if the regime falls soon, the jihadist element will have influence in a post-Assad era. If, however, the regime endures, and the longer it goes on, the more likely the jihadist element will gain in influence. Against all expectations, the al-Qaeda idea could increase in significance. This could have disastrous consequences beyond Syria and makes the need to seek a negotiated solution a top foreign policy priority.

A Free Syria Army rebel.

Freedom House under a CC Licence

When the Arab Awakening began in 2011, it was welcomed by the al-Qaeda leadership. But it was in reality a dangerous development for the movement since it promised change that did not stem from a radical Islamist world view. For the weakened al-Qaeda movement to regain significance in the Middle East, the Awakening had to fail, preferably by social movements being violently repressed by elites. Al-Qaeda activists would then contribute to uprisings. There is evidence that this is now happening in Syria.

Al-Qaeda’s status and its consequences

The al-Qaeda movement has been greatly weakened in the past three years, partly by the extensive use of armed drones, especially in north-west Pakistan, partly by the death of Osama bin Laden, and partly by its failure to have any sustained opportunity to put its ideological foundations into practical political effect. At the same time, al-Qaeda is an unusual revolutionary movement rooted in a religious world view and eschatological in the sense that it looks beyond this life and therefore has a very long time-span for action. It has also evolved beyond a single movement into a range of groups that have only limited interconnections, even if united by a shared fundamentalist religious outlook. They include what remains of the movement in Pakistan and, to a very limited extent, Afghanistan, as well as more active groups operating in Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, and to a lesser extent, Indonesia.

For many of the foreign paramilitaries, the war in Syria is more important than those in Afghanistan or Iraq because Syria is closer to Jerusalem

As a consequence of the wars of the past 10 years, movements such as al-Qaeda have benefited from several significant developments in insurgency tactics. None of these are new, but all have been enhanced by recent experience, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The initial burst of development came in Iraq and was aided by the existence of many arms dumps, combined with the technical capabilities of some of the Saddam Hussein regime’s élite security units. IEDs were also progressively used in Afghanistan, where explosives were frequently manufactured from basic ingredients, including ammonium nitrate fertilizers. At their peak, IEDs in Afghanistan were being detonated in their thousands each year, recent figures being 9,304 explosions in 2009, rising to 16,554 for 2011. In the latter year, nearly a third of over 2,500 civilians killed in the country died as a result of IED use (figures from IISS London).

Martyr/Suicide actions. Martyr attacks have figured in the region over many years and have also been prominent in other conflicts including the LTTE insurgency in Sri Lanka. They have increased markedly in intensity since 2001, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also as part of attacks in other countries, including London in July 2005. Such attacks are particularly difficult to counter and sometimes involve extreme measures. One reason for the Israeli construction of the security barrier with the occupied territories was the growth of these attacks in Israel.

Trained paramilitary cohorts. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, many members of the mujahidin insurgents gained extensive combat experience against low morale Soviet conscripts in a largely rural environment. For Afghans in the Mujahedin this experience was particularly valuable during the civil war in the 1990s, and later for the Taliban, in their actions against coalition forces. For the foreign jihadist fighters in the country towards the end of the 1980s, this combat experience helped form what became a distinctive cohort of young men, some of whom were influential in the evolution of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the role of that movement in aiding the Taliban against the Northern Alliance of warlords in the 1990s further added to combat capabilities. In the Iraq War from 2003 to 2009, many young men joined the insurgents fighting against the US-led coalition and also took part in actions against the Shi’a majority. In fighting the US forces, many of these young men were killed in combat, but others survived and now constitute a markedly dispersed cohort with combat experience against well-trained and heavily-armed US Army and Marine Corps units.

Thus, one of the effects of the wars has been to give rise to a combination of extensive IED capabilities, a great commitment to martyr attacks and paramilitary combat experience.

The Syrian Uprising

Following the initial development of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, there were rapid political changes in Tunisia and Egypt, some degree of reform in Morocco and Jordan, and an uprising and regime termination in Libya that required considerable intervention from NATO. From March 2011, a popular movement against the Assad regime in Syria developed, but this was repressed with force by the regime. This slowly led to an insurgency which started with very limited co-ordination and few armaments. Within three months there was considerable aid forthcoming, principally from Saudi Arabia, and by September last year, there were predictions that the Assad regime would not last out the year.

