Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

Corporealism XVIII: Body Politics in the Middle East

Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

by

Howard Adelman

If I have characterized Daesh with reasonable accuracy, how should the West best fight this menace? Daesh is ensconced in eastern Syria and in western Iraq separated from the Turkish and Iranian borders by Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq controlled by Iraqi Kurds and its Peshmerga forces. Daesh also has a presence in an oil rich small area of Libya. Daesh first captured Rojava after the Syrian army retreated in 2012. The great victory was the capture of Mosul that allowed ISIL to declare a caliphate established in the summer 2014.  This key victory included the defeat of the Iraqi army which literally turned tail.

Since then, ISIS has suffered setback after setback and the number of militants identified with its cause and fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria is now estimated to have fallen from 31,500 to 25,000 altogether. (“The latest assessment about the number of fighters who are fighting on behalf of ISIL in Iraq and in Syria – based on an earlier assessment – was up to 31,500 fighters in that region of the world.  There’s a new assessment from our intelligence community that indicates that that number is now up to about 25,000 fighters.”  U.S. White House Press Secretary John Earnest 2 February 2016)

The key force that has limited the expansion of Daesh and that has itself expanded to fill the vacuum has been that of the Kurds of Northern Iraq and Syria who have won back Sinjar, Ramadi and Tikrit. Within Iraq, the Kurds now control disputed Kirkuk completely. In northern Syria, the Kurds much more than ISIS are being attacked by Turkish jets.

ISIS has been pushed back. The question is not its defeat but when and how and what part Canada and other countries in the West should play in its defeat. For the dilemma is a matter of “boots on the ground.” The West has relied on the Kurds with 120,000 experienced, battle-trained and determined fighters, largely equipped by the U.S. The other force countering Daesh has been a reconstituted Iraqi army, also trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies. In the meanwhile, Russia and Iran are supporting Assad and his re-equipped army with Russian air support. Those forces have captured large swaths of territory from the American-supported Syrian rebels who lacked any air support or significant amounts of updated equipment.

In this multi-faceted war with multiple sides with some parties on the same side really engaged in supporting opposite strategies on the ground – the Turks and the Americans. The point is that the defeat of Daesh must be seen within a much larger context. The thirty million Kurds have been seeking an independent state since the end of World War I where, in the divvying up of the Middle East among the Great Powers, they were left divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and to a small extent, Iran. They now have de facto independence in northern Iraq and in parts of Syria. They are also the major boots on the ground responsible for the pushback of Daesh. But what is in it for them to combat Daesh in Mosul? It is not a Kurdish city. So the Allies are buying time to retrain and strengthen the Iraqi army. But a strengthened Iraqi army to the south of the Kurds endangers their quasi-independence. So if ISIL totally loses, they are likely to lose the strategic advantage they enjoy currently.

The other major concern is Turkey, which views the rise of the Kurds as the greatest threat they face, not Daesh. Turkey is involved in widescale bombing of Turkish Kurdish territories as well as Kurdish-controlled area in Syria under the guise of the war against ISIL. This is the paradox. The boots on the ground best able to defeat Daesh supplied by the Kurds and those supported by the Turks respectively, each for very opposite reasons, has no reason to destroy Daesh. At the same time, the Kurds in Syria have consistently ignored Turkey’s threats – such as when Turkey insisted that the red line of the Euphrates was not to be crossed by Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria. The Kurds, like the Russians subsequently, ignored Erdoğan’s bluster, even when they were attacked by Turkish jets. In fact, in the battle over the Menagh airbase, the Syrian Kurds defeated the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has been a proxy on the ground for Turkey.

The problem is not the defeat of Daesh, but the political order that the allies want to emerge out of the wreck in Iraq and now the even much worse wreck in Syria. In Iraq, the Kurds are at their peak now. If the allies build up the Iraqi army now to defeat ISIL, then what will almost certainly follow eventually will be a war between the central government in Iraq and the Kurds. And the Kurds fear being abandoned once again by the West after they have done the main dirty work in stopping and pushing back Daesh.

