Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Campaign Against ISIS

Guest post by Peter T.
(For his previous posts, see here, here, and here.)


What are ISIS’ prospects of holding out against the coalition now formed against them? And how do the military prospects inform the outlook for a political resolution of the civil wars?

ISIS continues to hold significant parts of northern and western Iraq and north-east Syria, and is putting up a stiff resistance to Iraqi efforts to regain Ramadi and to a Russian-backed Syrian offensive around Aleppo. Various Islamic radical movements around the world continue to sign on as ISIS affiliates, and the extreme violence (gruesome forms of execution, suicide attacks, mosque bombings) characteristic of ISIS has spread to Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and further. How far can ISIS go?

ISIS is several things. At the core, it is a millenarian movement, preparing for (and trying to bring about) the end of days. It draws on Salafist Islam, Islamic eschatological doctrines and holy warrior traditions, and seeks purity through violence. This mix is attractive to many young men, and at the centre of ISIS military strength are some few thousands of devotees – fierce, cohesive, aggressive and, by now, thoroughly competent in battle. Around this core are Sunni tribe members, local conscripts, and foreign volunteers, adding up to some tens of thousands.

Against ISIS are the Iraqi and Syrian armies, Iraqi Shi'a militias, some Sunni tribes, Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, competing rebel groups in Syria and, of course, Western (mostly U.S.) and Russian air forces and Iranian advisors.  Numerically, this coalition is far stronger.  It is also better equipped and supplied, and can draw on much larger populations.  Yet the record, so far, is decidedly mixed.  The regular Iraqi Army performed poorly against ISIS up to mid-2014. The Syrian Army has likewise not done too well.  Iraqi Kurdish forces have been effective in defense, but made very limited gains.  The Syrian Kurds have done better, sealing off the border with Turkey as far west as the Euphrates, but lack the numbers and equipment to attack major ISIS strongholds directly.  In Iraq, the most effective forces have been the Shi'a militias and in Syria the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Up to now ISIS has been able to offset numbers with elan, ferocity, cohesion, greater military competence, and the advantages offered by being on the offensive. These have been enough to seize territory against weak opposition, but not enough to overcome any determined resistance.  In the longer run, they are unlikely to be enough to hold what ISIS has gained.

ISIS has been slowly but steadily losing territory and populations in Iraq since mid-2014, and must now defend against greater forces along a wide front.  Forces have to be tied down in defence of key points, such as the roads between Mosul and Raqqa.  As the aura of success fades, and as supply tightens, its tribal allies and subordinates become less reliable, and greater pressure is needed to keep them in line. At the same time, the competence and morale of its enemies rises. Each successful battle (Kobane, Tel Abyad, Tikrit, Baiji, Hassakah, Shengal, currently Ramadi) costs ISIS core cadres and chips away at its aura of invincibility.  Taking towns ringed with IEDs and defended to the last is a slow process, but it can be and has been done. This is not blitzkrieg, but a steady pressure against a determined but weaker force.

Military geography does not favour ISIS. Both Mosul and Raqqa are exposed, and comparatively minor gains by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq or eastern Syria would sever communication between the two.  Likewise, ISIS has to hold Euphrates valley towns to access western Anbar and the Saudi border, but garrisons are vulnerable to Iraqi forces and their supply open to air attack.  And ISIS has to maintain forces in northern Syria against the very effective Kurdish YPG to ensure access to the Turkish border.  So its striking power is limited and its small elite vulnerable to attrition.

The Balance in Syria

Calculation of the military and political situation in Syria is more complex than in Iraq. The Assad regime in Damascus cannot muster the same numbers or depth of popular commitment as Baghdad, has to fight on several fronts, and faces a relatively stronger set of enemies. Its own indiscriminate use of fire-power has alienated many who might otherwise find it the lesser evil. While Baghdad enjoys support from all sides, the U.S. is hostile to the regime in Damascus and continues to tinker futilely with support for a “third party” -- a secular (or at least non-fundamentalist) and pro-democratic opposition.  Although the Pentagon has recently ended its effort to train separate ‘moderate’ forces to fight ISIS, a CIA program to train ‘moderates’ to fight Assad apparently continues.  Turkey is also hostile to Assad, and somewhat supportive, in terms of actions if not rhetoric, of both ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

In the broader view, it is all one war. Not only is ISIS a common enemy (certainly for all Shi’a, at any rate), but Syrian Allawis, the core supporters of the Assad regime, are close to the Twelver Shi'ism of Iraq (and Iran), the Zainab shrine near Damascus is a major Shi'a pilgrimage centre, and there are close family ties between leading Shi'a religious families in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.  Iraqi militia are reported to have deployed to Syria in support of the regime, and Iraqi or Kurdish successes in northern Iraq will certainly be pursued into Syria – Iraq is not about to halt its campaign against ISIS at the border.

A deal – or even a stalemate – with ISIS is hard to envisage (one Syrian rebel leader observed “You can't talk to them; they take their orders from God”). If defeats continue, ISIS is likely to go the way of their Algerian equivalent, the GIA (or, for that matter, the several similar groups that arose in 17th-century Europe): splintering in defeat into deserters and die-hards.  It may be possible to broker an accord between Damascus and the rebel groups in southern Syria, and possibly even with the Nusra Front, along the lines of the resolution of the Algerian civil war.  For that to happen, first ISIS would need to be defeated, and then both the regime and the rebels convinced that a military solution is out of reach.  Both are some way off.

