Mideast solution? P5+1 for Syria and the war on ISIS

On Sept. 29, the foreign ministers of Iran and P5+1 countries (or what Europeans call E3+3) consisting of the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany met in New York and discussed the possibility of holding talks on Syria, two months after successfully concluding a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

P5+1 participants in Vienna

P5+1 participants in Vienna

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini explained to journalists that “we have discussed the possibility of using this format also on some of the regional issues,” of which Syria “is the first and most urgent crisis we have in front of us.”

Indeed, the global war on ISIS and terrorism needs an international coalition, and currently the US-led “Global Coalition to counter ISIL” is not quite global by excluding permanent members of the UN Security Council such as China and Russia.

Given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (NATO Training Mission in Iraq, NTM-I) operated under a UN mandate, and now that al Qaeda in AfPak, al Qaeda in Iraq that became ISIS, al Qaeda in Syria that is al Nusra, and other jihadist groups from China, Russia, Central Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere have merged in Syrian jihad, a UN mandate seems apropos for the continuation of the war on terrorism in Syria.

Moreover, as Eurasian states of Russia, India, and China (RIC) have large Muslim population at risk of radicalization by their militant groups, with India pursuing a multi-vector policy and even conducting joint anti-terrorism exercise with China to counter this threat, these rising powers are now stepping up alongside US coalition to combat international terrorism.

RIC cooperation needed in Syria and Afghanistan

In fact the July summit of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) covered two core missions: admitting India and Pakistan, and how best to counter ISIS and Islamic extremism within member territories.

Chinese Ch-4B armed drone

Chinese Ch-4B armed drone

With Russia’s entry into the military campaign in Syria, SCO members and partners are now seeking ways to cooperate in the Russian-led coalition encompassing Iraq, Iran and Syria. China as the largest oil and gas investor in Iraq already offered military assistance to Baghdad last September, and recently Iraqi Ministry of Defense released a video showing the launch of Chinese CH-4B combat drone from al-Kut Air Base. Resembling US MQ-9 Reaper drone and carrying a payload of up to 350 kg including AR-1/HJ-10 anti-tank missile — the Chinese equivalent of the US Hellfire missile — Beijing is now giving Iraqi forces a useful new capability of their own.

India likewise is looking to cooperate with its traditional Russian ally on combating ISIS in the cyber domain, with some analysts calling for joining Russian airstrikes in Syria due to India’s ongoing fight against ISIS-linked extremists in Kashmir.  In fact even with US boots on the ground, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, are welcoming Russian airstrikes and calling for western cooperation. Understandably, the Kurds are now hedging themselves, after feeling betrayed by the US when Washington struck a deal to access Turkey’s Incirlik airbase in return for turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s war on the Kurds.

Egypt is also jumping on the SCO bandwagon by submitting an application in June. Frustrated by lack of US support on its fight against ISIS and Islamic extremists in Sinai, Al Sisi is upgrading ties with Russia and China and held naval drills in June with Russia in the Mediterranean, followed by joint drills with China in September.

Now that the Russian-led coalition encompasses Iraq, Iran, Syria, with implicit support from SCO members and partners such as China, India and Egypt, a UN mandate under which SCO can formalize cooperation with US and European allies in both Afghanistan and Syria could forge a more effective and truly global coalition to fight ISIS and Islamic extremism.

Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called for “standing channels of communication to ensure a maximally effective fight” and listed Russia, China, US, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as nations with a role in Syria talks.

Hamid Karzai likewise called for cooperation between NATO and RIC countries for Afghanistan and regional stability. Given exclusive efforts have failed in Afghanistan, inclusive internal and external format for peace is necessary for sustainable regional stability. At the external level it implies cooperation between all stakeholders in the conflict including Russia, India and China (RIC), US, EU, Pakistan and Central Asian countries.

As Karzai argued, “If they (the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the one hand and India, China and Russia, on the other) see eye to eye; begin to consult on the rights and wrongs of today’s world order to end human suffering, we will see without a doubt a more stable international order and less suffering for us.” It appears this timely exhortation not only applies to Afghanistan, but to Syria as well.

P5+1 and UN mandate for boots on the ground

US anti-ISIS strategy has faltered the past year due to lack of ground troops. Without infantry, the Obama-led coalition is ineffective to counter the growth of ISIS as various Islamic extremists groups from North Africa to Afghanistan continue to merge under the ISIS flag. Russia estimates there are around 2,000 Chechen fighters in Syria, while Uzbek intelligence sources report there are more than 5,000 paid Uzbek militants fighting with ISIS in Syria.

ISIS has also made inroads into SCO territories with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan, and Beijing fears they would expand into China.  On 16 July, Kyrgyz security forces foiled two ISIS-linked attacks targeting Kyrgyzstan’s capital and a nearby Russian airbase. Factions of Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have also pledged allegiance to ISIS, risking further provocation of ISIS presence in “Wiliyat Khorasan” (encompassing Afghanistan, Central Asia and Xinjiang).

In light of this, SCO is currently debating whether to stand up its own peacekeeping force, and China has signaled it would join the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremists under a UN banner. It recently offered $1 billion to the UN as well as 8,000 troops on permanent standby for worldwide deployment, including to Syria. This would be a natural outgrowth of China’s efforts to maintain regional stability in the Middle East and North Africa, given Chinese UN troops are already next-door in Lebanon since 2006 when they offered 1,000 troops after the Lebanon War, as well as 1,000 troops in South Sudan (including 700 combat troops), and 500 troops in Mali to stabilize OPEC member Algeria next door, where China has between 50,000 to 100,000 workers.

With western refusal to put boots on the ground in Syria, coupled by a US Asia pivot and its growing role as an energy exporter no longer dependent on Mideast oil, perhaps using the P5+1 template to engage non-western partners for cooperative security may be a useful way forward to eventually achieve a negotiated political settlement in Syria.  And while energy-hungry China continues to march west via the Silk “Belt and Road” initiatives even as US decreases its Mideast regional footprint, obtaining a UN mandate to release Chinese and other international troops under the UN flag, or hybrid multinational force including EU, SCO and other partners in a truly global coalition to combat international terrorism, may be a welcomed move for all.

Watch: Iraq launches its new Chinese Ch-4B drone

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of “The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and a former director for China policy at the US Department of Defense.

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