The recent ISIS advances in Syria and Iraq were the subject of interest in the Washington think tank community. As a result, there are several papers about events in Iraq and Syria this week.
The Monitor Analysis looks at what needs to be done, what the White House can do, and what it appears that Obama is willing to do to stop ISIS. We see an unsatisfactory future as Obama continues to follow a course that has proven unsuccessful in the past.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS says the fall of Ramadi means a serious look at American strategy. They note, “We are not simply fighting ISIL. We are dealing with a range of extremist movements and an ideological struggle for the future of Islam. Degrading ISIL will not be enough if the Al Nusra Front or other extremist movements come to dominate much or all of Syria on a lasting basis, if Iraq effectively splits into a hostile and unstable Sunni Arab minority region, a Shiite dominated east, and a Kurdish dominated Northwest. At a minimum, no kind of lasting “victory” in the form of some reasonable degree of stability and security can occur in Iraq – or any of our other wars – without effective national unity. We are not just fighting ISIL or a broader range of extremist and terrorist movements. We are engaged in a conflict where no favorable outcome is possible without Iraqi success in what has become armed nation building. The usual counter insurgency (COIN) mantra of “win, hold, and build” will be meaningless unless the Iraqi central government succeeds in reaching out to Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) can be better integrated into some form of federalism.”
The Washington Institute looks at the fall of Ramadi. They conclude, “If Iraq and its international partners can grasp the nettle in Ramadi, the battle could provide valuable experience in complex, cross-sectarian coalition warfare. Forging disparate forces — army, police, tribal, Hashd, and international — into one team will challenge the commitment of the Iraqi government, local allies, the United States, and Iran. A successful coalition effort at Ramadi would prepare the anti-ISIS alliance for recapturing Mosul in 2016, restoring confidence and interest in that prospect. Perhaps most important, Iraqi leadership will be key — the U.S.-led coalition cannot want a victory in Ramadi more than the various Iraqi constituencies want it themselves.”
The American Enterprise Institute looks at the fears of ISIS destroying archeological ruins around Palmyra and says it is largely the fault of Saudi Arabia. They note, “Once, the Saudis concentrated on destroying their own relics, believing that appreciation for ancient shrines and sites, Islamic or not, equated to idolatry. Their students have taken this backward, ignorant attitude international and the world is now paying the price. If the Islamic State destroys Palmyra, condemn the Islamic State, but don’t forget to save some credit to the incubator of the Islamic State’s iconoclasm: the public education system of Saudi Arabia and the charities which the Saudi Kingdom has long promoted.”
The CSIS looks at the US Special forces strike in Syria. They warn readers not to put too much into the success and say, “The true value of this raid only will be seen over time as intelligence analysts scour the materials seized at the site and work to provide actionable intelligence to U.S. and coalition forces. The situation in the region remains dynamic and unpredictable. In the same weekend that the United States conducted this successful raid in Syria, ISIL forces captured the key Iraqi city of Ramadi, which sits a mere 75 miles from Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. The loss of this symbolic city – it was the origin of the Sunni Awakening in 2006 against al Qaeda in Iraq that helped bring about the end of the insurgency — represents a significant setback for U.S. and coalition efforts against ISIL. This loss notwithstanding, the U.S. and coalition forces have made considerable strides against ISIL in the last year including recapturing Tikrit in late March. But the strategic balance has remained uneven. ISIL has proven to be a resilient threat, one that likely will endure for the foreseeable future given its territorial foothold across Iraq and Syria. Defeating ISIL ultimately will require a sustained ground campaign that must be led by Iraqi and other regional forces. The inconsistent results of Iraqi military efforts and the chaotic situation in Syria make it clear that U.S. and international support of regional efforts will be required to bring about the end of ISIL.”
The CSIS looks at the GCC summit in Washington last week. They conclude, “On the part of the U.S., the Summit meeting showed this Administration that it needs to listen far more carefully to its allies and reassure them far more clearly. It also needs to show its strategic partners that it can go from concepts and rhetoric to meaningful action…On the part of the GCC states, the Summit showed them that the U.S. is a meaningful strategic ally but not a magic answer to the failures of Arab states, every regional security problem, or the divisions within the GCC and Arab world. Hopefully, the summit also has sent a broader signal to those in the GCC. Bad as some of the U.S. media and think tank commentary before the summit may have been, the U.S. side never approached the surrealistic whining and conspiracy theories of far too much GCC media and far too many commentators.”
