US threatens ground action against ISIS – Bluff or Reality?
It appears that the Obama Administration finally understands that air power alone can’t win a war, especially if it doesn’t have serious numbers of reliable allies on the ground, as the Russians have.
That’s probably why on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US would no longer hesitate to engage in “direct action on the ground” in Iraq and Syria.
Of course, this isn’t surprising. US special operations forces have been on the ground in Syria assisting Kurdish forces fighting the ISIS, the head of the US military’s Central Command reportedly told a Senate committee in September.
General Lloyd Austin revealed to the Senate Armed Services Committee that US Special Operations Forces are “engaged with YPG Kurdish forces in the war-torn country, NBC reported.
Austin said that the special operations team was there to “advise and assist” and that they were “not engaged in any combat operations.”
Although Obama has previously pledged there would be no “boots on the ground” in Syria, US forces have carried out a number of targeted operations in the country.
In May, a US Special Forces team carried out its first publicly admitted ground operation against ISIS in Syria, reportedly killing Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS commander who helped direct oil, gas and financial operations. During the operation, the US claimed it had captured “reams of data on how ISIS operates, communicates and earns its money.”
An earlier operation had also been carried out in summer 2014, in which US Special Forces reportedly attempted to free captured American journalist James Foley who was being held by ISIS.
They confirmed that they had engaged ISIS militants during the operation – which ultimately failed – but an official assessed that they “did not know who they were fighting that night.”
A document from the security company Stratfor released by WikiLeaks in 2011 suggested that there had potentially been US special forces on the ground in Syria since 2011.
Change in Strategy or Rhetoric?
This most recent announcement comes just days after the US released helmet cam footage of what Washington says was a raid on an ISIS prison by Delta Force (accompanied by the Kurdish Peshmerga). 70 prisoners were allegedly freed although not before the US suffered its first combat death in Iraq since 2011.
The timing of the video was interesting as it came just days after Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford visited Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi in an effort to dissuade Baghdad from requesting Russian airstrikes on ISIS targets. In other words, it appears the administration is trying to prove to Mid-East governments that the US is still a reliable partner in the war against terrorism (even as Russia racks up gains in Syria) and to prepare the American public for more ground action in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. officials say momentum is building within the administration to ramp up those efforts even more, capitalizing on the strength of Kurdish and other Iraqi forces.
“I believe we will have an opportunity to reinforce Iraqi success in the days ahead,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford told Senate lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the United States will ramp up attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with additional air strikes and even direct action on the ground.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said.
Carter told senators that the United States is now focusing its efforts on the IS stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria and will boost support for rebel groups fighting the jihadists. “We expect to intensify our air campaign, including with additional US and coalition aircraft, to target ISIL with a higher and heavier rate of strikes,” Carter said. “This will include more strikes against ISIL high-value targets as our intelligence improves,” he added.
Additional raids and a focus on Raqqa are two components of an anti-ISIS strategy Carter described as being centered on the ‘three Rs’ — raids, Raqqa and Ramadi. Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province and has been held by ISIS forces since May this year. Local Iraqi forces, supported by US air power, are trying to retake it.
‘We are willing to continue providing more enabling capabilities and fire support to help our Iraqi partners succeed,’ Carter said.
Undoubtedly, much of the pressure for America to do more comes from a Russian campaign that has helped the Syrian Arab Army gain ground against rebels. Now Russia has offered the same sort of assistance to Iraq.
The Russian achieved a noticeable success despite using about 40 aircrafts launched about 1.5 sorties a day per aircraft – less than half the number that the US Air Force is capable of. However, Putin has managed to make the most of the positive coverage of his air war.
The question is if the US has the determination to counter what Russia has done? Nations in the region are also asking if, after so many fitful starts and so many failed policies in the Middle East, is this new tack a meaningful change or more talk from an administration that is afraid of becoming more involved in fighting in Syria and Iraq?
There is a reason to question the seriousness of the US. In the last few months, US and allied aircraft had hit fewer targets in Syria. The Pentagon has said that this means there are fewer legitimate targets, but GOP senators have questioned that.
“The (US) strategy has completely fallen apart,” Senator (and GOP presidential candidate) Lindsey Graham said. “Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are going to fight for their guy and we are not going to do a damn thing to help the people who want to change Syria for the better by getting rid of the dictator in Damascus.”
Despite the claims of the Obama Administration, it appears at this time that the change is minor. Pentagon officials have recommended to the White House that the U.S. deploy as many as eight Apache helicopters and their crews to Iraq. The helicopters are designed for ground attack and could work with American forward observers who would embed with local ground forces to call in strikes against ISIS targets.
Pentagon and White House officials indicated the deployment of Apache helicopters was being given the most serious consideration, and therefore the most likely step.
