Tuesday 19 Nov 2019 | 14:33 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.


Rodger Shanahan
Research Fellow, West Asia Program
Lydia Khalil
Research Fellow, West Asia Program
Anthony Bubalo
Nonresident Fellow

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Shot down over Syria

The downing of a Russian Su-25 aircraft this week marks the second aircraft lost to MANPADS surface-to-air missiles in six weeks. At the end of December, militants shot down a Syrian L-39 aircraft near Hama.

Russias response has been swift and severe, conducting multiple airstrikes in areas controlled by the Islamist group who shot down the plane. Having announced a military withdrawal in December, and with a presidential election in March, Vladimir Putin could never countenance anything other than an increased punitive bombardment of the rebels.

There will be further repercussions as a result of this, of course. Russian officials will be trying to determine the source of the missile that downed its aircraft, in order to plug any new supply lines into Syria. There are also reports that the safe-flying height will be increased, which will impair the accuracy of airstrikes in the future.

But the pilot’s defiant last stand highlights a small but militarily interesting point. Roman Filipov, who appears to have survived the ejection, fought against the jihadis with his pistol before detonating a grenade in preference to being captured. This account appears to tally with this video purporting to show the point at which he detonates the grenade. The rock looks like the only available cover the pilot could have sought, and it features in another video (not shown here) that shows Filipov’s body with his right hand missing.

One question that sprang to my mind was how the downed pilot was able to access the hand grenade he used, given it’s not something one normally associates with a pilot’s survival kit. With the prospect of being captured by jihadis on the ground in mind, Dutch pilots have recently forsaken the 9mm pistol for the MP9 sub-machine gun. Still, carrying explosive ordnances, such as grenades, in the cockpit seems a strange thing to do.

But someone referred me to this video taken by a Russian news crew covering life at the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. Lo and behold, one pilot takes the reporter through his survival vest, showing him his 9mm pistol and magazines and then pulling out … two hand grenades.

Washington's weak hand to play in Syria

With the change of administration in Washington came new clarity about US policy on Syria. The admirable, short-term aim was to defeat ISIS.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the organisation that would produce this outcome on the ground, was founded in late 2015 (the 'Democratic' in the name gives the appearance of inclusiveness, and downplays Kurdish dominance). The US provided support to retake ISIS-held territory in Syria, and local commanders were given greater freedom by Washington to conduct operational manoeuvres.

At the tactical level, it was a resounding success, with both Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour falling to the SDF and, in the case of parts of Deir ez-Zour, to the Syrian military. How the US enabled its indigenous partner to defeat ISIS on the battlefield will rightly form the basis of many lectures in staff and war colleges. It was, by any measure, a successful intervention at the tactical/operational level in a complex environment.

The post-ISIS phase was always going to be more difficult. The US has several thousand troops deployed in north-east Syria who support the SDF. But their post-ISIS purpose was never clear.

In a speech delivered last week at Stanford University on the administration's Syria policy, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the five key strategic outcomes Washington seeks to achieve: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria; resolution of the conflict through a UN-led political process, leading to a stable post-Assad government; diminishing Iranian influence in Syria; the voluntary return of refugees; and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Tillerson argued that a key element included a continued US military presence, with any steps towards withdrawal based on an assessment of conditions as they unfold, rather than according to an arbitrary timeline.

From a negotiator's viewpoint, the lack of a timeline is good, but only if the parties you're dealing with know you have significant leverage to exert. The challenge for Washington's Syria policy all along has been its lack of strategic levers.

Russia has history, a defence pact, and close political relations with Damascus. Iran has more recent strategic links, growing commercial interests, and controls thousands of pro-Tehran militias in addition its own troops across the country. Turkey has massive commercial links, hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians within its country, and has an 800 kilometre-long border with Syria. For Washington, the Kurdish-dominated SDF is a successful tactical partner, but a bit of a dead weight strategically.

That the Kurds are a burdensome ally in Syria, and Washington has thought little about a post-ISIS Syria policy, was hinted at last week when a spokesman announced the formation of a 30,000-man border security force. The Turkish reaction to a US-trained and supported Kurdish security force on its Syrian border was predictable. The government conveyed its displeasure when the US chargé d'affaires was called in by Ankara, and Turkish media portrayed the US military and the CIA as creating a Kurdish terrorist 'North Army' on its border.

Tillerson tried to repair the damage, claiming the US wasn't creating a border force and that the situation had been misrepresented. But if this piece from a journalist who attended an SDF graduation ceremony two days ago is correct, Washington's message does not appear to have reached the local Kurds.

The Turkish government has now signaled its dissatisfaction to Washington in a more pointed way. Last week, the Turkish military attacked Kurdish forces in Afrin, well to the west of the US-supported forces. The move came as little surprise after Ankara linked the action to Washington's support for a Kurdish-dominated force in Syria's east. 

Governments are urging restraint on all sides, but the reality is that no one will come to the aid of the Kurds, just as they didn't last year when the Iraqi government seized back control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi Kurds' ill-advised referendum on independence. In the world of realpolitik, sovereignty always trumps friendship.

