Vice President Biden claimed late last month that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “can be routed by local forces without U.S. boots on the ground.” He cites as evidence the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi army recovery of the Mosul Dam from ISIL.
But a military operation to recover a big, fixed installation in an unpopulated area is far easier than retaking Mosul, a city of about 2 million (the second largest in Iraq, after Baghdad). ISIL has deep roots in Mosul, which it had ruled at night for some time before it frightened off the Iraqi police and army in the daytime. ISIL has held at least parts of Fallujah and other towns in Anbar province since the beginning of the year, eradicating local resistance and established governing structures that are arguably doing better than the Iraqi government in delivering services. ISIL captured Tikrit more recently, but it is proving difficult for the Iraqi security forces to retake it
To roll back ISIL…
The Middle East Institute ran this piece on its website today:
Last week, President Obama said that he has no strategy yet to confront the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. He was attempting to counter speculation about American bombing of IS targets there. It had been rumored that the President wanted to decide on a war plan by the end of the week.
Before the Commander-in-Chief reviews war plans, he must give strategic guidance that specifies his intent. What is he trying to accomplish? It does not suffice to wax metaphorical about the IS being a cancer. He needs to decide whether the objective is to destroy it and prevent it from spreading, to contain and perhaps shrink it, or more modestly to limit the damage. In less metaphorical terms, the President might want to ensure that the IS is less capable of committing atrocities against civilians and harming Americans (his declared objectives in Iraq). Without guidance on goals, it will be impossible to design a strategy or to judge whether progress is being made.
Circumstances in Syria make setting the goals particularly challenging. The IS and other extremists, including the Al-Qa‘ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, are not the only problem. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has conducted a war against its own citizens that has killed more than 200,000 Syrians, displaced more than a third of the population, and forced 3 million to become refugees, mostly in neighboring countries. Intervention focused against the IS and other extremists could inadvertently free Assad to suppress the more moderate rebels and help him to reestablish his authoritarian rule. The United States must ensure that their friends, not Assad or Islamist extremists, benefit from U.S. military intervention.
Moderates in Aleppo, for example, are being attacked from the north by the IS and from the south by regime forces. Targeting IS could cause Aleppo to be captured by the regime. Likewise, the IS has taken over Raqqa in eastern Syria from the regime in the last few weeks. Attacking them there could enable regime forces to return.
A White House spokesman has suggested that the President’s objective will be containment and some rollback. Containment should be feasible, if it means preventing the IS from crossing rural and desert expanses to attack population centers, either in Syria or Iraq. But it would require destruction of Syria’s air defenses, which itself is a major military enterprise.
Rollback is even more difficult. It would require not only destruction of Syrian air defenses but also vigorous and sustained U.S. air attacks. Pushing the IS back from an isolated, fixed installation in the desert, as was done in Iraq at the Mosul Dam, is relatively easy. Getting IS out of Syrian cities and towns will be far more difficult, as the confrontation lines change often and who controls what is not clear. Targeting is therefore harder and collateral damage likely. Even if defeated in Aleppo or Raqqa, IS cadres can melt into an urban population, lying low until a new opportunity presents itself.
Rollback also raises the question of who would secure and govern any areas that are taken back from the IS. Washington recognizes the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) as the political representative of the Syrian people, and it will need enormous strengthening if it is to provide policing and governance in areas from which IS has been rolled back. The SOC will also need continued military protection. Assad has often bombarded liberated areas, including hospitals and schools, in an effort to make them ungovernable. The strategy will therefore have to include a commitment to continued application of military force as well as a plan for governance, justice and delivery of services. If liberated areas are left unprotected, the IS or the Assad regime will return, sooner rather than later.
Defeating the IS in Syria and preventing it from spreading would be even more demanding. Defeat is already proving difficult in Iraq, even with Kurdish and Iraqi security forces fighting IS on the ground. They are far stronger relative to the IS than the SOC-loyal forces in Syria. Defeat of the IS in Syria will also require a difficult political straddle: while supporting a Shi‘i-led government in Iraq, the United States will need to provide the mostly Sunni rebels in Syria with the means to defeat the IS as well as the Shi‘i-allied Assad regime.
If the IS is defeated and the territory it controls falls to the opposition, the SOC would then be in a far better position to negotiate with the Assad regime than it was in January, when the Geneva II talks failed to produce the political transition that the United States and the SOC wanted. Syrians are understandably reluctant to oppose Assad if they think the alternative is the IS, which not only abuses the civilian population but is also largely manned by non-Syrians. Without the IS boogey-man, Assad’s days will be shortened.