If the Iraq situation were not complicated enough, the issue of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds exponentially increases the problem. When the revolution in Syria broke out in 2011, Turkey envisioned extending its influence southward. But Turkey has been thwarted at every turn – the rise of the Kurds in power in key parts of Syria along half of the border between Turkey and Syria, the increasing weakness of the rebels against Assad, the Russian support for Assad that has brought the two powers close to war with Turkey effectively now breaching Turkish air space almost with impunity.

More on the Kurds. They are not natural allies of the West; they have been allies of convenience. Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), may have been in jail since 1999, but he not only remains the titular head of the PKK in Turkey but the de facto head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) based in Rojava, Syria and in Kobani, Syria where the Kurds delivered a resounding defeat to Daesh. The Kurds even captured Tal Abyad on the Turkish border and sent chills up the spine of President Erdoğan. Turkey may be an ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO, but the Kurdish boots on the ground fighting ISIS, whatever their skills, courage and determination, have been helped enormously by American air cover, the very air cover the Canadian CF-18s have now backed away from providing. Further, the main spotters have not been the aircraft that Canada and other coalition partners have left in the air – they mainly confirm reports from the ground that come virtually exclusively from the Kurds who then mop up after the fighter jets have destroyed the identified targets.

The Tories have been dead right. The air strikes against ISIS have been highly effective. It is estimated that in the battle for Kobani, air strikes, leaving aside injuries inflicted, killed over 10% of ISIL militants on the ground in the months of fighting for Kobani. But that does not mean that Canada should continue participating in the air strikes. Or, for that matter, even advising and training troops on the ground. It depends on what Canada envisions as the outcome it favours and whether there is a realistic prospect of bringing about its preferred outcome.

The key factor is the de facto new quasi alliance between Russia and the U.S., two world powers that seem to once again dividing up the Middle East as spheres of influence by either side. Will the cease fire they have organized bring peace to Syria and on what terms? Shades of the end of WWI and WWII! The situation will become even more destablized when, as I anticipate, Turkey implodes under all the competing pressures and the series of failures in Turkish foreign policy under Erdoğan, matched by even greater political and economic crises at home. Kurdistan, with its apparent stability, is also seething underneath in a general context of a recession instigated in good part by the dramatic decline in oil prices compounded by corruption and nepotism.

I could go on. But my purpose here is not to lay out a political-economic and military analysis of that part of the Middle East, but merely to point to three main themes:

  1. The defeat of Daesh is not the main problem – that will come; it is just a matter of when, where and how.
  2. The defeat is not a matter of destroying an insurgency in a battle for hearts and minds, but destroying the army of a quasi-state.
  3. The main problem is regional stability; right now it is a balagan, in Hebrew, an absolute and total mess.

Begin with the immediate problem, the coming battle over Mosul and even perhaps Raqqa, the presumptive capital of the Caliphate. It is no secret that the coalition forces will be attacking Mosul, likely in the spring and certainly by summer. Will Daesh stand and fight to the last man and woman? Hardly likely. They have not done so thus far. And their sending out signals that they will is but the first rule of warfare – deceive your enemies. When claiming that you will stand to the last militant, plan a careful retreat, first of the political leadership and then of the military leadership, and finally, whatever militants can be saved while leaving enough to sacrifice as many civilians as possible in Mosul. Evidently, the political leadership has already relocated to Libya in anticipation of the next defeat. For the second rule of warfare is, when you know you have a significantly inferior force, evade direct conflict with the enemy.

