Friday, June 27, 2014

Did ISIL Engineer Their Own Awakening?

Obviously, the ISIL/ISIS invasion of northern Syria was merely the organized spearhead of a Sunni uprising. Otherwise the extent of the ISIL offensive doesn't make sense. How many armed Sunnis are up there?

The new war of ISIL trying to create its own caliphate out of eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq doesn't involve that many ISIL forces:

The ISIL forces are not numerous with total strength of about 10,000. Some 70 percent are still in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq are joined by even more Sunni tribal militias and various other Sunni groups (pro-Saddam Baath Party groups Sunni Nationalist groups). What ISIL lacks in numbers they make up for in ferociousness. This shows how effective having so many men willing to die fighting larger forces of men who are only willing to kill.

But by definition, the spearhead can't be everywhere. Just how many Sunni armed men are holding all that territory?

This would help answer the question of how so many Iraqi troops could just fold and run since ISIL captured Mosul. If we're talking tens of thousands of armed Sunni Arabs joining the ISIL shock troops, the security force collapse is bad but not quite as shameful.

As an aside, that Strategypage post puts the Shia foreign legion shock troops in Syria fighting for Assad at 20,000. That's way larger than I'd thought earlier estimates had placed the total. And that's pure tip of the spear. I'm reasonably sure that they plug into Syrian military logistics. So that's a lot of trigger pullers.

But with only 3,000 ISIL in Iraq, there have to be a whole lot more Sunni Arab militias joining in. And that will be a problem for ISIL control of Iraqi territory even if Iraq doesn't counter-attack:

The question looms over who will triumph: the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which aims to carve out a modern-day Caliphate, or myriad Iraqi Sunni armed factions, who fight based on a nexus of tribal, family, military and religious ties and nostalgia for the past before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Many experts and Western officials believe ISIL, due to its internal cohesion, and access to high-powered weapons and stolen cash, will overpower its Sunni rivals.

As I've noted, the Iraqis need a well-trained mobile force that can be the means of smashing through the thin ISIL control. Without that--as the French provided in Mali--the Iraqi government can't quickly defeat the ISIL offensive if there are sizable numbers of Iraqi Sunni Arabs siding with ISIL.

If Iraq can't start driving back ISIL fairly quickly, the ISIL territory will hold out and the Sunni Arabs may once again find out that they can't use the jihadis to leverage their way back into power as they are left to face the jihadis in their own communities. They tried and failed to do that in 2004 and less than three years later turned against the jihadis to side with us in the Awakening.

But can we afford the time it will take to alienate enough Iraqi Sunni Arabs from the ISIL alliance? Or will the Sunni Arabs tire more quickly of the jihadis given their past with the jihadis?

And just where is the main ISIL front? In Syria where they might drive a minority government from power? Or in Iraq where they'd have to drive a majority government from power? So far, ISIL seems to value the Syrian front more:

The equipment taken includes armored vehicles, small arms, ammunition, artillery, communication devices, uniforms and logistical vehicles. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant may have also seized night vision equipment and air defense weaponry. This gear would provide a substantial boost on the battlefield in Syria, and the group has indeed already begun to transfer some of this equipment across the border.

If ISIL views Syria as the main front, will ISIL strip it of enough assets that the Iraq front vulnerable to a serious counter-attack?

A focus by ISIL on Syria should leave the ISIL/Iraqi Sunni Arab (including Baathists) alliance vulnerable to divide and conquer tactics since the Sunni Arabs might start to feel that ending up on the losing side again in a hard fight against the Shias could end with their expulsion from Iraq. We aren't in Iraq to prevent that now, are we?

If we (I say that broadly meaning America and the Iraqis) can start prying Sunni Arabs away from the ISIL-led uprising, and organizing those Sunni Arabs who haven't joined ISIL, the Sunni Arabs could perhaps decide that the ISIL offensive is leverage to get a better deal with the Iraqi government rather than risk massive ethnic cleansing in a losing uprising.

It would really help to know just how many armed Sunni Arabs rose up as ISIL charged forward. Then we'll know the true scale of the problem.