08 January 2015

U.S. and Allies Blow Up Lots Of ISIS Stuff

According to U.S. military officials, there have been an average of 11 air strikes per day since August 8, 2014 when President Obama authorized the beginning of the air strike campaign for a total of 1,600 strikes on 3,200 targets in Iraq and Syria.  Much of the military equipment was captured from Iraqi forces in an ISIS surge that began in June.  The targets hit have included:

* 184 Humvees
* 58 Tanks
* 700 Other Vehicles
* 28 MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) and armored personnel carriers.
* 79 Artillery and Mortar positions.
* 673 Infantry Fighting positions
* 14 river crossing small ferry boats
* 900 ISIS buildings and barracks
* 92 checkpoints
* 23 munition caches
* 52 bunkers
* 259 small oil refineries and storage facilities run by ISIS.

There is no word on whether we have blow up any partridges in pear trees, lords a leaping, or golden rings.

Via Defense Tech.  There is more analysis of the impact of, and character of the air strike campaign here.

At least some of our fighter pilots are getting some real world combat experience dropping smart bombs, and the technologies involved are getting a trial in the sandbox before being pressed into use in some more symmetric conflict.

Some of the small numbers of U.S. troops in the region were shot at by ISIS forces for the first time of the campaign last week, although apparently did not suffer casualties.  Most of the heavy lifting when it comes to ground combat has been carried out by Kurdish militias who have proven themselves to be more capable than the Iraqi or Syrian Army in this conflict.

ISIS may be reasonably well armed and equipped for an insurgent force, but hardly has the military resources of the full fledged nation-state that it claims that it is now, and has an Army of perhaps 20,000 or so men fighting for it (with large margins of error on that estimate).

Certainly, the airstrikes have made some dent in the military resources of ISIS and made the war costly for them, while requiring only minimal U.S. and allied commitment in blood and money.  ISIS has been left with a military limited to troops with small arms using civilian vehicles like pickup trucks and no major military bases in good repair.  ISIS can use its limited military resources ruthlessly to retain control of its territory and even advance along parts of its borders to key strategic targets.  But, it has been denied almost all military vehicles, almost all weapons more potent than an assault rifle or rocket propelled grenade launcher, and any decent base or training facility.  As the months drag on, these are not going to be ideal conditions under which it will need to continue to maintain its fighting force.  And, of course, ISIS also needs to replace its many killed and wounded soldiers with new ones, as well.  Each month that passes of more airstrikes further degrades the military capabilities of ISIS and its core oil extraction driven economic base.

On the other hand, it isn't at all clear that the air strikes have had a decisive impact anywhere but a few border towns that have historically had non-Sunni Arab populations.  ISIS seems to control almost all of the historically Sunni Arab territory of Iraq, to have made slight inroads into Kurdish and non-Shi'ite minority areas of Iraq, and to have taken most of Eastern Syria.

The Iraqi military, the Kurdish militia, Syrian rebels, the embattled Syrian government that rules the rump territory remaining in its control in Syria, and the U.S. and its allies, all appear to have been powerless to dislodge ISIS from historically Sunni areas in Iraq and from Eastern Syria.  Indeed, it seems as if they are struggling, in their combined efforts, simply to hold the line against further ISIS advances.

I've heard nothing about any serious Sunni led efforts to rise up against, or dislodge the ISIS regime whom Sunni Muslims in its territory seem to have accepted, happily or out of fear, as the de facto government whose brutal regime it is futile and dangerous to resist.  And, it was not as if there was any great love lost for the Shi'ite controlled civilian government of Iraq that had ruled them from Baghdad, or Syria's former Baathist regime, in any case.

So, we have a stalemate.  Nobody can defeat ISIS, but ISIS must now struggle to maintain control over its territory with its meager military resources and a reign of terror.  So, ISIS can probably continue to be contained indefinitely.

Indeed, as long as ISIS can be contained, it isn't clear that we have any end game other than to leave ISIS to weak to expand or think about anything but clinging to its perilous grip on power in the territory it controls.  We aren't eager for the area to be controlled by Syria's Baathist regime.  But, the Syrian rebels don't have the wherewithal to fight the Baathists on one front and ISIS (including many of their comrades in arms from the still ongoing Syrian civil war) on the other.  The Baathist regime is likewise too busy holding into the territory it still controls in the face of an ongoing civil war to retake the hard target of ISIS controlled territory.

Neither the U.S., nor its allies, nor the rump Iraqi government, nor the Kurdish militias are inclined to try to not only oust ISIS from its core territory, but to impose marital law until the territory can be handed over in good order to the rump Iraqi government that is now a Shi'ite nationalist assembly that is closely allied with Iran, or the Baathist regime in Syria.

The pre-ISIS civilian local and regional and central government officials who used to run this territory are gone, and have no realistic capacity to restore their legitimacy to rule this territory again on behalf of the national governments that used to control these territorial areas, even if the ISIS fighters and governmental officials could be ousted tomorrow.  Local civil society, likewise, it seems, has been vaporized in the face of the all encompassing effort by ISIS to establish a new Caliphate run in accordance with strict and conservative interpretations of Islamic law.  Anyone who stepped forward to try to led a successor regime in the region would be at grave risk of violence by agents of an exiled and temporarily routed ISIS regime, much like successors to the Taliban in Afghanistan became targets there.

