Defending Iraq and Stopping ISIS
What Can America Do?
The big question this week is what the US is going to do to stop the relentless advance of ISIS forces on Baghdad? At this point in time, the answer is very little. Obama has dispatched about 300 soldiers to provide embassy protection and to help evacuate US citizens. There are reports that some Special Forces soldiers will arrive to help train the Iraqi Army. An amphibious ship has entered the Arabian Gulf, with a detachment of Osprey aircraft, which would be ideal for an evacuation. And, the nuclear aircraft Carrier USS George H. W. Bush has moved into place, also most likely to provide assistance in an evacuation.
Is this all the US can do? What are the military options available to it? Before looking further into that, we should look at ISIS strategy.
The ISIS insurgency is following the steps of classical guerilla warfare. Currently they are in the final stage, where they have evolved from small guerilla units into a major conventional force capable of defeating the Iraqi Army and taking and controlling territory. The ISIS army in Iraq is estimated to be about 5,000 – small in relation to the Iraqi Army, but fully capable as seen by recent events.
The rapid disintegration of the Iraqi Army last week has slowed down as ISIS forces have been forced to pause in order to consolidate their victories. Iraqi forces have moved in to plug holes in the defense. In addition, some sources claimed that the Iranians have sent about 2,000 men from their Quds paramilitary force to protect Baghdad.
It’s looking more likely that ISIS can’t take Baghdad in a conventional battle under current circumstances. In fact, they were unable to capture the Baiji oil refinery this week despite a major effort by the rebels.
The ISIS is still advancing, but at a slower rate. They have also started fighting around Baghdad rather than trying to enter the city now. While ISIS units have moved south toward Baghdad, units also attacked along the highway between Samarra and Baghdad. The towns of Karma, and Falluja, which are to the west of Baghdad, are reportedly under ISIS control. ISIS and its Sunni militia allies also have an operational presence all around the town, which means that ambushes or probing attacks could be expected from any direction.
This appears to be following the strategy of ISIS’s forerunner, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). That plan is to avoid a bloody battle in the streets of the capital and wear the defenders down though terrorist attacks. This plan was discovered after the US found a crude map on the body of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed by US forces in Baqubah in June 2006. The “Baghdad belts” map was released by Multinational Forces-Iraq during its offensive to liberate vast areas under al Qaeda/ISI control in 2007 and 2008. Zarqawi’s plan was to seize control of the outer provinces and Baghdad’s belts, or key areas surrounding the capital. The ISI would then use its bases in the belts to control access to Baghdad and funnel money, weapons, car bombs, and fighters into the city. The ISI also planned to strangle the US helicopter air lanes by deploying man portable anti-aircraft missiles along known routes in the belts areas around Baghdad.
The key question is the amount of political will to be found in Obama and the White House. Americans aren’t interested in getting involved in Iraq again and Obama has shown little interest in countering that prevalent view. However, the stakes are huge and Americans, while not wanting a major involvement in Iraq will be quick to criticize Obama if this causes major problems in the region.
The biggest problem is that ISIS appears to be girding for a major conflict similar to that which took place in 2007 when President Bush sent more US forces into Iraq to quell the ISI insurgency. More than 130,000 US troops, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces were needed to control Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, Baghdad, and the “triangle of death.” The operations took more than a year, and were supported by the US Air Force, US Army aviation brigades, and US special operations raids that targeted the ISI’s command and control, training camps, and bases, as well as its IED and suicide bomb factories.
The problem is that there are no significant American ground forces in Iraq. And, even in the presence of Obama’s willingness to deploy them, few can arrive in a short time. A 500 man Marine Force could be quickly landed from American ships in the Gulf and elsewhere, but these numbers would not be enough to protect Baghdad from a major attack, much less push the ISIS back.
The US could also quickly deploy the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions and some of the units could be on the ground within days. However, these are light infantry units and their heavier equipment would take longer to reach Iraq. They would also mean creating a major logistics chain to support them. They would also inevitably require the approval of Congress. As of now Obama ruled out any introduction of US ground combat forces into Iraq.
Such a major military involvement would stop the ISIS for the moment. However, the deadly insurgency attacks of 2006 – 2007 would quickly return and the US would once again have to decide whether to escalate the operation or pull out.
The second option that would have an impact would be massive air strikes by the US Air Force. These would not be the surgical strikes of drones, cruise missiles, or F-18s off American aircraft carriers. This would be B-52, B-1, and B-2 strikes at major ISIS combat formation, headquarters, and supply centers in order to demolish them. This would also stop the ISIS advance on Baghdad. However, these conventional attacks are only effective against conventional targets, so this would encourage ISIS to return to insurgency tactics. This would delay ISIS, but not defeat them.