This was a mistaken view, not least because the regime did have internal support that extended beyond the Alawi minority, and also because it had the backing of Iran and Russia. The Syrian conflict has now evolved into a violent and devastating civil war that is made worse by being a double proxy conflict – at the regional level the strong and well-funded Saudi support for the rebels is matched by Iranian support for the regime, and at the global level, there is a fundamental difference between Russia wanting regime survival or at least a peaceful transition that protects its interests, and the United States wanting regime termination as soon as possible.

Jihadist involvement

It is in this context that the growing influence of young jihadist paramilitaries becomes significant, especially in relation to the legacy elements of the ‘war on terror’ discussed above. At the same time, it is difficult to assess the degree of external jihadist involvement for three reasons:

• The Assad regime has long exaggerated the involvement so as to label all opponents as terrorists.

• The Syrian rebels are deeply reluctant to admit that jihadist elements are active because of the potential loss of Western support.

• It is probable that US and other Western intelligence agencies have a reasonably accurate assessment of substantial jihadist strength but their political leaderships, too, are deeply reluctant to acknowledge this in public.

However, what is now clear is that there are substantial numbers of foreign paramilitaries active against the Assad regime, they are often operating in parallel with the Free Syrian Army, they are well-organized and competent and they number far more than recent US estimates of 200. Their involvement in the Syrian War appears to have accelerated since late last year and this coincides with an increase in martyr attacks and a substantial increase in the use of IEDs. In May of this year alone, there were around 700 IED detonations, and their use against the Assad regime’s armoured vehicles appears to have been particularly effective given that these do not have the levels of anti-mine protection that US forces eventually developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to reputable public domain sources, there appear to be at least 1,000 foreign paramilitaries, and there may be far more as numbers are rising. They include people from Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, as well as from non-Arab Islamic countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. For many of them the war in Syria is more important than those in Afghanistan or Iraq because Syria is closer to Jerusalem.

The al-Qaeda movement and its offshoots have long regarded the House of Saud as the most important ‘target’ within the concept of the ‘near enemy’, because it is the entirely unacceptable Keeper of the Two Holy Places, and have sought its downfall and replacement with acceptable Islamist governance. Beyond this though, is Jerusalem, the location of the Third Holy Place, and Syria is the most important part of the Jerusalem hinterland. Syria is therefore of great importance to the jihadist/al-Qaeda world view and its ‘cleansing’ of Christians and Islamic apostates (Alawis) is a core task in the mission to establish a proper Caliphate.

The war in Syria is becoming more violent, and the proxy element is now deep-seated, making it difficult for either side to prevail

The foreign (and indeed the home-grown) jihadist element in Syria may still be in a minority within the rebellion but it is growing in significance. It is one reason why CIA personnel are operating actively in Turkey and trying to direct munitions and other materiel into the ‘right’ sort of rebels and not the jihadists. It is also the reason why the Assad regime retains more support from Christians than might be expected, because they fear the regime, however autocratic, being replaced by something that from their confessional perspective is potentially much worse.

The war in Syria is becoming more violent, and the proxy element is now deep-seated, making it difficult for either side to prevail. This suggests that the war may continue for some time. Even if the Assad regime falls soon, the jihadist element already means influence in a post-Assad era. If it does not fall soon, then the longer it goes on the more likely the jihadist element will gain in influence. One of the most important consequences of this is that against all expectations, the al-Qaeda idea could increase once more in significance. This could have disastrous consequences beyond Syria.

Negotiated settlement

In these circumstances, there is an urgent need to encourage any initiative that seeks to bring the conflict to a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. However difficult, every effort has to be made to encourage this. In particular, it would be wise to offer support to the new UN representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, in what will prove to be a very difficult post but one for which he is certainly well-suited, given his experience. In addition, intelligence and policing efforts directed towards cutting finances to violent Islamist groups in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere should also take account of these developments in Syria at an early date. The lesson from over a decade of counter-terrorism activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere is that sending in overwhelming force later is counterproductive.

