The President of the United States has addressed the nation regarding his intention to respond militarily and diplomatically to the threat represented by a group known, among other names, as ISIS. ISIS is an armed faction in the Middle East fighting in both Syria and Iraq which has amassed a record for brutality which stands out sharply in an area where brutality is a commonplace. They have slaughtered Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, men, women and children. They have raped and enslaved women and girls. They have imposed a harsh, joyless rule in whatever unfortunate area that has fallen under their control. And as a final straw, they have mercilessly beheaded two American journalists who posed no threat of any kind to them and released videos of the acts to the world. The American people and the President had seen enough, and now an action plan has been announced.
The President says that he is going to hit ISIS from the air wherever they are, whether in Iraq or in Syria. Air power will be used in concert with ground actions and also when targets of opportunity present themselves. Fundraising activities for ISIS will be sought out and interrupted and efforts will increase to prevent would-be jihadis from reaching the Middle East or returning home after having once having gotten there. There are other parts of the plan I’m sure, but that is the broad outline and I am generally supportive of it. If there is one thing that we have learned in the past decade or two however, it’s that we should take a hard look at any proposal of foreign military activity in order to be as certain as possible that we will not be caught off guard by real time developments as that policy is being implemented. This post is my view of the dangers lurking behind the President’s stated policy.
One of the biggest obstacles to victory will be the need for a ground army for our air power to support. The Kurds have shown themselves to be capable and courageous fighters and with U.S. air support and shipments of weapons have pushed back the ISIS advance in the areas near Kurdistan. But there lies the problem; the Kurds have little incentive to leave their homes to go fight ISIS for an Iraqi government that has never been all that supportive of Kurdish ambitions for autonomy. Outside of some contested territory such as the city and environs of Kirkuk, there is small likelihood of Kurdish military projection much further afield. Why would a Kurd be willing to fight and possibly die to liberate Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi when the people of those cities and areas have certainly shown no great love for the Kurds and their dreams? Short of a promise by the new Iraqi government of real Kurdish autonomy and retention of Kirkuk in exchange for Kurdish military cooperation far from Kurdish lands, I see little likelihood of significant ground military help against ISIS in the West and North of Iraq from that quarter.
Iraq does have an army, but it is an army that dissolved in the face of rag-tag ISIS fighters who were on foot and in a few pick up trucks, and left tanks, military vehicles, artillery and the like and fled in disarray. Any reorganizing and training of this force will take time and a new leadership will have to rise up which will command the respect of their troops, which is essential for success on the battlefield. Americans are leery of open-ended military operations which take a long time, so something more cohesive than the Iraqi army as it is currently constituted will be needed in order to begin effective ground operations for U.S. air power to support.
The most efficient auxiliaries to the Iraqi army are the Shi’ite militias. These armed groups remain after the sectarian violence of the middle of the last decade, and many Shi’ite men are under arms and with decent leadership. Also, Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Quds Force has been in Iraq training and advising Shi’ite militias, and it is rumored that some Iranian soldiers may be within their ranks as well. These militias present a more effective military force than the army but they will be useless in Anbar Province or much of Northern Iraq because the Sunni tribal leaders in those areas are not at all likely to welcome a Shi’ite military force into their lands. Such a scenario is far more certain to drive the Sunni’s further into alliance with ISIS than wean them away. A truly integrated Sunni/Shi’ite force with sufficient air and logistical support could possibly accomplish such a feat, but no purely Shi’ite military force can be used for such a purpose.
An option for initiating quick military pressure against ISIS lies in convincing Jordan, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and Turkey that they have an interest in participating in the destruction of ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with regional leaders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as I am writing this post, to try to wring assistance and support from those countries in the struggle against ISIS. Sunni combat troops would be the ideal commitment by these leaders, but I see very little likelihood of that. Use of their airspace or provision of military and humanitarian supplies is more like what Sec. Kerry will leave Jeddah with, but we can always hope for more. I would love to be surprised by Arab and Turkish military action. Sunni combat troops from Arab countries would be the most likely to receive acceptance from the Sunni tribal leaders in the areas currently under ISIS control, and the most likely to treat people there with respect and, most important, most likely to go home when the job is done and leave the people there alone.
The final fly in the ointment, and it is a big fly, comes from Syria. The political center of ISIS’s phony “caliphate” lies in Syria, and to effectively strike at the heart of ISIS requires that we strike them there. Striking ISIS in Syria will not necessarily be an easy task however. Syria sort of has a government, led by a man only slightly less ruthless than ISIS. This man, Bashar al-Assad, has an army and potent allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran and, more important to the issue at hand, a fairly effective air force. Mr. Assad, through the brutality which he has displayed against his own people, has forfeited any claim to the leadership of Syria. Assad therefore thirsts for the U.S. to treat with him in hopes that such an action would confer upon him at least an aura of legitimacy. President Obama thankfully will not do that, but that in turn sets the stage for the Syrian Air force to engage American jet fighters over Syrian territory.
The implications of such an engagement are troubling. American pilots are no doubt more than a match for their potential Syrian opponents, but as one very wet and disgruntled Japanese naval officer once said after he was pulled out of the water following a successful B-17 attack on his destroyer, “Even a B-17 will get lucky sometimes.” Even a Syrian pilot might get lucky sometimes too, and the repercussions of that would complicate matters to no good end. In an effort to insure the safety of other U.S. and perhaps allied pilots we would now have to render the Syrian Air Force and anti aircraft facilities impotent, and that would represent a huge escalation of the President’s announced plan.
And then there’s Russia. Syria is and has for forty years been a client of first the Soviet Union and now Russia. The connection between the Syrians and the Soviets/Russians runs deep, even to the point that the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly stumbled into a nuclear war in 1973. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been pushed out back by the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war and were being soundly thrashed and in danger of total collapse. The Soviets intended to intervene to prevent the destruction of those armies and only decided against it after President Nixon, in the midst of his Watergate nightmare, told Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that to go forward with that project would lead to war between the superpowers. Nixon meant it and Brezhnev figured it out, and war was averted.
The Russians today are still wedded to the Assad regime, and have stated that any violation of Syrian air space or attacks upon Syrian soil without the consent of the Assad regime would be illigitimate unless sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, a body in which the Russians have a veto. American incursions into Syrian air space, bombing of Syrian targets, downing of Syrian jets or disabling of the Syrian Air Force and air defense systems would give Russia cover to gobble up more of Eastern Europe and then be able to say “what’s the difference?” Further complicating things is the statement by the main Western-backed coalition of anti-Assad forces that they would be happy to coordinate with American power against ISIS, but only if the campaign is extended to include strikes against Assad’s forces, and on and on it goes.
In the long run this is going to be a nasty and dangerous business. ISIS will fight to retain what it has and the ground combat forces needed to engage them are currently weak and unconnected. The military, diplomatic and law enforcement assets needed to successfully engage our enemy will have to be deft, persistent, and daring in equal parts, and willing to pursue this policy to a successful end however long it takes. That could get messy, friends might prove to be fleeting, and politics domestic and foreign could (and probably will) rear their ugly heads. No matter. It’s a dirty job that has to be done, and the sooner we start the better.