The US could also carry out more surgical air attacks with fighter aircraft, cruise missiles and drones. The political cost back home would be less, but so would the military advantage. Experience has shown in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere that these attacks, while helpful, can’t take the place of an army on the ground that can take and hold territory. In addition, these attacks would really require some American forces on the ground for air control and target acquisition. There is also the problem of MANPADS that have been recently acquired by ISIS from Iraqi stores that could be used against the aircraft.
There is a political and regional problem with deploying US air assets without having US forces on the ground because it means the US is relying on Iran to become a major force in stabilizing Iraq. Secretary of State Kerry said Washington is “open to discussions” with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government. Asked about possible military cooperation with Iran, Kerry said he would “not rule out anything that would be constructive.”
However, Senator McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, said that such a move would be a mistake. McCain said in a statement: “This is the same Iranian regime that has trained and armed the most dangerous Shia militant groups, that has consistently urged Prime Minister Maliki to pursue a narrow sectarian agenda at the expense of national reconciliation, that supplies the rockets that have been fired at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, that has sponsored acts of terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world, and that continues to use Iraq’s territory and airspace to send weapons and fighters to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria…”
“For all of these reasons, and more, the United States should be seeking to minimize greater Iranian involvement in Iraq right now, not encouraging it. That means rapid, decisive U.S. action to degrade ISIS and halt theiroffensive in Iraq.”
Some critics of Obama are stressing that conducting U.S. airstrikes without deploying American special operators or other ground forces would in effect make the U.S. Air Force a part of Iran’s army.
Some US military experts are suggesting that American air operations could be enhanced by inserting a small number of Special Forces units into Iraq to coordinate air attacks, train Iraqi forces, and carry out covert operations. However, they are recommending that these forces must be under military command and not under State Department control as current military assets in Iraq are now, and that these forces need a broad charter and wouldn’t be limited to supporting the Iraqi government, but would be used to assist the Kurds, who had very good relations with US Special Forces in the 2003 invasion. This would force ISIS to divert forces from the Baghdad operation to protect the Kurdish front. As this report being prepared President Obama announced he is ready to send up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to assist in training and advising Iraqi forces as the tense situation in the country continues to escalate.
In a statement in the White House briefing room, Obama said the U.S. is prepared to create joint operation centers between the U.S. and Iraq in Baghdad and northern Iraq.
He also said the U.S. is taking steps so that it’s “prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it.” He reiterated that he would consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq before any decision is made.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Middle East and Europe where he will talk about the situation in Iraq.
According to former US intelligence officer :”Both the Syrian and Iraqi fronts would benefit if American air operations would be immediately carried out to target captured American vehicles and armored vehicles that are moving to Syria, this could be done with some Iranian assistance and intelligence”.
The US must also reverse its policy in Syria and counter the rise of ISIS as it grows so powerful that it is capable of establishing an area of control stretching from Baghdad, to the Saudi border to the Mediterranean. It also means more heavy equipment that can combat the heavy equipment that ISIS has captured in the last week in Iraq.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are now faced with the potential of ISIS controlled territories on their borders and they will have to deal militarily and diplomatically with that threat as well as changing course of supporting rebels in Syria. Saudi Arabia will also have to worry about increasing internal security threats that likely to cause unrest in the oil producing provinces of Saudi Arabia.
Although America has several options that are less vigorous than returning to Iraq in force, the long term impact of the ISIS victories are likely to be significant. Without a major investment of arms and men Iraq can’t retake what they have lost to ISIS.
That leaves ISIS with control of a major piece of Iraq, but unlikely to be able to take Baghdad proper, especially since some of its Sunni militia allies have major religious and ideological differences with the radical ISIS. The makings of a long term stalemate are in place.
This in turn, could lead to more ethnic and religious fighting and less conflict on battle fronts. There is considerable concern about religious and ethnic fighting on a major scale as Sunni and Shiite forces try to cleanse areas of potentially hostile groups. ISIS has already carried out religious killings in its occupied territory.
According to the former intelligence officer who worked in Iraq “The Kurds may be in the best position in history to become a separate nation. Syria and Iraq are too powerless to stop it and recognize that a strong Kurdistan threatens ISIS. The Turks will oppose an independent Kurdish state, but may have problems stopping it. Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. And although Turkey has threatened to invade an independent Kurdistan, it may have changed its mind”.
“The Kurds of Iraq have the right to decide the future of their land, said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AKP on Friday. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” Celik said in an interview. “In case Iraq gets partitioned, the Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate.” Celik believes that Iraq is already headed towards partition thanks to “Maliki’s sectarian policies.”
The Kurds also have the only military force that isn’t stretched to its limits. Kurdish Peshmerga forces advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were previously claimed by the Kurds – most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields.
However, the Kurds have not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. But, Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if it is to the Kurd’s advantage.