Whatever Daesh suffers on the moral front, they clearly understand the basic laws for conducting war. The fact that they are ethically challenged is not only revealed in their cutting off of heads and the severe repression they practice about dress and social behaviour, but also in the moral deterioration already underway as the leadership deserts and the militants resort to corruption and smuggling civilians out of Mosul for US$500 a person. Daesh will leave behind sleeper cells to work behind enemy lines. For they realize they are at the mercy of fighter jets in the air and have to avoid open battles lest their backs be broken by the jet-fueled falcons and hawks patrolling the skies that will break their backs if they appear openly. Hence the rapid decline in missions and the ability of the coalition to release Canada from its commitment to supply six CF-18s.

In the battle against Mosul, the coalition partners have much to learn from the Israeli battles in Gaza with roughly the same population. However, the coalition has one major advantage. It can conduct a pincer movement as Kagame did in 1994 in Rwanda and allow the enemy to escape. I am convinced the allies will follow this pattern otherwise the costs to civilian lives in Mosul will be too high. A third law of warfare is that the best victories are based on building a golden bridge to allow your enemy to retreat. When they cross that bridge, attack them from the air on the other side.

The problem, to repeat once again, will not be to defeat ISIS in battle, but to win the war. And I have not read anywhere what a victory at that level will look like.  Further, unless victory in the war is envisaged, the battle may be won, but the losses will be much greater as has been the pattern in so many American wars from Vietnam on. The key problem is not victory in the battle over Mosul, but victory in the war in the Middle East. And the wars fought there, whether under a Democratic or a Republican commander-in-chief, have been disastrous because battles are being fought, not wars.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Israelis, it may be impossible to fight a real war because of diplomatic and other considerations. But that does not seem to be the case with the Americans. Except they no longer recognize what war they are fighting and what they are fighting for. Stopping ISIL is the least of their worries. The problem is that the lack of clear direction from the Obama administration is certainly far better than the mass hysteria, currently being whipped up by the Republican Party front runner. And it is not just The Donald that is the problem. He is just the loudest barker by far in the current American political circus on the Republican side. After all, it was overwhelmingly Republican state governors who announced that they would not permit Muslim Syrian refugees to enter their states. It was these Governors who initially completely ignored the laws of the United States and the Constitution.

I wrote on Friday that a core of politics is not inflaming emotions and passions. On shabat, on the day dedicated to peace, the real purpose of fighting any war has been determined. Further, the precedent must be set for skill, understanding and judgment to rule the roost. Instead, all three appear to be totally invisible on the Republican side and just barely on the horizon in the case of the current American administration in spite of its enormous efforts to reign in the war hawks.

So the coalition lacks strong and wise leadership that allows us to discern the overall goals and strategy. The U.S. was correct to release Canada from its responsibilities to continue contributing CF-18s from the war in Iraq and Syria because those jets were, in fact, no longer what was really needed. But why train Iraqi soldiers unless we want Kurdistan in Iraq eventually to be significantly reduced in size and even eliminated, and, if the course as set continues to be followed, eventually ending the dream of an independent Kurdistan. The chance to redeem just one of the major errors from WWI will be lost.

Should Canada back the Kurds, not just opportunistically as the Americans currently appear to be doing, but long term? I do not know. I am, however, convinced that unless we answer that key question, we cannot have a judicious and intelligent foreign policy in the area backed up by the limited military forces we are able to contribute. What about Turkey? Should we continue backing our formal ally Turkey which, under Erdoğan has been practicing a vicious anti-democratic policy over the last few years and one even far more dictated by a combination of whim and hysteria than even the U.S. Republicans are promising.

ISIS may be a much bigger threat than either al-Nusra and al-Qaeda because it is driven by a war strategy and not an insurgency, and it has brought sabotage and not just terror to the home fronts of its enemies. So ISIS as an organization needs to be extinguished. But let us not exaggerate the threat as U.S. Air Force General Phillip M. Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe who dubbed ISIS an existential threat. The real threat is that America may be in the process of blowing up whatever degree of sobriety there is left in America and setting off a really-out-of-control wildfire. Do not light matches at home on shabat if your eventual goal is peace.