The post-war state-building tasks in both Syria and Iraq will be colossal. With its oil infrastructure in the south undamaged, Iraq can in principle pay for its own rebuilding; it is a wealthy country with about $100 billion in oil revenue at current prices. But Syria cannot. Its oil production was declining even before the war, its fields are now damaged, its infrastructure is devastated, and its bills are unpaid. If the IS is defeated, someone is going to have to foot a big bill. Washington need pay only a fraction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the revolution and should be expected to pay the lion’s share if it succeeds. But U.S. diplomacy may be required to remind them of that responsibility. Hopefully that is on the agenda of Secretary Kerry, who is scheduled to head to the Middle East to build an international coalition to support the fight against the IS.
President Obama is late to the realization that the IS represents a serious threat. But haste should not obscure the need for clarity about goals and plans for peace as well as war.
NATO presidents and prime ministers meet next Thursday and Friday in Cardiff, Wales for their biannual summit. It was supposed to focus on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is already well-advanced. But that will be overshadowed now by the Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine.
Some are still calling it a “stealth” invasion. Hardly. Russian personnel, tanks, artillery and other equipment are crossing the border and have taken the southeastern town of Novoazovsk. The fact that the troops don’t wear insignia makes them no less Russian. They could drive north from there to reinforce the rebel-held towns of Donestk and Luhansk or west to the important Ukrainian port of Mariulpol, which appears to be what they are doing.
NATO is under no obligation to defend Ukraine. It did little military to react during the Cold War to Soviet interventions in its then satellites Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But that is nothing to be proud of, even if it all worked out in the end. Both countries took advantage of the fall of the Berlin Wall to move as rapidly as they could into NATO and the European Union (EU). Those who take the long view may want to suggest that Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is nothing but folly. It will surely drive Ukraine into the arms of NATO and the EU.
It may also do harm to Putin’s standing at home. The Crimea annexation is proving difficult and expensive. Russians are beginning to notice the funerals of Russians killed in the Ukraine fighting. There are likely to be more. Moscow will discourage the media from reporting on these and encourage a drumbeat of alleged abuses against the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, but sooner or later the truth is likely to come out.
How NATO reacts will be important. Both its European and North American members have strengthened sanctions in reaction to Russian behavior in Ukraine. The rebel downing of Malaysia Air 17 with a Russian-supplied missile over Ukraine caused the latest turning of the screws. Moscow appears to be responding with cyber attacks on US and maybe other banks.
NATO has to decide whether to up the ante. Ideas on what to do are few and far between: start supplying lethal equipment to Kiev and deploy more NATO forces to allies who have borders with Russia. That’s thin gruel. The equipment won’t have any immediate effect on Ukrainian military capabilities and Putin will laugh off NATO deployments in the Baltics and Poland. He doesn’t plan to attack them.
Another turn of the sanctions screw, this time against Russian banks and other financial institutions, is another serious possibility. President Obama has to worry about whether that or othe moves will cause the Russians to fall off the P5+1 wagon (permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) that is trying to negotiate an end to Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. But the Russians have good reasons of their own not to want Iran to get nuclear weapons. It would be a big strategic mistake for them to undermine the current negotiating effort.
The NATO summit would do well in any event to denounce the invasion of Ukraine in explicit and stentorian tones, making it clear that Russian annexation of territory taken by force, including Crimea, will never be recognized by the Alliance. It would be a serious mistake to let Crimea go unmentioned, as that would only suggest to Putin that he can get away with more territorial conquest. The United States took a principled position of this sort on the Baltic states during the Cold War, when there seemed little to no likelihood they would ever be anything but Soviet prisoners. That worked out well when the Soviet Union fell apart.
There are other things to consider that aren’t discussed in polite company in public. The US will want to help Ukraine with intelligence. It may also want to consider stirring trouble inside Russia, though that particular type of covert action has a very mixed record, at best. If Moscow has in fact conducted cyber attacks against Western banks, response in kind will need to be considered. Another possibility is to reply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with vigorous military action not only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria but also against Bashar al Asad’s regime, which Russia supports.
NATO is on the spot. It hasn’t got a lot of good options. But it needs to react if it wants to stop Putin from going further.
PS: Vox.com provides video evidence:
I get some interesting questions from readers. Here are a few with my attempt at answers:
1. What does Dr. Peacefare make of Zaid al-Ali, a former legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq and the author of a book on Iraq’s future. He said the American insistence on inclusive politics is misguided. Iraq’s recent governments have included representatives from all the major sects, he noted, “But this is not a solution — it has never translated into the trickle-down politics that everyone assumed it would.”
What does Ali mean here? What alternative is there to an inclusive government (besides some kind of military victory)?
