Crisis Deepens in Iraq
This last week was a busy one in Iraq. Iraqi Premier Maliki tried to remain in power by deploying military forces loyal to him, ISIS continued its offensive, and Kurdish forces started to receive help from American and European sources.
The political problems came to a head a few days ago when Iraq’s parliament, who refused to rename Prime Minister Maliki to a third term, chose a new candidate to form the new government. Maliki declared the move unconstitutional even though his own State of Law Party pulled support from him. He then ordered his forces to seize government buildings and the airport, while surrounding the Green Zone.
The move worried everyone from Iran to the US, who is concerned about political unrest in Iraq and its vulnerability to ISIS. As a result, most nations were pleased when Iraq’s president named Haider al-Abadi as the new prime minister. Obama congratulated his nomination and the head of Tehran’s National Security Council congratulated Abadi.
Iraq isn’t out of the woods yet. The key for Abadi will be to allow the Sunnis and Kurds to once again occupy senior positions in the government and military. Maliki purged them from those positions over the last three years, which forced the Sunni tribal chiefs to throw in with ISIS and the Kurds to seek independence. It may be too late to keep the Kurds within a unified Iraq, but the Sunni chiefs will soon tire of ISIS’s despotic rule. Abadi will have a narrow window in which to get them back in the fold, but there should be a realistic chance of turning them once again.
The new government will at least receive more support for the US. “We are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq’s government starts to build a new government,” Kerry told a news conference together with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and their Australian counterparts.
Hagel said the United States was prepared to consider further military support in Iraq. However, Kerry ruled out U.S. combat troops on the ground. “We would wait and see what future requests this new government will ask of us and we will consider it based on those requests.”
The Kurdish Front
While the Iraqi political situation appears to be stabilizing, ISIS is continuing its push against the Kurds. This has caused the US to change its position of only supplying the Kurds through the Iraqi government. The decision came after Kurdish troops outside Irbil retreated from an ISIS offensive last week when they ran low on ammunition.
In response to the ISIS victories, Obama ordered US Navy aircraft from the carrier USS George H. W. Bush to strike ISIS positions that were threatening the Kurds. The attacks on Monday hit attacked four checkpoints manned by the militants near Mt. Sinjar, where the extremists have threatened to kill thousands of displaced Yazidis they say are religious apostates. The Pentagon said the attacks destroyed an armored personnel carrier, four trucks and a U.S.-made Humvee.
The problem is that there is no way that limited air strikes like those carried out in the last few days can stop ISIS from making more inroads into Kurdish territory. Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Staff, told Stars and Stripes,
“Our current operations are limited in scope. . . . I think in the immediate areas where we have focused our strikes, we’ve had a very temporary effect and . . . we may have blunted some tactical decisions to move in those directions and move further east to Irbil. What I expect the ISIL to do is to look for other things to do — to pick up and move elsewhere. So I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIL.”
Nor does the White House have plans to expand the air operations, as senior administration officials told Stars and Stripes, “that the strikes will remain confined to areas of Iraq where U.S. personnel are at risk or a preventable humanitarian disaster looms.”
In addition to air strikes, the US has also sent the Kurds arms and ammunition through the CIA, which has stores of small arms to quickly equip insurgents. However, the Department of Defense will be taking over the job because they have much larger stockpiles of weapons and munitions than the CIA.
Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said the U.S. intended to provide “longer-range weapons” that can destroy the U.S.-made vehicles and other heavy equipment. This is necessary because outgunned Kurdish commanders say their forces’ light weapons cannot penetrate the American-made armored vehicles.
The needs of the Kurdish forces are “pretty substantial,” Mayville said at a Pentagon news briefing. Kurdish forces have requested long-range anti-armor mortars, shoulder-fired rockets and Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter and 12.5-millimeter heavy machine guns. Since the Kurds rely upon Russian designed and built small arms, the US will probably have to call upon regional allies like Egypt for additional Russian munitions.
However, merely supplying arms will not be enough. And, despite the “no boots on the ground” pledge by Obama, some Special Forces still need to be inserted into the Kurdish area in order to equip, train and lead Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
The question is what type of commitment will it require to materially help the Kurds and can the Kurds carry on the fight without significant Western Special Forces assistance? For that answer, we need to look at the Kurdish effort against Iraq in the 2003 war – a military operation that had heavy US Special Forces assistance.
The Kurds had a major role in the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. On March 1, Turkey changed course and told the US that it wouldn’t allow the US 4th Division to transit Turkey and invade Iraq from the north. That forced the Kurds and allied Special Forces to take on the role of holding down significant Iraqi forces so they couldn’t be shifted south towards the major American/British thrust.
Although the Kurds fought with bravery, they weren’t the spear point of the operation. This was provided by US Special Forces, many who have worked with the Kurdish insurgents since the early 1990s. The Kurds were used frequently for clearing out operations or as support.
