Proxy war

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.

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One thought on “Proxy war”

  1. Daniel: I’m skeptical that we can assemble and coordinate a coalition that can battle IS in anything other than a piecemeal fashion. The necessary partners are too disparate and at odds with each other, and there seems to be no political will or popular support for an expedition of the magnitude required to defeat what is estimated to be between 30000 to 80000 IS forces. Support for IS in the areas they have taken may be coerced, but in the short run it appears real. A couple of squadrons of manned aircraft and drones, and a battalion of SF and Rangers supported by local militia and troops might be enough to hold them and even push them back at the margins, but not in depth. As usual, the political brackets the tactical in management and resolution of military problems. Also, devils, details.

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