I used to work as an intelligence analyst, a profession notorious for hedging bets.  But, if I were pressed to give a definite forecast, I would say that ISIS is unlikely to hang on as an organised force for more than another two years, and the defeat of ISIS is a precondition for any resolution of the Syrian civil war.  That said, the defeat of ISIS is contingent on the coalition against them maintaining its present loose unity, and on the ability of the Damascus regime to avoid further major losses of territory.

One effect of the war is that whatever remained of the Shi'a tradition of political quietude has been largely abandoned.  While Khomeini's advocacy of a commanding political role for the clergy remains controversial, pretty much all the leading Shi'a figures advocate some form of political activism.  The days when the response to regime oppression was to don one's death shroud and wait are gone.  This in itself makes the outcome of the civil wars pivotal for the wider Muslim community.

-- Peter T.


LFC said...

So the news today is that Obama has decided to send "fewer than 50" US Special Ops forces to northern Syria to act as advisers to -- well, the WaPo reporter interviewed on the NewsHr this evening mentioned the Kurdish YPG specifically, and he also referred to other (presumably non-Kurdish?) groups without naming them. But I haven't read the print reporting on this. Then there was some analysis of the broader situation by Michael McFaul and Joshua Landis (whose remarks can be found at the PBS NewsHour website, though neither said anything, I think, all that startling re the negotiations in Vienna, etc.) McFaul observed that if a ceasefire betw Assad and the non-ISIS rebels cd be reached (and apparently there is some talk of one), that would be significant inasmuch as, inter alia, it wd reduce frictions between Russia and the U.S. and allow more focus on ISIS. But he wasn't asked directly what he thought the chances of that sort of ceasefire are; everyone acknowledged, though, that the U.S. and Russia remain far apart on some basic issues.

Peter T said...

Interesting. US forces on the ground with the Kurds would make it difficult for Turkey to bomb/shell them. He may be hoping to force a more accommodating Turkish attitude.

Ceasefire between Assad forces and the two main non-ISIS revel groups are slim to non-existent. At least until neither side can hope to win Geoffrey Blainey's Causes of War is good on this angle, as in Jacob Black-Micheaud's famous work on feud).

LFC said...

He may be hoping to force a more accommodating Turkish attitude

Yes, a point that hadn't immediately occurred to me. And not having to worry about fire from Turkey would presumably boost the Kurds' effectiveness vs ISIS. It wasn't clear from the coverage I heard how much 'in the field' as opposed to 'at headquarters' the US forces are going to be -- I had the sense it's more the latter. But the HQ/field distinction is probably a little blurry here. (After all, it's not, say, WW1, where the HQ was sometimes quite a long distance from the battlefield.)

LFC said...

From Reuters:

"A U.S.-backed Syrian rebel alliance on Saturday announced a fresh offensive against Islamic State in the northeast province of Hasaka, a day after the United States said it would send special forces to advise insurgents fighting the jihadists.

"It was the first declared operation by the Democratic Forces of Syria, which joins together a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and several Syrian Arab rebel groups, since it announced its formation earlier this month.

" 'We announce today the start of the first step in our military operations,' a spokesman for the alliance's general command said in Arabic in a video statement posted on Youtube."

Ronan said...

Interesting post and comments. You both might be interested in Will McCants new book on the millenialist aspects of ISIS ideology

(Just to note, I got it free on netgalley .com, so it might still be available there, but havent read it yet)

LFC said...

Thanks, Ronan. I've heard of McCants, I know he publishes in, among other places, Foreign Affairs, to which I subscribe. (Speaking of which, I have yet to remove the plastic mailing wrapper from the latest issue of FA that arrived in my mailbox several days ago. Sigh.)

LFC said...

Of course I cd also access it online but I prefer the hard copy.

LFC said...

Just opened the Nov/Dec Foreign Affairs. Has a couple of things germane to this thread, incl a review by Hisham Melhem of 3 ISIS-related bks, one of which is the McCants book.

LFC said...

Also a piece by Walt on ISIS, w some 'cute' facts, e.g. its GDP equals that of Barbados.

Peter T said...

Two foundational books for thinking about ISIS are Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium (on millenarian movements in c15/16 Germany) and Jack Goldstone's Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. For those with the leisure to read them, of course...

LFC said...

The next book on my to-read list is J. Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Given the mundane stuff I have to do in the next few weeks, not sure when I'll start it.

I'd like to read both the Cohn and the Goldstone. Might actually get to one or the other. We'll see.

Oh and Ronan (if you're here), since you seemed interested in it -- I'm not posting a review of Schweller's 'Maxwell's Demon' after all. I decided I wasn't going to finish the bk and returned it to the library. But since my intuition -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- tells me that you (Ronan) rarely finish books, I assume you'll understand. ;)

Ronan Fitzgerald said...

Peter t, thanks. I know both but haven't got round to either yet.
Lfc, you are right. I finish maybe 5% of non fiction books that I start. It's strange because back in the day it used to feel almost like a sin not to finish a book, so I'd read everything cover to cover. I prefer this method , though it does tend to lead to a slight fuzziness and incoherence when relaying an authors argument

LFC said...

There's probably something to be said for both methods, perhaps depending on the particular book.

One can read non-fiction for the main argument or for all the nuances/qualifications/etc, depending on what one feels like, needs to do, etc.

Similarly perhaps, one can read fiction for the plot or for the experience of the author's style and 'genius'. Or both: once through quickly for the story, and then carefully if one wants to get all the rest. For instance, the other day I picked up Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge in a cheap paperback edition; read it in high school, decades ago, and had almost completely forgotten it. So I went through it quickly for the story and am now reading it slowly for everything else, the set-pieces, descriptions, turns of phrase, socio-historical 'stuff', etc.