172 PCTR 16 E Bis - Security in the Gulf

172 PCTR 16 E Bis - Security in the Gulf

048 PCTR 16 E bis


172 PCTR 16 E bis

Original: English

NATO Parliamentary Assembly




Gerald E. CONNOLLY (United States)

Acting Rapporteur

Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations

20 November 2016


172 PCTR 16 E bis


















172 PCTR 16 E bis


  1. The attention of the international community is currently focused on the threat posed by Daesh[1] and the continuing civil war in Syria. However, the terror organisation also presents a direct threat to the security of NATO partners in the Gulf and the wars in Syria and in Iraq have important consequences for their security and stability. This short report argues that NATO’s partners in the Gulf play an important part in the fight against Daesh but that regional rivalry with Iran is a major factor hampering international efforts to defeat the terror organisation. Moreover, the civil war in Syria and widespread conflict in Iraq also increase the volatility of the Gulf, a region of strategic importance for the global economy as well as for NATO Allies.
  1. The paper suggests that Gulf littoral states need to reduce the tensions between them and that Iran’s full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a prerequisite for this. NATO Allies’ continued engagement in the Gulf and cooperation with the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) partner countries is needed to defeat Daesh and to provide regional stability. The report is a follow up on earlier reports of the Political Committee on these issues and complements the 2016 report of the Defence and Security Committee, “The International Military Campaigns Against Daesh” [163 DSCTC 16 E].

II. The fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria

  1. After making significant advances for two years, Daesh is now mostly on the defensive in both Iraq and Syria. In 2015, it lost 14% of the territory it once controlled and in the first six months of 2016 it lost a further 12%, according to HIS Markit. Several of Daesh’s key locations in Iraq and Syria have been recaptured by Iraqi forces and rebel groups, respectively, including the cities of Fallujah and Qayyarah in Iraq and Manbij in Syria. At the time of publication, Peshmerga, Iraqi military, and militia forces were beginning a coordinated effort to recapture Mosul from Daesh and had already captured 20 surrounding villages in the first 24 hours of the operation. Whilst Daesh made significant gains in Libya in 2015, the group lost their major “back-up” capital, Sirte, when it was regained by the UN-backed unity government forces supported by US airstrikes in August 2016. The momentum has turned against Daesh; its finances are also under strain, with fighters' pay reportedly cut by up to a half. However, even though it has lost the bulk of its personnel, logistics and financial support provided through regional supply routes, Daesh maintains a base of support in Syria and Iraq, which enables it to carry out terrorist attacks in areas far from its control. Despite its loss of territory, Daesh still controls large swathes of land and a population of several million people. Daesh’s battlefield setbacks in Syria and Iraq have ramifications, as its fighters are becoming more active in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, including Libya and Tunisia. Returning fighters also remain a key security concern and the terrorist attacks in Paris – and more recently in Istanbul, Jakarta and Brussels – show that Daesh continues to pose a clear danger to NATO Allies and the international community. As Daesh is losing territory in Syria and Iraq, it is increasingly turning to tactics that encourage “lone wolf attacks” and becoming more of a “conventional” international jihadist terrorist group.
  1. Moreover, large-scale refugee flows threaten to destabilise neighbouring states, including Jordan, Lebanon and NATO Ally Turkey. Syria’s neighbours have taken in approximately 4.5 million refugees and are struggling to provide sufficient shelter and food. The resulting strain on resources makes it increasingly difficult for these countries to take in many more refugees. To date, Turkey hosts more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees, and tens of thousands more are seeking entry. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon need assistance in managing this overwhelming humanitarian crisis. The Syrian war also continues to drive huge numbers of refugees towards Europe. At the conference in London “Supporting Syria and the Region” in early February 2016, co-hosted by Germany, Kuwait, Norway, the United Kingdom and the UN, more than USD10 billion were pledged for life-saving interventions and to bolster livelihoods and education, health and other services for those impacted by the Syrian crisis.
  1. Military efforts to defeat Daesh, and in particular Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the US-led military operation in Iraq and Syria, focus on airstrikes against Daesh and on training and support of local security forces. The international coalition has spent a considerable amount of money (USD2.3 billion until January 2016) to train and arm more than 16,000 Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). At the time of writing, the United States alone has spent USD7.5 billion on military support to operations against Daesh since the coalition was established in August 2014. In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 that left 130 dead, other countries, notably France and Britain, joined efforts in Syria. In Iraq, the United States has deployed an additional 475 military advisers and has pledged troop numbers will increase to 4,087 before the operation to retake Mosul begins. In Syria, the United States pledged to send as many as 250 additional troops bringing the total there to 300. There are signs that the efforts of the international coalition against Daesh are paying off. However, it may be difficult for local forces to sustain momentum in the months ahead and it remains to be seen whether they can hold recaptured territory in the long term. This is due to a number of factors, including lack of manpower, limited financial resources, continuing disagreements between different actors on the ground and the reluctance of the Iraqi central government under the pressure of Iran and Shia militias, to train and equip local forces from areas under Daesh occupation.
  1. The ability of regional partners to tackle Daesh has been hindered by low energy prices. The slide in oil prices has led to a budget crisis in Iraq and in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi warned that the collapse of the oil prices could undermine his country’s fight against Daesh. Due to a growing budget crisis, the KRG has been unable to pay the Peshmerga their salaries since August 2015. This severely undermines the international campaign against Daesh as the Peshmerga have been one of the most effective partners on the ground against the extremist group.
  1. The Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the KRG in Erbil are reeling from an influx of internally displaced persons from other areas of Iraq and Syrian refugees. In addition, widespread corruption and cronyism have had a corrosive effect on both entities. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the poverty rate has doubled from 3.5% to 8.1%. According to a 2015 World Bank estimate, the KRG needs USD1.4 billion to stabilise the economy. At the time of writing, the US administration was engaged in talks to provide an emergency aid package to the KRG to help it pay the arrears of the Peshmerga fighters.
  1. Furthermore, ongoing disputes over oil revenues and territory mar the relationship between the central government and the KRG. The two sides reached an interim deal on the national budget in December 2014, which envisaged that the KRG would receive 17% of the budget in return for transferring 550,000 barrels a day of crude oil to the Iraq State Oil Marketing Company. However, the deal fell apart, because of recriminations between Baghdad and Erbil of violating its provisions. The KRG has seized deposits at two branches of Iraq’s central bank to pay personnel salaries, putting additional strain on the relationship. Meanwhile, Iraq has stopped crude oil deliveries to Turkey through a Kurdish pipeline. Emergency financial assistance to the KRG is likely to only postpone Kurdistan's economic collapse. The United States and NATO Allies need to broker a compromise over the budget dispute between the central government and the KRG and help both sides solve the issue over oil revenue.
  1. While international donors are reluctant to bankroll a country where so much money has been wasted and corruption remains rampant, Iraq’s economic problems must be addressed. A further deterioration of the economy would lead to more Iraqis joining the tide of refugees leaving the Middle East. What is more, the rebuilding of the country after the defeat of Daesh will be harder.