An excellent example of the Kurdish role can be seen in the critical battle of Debecka Pass, which stopped elite Iraqi armored forces from pushing past the Green Line and into Kurdish territory and opened up the western flank so US/Kurdish forces could move towards the Kirkuk oil fields. The point units in the fight were the Americans of the US 3rd Battalion Special Forces.
While the Kurds were critical for clearing a minefield and a roadblock, they stopped soon after passing the critical crossroads and congregated at an abandoned Iraqi T-55 tank. Meanwhile the American Green Beret A-Teams continued forward to engage Iraqi armor. In the heavy engagement, which saw the American Special Forces beat back the Iraqi armor with the use of Javlin anti-tank missiles and air support, the Kurds remained behind the lines. In fact, some US Special Forces were diverted to the rear to help aid the Kurds, when they were mistakenly hit by an US airstrike.
This battle indicates the level of Kurdish military training. While they are competent and can hold their own in light combat, they appear to be unable to stand up to heavy conventional arms – the type that ISIS has captured.
This means that a Kurdish victory over ISIS means a commitment of US forces – regular or special. Since Obama is reluctant to commit US regular forces to Iraq, the battle will fall on the same type of Special Forces that were critical in 2003.
But, is this strategically wise?
There are four major factors in conducting a special operation like supporting the Kurds in fighting ISIS. They are: a clear objective, buildup of forces and equipment, insertion, and execution.
Clearly the US has the forces and ability to buildup and insert. However, the question is about the clear objective.
Usually Special Forces are employed when conventional forces can’t be used. This clearly isn’t the case. Conventional US forces would be better able to defeat ISIS than American Special Forces, although their footprint would be larger and Obama would have to make the political case for using them.
Clearly Obama is misusing his SF capability for political purposes, even though SF troops take years to train and are very expensive to field and equip. On the positive side, Special Forces are skilled in training indigenous forces, so they would be better able to improve the quality of the Kurdish military, if given time. But, that assumes Obama is willing to insert them into Kurdistan for years.
This goes back to having a clear military objective, not a political one of preventing a further erosion of the president’s popularity.
Merely stopping ISIS from gaining further ground in Kurdish Iraq is a vague objective. That means a war of attrition that ties up the SF units for a long time and is costly in lives and equipment. It’s a better idea to use the force to push back and defeat ISIS.
The problem is that Obama has refused to commit either the manpower or equipment to defeat this threat. At best, he is only willing to put the effort into creating a stalemate.
If the Kurds can only expect a degree of American support that stops further incursions into Kurdistan by ISIS, but not enough to either defeat them, the solution must come from the region.
Several nations in the Middle East have made it clear that they oppose the radical governance of ISIS. There are also some European countries like France that have called for arms shipments to the Kurds. They will need to come forward while the American air attacks are slowing ISIS.
Since the ISIS captured American military gear has been invulnerable to the relatively limited arms of the Kurds, the answer will be refitting the Kurdish military with American and European weapons and then guaranteeing a continuing supply of the munitions to support them.
With the international effort to supply advanced arms, the Kurds can expect to hold briefly against ISIS, but still can fail if ISIS decide to direct their full force against them.
Stay out of This Iraq War
By Doug Bandow
July 25, 2014
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria represents a significant failure of U.S. policy. However, ISIS so far does not pose a significant security threat to America that requires military action. Despite its successes, ISIS lacks the strength necessary to capture Iraq’s capital, let alone gain control of the majority-Shia nation. Most important, so far, is that, ISIS, unlike al-Qaida, has not confronted the U.S. Thus, Washington should react circumspectly, avoiding further unnecessary entanglements. Recent experience offers several sobering lessons for confronting ISIS’s rise.
Iraq: The Right, but a High-Risk, Strategy
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 11, 2014
President Obama seems to have adopted a strategy of making a long-term military commitment to Iraq. It is one based on air and missile power, advisers, and arms transfers, and conditional on Iraqis moving toward unity and helping themselves. He has also been right in giving the Kurds priority. They faced the most immediate risks, and their fate had the most immediate humanitarian impact on Iraq’s minorities.
As is all too common in today’s Middle East, however, the best option is ultimately the least bad option and filled with risks.
Next Level Questions on Iraq Operations
By Clark A. Murdock, Kathleen H. Hicks, Thomas Karako, Samuel J. Brannen, Ryan Crotty, and John Schaus
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 13, 2014
Scholars in the CSIS International Security Program offer analysis beyond the headlines on the evolving U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Q1: Is the United States doing enough in Iraq? By Clark Murdock, Senior Adviser A1: At least, President Obama is no longer doing nothing to address the rapidly growing terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While a faint-hearted response is (hopefully) better than none, much more is needed to address the eruption of instability in Syria-Iraq and the emergence of a new terrorist state eager to kill apostates who won’t convert and attack infidels who, in their demonology, are led by the United States.
