US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Abu Dabi on Nov. 23, meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers, assessing how much cooperation the Obama Administration can expect from Washington’s Gulf allies on the Syrian cease-fire plan adopted at the Vienna meeting on Nov. 14. Kerry knows quite well that the key to the entire Vienna initiative is getting a working cease-fire in place by around the Jan. 1, 2016 target date. If there will be no cease-fire, there is no diplomacy, and no end in sight for the Syrian tragedy.
Kerry’s discussions in Abu Dabi with Saudi officials were most critical. Kerry needs to get the help of the Saudis, particularly in evaluating the prospects of Ahrar al-Sham and units of the Nusra Front abiding by the cease-fire. The strategy, coming off of the Paris attacks, the ongoing global alerts for the next blind terror atrocities, and the Vienna agreement, is to thoroughly isolate the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda affiliated groups by getting all other rebel groups to abide by the cease-fire with the Syrian Army, so all efforts can be directed at eliminating those two hardcore groups.
Much of Kerry’s activities over the coming weeks will take place behind closed doors, negotiating quietly to stitch together the cease-fire. One key factor that will determine the success or failure of the cease-fire is the continuing weakening of ISIL and Al Qaeda. The US will be playing a more intensive role in the anti-ISIL military campaign, as US Special Forces are inserted into Kurdish and Arab fighting units, and begin providing more precise actionable intelligence.
The Obama Administration has altered its military strategy and is now open to more intense bombings of key ISIL economic infrastructure, particularly the ISIL-controlled oil refineries that are one major source of revenue for the Islamic State. Most of the refined petroleum products controlled by the Islamic State are sold locally, in Turkey and, ironically, to the Syrian government. While Iran has increased oil shipments to Syria, the locally refined petroleum products are cheaper and logistically more accessible.
Up until the Paris attacks of Nov. 13, the Obama White House had largely rejected targeting ISIL-held oil refineries and oil tanker trucks, on the grounds that they wanted to avoid killing civilians, and they did not want to destroy vital infrastructure that would be important for post-conflict reconstruction. Over the past year, only 15 percent of the targets identified by the Pentagon and passed on to the White House for approved strikes, were accepted.
That policy has changed and this has meant that the Obama Administration is willing to see Russian intensive bombing raids on oil infrastructure in Islamic State territory. The US carried out the first bombings of ISIL-controlled oil tanker trucks within days of the Paris attacks, and Washington provided France with other Islamic State infrastructure targets to hit.
Once it became clear, with the Paris attack, that ISIL has “gone global” in its terrorist operations, it became essential to shut down the revenue stream by all means.
This also means that gradually, the US-Russian deconfliction agreement is moving towards frontline military collaboration. At this time, the collaboration exclusively consists of partial intelligence sharing with the Russian military forces in Syria.
The US Intelligence Community’s after action assessment of the Paris attacks points to the fact that they were largely the result of an intelligence failure by the French, among others. Crucial data in the possession of Moroccan intelligence about family connections among the Paris plotters was only obtained by the French after the attack.
To prevent many more possible blind terror attacks, a greater system of intelligence sharing among the world’s leading intelligence services, engaged in the fight against the Islamic State, will have to be established. Ultimately, the US would like to see a global intelligence data base established, under United Nations supervision. But that is a long way off.
The development of intelligence-sharing mechanisms between the US are being discussed in view of the fact that if a cease-fire is established, there will necessarily be more coordinated military operations singularly focused on the destruction of ISIL in Syria. In the best case, some rebel groups will be integrated into the combat operations against the Islamic State, and this will make the military operations far more complicated, requiring greater coordination and, eventually, a common command center for the anti-ISIL campaign.
For now, with the insertion of US Special Forces into ground operations against ISIL, the US will be increasing the number of bombing runs against Islamic State targets. While the Russians have been conducting far more sorties since their operations began on Sept. 30, the United States Air Force has been using precision weapons with greater effectiveness. Now that France has also joined in the combat bombing missions, greater coordination for deconfliction has been required.
The next phase, if the cease-fire goes into effect in just six weeks, will see other regional parties engaged in the anti-ISIL military operations. Both Kerry and Pentagon planners know that, to defeat ISIL, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq will all have to play a part in the operations.
The center of the anti-ISIL operations has clearly shifted to Syria. ISIL in Iraq is less effective, because the command and control center and the financial center are both in Syria. And conflicts between the Iraqi Army and the Shia militias, under the control of the IRGC, persistently get in the way of anti-ISIL military operations and any prospects of integrating more Sunni and Kurdish fighters into the battle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit Nov. 23 to Tehran is seen by Kerry and the White House as another crucial test of whether Russia is to be trusted in moving the Vienna agenda forward. While Supreme Leader Khamenei hailed Putin as the “savior” of Syria—meaning the savior of Bashar Assad—Kerry will need to get a much more precise reading on whether Putin, in his private talks, pressed for Iranian cooperation in the cease-fire process. The White House is deeply distrustful of Putin, while Kerry, of necessity, needs Putin’s help in getting the crucial first step—the cease-fire.
Kerry is truly pursuing a “mission impossible,” far more challenging than the P5+1 deal.