The Carnegie Endowment says Arab countries are in the midst of violent convulsions that are fundamentally reshaping the region. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how the chaos will unfold, there are three major trends that will define the future. First, political violence is remaking Arab societies. Second, the legitimacy and authority of Arab states is disintegrating. Third, there is a strong sense of individual empowerment sweeping through Arab countries. They conclude, “The negative consequences of these three trends will continue until Arab governments and elites identify ways to rebuild their relationships with citizens. Countering the ill effects requires a return to the drawing board. Governments must work with civil actors to map out new, inclusive political systems that revamp institutions and decentralize power structures, reinstate citizenship rights, uphold and cherish societal diversity, harness societal creativity, and address long-held grievances.”
Obama’s Reticence to Face ISIS
How will the White House Address the ISIS Crisis?
Although the White House had insisted that it had ISIS under control and was wearing it down, they have taken major parts of Syria and Iraq in the last week.
In Ramadi, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing ISIS forces and several car bombings.
Chairman of the Joint Chief Staffs Gen. Martin Dempsey insisted Iraqi forces chose on their own to leave. “The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi,” he told reporters while on a trip to Brussels.
Speaking to reporters on April 16, Martin Dempsey called Baiji “a more strategic target” than places like Ramadi because of the centrality of oil to the Iraqi economy. “That’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji,” he said.
“Once Iraqis have full control of Baiji, they will control all of their oil infrastructure both north and south and deny [Islamic State] the ability to generate revenue through oil,” Dempsey insisted at the time.
The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves much of Western Iraq threatened, as well as Baghdad.
Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the strategic depth to advance on Baghdad.
ISIS now can claim control over half of Syrian territory after seizing Palmyra Thursday, according to news reports.
A Facebook page close to ISIS published a statement Thursday, purportedly from the group, saying “the soldiers of the Islamic State” completed their control of Palmyra. The capture came after government forces collapsed, “leaving large numbers of dead whose bodies filled the streets,” it said.
The fall of Palmyra marks the first time that ISIS has seized a population center directly from Syria’s military. The group already controlled vast, largely uninhabited tracts of land in Syria’s north and east. However, the Palmyra conquest can become a springboard for an ISIS strike into the more populated government controlled parts of Syria, including Damascus.
There was some good news elsewhere in Syria mainly on the Syrian –Lebanese borders where the Arab Syrian Army and fighters of Hizbollah routed most of the rebels from all stipes including ISIS. Additionally, despite the stunning victory by ISIS in Palmyra, they suffered a setback in Syria’s northeastern province of Hassakeh, where they have come under attack by Kurdish fighters. The Kurdish fighters captured much of the Abdul-Aziz Mountain near the village of Tel Tamr on Wednesday, according to the Observatory and the Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The Observatory said YPG fighters were backed by airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, which has been bombing ISIS positions in Syria since September.
But, don’t let the success of these airstrikes mislead one into believing that additional American air strikes will turn the war on ISIS around. As the Monitor has warned in the past, air strikes alone can’t defeat an enemy. It takes committed ground soldiers to win a war.
At this point in time, the Western Allies are split in what they think should be done. French president Hollande was asked about ISIS’s conquest of Palmyra, with its historic ruins. “We have to act because there is a threat against these monuments which are part of humankind’s inheritance and at the same time we must act against Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Isil, as he arrived at an EU summit in Latvia.
The question is what the White House can do and what is willing to do. At this point in time, the White House refuses to see that there is a problem or that its current strategy is failing. The White House rejected calls from some Republicans for troops to be sent in to combat ISIS directly. In an interview in The Atlantic magazine Obama went so far as denying that America and its allies were losing the war against the group.
“No, I don’t think we’re losing,” he said. He insisted that the defeat in Ramadi was no more than a “tactical setback.”
His belittling of ISIS is at odds with the assessment of others in his administration. At a briefing late on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said that ISIS was a more accomplished outfit than its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was only eventually defeated by a combination of a “surge” in US troops and recruiting an informal militia of Sunni tribal fighters.
“Isil as an organization is better in every respect than its predecessor of AQI,” the official said. “It’s better manned, it’s better resourced, they have better fighters, they’re more experienced. And we know what it took for us, the best military in the world, to get a handle on AQI.”