A: I’m not sure what Ali intends, but he is certainly correct that recent governments have included Kurdish and Sunni representation, as does the Iraqi parliament. But representation has not meant real sharing of power, which accumulated in the hands of Prime Minister Maliki. He bypassed the parliament in appointing military officers, including those whose troops fled when the Islamic State attacked. He gained what appeared to be undue influence over constitutional court decisions. He acquired direct command over counterterrorism forces. He undermined the influence of independent institutions like the central bank.
And above all he failed to keep commitments he made to Kurdistan to settle outstanding issues and encouraged the arrest of major Sunni politicians. His declared intent after winning the April election was to form a “majoritarian” government that would have relied even less on Sunni and Kurdish votes than his previous government.
Inclusion should not just mean tokenism. Nor should it be personality-based. What Kurdistan and many Sunnis are asking for is institutionalization of their control over resources and governance in a fashion that Baghdad can’t interfere with. That goes far beyond anything Maliki was willing to offer. We’ll see if Haider al Abadi is willing to deal.
2. Given the abject, massive fraud in the Afghanistan election, how does Dr. Peacefare see the way forward? Yes, the West wants it over with and that means acquiescing in Ghani’s victory. But how nasty is the stench from the fraud? How deep is the divisiveness? Abdullah and company will get over it in time … with an “inclusive government,” the terms of which Kerry already brokered. But Ghani is apparently now hedging, no? Or is scar tissue developing here among Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns? Any impact at all on White House or Obama’s thinking? Or is the President adamant to seal his legacy as the man who (pick one):
“ended the war in Afghanistan”
“withdrew American forces in Afghanistan while war continued, and possibly intensified.”
A: You are indicating more than I know about fraud in the Afghanistan election. I’m still waiting to see the results, after the Election Complaints Commission finishes its work. Some people I’ve talked to think Ghani won, if not fair and square at least by a margin larger than the fraud. The deal the Secretary of State brokered makes sense to me. Ghani and Abdullah are both capable candidates and to my knowledge relatively uncorrupted individuals. I know a lot of countries that would be privileged to have the likes of either one of them as president. If they can figure out how to govern together–which won’t be easy–that will likely be the best for Afghanistan, which is going to face enormous challenges as the Americans withdraw.
The President seems adamant to me, and what has happened in Iraq has likely strengthened his resolve. He may well need to redeploy American forces to Iraq and Syria, should he decide to not only contain but defeat the IS. That said, there are still more than two years before withdrawal is supposed to be complete. A new president in Kabul who appeals for help while making it clear that Afghans will carry the bulk of the burden might get a better hearing than President Karzai, who chose to blow his relationship with the Americans in an apparent (and fruitless) effort to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
3. Another reader asked in a comment: As an interested layman I can’t understand why the Syrian government, which counts on the support of allies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, among others, and is not loath to use the full might of its military, and has local knowledge, is unable to defeat the Islamic State in Syria? I replied:
A. It’s not trying. The Syrian government has seen the IS as a counterweight to the more moderate armed forces and has not generally attacked it. The government prefers to use IS as the boogeyman that strikes fear into regime supporters and helps to justify attacks on the moderates.
To bomb or not to bomb was yesterday’s question. Now most of Washington is agreeing that to stop the Islamic State bombing is necessary. The questions currently asked concern how much, whether to do it in Syria as well as Iraq, the intelligence requirements and how many American boots needed on the ground, even if not in combat.
Bombing may well be necessary to stop extremist advances, but it is certainly not sufficient to roll back or defeat the Islamic State. If you think the United States is at risk from the IS, you will want to do more than bomb. Quite a few people are proposing just that, though the numbers of troops they are suggesting necessary (10-15,000) seems extraordinarily low given our past experience in Iraq. Presumably they are counting on the Kurdish peshmerga and the 300,000 or so Iraqi troops the Americans think are still reasonably well organized and motivated. How could that go wrong?
But the military manpower question is not the only one. The first question that will arise in any areas liberated from the IS is who will govern? Who will have power? What will their relationship be to Damascus or Baghdad? How will they obtain resources, how will they provide services, how will they administer justice? The Sunni populations of Iraq (where they are a majority in the areas now held by IS) and of Syria (where they are the majority in the country as a whole) will not want to accept prime minister-designate Haider al Abadi (much less Nouri al Maliki, who is still a caretaker PM) or President Asad, respectively.
Bombing may solve one problem, but it opens a host of others. This is, of course, why President Obama has tried to avoid it. He heeds Colin Powell’s warning: you break it, you own it. The governance question should not be regarded as mission creep, or leap. It is an essential part of any mission that rolls back or defeats the IS. Without a clear plan for how it is to be accomplished, bombing risks making things worse–perhaps much worse–rather than better.
