by Wayne White
Once again American observers are outbidding each other over how serious a threat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) poses. Recent IS gains in Iraq heightened Washington’s concern, causing President Obama to huddle with coalition defense ministers. In this air of heightened crisis, the option of deploying US combat troops has been revived. Yet this supposed fix (even just talk of it) involves a host of likely problems.
The 19th Century politician, diplomat and writer Don Piatt once said, “A man’s greatness can be measured by his enemies.” If applied to the Islamic State, IS falls short in terms of the ground conflict. The radical Sunni group’s foes consist of the demoralized, ill-led Iraqi Army; Iraq’s sectarian, dysfunctional government; the better, but potentially shaky, Iraqi Kurds; the paltry forces of the rebel Free Syrian Army; and the fierce-fighting but under-armed and ill-supplied Syrian Kurds. Naturally, IS has scored successes against such weak opponents. But that does not make it the irresistible force portrayed by many.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been virtually useless since replacing the discredited Nouri al-Maliki. Surrounded by much the same hyper-sectarian Shia politicians, Abadi has not made an earnest, good faith effort to weaken IS by wooing away many of its Sunni Arab tribal and military supporters. This is, by far, the most critical factor in Iraq on the ground. Far more pressure from the US and perhaps mediation by regional actors must be considered.
Without a Sunni Arab game change against IS, isolated western Iraqi garrisons in towns and bases have been falling. The al-Asad Airbase complex near the city of Hit may be next. Largely government-held Ramadi remains out of IS hands, but only because surrounding tribes oppose the group. And even with Baghdad at its back, the Iraqi Army’s performance has been marked by repeated failures.
Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army has received little of the military support for which it has begged for three years. Plagued by inferior weaponry and ammunition shortages, and comprised of a welter of semi-autonomous local militias, it poses little danger to IS.
Though more determined and coherent than the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, typically advance behind heavy US air support or in relatively weakly held IS areas. Despite a few exceptions, they are generally reluctant to advance very far—and hold ground—much beyond their own borders.
Meanwhile, the US ignored heroic resistance by tougher Syrian Kurds until recently. They represent the only major contingent of highly motivated anti-ISIS boots on the ground. Probably in response to Turkish wishes, the US largely withheld air support for nearly two weeks.
Yet since declaring Kobani a humanitarian disaster on Oct. 14, the US has hammered IS positions at Kobani with waves of airstrikes, after strikes last week proved too few. Intelligence sharing between the US and the defenders of Kobani has made the strikes more effective. Had strikes this powerful been launched two weeks earlier, Kobani itself would not have become a battlefield.
Providing no military assistance whatsoever, Turkey has blocked thousands of Turkish Kurdish reinforcements from reaching Kobani. Fighters and doctors on the scene report numerous border closures and wounded combatants dying just inside Syria awaiting treatment in Turkey. Other fighters from Kobani have been arrested at the border, including some wounded.
Still, all around the Islamic State’s current holdings are countries with powerful militaries capable of dealing serious blows to IS regardless of the group’s fanaticism. Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, and Jordan to the south represent dangerous potential IS enemies if attacked. Just beyond Damascus and northwestern Jordan lies perhaps the most formidable local foe: Israel. Much of Iraq’s Shia south would become a graveyard for IS forces attempting to seize sizeable portions of this hostile area, in part because Iran would not let this area and Shia Islam’s holiest shrines fall.
The Anti-IS Front
Turkish cooperation with NATO against IS would vastly boost anti-IS operations. Air support could be based much closer to targets, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds could receive assistance, and the Islamic State’s smuggling of goods and recruits could be curbed. A Turkish volte-face might also salvage its peace process with the Kurds. Turkey has been holding its support hostage to demands such as coalition airstrikes against the Syrian regime. The coalition must keep pushing back; compliance would dissipate the air war against IS.
Other coalition partners, including NATO states like Germany, have also remained on the sidelines or provided little. This too needs to change to impose further pressure on IS.
If Kobani is an example of solid boots on the ground, Iraqi troops fighting west of Baghdad represent the opposite (despite heightened air support and attacks by US Apache helicopter gunships). In Kobani, Kurds have responded to strikes by attacking to clear IS fighters from some areas lost earlier. Heavier strikes near Baghdad barely shore up wavering defense lines.
Instead of responding to lackluster ground forces by boosting air strikes, it should be made clear that forces willing to fight hard to capitalize on air strikes will receive priority. Otherwise under-motivated forces may do even less, hoping air power would do their jobs for them—a losing proposition.
Is such a policy risky? Yes, but so is pouring in US combat troops in the numbers being discussed. Iraqi forces—with Baghdad at stake—must be forced by circumstance to stand their ground. And if densely populated Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad are threatened, they probably would.
Some have downplayed the impact of airstrikes against IS. They maintain strikes must be complimented by decent ground troops–correct where IS goes for more territory. However, a month of pounding undoubtedly has had an overall impact on IS even if that is not yet evident in some frontline fighting. The air campaign also is a long-term affair, with adjustments, mounting contributions, and accumulated impact. One plus is the Islamic State’s fanaticism, driving it to continue exposing its military assets to airstrikes along frontlines where heavy damage could be inflicted.
Committing US combat troops to battle around Baghdad would signal to Iraqi ground troops that they need not take most of the responsibility for the capital’s defense. Americans concerned that sending combat troops would escalate demand for more (“mission creep”) are correct. Reliance on US troops also would regenerate an unhealthy dependency.
More US advisors instead of line combat troops would be wiser, but competence is not the main problem; Iraqi soldiers must see they have no choice but to fight it out with IS. That goes beyond advice, and some advisors caught up in rapid, haphazard Iraqi retreats could be killed or captured by IS. Although advisors are also valuable in coordinating frontline aerial targeting, Americans would have to be prepared for losses. Some of those might well involve the ritual execution of captured US soldiers—perhaps the biggest risk involved in committing large forces.