Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mission Identified?

More action is going on against ISIL lately and may reflect an effort to follow a strategy.

American-backed Kurds are moving on Sinjar in Iraq, which would reduce the ability of ISIL to move resources between Iraq and Syria:

Backed by U.S. air strikes, Kurdish forces said they captured several villages in an offensive on Thursday to retake the Iraqi town of Sinjar from Islamic State militants who overran it more than a year ago. ...

Sinjar is both a symbolic and a strategic prize, sitting astride the main highway linking the cities of Mosul and Raqqa - Islamic State's bastions in Iraq and Syria.

This support includes forces on the ground:

U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren told Reuters some U.S. advisors were also on Sinjar mountain working with the Kurdish peshmerga forces to advise and assist with the development of targets for air strikes.

I've already noted that we finally seem poised to retake Ramadi (and let's hope that Jordan makes an appearance to sweep into Anbar from the west).

And the capture of Baiji after such a long struggle finally opens the road to an eventual offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIL.

All this is part of a new "Three Rs" strategy:

The three Rs stand for Raids, Raqqa and Ramadi. The raids are using a few hundred more SOCOM troops (Special Forces, SEALs and specialized support) to carry out more raids into ISIL territory in Syria and Iraq. This includes hitting Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city which is a provincial capital and the only large city that ISIL controls in Syria. It is also possible to send columns of Kurds south, accompanied by Special Forces and lots of American air support, to threaten Raqqa. That has been tried before and it definitely gets the attention of the ISIL leadership. Ramadi is the Iraq equivalent of Raqqa being the capital of Anbar province in the largely desert western Iraq. There are no Kurds readily available to help take back Ramadi and the Iraqi government is having problems controlling the large number of Iran supported Iraqi Shia militias that have gone west to help retake Ramadi. In theory a dozen or so commando raids in the right places in a short space of time plus a vigorous move towards Raqqa could distract ISIL enough to enable the Iraqis to grab Ramadi.

So basically, we are focusing on Anbar province in Iraq ("Ramadi") while trying to distract ISIL enough in Syria ("Raqqa") to keep them from reinforcing the Iraq front when we (finally!) move.

The latter aspect really includes the Kurdish move on Sinjar inside Iraq to interdict lines of supply between Iraq and Syria.

The "raids" part of the strategy covers a transition to putting American boots on the ground to direct coalition air power (as I've long wanted) and also serves to get the Kurds of both Iraq and Syria to work with us.

The aid to Kurds in Syria is incapable of defeating ISIL or Assad, however, clearly indicating that the Syria side is the supporting effort to the main effort in Iraq. The Kurds are simply not going to be our troops for a drive through Arab territory in Syria they will never be allowed to control. They aren't dying for Sunni Arabs to control Syria.

But this aid to the Kurds does at least build up a non-ISIL and non-Assad safe territory inside Syria while helping us in Iraq by drawing ISIL resources to the western Syria side of the caliphate.

A Kurdish safe haven may draw Sunni Arabs and other non-Kurdish opponents of Assad into this region where we can support them, too, for an actual anti-Assad force willing to advance toward Damascus.

It may also push the Turks to support non-Kurdish Syrian rebels further west to counter our reliance on Kurds.

This is pretty darn close to the Win, Build, Win strategy I called for soon after we committed to returning to Iraq:

That is, first we focus on a WIN in Iraq as the main effort by defeating ISIL and their local Sunni Arab allies by providing air support (using special forces and forward air controllers to guide them when possible) to local allies on the ground.

Local allies will be Kurdish forces in the northeast to drive southwest; Iraqi forces bolstered by US (and allied) embedded advisors (we will provide enough advisors for 9 brigade and 3 division headquarters) plus Iraqi counter-terrorism forces in the center to advance north and west; and possibly a Jordanian force to advance into Anbar from the west.

It is possible that we will have a contractor-based ground force that we hire that might provide part of that ground force in the center to advance north.