So, while we can do a lot of damage, and economic pain, and can contain ISIS, and we can destroy almost all of their heavy weapons, we have no real game plan to secure meaningful regime change in its core territory and then to rule that territory.  It would take a well disciplined and equipped Army of many tens of thousand of ground troops, if not hundreds of thousands, who spoke the local language, and vast amounts of nation building funds, at a time when low oil prices and wartime economic disruption are leaving Iraq and Syria strapped for cash, to have a serious chance of success in that endeavor.  Nobody involved is willing or able to commit those kinds of resources to that task at this time.

In the meantime, each month that passes further cements the stalemated status quo, which is miserable for all involved and is further segregating the country on ethnic and religious lines in the few pockets o the country where this hadn't happened already, destroying prospects for a renewed multi-ethnic state of the kind that Iraq had under Saddam Hussein.

Every month that passes only cements the legitimacy of ISIS as a genuine nation-state further, and makes it harder to restore a legitimate civilian replacement government of Syria or Iraq respectively.  The national military forces couldn't prevent ISIS from terrorizing average people and seizing control back in June, and any ordinary citizen would be taking a huge gamble to assume that national military forces could do it now, with a more entrenched foe and fewer resources of their own as a result of this massive civil war and succession movement that is now about six months old.

Yet, it is hard to ignore a regime that makes a point of beheading your nation's citizens on television, trying to carry out genocidal campaigns directed an ancient minority religious communities in their core territory, endorses terrorist attacks in the homelands of their opponents, and reestablishes legal sex slavery for girls and women captured from non-Sunni religious sects or others who have displeased the regime.  It is even harder when this is happening in one of the world's most abundant swath of oil fields and refineries that are key to the national wealth of Iraq and Syria respectively and disrupting the global economy in the process.

While it is hard to say that we were wrong to intervene and prevent multiple instances of genocide aimed at minority religious populations in Iraq as a result, it is also hard to know what the next objective of our involvement in this conflict (and the Syrian civil war in which we are supporting rebel forces that nonetheless seem to be losing ground in Baathist regime held territory) should be.

So, until we decide otherwise, our mission seems to be to continue to degrade the military technology and infrastructure of the fighting forces of ISIS and its regime generally, and to contain the regime do that it doesn't expand beyond its current borders, until some other actor in the region takes more decisive action, or the situation on the ground shifts for some reason.  For example, a successful Iraqi "surge" or a decision by the Turkish government to intervene decisively in this conflict rather than staying on the obscure sidelines as much as possible while tolerating military conduct just over the border by Kurdish militants who have been the Turkish military's bitter adversary in counterinsurgency operations spanning decades that were merely at a lull and not actually concluded when the rise of ISIS changed everything.

These U.S. and allied military tasks, of course, could last for many years to come until the stalemate breaks somehow.

Even if we somehow "win" the war, the people of this region may be far too alienated from the regimes that they have been forced by ISIS to fight against for all those years while scraping by in a country that is an economic shambles, to embrace their new rulers willingly.

A best case scenario for post-ISIS Iraq and Syria, however many years hence ISIS can be ousted, probably looks something like post-Irish independence Northern Ireland without the Protestants around to support the ruling United Kingdom government.

A worse case scenario looks something more like Somolia or Yemen.

Faced with that prospect, a more reasonable end game may be to oust the theocratic ISIS Caliphate regime in lieu of a regime run by Sunni tribal leaders and warlords in the image of post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-civil war Eritrea, while forcing Iraq and Syria respectively to cede these huge swaths of their own territory to a new Sunni Muslim state in the same territory that ISIS holds now and some treaty assurances from a post-ISIS regime in a nation-state that ISIS forcibly carved out of former Iraq and Syria.

That would be a bitter pill, but it is hard to imagine any better outcome to this conflict for the U.S. and its allies.  This would be a loss for almost everyone involved on all sides.  Given the reality of the situation there right now, would viable alternative would be a better outcome?

Particularly tricky would be the dominoes that such a step might trigger.  If the ISIS territory were granted de jure independence, the Kurds would likely insist upon their independence from Iraq as well.  Iran would likely warm to rump Shi'ite Iraq and might even annex it or join it in some sort of federation.  Indeed, given Iran's more successful history of electoral democracy than Iraq, flaws as it is, an annexed Iraq might be more democratic and have a more functional civilian government than it does in the status quo.

Freed of potential threats from Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. military action, emboldened Iran might turn to less urgent priorities like harassing or attacking Israel, something that it has long expressed the desire to do.

Rump Syria, meanwhile, would leave the Syrian Baath regime a less overwhelming task to consolidate what remained than it would have faced to retake control of its Eastern territory.  But, still facing a U.S. funded insurgency in an ongoing civil war, it might have little choice to pursue the less ambitious agenda, and prioritize a brutal crackdown on Syrian rebels in an effort to retain control.

No comments: