Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Political Obstacles to the Military Defeat of the (so-called) Islamic State

Soldier holding Iraq flag at Ramadi city hall
Why has it been so difficult to defeat the Islamic State? And does the recent defeat of the IS in Ramadi suggest a turn in the group’s military fortunes?  Will the IS be defeated anytime soon?

The answer to the first question is straightforward.  It is not the IS’ military strength which has enabled it to seize significant amounts of territory and establish a neo-Islamist “caliphate,” but the disorganization and competing political agendas of the countries ostensibly aligned against it.  Put differently, were the US-led anti-IS coalition to come together and develop a unified strategy, it could militarily defeat the terrorist group in a short period of time.

Turning to Ramadi, the defeat of the IS was critical.  Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s largest province, al-Anbar - the size of Texas – and the nerve center of anti-government insurgencies.  That local (Sunni Arab) tribal forces and police joined the Iraqi Army, while the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi kept Shiite militias and Kurdish forces on the sidelines and out of the battle, prevented the victory from being framed in sectarian terms. 
Shiite and ancient Assyrian cultural heritage being destroyed by the IS
Nevertheless, the victory in Ramadi, however important militarily and psychologically, has not changed the “political facts on the ground.”  Unless these change, the complete destruction of the IS will be very difficult indeed.

When discussing the anti-IS coalition which the United States has built, the appropriate term to use is “supposed allies,” because many of the countries are members in name only.  These include, most prominently, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the Arab Gulf states.  While France has become more engaged since the recent IS planned Paris attacks, the EU has only half-heartedly supported the military effort. After the recent Liberal Party victory, the Canadian government has actually withdrawn its fighter aircraft from the Syrian theater.

Aside from the US, which coalition members can best defeat the IS?

Let’s begin with Turkey, arguably the most important player in the war on the IS.   After Israel, it boasts the most powerful army and air force in the Middle East.  Were Turkey to have made a major commitment of troops and fighter bombers to defeating the IS after it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, there would be no serious IS military presence in Syria and Iraq today.

Unfortunately for the US-led coalition, the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  considers the IS a minor annoyance.  The status of Turkey’s large and rapidly growing Kurdish population, which is demanding greater political and cultural rights, is a much more pressing concern.  To the extent that the IS opposes the Kurds, it is, to a certain degree, even an ally of the Erdoğan regime. 

Erdoğan was dismayed when the Syrian army withdrew its forces in 2011 from the predominantly Kurdish inhabited region of northeastern Syria.  Matters worsened when the Kurds declared this territory to be an “autonomous region,” under the control of the Rojava (Western) Kurds led by the secular leftist Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or PYD).   

The stable, tolerant and democratic rule developed by the PYD, which Arab, Christian, Yazidi and other minorities  welcomed, has come to offer a powerful example to Turkish Kurds across the border as to what their society could look like if given greater self-control.  

Equally disturbing to Erdoğan are the ties maintained by the main Kurdish opposition movement, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) - which has been engaged in armed struggle with the central government for over 30 years - with the PYD. When, after strong pressure from the US to allow its fighter bombers to use the Incirlik Airbase near the Syrian border, and for Turkey to become more actively involved in fighting the IS, Turkish jets, rather than attacking IS targets, began an intensive bombing campaign against PKK bases across the border in northwestern Iraq.  

When the IS attacked the Kurdish majority city of Kobanî (Ayn al-cArab) in 2014, within sight of the Turkish border, Turkish tanks and troops did nothing to defend the Kurds from the continuous onslaught of IS human wave attacks.  Only an intensive US bombing and resupply campaign prevented the IS from occupying Kobanî and massacring its inhabitants.

Despite Turkey’s NATO membership, and the organization’s call for a robust military effort against the IS, Turkey has done virtually nothing to cut off supply routes of new fighters seeking to join the IS.  Estimates place the number of youth who cross the Turkish border to join the IS at over 1000 per month.  Nor has Turkey acted to shut down the smuggling operations whereby illicit oil, which the IS produces from wells and refineries captured from Syria and Iraq, is sent across the border through buried PVC pipes. 
There are reports that Erdoğan's son Bilal is involved in the sale of IS oil smuggled into Turkey from Syria thorough a shipping company which he heads. Injured IS fighters have been treated in Turkish hospitals near the Syrian border, one said to be run  by Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye.

For Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominated government, the IS constitutes a powerful adversary to the regime of Bashar al-Asad.  Erdoğan loathes Asad and has vowed to bring down the Syrian president as a result of what he considers Asad’s repression of Syria’s majority Sunni population.   

With Russia having joined the civil war in Syria to prop up the Asad regime, and having had one of its jets shot down by Turkey after a 17 second intrusion into its airspace, Erdoğan is even less committed to  the fight against the IS as he doubles down on removing Asad from power.