On the other hand, ISIL terrorists are not just out-of-control testosterone driven thrill-seeking teenagers. Their average age is 26. They are dedicated and sober, even if truly psychopathic martyrs for their cause. But the West in warfare can take advantage of that wish to die a martyr by making it convenient for them, without sacrificing a sense of security and swaths of civilians in exchange. They have largely been nihilistic mass killers alienated from institutions of order and cool rational judgment who use Islam as justification for their heated madness and cold compassion.

What about the NDP’s proposals to concentrate on cutting off the financing of ISIS and acquiring more intelligence on the movements of volunteers for ISIS? The latter is declining anyway. On gathering intelligence overseas, Canada lacks and in-depth capacity. As for cutting off financing that has already been underway led by the Americans and Canada is a bit player in that game.

What about the push to increase humanitarian and development aid even further? The reality is that Canada under the Liberals by ratio to population already contributes roughly the highest amount in both categories compared to the $5.1 billion in total dollars committed by the U.S. to emergency aid, the $3.3 billion EU, $3.6 billion from Germany, $1.75 billlion from the U.K., etc. As my opening paragraph indicated, the replenishment of fighters has largely been effectively staunched and ISIL which is no longer able to replenish its losses. I think these NDP suggestions look more like panic in search of a policy and a strategy, though the NDP is the only party calling for a consistent policy within an overall plan.

The real larger issue is how to contain the enormous ambitions of Iran and Russia, which has already checked Turkey. Obama has been counting on diplomacy since he is unwilling to contribute more American troops on the ground to the fight. In the meanwhile, Assad’s forces, reinforced by Iranians and Hezbollah volunteers and resupplied by Russia and provided air cover by the Russian air force, has been able to recover control of a great deal of territory and even totally encircle Aleppo, which had been under the control of America’s Syrian allies according to a study by the Institute for the Study of War in its 5 February Report. In addition, the military pressure on Kuweires Airbase has been relieved and the threat along the Mediterranean coast to the Russian fleet has virtually been eliminated, at great cost to the Turkish strategic aim of bringing down the Assad regime. Russia has emerged as a “hero” against Turkish military intervention in Iraq. Thus, Turkey’s ambitions in Iraq have been set back considerably.

The Russians and their allies conducted a very strategic operation to suck the rebels and other militants from urban areas into the open and to destroy them there, indicating that the rebels were more committed to saving civilian lives at the cost of strategic advantage, especially in comparison to Daesh. The biggest winners over the past year have been Assad, the Russians and the Iranians, though the losses on the ground for both the Iranians (143 officers alone from the rank of captain up) and their cannon fodder from Hezbollah volunteers has been huge in addition to the huge cost in dollars, which Iran could ill afford at this time, estimated at $6-12 billion per year, after having lost $450-500 billion since the sanctions took effect and while costs rise for its support of the Houthis in Yemen as Saudi Arabia directly supports the other side.

In my estimation, the current “peace” efforts offer an opportunity for the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to recuperate and regroup from the recent strenuous efforts and unrestrained attacks on civilian populations, a justifiable concern that handicaps the West in the type of warfare being fought in Syria. There is clearly no comparable effort by the Western coalition to counter the Syrian-Iranian-Russian partnership and that coalition, not Daesh, has been the major victor over the last year of the war. The peace talks look to me more like a front to confer de facto victory to Assad and his backers.

So where does this put the various parties in the Canadian parliament, ignoring the separatist party in this assessment. The Tories appear to want to fight last year’s battles. The NDP seems determined to be irrelevant. And the Liberal policy may be the most delusionary since this is not a war for hearts and minds, but a typical power play by regional and international actors. If this assessment is anywhere near correct, how does it affect the development of an overall Canadian defence strategy and our deployment of troops in the Middle East? In the next blog, I will deal with the need for a revitalized defence policy and intervention policy for Syria and Iraq. Clearly it will be a sketch only since I have merely provided a caricature of what has been going on in Iraq and Syria rather than a detailed area by area analysis of this multi-sided competition for power and control in the region.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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