Sadly, the United States is not much better equipped or trained to handle the governance question–and the associated economic and social questions–than it was on the even of the Afghanistan war, 12 years ago. Yes, there is today an office of civilian stability operations in the State Department, but it can quickly deploy only dozens of people. Its budget has been cut and its bureaucratic rank demoted since its establishment during George W. Bush’s first term. Its financial and staff resources are nowhere near what will be required in Syria and Iraq if bombing of the IS leads to its withdrawal or defeat.
The international community–UN, European Union, NATO, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, World Bank, International Monetary Fund–are likewise a bit better at post-war transition than they were, but their successes lie in the Balkans in the 1990s, not in the Middle East in the 2010s. They have gained little traction in Libya, which needs them, and only marginally more in Yemen, where failure could still be imminent. Syria and Iraq are several times larger and more complex than any international statebuilding effort in recent times, except for Afghanistan, which is not looking good.
Even just the immediate humanitarian issues associated with the wars in Syria and Iraq are proving too complex and too big for the highly capable and practiced international mechanisms that deal with them. They are stretched to their limits. We don’t have the capacity to deal with millions of refugees and displaced Iraqis and Syrians for years on end, on top of major crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and ebola in West Africa.
President Obama has tried hard to avoid the statebuilding challenges that inevitably follow successful military operations. He wanted to do his nationbuilding at home. We need it, and not just in Ferguson, Missouri, where citizens clearly don’t think the local police exercise their authority legitimately. But international challenges are also real. Failing to meet them could give the Islamic State openings that we will come to regret.
Ben Rhodes said interesting things to Kelly McEvers on NPR this morning:
This clarifies a bit the President’s objectives and strategy for dealing with what the Administration wants to call ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
The objective he states is to squeeze ISIL and reduce the space in which it can operate. The White House is not aiming to defeat or destroy it, though it would be delighted if that is the outcome. But the Administration clearly agrees with its critics, who have been saying that defeat of ISIL requires deployment of 10-15,000 US troops. It doesn’t want to do that, so it has lowered its sights.
The principal means will be an international coalition, including moderates in Syria as well as Iraqi security forces (the Kurdish peshmerga as well as Baghdad’s massive but still underperforming army). The US role will include air strikes, supplying weapons, organizing logistics and providing intelligence. Washington and others will need to provide massive humanitarian assistance, mainly to displaced people and refugees. Bashar al Asad is explicitly not part of the political/military coalition. Iran implicitly is, at least inside Iraq and perhaps even inside Syria, where it is thought to have urged Asad to take more vigorous action against ISIL.
What this amounts to is a formula for proxy war against ISIL, with extensive US backing. No one should expect a short struggle, or an easy one. ISIL has demonstrated several capacities that will make it difficult to counter:
- it recruits easily.
- it fights well.
- it adapts to local circumstances.
- it has had at least some success in providing services to the civilian population.
- it kills and expels non-Muslims, creating massive population movements and enormous humanitarian aid requirements that burden its enemies.
- it appears to have ample funding from captured resources (banks and oil wells principally), extortion, kidnapping and Gulf donations.
The weakest link on the international coalition side of this war will be Baghdad, where sectarian politics undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces in the first place. There is no significant sign yet that Haider al Abadi, the newly designated (but not yet in office) prime minister, has found a way to fix what his predecessor Nouri al Maliki broke.
Abadi needs somehow bring a significant portion of the Sunni population to his side by meeting some of their demands for increased resources and power. ISIL may help him, if it tries to enforce its draconian lifestyle preferences (no smoking, no women in the street, murder of dissenters). But he will need to show in the formation of his new government (due in early September) significant Sunni participation in key roles in order to convince Sunnis of his sincerity in overcoming Maliki’s legacy.
Abadi also needs to resolve the problems Maliki created with Iraqi Kurdistan by refusing to transfer the money it is owed and trying to block its exports of oil. The Kurds will fight to protect themselves and may even go a bit farther than that in order to please the Americans and increase their own leverage, as they did in helping to retake the Mosul Dam. But if Abadi wants their help in retaking places like Tikrit, where few Kurds live, he’ll need to give them good reasons.
Proxy war is never easy. It may reduce the number of Americans at risk, but it will require deep American involvement in the politics of Syria and Iraq as well as a lengthy commitment of American resources. We are in for a long war with ISIL, an enemy who will reach past the proxies and attack Americans wherever it can find them. Jim Foley was a beginning, not the end.