  2. In Syria, the Russian military intervention in September 2015 saved the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad which bears the main responsibility for the rise of Daesh in Syria from collapsing. It also allowed pro-regime forces to achieve moderate territorial gains, including the ancient city of Palmyra in late March 2016. However, the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against its own population are a fertile recruiting ground for the terrorist group. According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council released on 8 February 2016, the situation of detainees in the Syrian civil war is critical; human rights violations and war crimes are widespread. According to the report, the treatment of civilians in prisons run by the regime amounts to a government policy of extermination. The Assad regime also largely ignored the rise of Daesh and targeted moderate opposition groups instead. The fractured nature of the Syrian opposition and the lack of coordination among the international community, including among NATO Allies and partners, further facilitated Daesh’s quick advance in Syria.
  1. Disagreements on the role of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, illustrate this problem. Some Allies consider the YPG, which has close connections to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), as an important ally in the fight against Daesh. The YPG dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces which were formed in 2015 to fight Daesh in eastern Syria. However, the YPG are also suspected to have reached a tactical understanding with Russia and the Assad regime and have at times also fought against Turkmen and rebel groups backed by Turkey. Ankara also accuses the YPG and the PKK of being responsible for the bomb attack that killed 28 people in Ankara in February 2016. The situation has been further complicated by the increasing influence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria/the Levant). While the organisation declared it had split from al-Qaeda, the move is more likely a tactical one aimed at allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to embed itself more deeply in the Syrian insurgency and forcing the Syrian opposition into an impossible choice between Jabhat al-Nusra and Western and international supporters which are trying to end the war in Syria.
  1. The Russian military intervention in Syria has primarily been directed at supporting the Assad regime. In addition to protecting its military base in Tartus, Russia has used the Syrian crisis to present itself as an important international actor and as a counter to the West, and the United States in particular. Russian airstrikes have primarily targeted anti-Assad rebels and have left Daesh largely untouched. Indiscriminate bombing of densely populated urban areas supportive of Sunni Arab rebels has, according to Amnesty International, killed hundreds of civilians, brutalised Sunni communities and caused massive destruction in residential areas. Moreover, some officials in the US-led alliance fighting against Daesh in Syria have suggested that Russian attacks on civilian targets in the country have been deliberate, “weaponising” the Syrian refugee crisis to destabilise Europe.
  1. Moscow’s military engagement in Syria has tilted the balance of power dramatically in favour of the Assad regime and has made finding a political solution more complicated. This was underlined when Russia stepped up air attacks just as negotiations in Geneva were about to begin at the start of February 2016. The Russian offensive effectively caused the collapse of the peace talks, as it targeted the very same opposition that was invited to Geneva to negotiate. Western policymakers and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly accused Moscow of sabotaging the diplomatic process. Some analysts concluded that Mr Putin’s aim is to leave only two sides standing in Syria, the regime and Daesh, and to challenge the world to make a choice. On the other hand, President Putin’s surprise announcement, on 14 March, that Russia would withdraw the bulk of the Russian forces from Syria, put pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate more seriously at UN-hosted peace talks with the opposition, which resumed in Geneva on that same day. It should be noted, though, that despite its announcement to reduce its military presence in Syria, Moscow maintains its infrastructure in the country and continues building up the forces of the Assad regime. According to the Israeli Air Force, Russia has replaced at least some of the fighter bombers with modern attack helicopters, leaving substantial Russian air power in Syria.
  1. The cessation of hostilities as of 27 February 2016 reduced the violence in the country, even though both the Syrian Government and opposition have complained of repeated violations. The ceasefire did not include Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra which all parties to the agreement consider as terrorist organisations. However, at the time of writing, the ceasefire appeared to have fallen apart, as forces supporting the Assad regime, backed by Russia, have stepped up attacks around Aleppo while opposition forces were reported to push back around Latakia. As a result, opposition groups announced to withdraw from peace talks in Geneva. Moreover, the ceasefire had only a limited mitigating impact on the plight of the civilian population. Ongoing violence has almost completely prevented the delivery of humanitarian assistance. At the time of writing, a new ceasefire negotiated between Russia and the United States in early September 2016 that included a no-fly zone for Syrian aircraft has collapsed, following an attack on a UN aid convoy in Aleppo and calls from the United States for war crimes investigations against Russia and Syria.

III. Complex situation on the ground bedevils the fight against Daesh

  1. Poor governance, sectarian policies that alienated certain segments of society and stoked sectarian conflicts and weak and failing states helped Daesh conquer large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq. These factors also slow down progress in retaking territory from the terrorist organisation. Daesh has shown considerable resilience. Though a military component will be necessary to defeat Daesh, only a political solution can eventually produce a viable and lasting end to the conflict in Syria. This is why the US administration and NATO Allies have repeatedly ruled out the deployment of large combat forces on the ground and emphasised that it is first and foremost the countries that are directly threatened by Daesh that need to address the threat. As US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote in Politico in January 2016, “it must be local forces who deliver [Daesh] a lasting defeat, because only they can secure and govern the territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate”. Therefore, training local forces to take the lead is a sensible approach to degrade and eventually defeat Daesh. At the same time, supporting local proxies can also have implications for long-term stability of the region. In Iraq, inclusive political steps towards alienated segments of the population should be put into practice. Otherwise, Daesh will continue to exploit the alienation of ordinary people and sectarian sensitivities to bolster its support base.
  1. Many of the Shia in Iraq ready to fight against Daesh seek to join paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) (al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic) rather than the Iraqi army.