The Turkish incursion simply highlights the problems that any Washington policy on Syria will face once the mission to defeat ISIS concludes. The allied force Washington has assembled is an amalgam of different ethnic and tribal groups, all of which know that US forces will have to leave eventually. The allied force's propensity to fragment, as the Syrian Government and its allies negotiate directly or indirectly with its separate elements, is high.

Washington's enemies can use proxies to target US troops, increasing the pressure to leave. Kurdish forces are seen by Washington's NATO ally to the north as little more than the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a proscribed terrorist group. Ankara may engage the SDF further to the east in areas under US protection, threaten to expel the US from its Incirlik Air Base, or worse.

At the same time, Russia and its allies have been leading the diplomatic race in an attempt to broker a solution that can be rubber-stamped by the UN.

Washington has few non-financial levers of influence in Syria. With a weak hand to play, the lack of timeline may be more hindrance than help if domestic pressure builds in the face of US casualties and a partner force that fragments or threatens to prompt further action from Turkey.

If this week has already taught us one thing, it's that US policy in Syria is full of holes.

Kurds aren’t always the good guys

I have written recently about the recklessness of Kurdish leaders in staging their independence referendum. Rather than advance the Kurdish cause, it has probably set it back years, if not decades. Despite its laudable efforts against Islamic State, the Kurdish Regional Government has demonstrated how its tactical prowess exceeds its strategic. This Financial Times article provides a good insight into the thinking that may have ed President Masoud Barzani to hold his expensive referendum.

Last week presented another example of a lack of strategic sense from Kurdish groups. As part of the post-victory celebrations following the defeat of Islamic State in their former Syrian capital of Raqqa, the Kurdish women’s unit within the YPG displayed and photographed themselves in front of a giant mural of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the proscribed Kurdish terrorist group PKK. Further social media posts have emerged of other YPG members singing the praises of Öcalan and his ideology.

The US-led coalition provided extensive military, logistic and financial support to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which fought in Raqqa, and told everyone who wanted to hear that it was a mixed Kurdish-Arab force without ties to the PKK. Yet a single photo has allowed Turkey to further its claim that the US-supported YPG is simply the Syrian franchise of the PKK. The coalition criticised the actions of the Kurds involved, but the Turkish government was having none of it. The pro-government press has been unrelenting in its criticism of the Kurds and the Americans. 

It is worth pausing here to say something regarding the Australians who have volunteered to fight with Kurdish groups. The popular misconception is that the Kurds themselves have only one aim, to defeat Islamic State, and beyond that they are apolitical. By joining Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, Australians are simply doing what the Australian government is doing: fighting Islamic State. But when one joins armed Kurdish groups (or any other such groups, for that matter), one becomes hostage to their political agenda as well. They also become hostage to Kurdish military demands; the units in which they end up in will be employed wherever and whenever required.

Australians who think fighting for the Kurds should put them above the law are arrogant, naïve or both. The former Northern Territory Labor Party President Matthew Gardiner, who it is believed tried to join or did join the Kurds in Syria in 2015, has previously asked 'why is the law written so if an Australian helps the Kurds they are treated as criminals?’. Another Australian, Ashley Dyball, who fought with the Kurdish YPG in Syria, was the focus of a favourable 60 Minutes story. During a later ABC interview he said '(the government) say we can't fight for (the YPG), but yet you fund them…if I'm the bad guy, then f***ing charge me’. A third man, Jamie Williams, was arrested at the airport intending to join the YPG in Syria, but the charges were dropped on the direction of Attorney-General George Brandis without further explanation. ‘I think it is ridiculous to be honest. The Kurds are an ally of Australia. ISIS are an enemy of the world. For somebody to be prosecuted for trying to do something — whatever little they can — about this is absurd to me,’ Williams said.

The media coverage and the YPG volunteer narratives pay scant attention to the fact that the Kurds have fought against several groups in Syria during the conflict, including the Syrian military, the Turkish military, the Free Syrian Army (which accused them of coordinating with the Assad regime), and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. Amnesty International has also criticised the YPG for its activities in areas it has conquered.

The complexity of the Syrian conflict and the multiple agendas of Kurdish groups fighting there illustrate just how difficult an operating environment it is. It is simplistic to simply declare that Australian forces are supporting Kurdish fighters and that Kurdish fighters are against Islamic State, so Australians should be allowed to join Kurdish armed groups. No conflict exists in a vacuum, least of all the Syrian one.

The Australian government doesn’t allow its citizen to fight for non-state actors, either proscribed or otherwise, because there is no guarantee that the roles they envisage themselves filling will be the actual roles they perform, or that the groups they thought they would fight are the ones they end up fighting. Foreign fighters perform the roles they’re assigned, and fight the people their chosen group fights. They may be groups the Australian government is operating against, or they may not be. The foreign fighter has no choice, as either the armed group itself, or circumstances, may conspire to change the operating environment rapidly.

War is rarely simple, civil war even less so. One image taken in far-off Raqqa has reinforced the utility of the law that forbids Australians fighting for non-state or semi-state actors. It is a law that should be applied to Australians who have travelled to fight for the Kurds.