The lesson from over a decade of counter-terrorism activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere is that sending in overwhelming force later is counterproductive

There is one final element that may be significant. Russia provides the most important major diplomatic support for the Assad regime, but Russia is itself experiencing an increase in Islamist violence in areas that have previously been considered peaceful and stable. The most notable of these have been incidents in Kazan, the capital of the internal republic of Tatarstan, and elsewhere in the republic. If Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria helps provide a motivation for radical jihadists to be more active within Russia, it is possible that Russia may be more willing to consider more active diplomatic cooperation towards regime transition in Syria.

Paul Rogers is Oxford Research Group's Global Security Consultant. He has worked in the field of international security, arms control and political violence for over 30 years.
This article was originally published by the Oxford Research Group and is cross-posted with permission.

Talking warheads

When Saddam Hussein’s forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the US led a massive coalition to oust them. Having assembled 600,000 troops and 1,000 planes from more than 30 countries, Operation Desert Storm started in January 1991 with a huge air assault that was confidently expected to force out the Iraqis.

Within 24 hours, however, things had begun to look very different. Iraqi Scud missiles started hitting Israel, leading to a sustained diversion of effort as the Americans and their coalition allies tried to defuse this new threat. To make matters worse, the Iraqis also aimed Scuds at Saudi Arabia, one of them hitting a Marines depot killing 28 people, the worst US loss of life in the war.

Eight years later, it was revealed that another Scud strike had very nearly been catastrophic, and might have affected the outcome of the entire war. It landed in the sea 300 yards from a US Navy aviation support ship and near the amphibious warfare ship USS Tarawa. Both were moored alongside a pier complex at the Saudi port of Jubayl, which included a large ammunition storage dump and a parking lot for petrol tankers. If the Scud had hit its target instead of landing harmlessly in the sea, it could have set off a huge chain of explosions and fires, killing thousands.

*Uncomfortable lessons*

The 1991 Iraq War was widely seen as a great victory for the West, but behind the scenes in military circles some serious lessons were being learnt. What was expected to be a new world order, in which the ending of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet bloc would lead on to international stability rooted in Western economic and military power, now looked much less certain.

One far-sighted American writer, a former submarine commander called Roger W Barnett, succinctly highlighted the impact of ‘high technology weapons and weapons of mass destruction on the ability – and thus the willingness – of the weak to take up arms against the strong’.

A most uncomfortable lesson of the 1991 war was that a middle-ranking state such as Iraq (previously a close ally of Washington) could use crude 1960s missile technology to probe weak points in the armed forces of the world’s most powerful country.

As a result, during the 1990s, missile defence got a new lease of life. Billions of dollars were poured into ‘theatre missile defence systems’, designed to protect US forces and their allies when they are engaged in military operations in regions such as the Middle East. But the missile ‘threat’ was just one part of a much wider predicament that has brought nuclear weapons right back into the frame for the West.

*Nukes for peace*

The core problem is that maintaining a world peace centred on Western interests must involve a willingness to use force when those interests are threatened, whether that be in the Middle East, South West Asia or elsewhere. The US may now spend more on its military than every other country in the world combined, and its forces may be pre-eminent in their capabilities, but that does not prevent their use being constrained by crude but powerful deterrents fielded by otherwise weaker states.

Iraq’s Scud missiles were early examples of this, but a much more worrying combination, from the Pentagon’s perspective, is the development of small nuclear arsenals by potentially hostile states such as Iran and North Korea. The Pentagon gets even more concerned when these uncontrolled weapons are combined with delivery systems such as ballistic missiles. The Scuds that hit Dhahran and narrowly missed Jubayl were armed with conventional warheads, but even crude nuclear devices would be far more potent deterrents against Western military interventions.

One response is to call for a nuclear free world in which, cynics might say, conventional military power would rule supreme again; but most strategists don’t buy this. They call instead for robust nuclear forces to be retained indefinitely. This does not mean that arsenals will be kept at anything like the stupefying Cold War levels, but it does mean that nuclear weapons will be with us far into the future.