However, the actual impact of such a move is minimal. The Russians have many more ground attack aircraft in Syria and the probable number of American sorties carried out by the Apaches would be about 16+ a day, compared to the 40 to 80 sorties that the Russians are carrying out every 24 hours.
Another proposal, which is less likely, would be to insert small numbers of combat advisers on the front lines with Iraqi forces and possibly with some rebels inside Syria. Pentagon officials are also likely to enhance Iraqi intelligence capabilities, possibly through a group on the ground that would serve as a single point of coordination between the U.S. and Iraq, a senior military official said.
Pentagon officials also say Americans should expect more raids like the joint U.S.-Kurdish operation that took place in the town of Hawija, Iraq, in which 70 prisoners were freed and an American was killed in action, the first since 2011.
Other, More Aggressive Options
What would be necessary to turn the war around?
There are currently somewhere around 2,500 American military personnel deployed in Iraq, protecting the U.S. Embassy, helping the Iraqi forces coordinate military operations and assisting the air campaign. They have no direct combat role, although some may engage in special operations, such as the hostage rescue. Strategists outside of government have suggested the need for 10,000 or 25,000 American combat troops.
The question is, what would 25,000 American ground forces do to defeat ISIS that nearly 300,000 Iraqi soldiers cannot do?
One possible option that wouldn’t put the US forces in direct combat with ISIS would be to bolster local defenses in critical areas – reinforcing Iraqi or Kurdish forces that are hard-pressed by ISIS fighters. Their presence on the ground would help support close air support. And, with American combat units at their side, Iraqi units might be less likely to retreat when pushed by ISIS and fight harder.
American combat forces could also be used as a mobile strike force to work with the Air Force’s ground attack campaign or destroy concentrations of enemy forces. This would take advantage of American air mobility and give some Syrian US supported groups and Iraqi Army a combat capability they don’t have now.
Another, highly unlikely option is to use US forces in an urban combat role that would force ISIS out of the many cities that they have captured over the last year. However, this is unlikely as urban combat is very bloody as seen in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004. More than 13,000 American, British, and Iraqi forces were engaged in Fallujah, and they suffered nearly a thousand casualties.
A possible option for ground forces in Syria might be to create protected enclaves for refugees. In 2012, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and four other senators called for the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria, where refugees could find safe havens and anti-Syrian government rebels could be trained and armed. The senators did call for American combat troops to perform this mission then, and it is not clear how many it would require to so do now.
In reality, the most successful strategy would be to mimic Russia’s moves. A larger, more aggressive air support mission by the US Air Force in conjunction with its allies like the Kurds would be the most effective. US ground forces could be limited to securing the American facilities in Iraq and supported rebels in Syria, although a small reaction force of air mobile Special Forces could be kept on standby for rescue missions or high impact commando raids.
Such a policy would have a better impact on the ground and offer the US a major propaganda victory over the Russians.
Currently, the Russians have turned a minor 40 aircraft air force, with a lackluster 1.5 sorties per aircraft a day average into a “Shock and Awe,” propaganda tool that allows the world press to compare it to the air wars over Iraq that employed thousands of sorties a day. This has given the Russians a publicity victory that has made their military seem more powerful than America’s. It has also made the Russians look like a more reliable ally than the US.
According to some US military experts, the real key to a sound American ISIS strategy is long term determination. Rather than vacillating as it currently does, the US must find and stick to a clear strategy. It also needs to use this determination to show nations in the region that it is committed to winning and is a more effective and reliable ally than Russia. Therefore if it does that, it will have done more than it has done over the last 7 years.
From King Stork to King Log: America’s Negative Message Overseas
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 26, 2015
There are so many different views of America overseas that any effort to generalize is dangerous, and at least partially misleading. It would be equally dangerous, however, to ignore the growing level of criticism of U.S. strategy, the degree to which Russia and other critics of the United States have made gains at the expense of the United States, and the extent to which both the Bush and Obama Administrations have contributed to a steadily more negative view of U.S. power, influence, and competence. Americans are used to listening largely to themselves, and to American criticism of America. It is a long way from the Arab (Persian) Gulf to Beijing, and stopping off to listen to Afghan and Pakistani voices is difficult and inconvenient. Most of the outside criticism Americans hear comes from Europe and is based on a shared set of political values even when they are most critical. Many allied countries outside America – like Japan – need the United States too much to be openly critical at an official level. The developing world has very different regional and national priorities. There is no one voice within — much less between — Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
The Arab World’s Challenge
By Marwan Muasher
October 22, 2015
The fact that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – a group of four organizations that played a key role in Tunisia’s attempts to build a pluralistic democracy after its 2011 revolution – demonstrates how important inclusive policies are to the building of a strong democracy. Despite major differences between its secular and religious forces, the Tunisians were able, in three short years after the revolution, to agree on a constitution that ensured a place in society for all groups – upholding the peaceful rotation of power, granting full rights to women and ensuring protections for freedoms of speech and belief. So far, Tunisia has been a rare exception in the region. In Egypt, exclusionist policies by both Islamist forces and so-called liberal secular forces have meant the country is still mired in a deep economic crisis and political stagnation. In the Gulf, countries are behaving as if the problem were purely economic, and in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is targeting the cultural and religious diversity of the region, and threatening centuries of co-existence.
Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency
By Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem
October 21, 2015
Egypt is facing what is shaping up to be the deadliest and most complex insurgency in its modern history. The military-backed ouster of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July 2013 fragmented Egypt’s Islamist landscape and set the stage for an unpredictable struggle between Islamists and the Egyptian state. In this environment, some Islamists, specifically the youth, have turned to violence, and the trend could continue. The pro-Brotherhood nonjihadi violent groups these youth have founded could evolve into an armed jihadi rebellion. There are steps, however, that the government and the Muslim Brotherhood can take to head off this long-term insurgency in the making.
Needed: A Strategy For Containing Iran
By Ilan Berman, Jack David, Matthew Kroenig, Samantha Ravich, Michael Rubin, Jonathan Schanzer and David Wurmser
American Foreign Policy Council
October 27, 2015
Last Sunday, Iran and the P5+1 countries (the U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia, and Germany) formally adopted the new nuclear agreement concluded this summer. In coming days, under the terms of the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Islamic Republic is obliged to begin implementing a series of curbs on its nuclear program. There is good reason to believe that it will do so in the nearterm, because the scope of the sanctions relief contained within the JCPOA is enormous – equivalent to a quarter of Iran’s total economy. As such, complying with the terms of the deal makes good economic sense for Iran’s ayatollahs, at least for the moment. That, however, does not signal an end to America’s Iran problem. To the contrary, the entry into force of the JCPOA ushers in a new – and even more challenging – phase of American policy in the Middle East.
Syrian Opposition Guide
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
October 7, 2015
This reference guide provides a baseline for identifying Syrian opposition groups. The guide aims to permit researchers to track how groups realign as the Russians commence operations. It seeks to inform the development of policies that aim to protect Syrian rebels willing to cooperate with the U.S. in order to defeat ISIS and marginalize al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The chart characterizes each group’s relative strength, its areas of operation, its participation in multi-group operations, and its sources of external financing (derived from other experts’ studies). The document carefully identifies those groups that are separable from Jabhat al-Nusra, drawing a sharp distinction between the al-Qaeda affiliate’s subcomponents and those groups that have a more transactional relationship. Whereas the Russian military actions will likely drive these groups together, diminishing the influence of al-Qaeda actually requires breaking the groups apart. Targeting rebel groups writ large through military strikes is therefore counterproductive and will lead to entrenchment of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Plus Ça Change: Turkey and the Upcoming Elections
By Ilter Turan
German Marshall Fund
October 28, 2015
Turkey’s June elections failed to give any one of the parliamentary parties a governing majority. After attempts to form a coalition government failed, Turkey scheduled new elections for November 1. In retrospect, it seems that the Justice and Development Party (AKParty), under the firm hand of its former leader, Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was convinced that it could return to power by itself in new elections. All it had to do in the interim was to make certain policy adjustments and remind voters that coalitions, as past experience had shown, only produce inefficiency and instability. Hence, the AKParty did not pursue forming a coalition with much determination. In fact, soon after coalition talks commenced, the media started counting the days before the president would dissolve the parliament and call new elections.
Palestinian Succession: An Overview of Institutional Turmoil
By Ghaith al-Omari
Research Notes 28
Prospects appear bleak for the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas: a stalled peace process with Israel, a failed reconciliation effort with its rival Hamas, and historically low trust from Palestinian constituents. These dynamics add urgency to the Palestinian succession question, which has grown in prominence given Abbas’s advanced age and his repeated threats to resign, not to mention his term’s official end in 2009. Complicating matters, Abbas heads not only the PA but also the distinct yet overlapping Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah movement.
Iran Seeks to Strengthen Its Deterrence by Showing Off Its Missile Force
By Farzin Nadimi
October 28, 2015
On October 11, the same day that Iranian legislators were passionately debating adoption of the P5+1 nuclear deal, Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan revealed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had tested a new medium-range ballistic missile — the first act in a wider missile propaganda campaign. Although the test did not technically violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), its timing and nature were clear signs of defiance, particularly given that UN Security Council Resolution 2231 calls on Iran to refrain from such activities while the still-binding Resolution 1929 formally prohibits them. To make sure the message was unambiguous, military officials also took the unusual step of inviting local reporters on a tour of an extensive IRGC missile storage complex at an undisclosed underground location. State television footage of the tunnel complex, broadcast on October 14, showed what looked like operational Ghadr-class missiles mounted on mobile launchers.