We will need to get another Awakening with sufficient Sunni Arabs to help tear out the jihadis who go underground as local spearheads backed by our air power push into ISIL-held ground.

Second, while we do this, we will BUILD the non-jihadi Syrian opposition. We plan to spend up to a year training 5,000 troops that we intend to use as a buffer forces along the Iraq-Syria border. Hopefully this complements our efforts north of Jordan and efforts out of Turkey to support non-jihadi rebels.

While we build up the Syrian opposition to become a viable alternative to the jihadis for those who want to fight Assad, we will strike targets in Syria to support the Iraq main effort in Iraq and to shape the battlefield for the last step. ...

The strikes at the Khorasan group [in Syria] aren't directly related to the main effort in Iraq, but the rest do support that effort, as did the succeeding strikes on ISIL oil production capacity (by hitting refinery facilities).

And the strikes at Khorasan do help us shape the Syria battlefield by weakening the jihadi alternative to the guys we'd rather see succeed in Syria. Maybe serving with more moderate forces who don't face our air attacks will seem safer. And if that is a symbol of our general support, that will help, too.

Third, when Iraq is secured we attempt to WIN in Syria. Hopefully, those Syrian rebels we trained who hold the border in the east have attracted new recruits and we can back them as they advance west and defeat ISIL in Syria.

The fourth step is to continue the win over ISIL by helping non-jihadi Syrian rebels in the east, in the south, and in the north to overthrow Assad. I'm not sure the Obama administration is on board with this final step.

And long before the loss of Ramadi, I wanted Anbar province to be the priority within Iraq.

So I'm fine with this. We are focusing on winning in Iraq, operating against ISIL in Syria to keep the Syria branch from reinforcing the Iraqi branch, and generally working to build up anti-ISIL and anti-Assad forces inside Syria so that eventually Assad can't use the excuse that he--as awful and murderous as his regime is--is the superior and only alternative to ISIL control of Syria.

UPDATE: Yeah, the appearance of activity is spreading:

Iraq's military said on Friday its forces had advanced on three fronts to begin clearing Islamic State militants from the western city of Ramadi, but police and government officials said progress was extremely slow.

The announcement by the joint operations command came as Kurdish forces declared victory over Islamic State in the northern town of Sinjar, which could help build momentum in pushing back the hardline Sunni militants elsewhere.

So do we see an offensive from Jordan into western Anbar fairly soon? That's what I want and have been expecting.

UPDATE: The Pentagon goes to great pains to paint a single campaign theme--as I did here--in the recent actions around the battlefields:

As events unfold across Syria and Iraq, such as the ongoing operations in Ramadi and Bayji, yesterday's attack in Sinjar, it is easier to focus on all of these events as separate and unconnected.

What I am hoping to do today is make a case and explain how these events are really all connected. They're not separate and distinct.

We’re conducting a very comprehensive thought out campaign targeting and attacking ISIL at multiple locations across both Iraq and Syria.

All these operations are, of course, focused on a single goal -- degrading, dismantling and ultimately defeating ISIL.

It's just the slowest damned campaign I've seen.

With ISIL carrying out multiple operations in Egypt, Lebanon, and France for their single goal of a caliphate that degrades, dismantles, and ultimately defeats Western civilization while defining Islam as the jihadis define it, could we get a sense of urgency to our campaign?

UPDATE: Is Jordan's king attempting to set the stage for Jordanian ground force participation in the campaign for Anbar province in Iraq by painting a broad coalition around the fight against ISIL?

Jordan's King Abdullah II on Sunday said fighting extremism was an "international responsibility", two days after gun and bomb attacks killed at least 129 people in Paris.

"Terrorist groups... threaten many countries in the region and beyond, which makes confronting extremism a shared regional and international responsibility," he said as he opened a new session of parliament.

"However, this collective responsibility, in its essence, is our fight as Muslims against those who aim to turn our societies and future generations towards fanaticism and extremism," he said.

The coalition could sure use a mechanized Jordanian force striking through western Anbar province while ISIL's attention is focused on the slow-moving Iraqi offensive from the east.