*Just don’t mention the warheads*

Britain is a good example of this thinking. It plans to replace its current Trident system of nuclear missiles in a couple of decades with new weapons designed to see the country through to the second half of the 21st century. Alongside them, the UK is planning to build two giant new aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy. These will give Britain a warfare capability that will be second only to the United States, enabling it to continue to fight alongside its ally in what it sees as crucial regions such as the immensely oil-rich Persian Gulf.

But what is the use of such warships if regional opponents have their own nuclear arsenals, however small? A 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier and its surrounding flotilla could be destroyed by a single nuclear weapon, so there has to be a back-up. This is where nuclear forces come in useful.

Britain, like the US, France and Russia, has been very careful not to rule out using nuclear weapons to attack first rather than limit their use to self-defence. It has also developed small nuclear warheads whose destructive power falls far short of the feared global cataclysms of the Cold War.

Last year’s White Paper on the Trident replacement did its best to avoid admitting to such thinking, but also had to avoid lying. It therefore limited discussion of such considerations to a couple of short phrases in an otherwise lengthy and detailed document – but these two phrases allowed Britain to maintain the option of first-use of a nuclear weapon as well as the need to have small nuclear weapons, without engaging in an embarrassing public debate as to why.

Moreover, to avoid all talk of nuclear war-fighting, the term ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon was abandoned a decade ago, to be replaced by the more anodyne ‘sub-strategic’, but even that has now been banned from the nuclear lexicon. In polite circles it is simply not the done thing to talk about actually using nuclear weapons.

*A slippery slope*

These new nuclear realities make it much more difficult for activists to campaign against a world in which nuclear weapons still play a central role. During the Cold War there was a small risk of an all-out nuclear war that would have devastated the Northern hemisphere and much of the rest of the world. We were peering into a nuclear abyss and although the risks might have been relatively small, the consequences would have been utterly disastrous. Now it is more like a slippery slope – a slow descent in which the lead nuclear states refuse to countenance any end to their nuclear dominance.

The risk is that some time in the next couple of decades, a regional crisis will ‘go nuclear’, with two possible outcomes. One is that it might escalate to a global nuclear war. Even if we are down to a few thousand warheads instead of the tens of thousands of the Cold War era, just a fraction of them would cause utter devastation across much of the world.

The other outcome is that a nuclear war stays within a particular region, killing hundreds of thousands or even millions of people but not escalating to a global catastrophe. Apart from the dreadful immediate consequences, that could mean that we become accustomed to using nuclear weapons as instruments of warfare. The taboo that has held since Nagasaki will have been broken, leading to a formidably more insecure world.

With the ending of the Cold War we had ‘slain the dragon’ – but in the words of one former CIA Director we now live in ‘a jungle full of poisonous snakes’

For the Western military establishment, nuclear weapons must remain at the centre of their overall approach to security. From their perspective, the coming decades will be fraught with unplanned and uncontrolled developments in which terrorism, extremism, rogue states, mass migration and many other threats all have to be contained. With the ending of the Cold War we had ‘slain the dragon’ – but in the words of one former CIA Director, James Woolsey, we now live in ‘a jungle full of poisonous snakes’. That jungle has to be tamed and controlled. That means we must have the back-stop of nuclear forces for the indefinite future.

*Changing the Cold War mindset*

The alternative is to recognize that such an outlook is self-defeating. It is best described as ‘liddism’ – keeping the lid on things rather than acknowledging the underlying problems. The main security issues for most of the world’s people are matters such as the widening socio-economic divide, climate change and resource scarcity. If the world’s élites try to close the castle gates and preserve their lifestyles, they will simply end up with an embittered environment in which everyone becomes less secure.

The very fact that nuclear weapons retain their salience is evidence of an utter lack of new thinking by our political leaders. We are still stuck with Cold War attitudes that are at least two decades out of date. But changing this mindset and moving towards an outlook that addresses the real security threats facing the world will require not just the efforts of dedicated anti-nuclear campaigners but the combined work of development and environment activists, North and South.

*Paul Rogers* is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. His latest book _Why We’re Losing the War on Terror_ (Polity) was reviewed in NI 409.

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