Destroying the Islamic State?

U.S. Soldier's transfer authority in Mosul

Guest post by Richard Irons, consultant at SCS.

The Islamic State (IS) continues to grow in strength and threatens moderate governments and societies in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as western interests in the region. In Syria and Iraq, where IS is strongest, the International Coalition has developed a strategy to destroy IS largely based on military force. This strategy – or at least how it is being implemented – is unlikely to succeed in the near future.

IS’s campaign that culminated in the battle for Mosul between the 6th and 10th of June had been in progress since at least January. Since then, the Iraqi garrison in Mosul had become increasingly isolated and under siege, subject to continuous assassination and bomb attacks. The army and police no longer patrolled some areas of the city because of the threat posed by insurgents.

So when the attack came on 6th June, the army and police were already demoralised. The insurgents steadily increased the military pressure and on the 9th, the situation started to collapse: three very senior army officers fled Mosul by air. As news of their departure spread, soldiers and policemen began to desert and the defence collapsed.

In the course of four days a city of two million people, with some 20 to 30,000 defending police and soldiers, was captured by about a thousand insurgents.

This illustrates two basic military facts that need to be understood. First, IS is a well-led military organisation operating to a coherent strategy. Second, the Iraqi Security Forces, like many other armies, can fold dramatically when confidence is shaken.

President Obama laid out his objectives and strategy for combatting IS on 11 September, saying ‘we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism campaign.’

He then laid out four elements of his strategy to achieve this objective. The first is a campaign of airstrikes against IS in both Iraq and Syria. The second is to support Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga: providing training, intelligence and equipment.

The third element is to use indirect methods to strangle IS and limit its capacity to fight. And the fourth element is the provision of humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by IS’s expansion.

Several things are worth noting about this strategy. The first is what is not there: getting the politics right. In Iraq, it was the sectarian policies of previous Prime Minister Maliki that so estranged the Sunni population that allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq and, subsequently, IS to grow. A more inclusive government led by Haider al-Abadi may be an important step to winning the Sunnis towards the State of Iraq and away from the Islamic State. If the majority of Sunnis can be persuaded to end support for insurgency, we can be relatively confident that the current front line between Caliphate and Government forces will stabilise and few other Sunni areas will fall to Islamic State fighters.

Political reconciliation between Sunni and Shia is an absolutely fundamental condition for success but, by itself, it is also quite insufficient to militarily defeat the IS.

The other thing to note in this strategy is the recognition that air power alone will not destroy IS. We can expect, over time, to be able to identify and destroy most of their heavier weapons – its tanks and artillery pieces. Without such weapons, they find it harder to mount successful offensives. But it only works to degrade, not destroy.

So it falls to the second element of the President’s strategy to bear the brunt of destroying IS. It will require a major ground force attack to recapture all the lost ground; not just in Iraq but also in Syria.

In Iraq, only the Iraqi Army can mount a sustained attack on IS to defeat its military forces and roll back its gains. The Kurds will not fight to recapture Sunni Arab lands for Baghdad. The Shia militias will have quite the wrong effect on the Sunni population if they attempt to ‘liberate’ them from the Caliphate. But the Iraqi Army today is a shadow of what it was even two years ago. It is a defeated and demoralised force.

So we really need the Iraqi Army to re-build itself to the level that it can mount a sustained attack to recapture and then hold lost territory. It needs to recover its self-confidence. As a result, I believe that if our strategic objective is really the destruction of the Islamic State then we have to do more than train and equip them. We will also need to embed advisors and fire control teams, to give them the confidence that was so badly shattered this summer.

But this option, it seems, has already been precluded by both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron, who have separately promised not to involve American and British troops in combat roles.

The US plan to build a non-radical Syrian opposition, strong enough to prevail against both Assad and IS, is bound to fail. The Free Syrian Army now no longer exists in any meaningful way. It has been destroyed by IS. There are only three effective forces left in Syria: the Syrian Army and its Hezbollah allies, supporting Assad; the Syrian Kurds fighting for survival in the north; and the IS and its allies. There is no non-radical opposition in Syria left for the US to support.

So the only way we could actually achieve the destruction of the Caliphate would be by both significantly increasing our military commitment in Iraq while, simultaneously, changing our political position vis-à-vis the Assad regime in Syria. Both of these conditions seem a long way from the thinking of our political leadership right now.

If we are relying on the military being a major part of our strategy to destroy (as opposed to degrade) IS, then we had better get used to the reality of the IS being around for quite a long time.

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