Although the US is forced to be a major player in the region, it appears that Obama is disengaged. He is unwilling to invest the military force necessary to assist Maliki government in defeating or countering ISIS either in Syria or Iraq.
Since Obama will be unwilling to make the major investment to support a whole and independent Iraq and will probably only invest enough military forces to stabilize the political situation, a de facto divided Iraq is the likely outcome in the short term.
America: Stay out of Iraq
By Benjamin H. Friedman
June 13, 2014.
President Obama said today he would essentially take the weekend to decide whether to use the U.S. military to help Iraq’s government repel Sunni Islamist rebels—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—who recently took Mosul and swaths of other territory in northern and central Iraq. Obama ruled out using U.S. ground forces, but drone strikes and traditional air support remain on the table. The usual Congressional hawks are outraged that has not happened already. The major reason using force to defend Iraq’s government is a bad idea is that it always was. Advocates of going into Iraq, like advocates of staying in Iraq in past years, tend to employ sunk costs logic, where the pursuit of a dumb idea before somehow makes it sensible now. Invocations of dead and wounded Americans’ sacrifice give such thinking added resonance but do not make it sensible.
Iraq and Global Oil Markets
By Frank A. Verrastro and Sarah O. Ladislaw
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 18, 2014
How is the recent escalation of violence in Iraq impacting global oil markets?
A1: Last week’s attack on and seizure of Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city) by armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an extreme jihadist group, represents a major expansion of the group’s previously held control of areas near the Syria/Iraqi border and escalated security concerns within Iraq. Unable to stem the tide of the incursion thus far, the Maliki government asked Parliament to declare a state of emergency and requested assistance from the U.S. military as well. The U.S. Embassy is already evacuating certain employees and sending in additional troops to bolster security at the Embassy.
Hoping for Trouble in Iraq
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 17, 2014
Few in the United States take much pleasure in what has happened in Iraq in recent days. Many in the Middle East do. Until Western governments understand Middle Eastern governments’ motivations better, they won’t have much influence on the violence unfolding in Iraq. At first blush, it would seem obvious that anyone with any pretention of humanity would be appalled at the gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL or, by its Arabic acronym, Da‘ish). Before taking over Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities north of Baghdad, the organization proved so extreme and murderous that even al Qaeda sought distance from it. Massacres and beheadings are ISIS’s most common calling cards, but it also performs a large number of amputations and crucifixions, and then brags about them on social media. How could anyone see their rise in Iraq as good news?
To Beat ISIS, Exploit Its Contradictions
By Frederic Wehrey
June 17, 2014
Back at the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, the late emir of what was then just the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remarked that “Iraq is the University of Terrorism.” Its curriculum, he believed, was made up of all the combat tactics students would learn there, before graduating to range beyond the borders of Mesopotamia. But the jihadi leader’s pupils seem to have absorbed another lesson from the Iraq War: the necessity of winning popular support and co-opting local sources of authority. In its lightning sweep across northwestern Iraq, ISI’s successor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has engaged in a careful strategy of civic administration, social outreach, and coalition building.
Chaos In Syria Is Obama’s Own
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
June 16, 2014
It’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is on the skids. Increasingly, the critiques leveled at the administration from both left and right share a common theme: that U.S. foreign policy has become characterized by strategic drift, with serious consequences for American interests abroad. The list of failures is legion, from a lack of leadership on Russia to faulty assumptions about the feasibility of detente with Iran to a rudderless “pivot” toward Asia — but it is Syria that is perhaps President Obama’s greatest foreign-policy failure to date. Since the start of the civil war there a little more than three years ago, the White House has chosen to pursue a deliberately minimalist strategy. Its principal achievement — a Russian-brokered deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — has yielded only meager results. The Syrian regime has repeatedly missed deadlines for dismantling its chemical stocks, as it attempts to delay its own disarmament. It is also continuing to use chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians alike, confident that America won’t do much in response.
Jordan Has a Jihadi Problem Too
By David Schenker
June 13, 2014
The Jordanian city of Maan is boiling. Three hours of bad road south of the capital, Amman, this underdeveloped and economically depressed tribal town of 60,000 has long been a locus of anti-government protest. But lately the natives have been particularly restive. Last June, so many locals were firing automatic weapons at the downtown police station that a decision was made to move the headquarters out of town. More recently, violent clashes between Maanis and the gendarmerie have become so ubiquitous that a tank has been stationed along the highway at city limits. Endemic unemployment — believed to be more than 30 percent — is a big part of the problem. So is criminality and hair-trigger hostility toward the central government. Worse, the city’s residents are armed to the teeth, and misunderstandings routinely escalate to Hatfield-McCoy proportions. Perhaps most troubling, however, has been the unprecedented growth of the Salafi jihadist movement in Maan.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
C: 202 536 8984 C: 301 509 4144