Warfare That Targets Civilian Lives Must Be Made Unacceptable
By Avi Jorisch
American Foreign Policy Council
August 8, 2014
South China Morning Post
As the recent hostilities in Gaza demonstrate, Israel stands at the forefront of a new kind of warfare. Israel is not alone in the need to confront radical forces that include terrorist organisations and oppressive regimes who deliberately seek civilian casualties on all sides as the core element of their military strategy; this is a long-term battle that other liberal societies will ultimately have to fight. Sooner or later most free democracies will face the same challenge that Israel is struggling with today: how to defend themselves from ruthless enemies who deliberately place civilians in harm’s way, without undermining the basic values upon which open societies are based. Hamas’ strategy is to force Israel into a lose/lose situation by rejecting the basic norms of warfare, which seek to protect civilian populations. By indiscriminately firing rockets from heavily populated areas in Gaza into Israel’s major cities, Hamas confronts Israel with a terrible choice: either allow rocket fire to continue and put its civilians at risk, or attack Hamas’ weapons depots, which are deliberately placed in and around civilian areas.
ISIS Works to Merge its Northern Front across Iraq and Syria
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
August 8, 2014
Recent ISIS operations in Hasaka and Ninewa provinces indicate that ISIS has begun to further merge its northern battlefronts across the Syrian-Iraq border. ISIS is eradicating pockets of resistance that fall within the territory ISIS seeks to claim for its Caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Sinjar near the border in Ninewa province. ISIS seized the city of Sinjar on August 3, 2014 despite the protection of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, roughly 100 km east of Hasaka city, the provincial capital of the adjacent Syrian province. ISIS operations in these Northern provinces are likely linked, and the recent ISIS offensive in northern Iraq must be evaluated through a cross-border lens. Since mid-July ISIS has seized control of the Regiment 121 Artillery Base in Hasaka Province in addition to the Division 17 and Brigade 93 Bases in ar-Raqqa Province. ISIS forces also appear to be mobilizing to seize the final base in ar-Raqqa, the Tabqa Military Airbase. Significantly, these operations have proceeded in tandem with a campaign to remove internal threats to the Caliphate posed by isolated Syrian regime bases in ar-Raqqa province, and it appears ISIS is quickly moving toward a successful consolidation and hardening of its exterior borders in Northern Syria.
A New Era for Turkey Under President Erdoğan
By Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı
German Marshall Fund
August 11, 2014
After his team’s 1990 World Cup loss, English football player Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Likewise, elections have become a simple game in Turkey: a number of political parties and leaders compete and at the end Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always wins. Sunday’s presidential election was no exception. Prime Minister Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKParty), won the election in the first round and became not only Turkey’s 12th president, but also the first to be elected in a popular vote. Erdoğan’s next move will be to try to change the constitution to introduce a presidential system in Turkey. Whether he can achieve that goal remains to be seen, but doubtless a new era has begun in Turkey.
Arab and Gulf Countries Must Take the Lead in Iraq
By Haleh Esfandiari
August 8, 2014
I cannot shake the images of Vian Dakhil, the Iraqi member of Parliament, screaming at her colleagues that her people are being slaughtered, children are being murdered and the women are being taken into slavery or killed. Her constituents have fled their villages and are taking refuge in the mountains, where they are dying of heat. Ever since ISIS entered Iraq and started advancing like the Mongol conquest in the 13th century, it has been killing people, purging the country of its religious minorities — Shiites, Christians, Yezidis and others — and destroying monuments. The legacy of ISIS is destruction, devastation and genocide. It has become quite obvious that the Iraqi government and army are incapable of stopping the invaders. This carnage should be an opportunity for Washington to work with responsible actors in the region to form counterterrorism partnerships.
ISIL Could Become the Voice of Sunnis If We Don’t Find a Way to Stop It Soon
By Andrew J. Tabler
August 11, 2014
Given the consolidation of jihadist gains and the lack of interest and capacity among neighboring states to uproot ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the group is likely to endure absent a more assertive U.S. policy involving military and political operations. The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s deep-rooted sense of purpose and its political, financial, and military ability have helped it carve out a safe haven between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This week’s American airstrikes could help roll ISIL back — but if the American people really do not want to be sucked into another war in the Middle East, then Washington will need to cement these gains by working with Arab allies to bolster the moderate Sunnis who would fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq following an ISIL defeat.
Will President Erdogan Run Turkey?
By Soner Cagaptay
August 11, 2014
On August 10, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been running the country since 2002, won the presidential election with 52 percent of the popular vote. Under Turkey’s current parliamentary system, the prime minister is the chief executive and head of government, while the president is the nonpartisan head of state and second in line with regard to executive powers. Yet on August 4, Erdogan hinted that “he will not assume the traditional role of the president in Turkish politics,” adding that he “will track all the issues and make sure that the cabinet [which includes the prime minister] and the other institutions work in accord.” Can Erdogan run the country from his new post? An analysis of Turkey’s constitution and political structure suggests that is likely, with implications for U.S.-Turkish relations on a variety of regional issues.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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