Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The ISIL War

The war on ISIL drags on.

The offensive against ISIL-held Ramadi drags on, although I retain hope that this is a prelude to a war of movement.

And if there is a breakout into Anbar, Strategypage explains why I've been writing for more than a year that Jordan could provide a core mechanized force to lead an advance:

Jordan has long been a prime target for Islamic terror groups. Yet compared to other nations in the region the kingdom has, next to Israel, had the fewest Islamic terrorist incidents within its borders. This is no accident and is the result of having one of the best trained and reliable security forces in the region and being the beneficiary of a lot of help with equipment and specialist training from the United States and Israel. ...

The Jordanian armed forces contains 105,000 troops plus 65,000 trained reservists. It is a small force, but more effective, man-for-man, than any other [NOTE: any other Arab force] in the region.

So Jordan has both a motive to destroy ISIL and the capacity to contribute forces to the coalition we are (mostly--excepting Iran and their hand puppet militias in Iraq) leading in Iraq.

If Jordan would advance from the west while Iraqi forces press from the east, we could collapse ISIL control in Anbar and free up Iraqi troops for a Mosul offensive as local Sunnis armed and supported by us assume responsibility for local defense against a weakened ISIL.

Iraqi Kurds are still clawing back terrain around Kirkuk:

The assault began overnight south of Daquq, a town about 175 km (108 miles) north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The front line between the regional Kurdish peshmerga forces and Islamic State in northern Iraq has hardly budged for months.

The Kurds aren't about to die to liberate Mosul--or other territory that will simply revert to Iraqi government control. So a big attack up there doesn't make sense until it is in support of an Iraqi drive that will move into Mosul at the end of the road.

And we still could be preparing for a Mosul offensive. While early reports said that American-trained Iraqi troops are involved in the offensive on Ramadi, more recent news says that Austalia and New Zealand trained two brigades involved in the offensive:

Multiple units that the coalition has helped train are participating as this fight, as you know, the 73rd and 76th brigades who were trained by coalition partners Australia and New Zealand, are doing very well to date, as are the approximately 600 Sunni tribal fighters who participated in the advise and assist program.

This would fit with that earlier report that 3,000 coalition-trained troops are involved. The earlier cited article said they were American trained but that could be an error.

But until Baiji is secured, it will be tough to drive north with that ISIL position still holding on their right flank. The Iraqis claim it is a priority:

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the battle over the northern town of Baiji and its refinery - Iraq's largest - was critical to the fight against Islamic State.

The town, about 190 km (120 miles) north of Baghdad, has been a battlefront for more than a year since its seizure by the Islamists in June 2014 as they swept through much of northern Iraq toward the capital.

If Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militia fighters regain full control around Baiji, it could help them push north toward the Islamic State-held city of Mosul and offset losses in the western province of Anbar.

If that is secured, an offensive on Mosul could be carried out with US-trained Iraqi troops since we may not have diverted US-trained units to the Anbar offensive.

We've disagreed with the Iraqis on whether to mount an Anbar or Mosul offensive. Iraq seems to have won that debate (and I agree with the Iraqis on this), but perhaps we also won in the sense that we successfully kept US-trained ground forces out of the Anbar offensive.

In Syria, the United States and Turkey seem on the same page to create an ISIL-free zone along the Turkish-Syrian border:

Turkey and the United States will soon launch "comprehensive" air operations to flush Islamic State fighters from a zone in northern Syria bordering Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Reuters on Monday.

Detailed talks between Washington and Ankara on the plans were completed on Sunday and regional allies including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan as well as Britain and France may also take part, Cavusoglu said in an interview. ...

The United States and Turkey plan to provide air cover for what Washington judges to be moderate Syrian rebels as part of the operations, which aim to flush Islamic State from a rectangle of border territory roughly 80 km (50 miles) long, officials familiar with the plans have said. ...

Cavusoglu said the operations would also send a message to President Bashar al-Assad and help put pressure on his administration to come to the negotiating table and seek a political solution for Syria's wider war.

This is progress. But this incremental escalation has a major flaw.

While we say we want non-jihadi rebels to fill the vacuum, assuming our air campaign decimates ISIL, why do we assume that non-jihadi rebels rather than Assad's forces will fill it?

Note that we say that we want this safe zone for rebels who will pressure Assad into negotiating. I believe that is a weak point in our plans to support rebels. Rebels will fight and die to win against the hated Assad system. We say we want them to fight and die to pressure Assad into negotiating a peace deal that presumably doesn't lead to Assad hanging from a lamp post.

Yeah, is it any wonder that our training program doesn't seem to be pulling in many Syrian recruits under the terms we've set?

Perhaps Turkey hopes to leverage this air campaign into a real safe zone held by Turkish troops when the air-only zone doesn't do the job. Yes, a no-fly zone protected the Kurds in Iraq after we defeated Saddam in 1991. But it didn't do the Shia in the south any good at all. The difference was the ability to hold ground.

And then there is an investigation about whether intelligence is being slanted to make the war seem more successful than it is:

The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress, according to several officials familiar with the inquiry.

I certainly expressed my doubts that a metric of ground lost by ISIL really showed that we are winning.

So the war goes on. It is mostly stalemate, but I give the advantage to ISIL on points because ISIL has the most significant successes by clawing against Assad in Syria and still holding the recently taken Ramadi (as well as expanding abroad which will help them recruit replacements for their losses to our air campaign).

But that could change rapidly if--as I have to believe--we really do plan a war of movement in Anbar province despite the painfully slow advance taking place now around Ramadi.