What has been Saudi Arabia’s role in combating the IS?

If Turkey falls into the category “with friends like this you don’t need enemies,” the US has likewise received little support from another ostensible coalition partner, and supposed regional ally, Saudi Arabia.  The spread of Wahhabism (al-Wahhabiya) - a vicious sectarian ideology which parades under the guise of Islam and denigrates Shi’a, Jews, Christians and moderate Sunnis - has only been possible through the financial and political support of the Saudi monarchy.   

The Saudi monarchy’s support of so-called “schools” (madrasas) – in reality military training camps - in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Muslim majority countries has stoked the flames of sectarianism and violence throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Chechen IS commander Umar al-Shishani
It is no exaggeration to say that Wahhabism is the spiritual source of the IS’ brutal ideology.   Originally articulated by Muhammad ibn cAbd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) in the northwestern Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, the Wahhabi movement soon developed a symbiotic relationship with the local Sacud tribe, which eventually established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The rigid boundaries and Manichean thinking which characterizes the Wahhabi movement has played a key role in legitimizing the Saudi monarchy and offsetting criticism of its close ties to the West through its oil sales to and investments in the US and Europe as well as its purchase of large amounts of American weaponry.   

Woman flogged in Mosul for"improper" dress
In neighboring Yemen, the Houthi tribe which, due to its nominal Shiism, the Saudis consider loyal to Shiite Iran, seized power in 2014.  Already shaken by the US brokered P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran, which it fears will further spread Iranian influence throughout the Arab Gulf, Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia has turned all of the kingdom’s military might to fight the Houthis leaving the US with yet another coalition ally in name only.

What role has Iraq played in the anti-IS struggle?

In theory, Iraq should be the strongest partner in the anti-IS coalition. Ironically, this is not the case.  Many Sunni and Shiite sectarian politicians would be perfectly happy to see the IS retain control over the northwestern region of Iraq.  In effect, continued IS control would constitute a de facto partition of Iraq into Shiite and Sunni Arab dominated regions, thus avoiding the problem of competing two political elites being forced to reconcile their local interests with national imperatives.

In June 2014, the IS seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with two million inhabitants, after a lightning attack in which 800-1000 lightly armed IS fighters defeated 2 divisions of Iraqi Army troops.   Numbering on paper 30,000 men, and armed with some of the most technologically sophisticated (US supplied) arms, the IS military victory shocked the US, the Arab world and Europe (Iraq army capitulates to Isis militants in four cities).

Shock was an inappropriate response.  It showed the naiveté of those, such as members of the Obama administration, who should have known what was transpiring in Iraq.  The efforts of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to replace competent officers with inexperienced cronies to “coup proof” the Iraqi Army was clear for all to see.  These officers, many of whom had virtually no military experience, such as his cousin, stole the salaries of ordinary conscripts who in turn were allowed to fleece the population of Mosul.  

Of course, such behavior created great resentment against the Iraqi Army.  Because many of the Iraqi troops occupying Mosul were Shiite, sectarian tensions were stoked, facilitating IS infiltration before the attack to bribe local officials to help it capture the city.

Once IS fighters began to move south from Mosul, capturing much of the Sunni Arab inhabited area of northwestern Iraq, and approached Baghdad, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issue a call for all Iraqis to take up arms and fight the IS.  While al-Sistani did not intend his decree to apply only to Iraq’s Shica population, many Shiites interpreted it that way and formed militias which became known as the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi or PMUs).

The PMUs were critical to bringing the IS advance towards Baghdad to a halt.  But the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guards units, led by al-Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, disturbed many Iraqis, who saw the hand of the Iranian authoritarianism further encroaching on Iraq’s sovereignty.  Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Arab Gulf were dismayed by what they saw as spreading Iranian military influence in Iraq which they interpreted as part of Iran’s plot to become the region’s superpower.

From a military standpoint, the US now found itself in the awkward position of fighting together with Iranian backed PMUs and Iranian al-Quds Force advisers now on Iraqi soil to help direct the military campaign against the IS.  To make matters worse, the PMUs most closely associated with Iran, such as those affiliated with militia leaders, Hadi al-Amiri an Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were the most effective in fighting the IS.

Complicating matters for the US still further was its relationship to Iraq’s Kurds, who live in the semi-independent, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) comprised of Iraq’s 3 contiguous Kurdish majority provinces in the country’s northeast.   Although the Kurdish Pesh Merga (“those who face death”) were unable to stop an IS advance from Mosul on Arbil, the KRG capital, until US warplanes intervened to destroy IS forces just 30 miles from the city, the Kurds regrouped and have since become central to taking back much of the Iraqi territory seized by the IS in 2014. 

Nevertheless, the US-KRG relationship has hampered the anti-IS struggle from a political perspective.  Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Husayn, Arab Iraqis have resented what they see as special treatment of the KRG by the US government. Not wanting to alienate the federal government in Baghdad, and fearing that it would encourage the Kurds to declare an independent country, the US has declined to provide the KRG with the heavy weapons it says it needs to both recapture land seized by the IS and to defend itself from future attacks.  

In the process, the US has found itself caught between Baghdad and Arbil.  The compromise has been to keep the KRG’s Pesh Merga forces on a short military leash so as not to undermine the sovereignty of the federal government while actively supporting Kurdish military actions with air power and military training and advice.  However, without advanced weaponry, Kurdish forces have not been able to strike any decisive blows against the IS.
Who are the minor players and what is their role in the anti-IS struggle?

Remaining on the margins, Jordan and the Arab Gulf states have never played a major role in the anti-IS coalition.  However, the bombing of IS targets by Jordanian and Emirati planes in 2014 lent legitimacy to the US claim that the military campaign against the Islamic State did not constitute a latter day Western “Crusade.” Following the downing of a Jordanian fighter and the capture of its pilot in December 2014, who was later burned alive by the IS, both Jordan and the UAE downgraded their participation in bombing IS targets.

With the largest army in the Arab world, and the second largest recipient of US foreign aid, Egypt would seems an obvious candidate to assist the US led coalition. However, the Egyptian army is having difficulty containing a local IS affiliate, Sinai Province (wilayat Sina’), which recently claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian aircraft on its way from the Sinai Peninsula to Russia with a bomb.

Where does the anti-IS struggle go from here?

In sum, the anti-IS coalition is really an effort limited to the United States.  Because there is still strong opposition among the American populace to becoming involved in yet another war in the Middle East – a particularly sensitive topic in what will soon be a US presidential election year – the Obama administration is reluctant to commit American ground forces in the struggle against the IS.  For many military analysts, such as Anthony Cordesman, this strategy is like fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back (More Special Forces For Iraq and Syria: Tactical Asset or Strategic Tokenism?)

The liberation of Ramadi
Army rescuing citizens used as human shields
In the midst of myriad recriminations in Iraq, the US and Europe that not enough has been done to defeat the IS, the Iraqi Army – largely a sideshow since the IS seizure of Mosul – was able December 28, 2015 to dislodge IS forces from Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni dominated al-Anbar Province, which had been under terrorist control for the past 8 months.

What was particularly significant about the victory over the IS was not just the psychological value of recapturing the capital city of Iraq’s largest province, but the fact that the military forces which won the battle were comprised of Iraqi Army units, Anbar Province police forces, and fighters from local Sunni tribes, many of whom had been trained by US special forces.

Further, the support the multi-unit Iraqi force received from US air power and advice of US advisers during the week long battle suggests that perhaps a new military model is in the offing.  Despite Congressional criticism that the few thousand US trainers, advisers and special operations forces currently in Iraq constitute too small a force to make any difference in defeating the IS, particularly regaining control of Mosul, militarily, this may not be the case.

The political situation has not changed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  The Erdoğan government has become even more obsessed with PKK rebels and has been tarring all Kurdish democratic opposition groups as “terrorists.”  Saudi Arabia’s concerns are directed towards Iran and Yemen and, with a looming $98 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, cannot be relied on to contribute air power of funds to the anti-IS struggle.
Iraqi Army tank entering city of Ramadi
In Iraq, the federal government looks with suspicion on the KRG which already used the withdrawal of the Iraqi Army from the north in 2014 to seize contested areas, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki engages in activities designed to prevent reformist Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi from implementing any meaningful reforms which cut down on state corruption and improve government services.  Many Shiite politicians who support Maliki’s wing of the Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Dacwa al-Islamiya) fear reintegrating Sunni Arab forces into the national army and police, believing their loyalty is to the ousted Bacthist regime of Saddam Husayn.  With Iraq also suffering a major budget deficit due to the drop in oil prices in the world market, sectarian and ideological tensions have only been intensified.
As Carl von Clausewitz noted, “…in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.  To deflate the IS, the United States is going to have to spend as much time reconciling the political disputes within the unruly and undependable coalition which it leads.
That effort will be extremely difficult. However, to defeat the IS, and the spin-off terrorist groups which it inspires, US policy-makers need to think more about a collation that is political as much as it is military.  It needs to consider the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts, if victory is to be achieved.
In a subsequent post, I will analyze the impact of non-coalition actors on the anti-IS struggle, particularly the impact of the collusion between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and the IS, the destructive role played by Russia’s entry into the conflict, and the role of Kurdish forces in Syria and Turkey which have been central in fighting the IS.