by Peter Ford
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is now into its third month without a single air operation against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria, and only a handful in Iraq. With IS in its caliphate manifestation eliminated, the Global Coalition should be winding down by now. Far from it.
The phrase “mission creep” might almost have been invented with the Global Coalition in mind. Starting from its narrowly focused mission to roll back IS in Iraq in 2014, it first expanded its area of operations to include Syria—without seeking the permission of the Syrian government, let alone its coordination. And now that IS is defeated, the mission in Syria has morphed into “stabilization,” (selective) implementation of UNSCR 2254 (an abortive blueprint for a negotiated peace), and “promotion of inclusive governance.”
The Western powers could hardly have hoped to acquire such a useful and commodious vehicle for their ambitions in the Middle East. The history of the region since World War II is dotted with failed schemes to impose on the region a Western security architecture. Opposition to the Baghdad Pact—officially called the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)— was a rallying cry for Nasser and the Arab Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The Pact, established in 1955, grouped the UK, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey for the stated purpose of ensuring stability in the region. The United States was supportive but initially remained at arm’s length for fear of being seen behaving like an imperial power. The United States nevertheless joined the military arm of the Pact in 1957. CENTO became a symbol of the efforts of conservative forces to stem the tide of socialism and Arab nationalism sweeping the region. As those efforts failed, the Pact disintegrated and formally ended in 1979 with the fall of the shah.
The Global Coalition is ostensibly more narrowly focused than the Pact. But it is grander in numbers (80) and more “kinetic” on the ground. The 80 members include NATO countries alongside all the countries of the Gulf (some accused of funding IS), Turkey (through which most IS foreign fighters passed), Pakistan, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a slew of hangers on, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
However, for all its pretensions to be global, the Coalition as it is generally and opaquely called in the media is shunned by countries representing over half of humanity including Russia, China, India, Indonesia, and the entirety of Latin America except Panama.
In reality, the Global Coalition is Inherent Resolve in its Sunday clothes. Inherent Resolve is the name of the U.S. combined forces’ operation to defeat IS. The United States provides about 90 percent of the Coalition’s muscle and literally calls the shots. The U.S. presence in Syria, which has no legal sanction, is conveniently able to cloak itself in the multi-colored mantle of the Coalition. Thus, when the United States and its allies kill civilians or attack Syrian government targets, they invariably do so in the name of the Coalition.
Amnesty International reported in April that the Coalition had killed over 1,600 innocents in taking Raqqa. But it’s virtually impossible to call the amorphous Coalition to account because it has no address and no accountability. NATO has a headquarters in accessible Brussels and some semblance of accountability to national governments and parliaments. The Coalition has its Military Command Center in Tampa, part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), and an office and spokesperson in Baghdad with the same OIR branding. The Coalition (or is it OIR?) holds occasional meetings of ministers and ambassadors. And that’s as far as accountability goes.
In late May, according to regional press reports, Coalition forces machine-gunned an unarmed Syrian government ferry on the Euphrates said to be carrying much needed oil from the oil-rich US/Kurdish protectorate in northeast Syria. Government-controlled Syria suffers from oil shortages because of U.S. sanctions. In this way the Coalition acts as an enforcer for U.S. sanctions, which inter alia deprive hospitals of fuel for generators.
According to the Coalition’s website, the self-mandated mission of the Coalition is
…Operating under recognised international authorities [unnamed], the Coalition will continue to support local partner forces in Syria to stabilise liberated territory. ….. While the nature of support to partner forces will adjust as the Coalition shifts from major urban combat operations to stabilisation tasks, Coalition support will not end until the enduring defeat of Daesh.
In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the Coalition will coordinate and promote stabilisation efforts in Syria with the aim of strengthening credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance. The Coalition will promote inclusive governance representatives [sic] of local communities that have been liberated from Daesh.
…the Coalition must ensure the group cannot regenerate, reclaim lost ground, or plot attacks. The Coalition will sustain a “conditions-based” [unspecified] military presence in Syria to combat the threat of a terrorist-led insurgency, prevent the resurgence of Daesh, and to stabilise liberated areas.
The British deputy commander of the Coalition, Major General Christopher Ghika, recently tweeted that
The #Coalition is committed and focused on the campaign to defeat Daesh. This will not be achieved purely by military means, it will take a unified effort by the international community in support of the government of Iraq and the Syrian Civil Councils.
It is not clear which “Syrian Civil Councils” approved of enforcing U.S. sanctions, or by what other authorization the Coalition fired on unarmed ferries. However, Coalition lawyers can probably stretch ”stabilization” to mean “destabilization,” which appears to be the de facto strategy of the United States towards government-controlled Syria after the failure of round one of the Syrian conflict to dislodge Bashar al-Assad and the patent futility of Geneva-style negotiations.
So, officially the Coalition is helping its Kurdish allies to “stabilize” the northeast, which accounts for 30 percent of Syrian territory and holds most of Syria’s oil reserves. However, keeping Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians out of this territory is in reality the main, though unacknowledged, function of the Coalition today.
Trump for a brief moment toyed with the idea of withdrawing U.S. forces from this area, but the massed choir of the media, think tanks, Israel, and the Gulf states ultimately changed his mind. It was a reprieve for the Coalition, which has awarded itself an open-ended and (except for Trump) unchallenged mandate.
There is no Nasser on the block today. It was Ayatollah Khomeini, however, who effectively consigned the Baghdad Pact to oblivion. Will it be Iran, an arch-supporter of Syria and arch-foe of the United States and its conservative Arab allies, which turns out to be the ultimate nemesis for the Global Coalition?
Peter Ford is an expert on the Middle East. An Arabist, he served as British Ambassador to Syria and Bahrain before joining the UN to work on refugee issues.