The question then is, what can Obama do if he does decide ISIS is a major threat and he decides to ramp up American participation in a meaningful way?
Military thinking demands that a committed, capable ground force be employed in order to take advantage of any US led air strikes. In order to have a realistic chance of beating ISIS, a committed ground force must be fielded with White House help. Since the Iraqi Army has proven itself to be unreliable, the most obvious choice is US military forces – either those in Afghanistan or some flown in from the US. They would be the best trained, the best equipped, and the one force best able to coordinate with the airstrikes.
Obama appears politically unwilling to take that move as most of his Democratic political support would quickly erode with such a move. In his Atlantic interview he stated he would not “repeat the mistakes of the past” by sending in troops to fight.
The next best option would be the commitment of a regional power’s military to the fight. However, most of the nations engaged in fighting ISIS, like Saudi Arabia are bogged down in Yemen and are unable to commit the number of troops to win such a fight at this time.
The third option is to expand the training and equipping of various a ethnic or religious group that can effectively counter ISIS. This has been the Obama option and it has met with mixed results.
But Washington times reported Friday that Obama considers more military advisers for Iraq.
Shiite militias have had some mixed results in effectively holding ISIS back. They are also frequently perceived as the enemy by Sunni populations, who may prefer ISIS. Shiite militias are also considered to be allied with Iran, which is a supporter of the Syrian government.
The State Department has said that it is equipping 8,000 Sunni tribesmen. However, there is no timeframe given on when they can be fielded and their quality. However, these militias have proven to be unreliable in the past. Iraqi police have also been quick to retreat in combat with ISIS.
Meanwhile, “moderate” Syrian militias have proven to be unreliable.
This leaves the Kurds, who are known as good fighters and have shown that they can defeat ISIS. However, they represent a political problem as Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran fear an armed, independent Kurdish nation. Although reports say that the US is aiding the Kurds, it appears that they don’t want to face the political pitfalls of all out support of the Kurds.
As unsuccessful as this third option is, it appears that Obama remains committed to using against ISIS. On Wednesday, he met with his National Security team for an update to events in Syria and Iraq and then to review options. The communiqué from the White House clearly stated the future course, “The President reaffirmed the strong U.S. support for Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s efforts, and welcomed the decision issued earlier today by the Iraqi Council of Ministers to accelerate the training and equipping of local tribes in coordination with Anbar authorities, expand recruitment into the Iraqi Army, train local police, and develop a consolidated plan to retake Ramadi with all associated forces acting under Iraqi command.”
There are several take aways from this statement. First was Obama’s approval of “decision issued earlier today by the Iraqi Council of Ministers to accelerate the training and equipping of local tribes in coordination with Anbar authorities.” This means that training and equipment resupply will be funneled though Baghdad and the Iraqi central government, which precludes any major role on the battlefield for the Kurds. The local tribes that will be trained and equipped will likely be Shiite militias, which will be hard pressed to assist in retaking Sunni areas currently under ISIS control.
The problem is that the US doesn’t envision sending much to Iraq. The Pentagon announced that increased aid for the time being would only consist of 2,000 anti-tank missiles, to be used as a defense against ISIS’s huge suicide car bombs which proved crucial in the fight for Ramadi.
The second take away was the statement was to “expand recruitment into the Iraqi Army.” The army is predominantly Shiite controlled and has a poor record on the battlefield. Recruiting and training a credible Iraqi Army ground force would take years and a major American commitment. Although it sounds important, this phrase is empty.
The third take away phrase is “develop a consolidated plan to retake Ramadi with all associated forces acting under Iraqi command.” Clearly, there is no practical way to retake Ramadi with the forces on the ground, even if better trained and reequipped. However, the second part of the statement is telling – that all forces will be under Iraqi command. That confirms the absence of Kurdish help and implies that there is no American presence that will be coming to help.
Obama clearly doesn’t understand the inherent weaknesses of air power, i.e. air power can’t win without ground troops to occupy the enemy territory. And, he remains commimtted to keeping major US forces out of Iraq.
With Yemen taking up some of the military commitment of American allies in the region and few countries like Saudi Arabia willing to commit major ground forces to Iraq without a major American commitment, this leaves the third option, rely upon what local forces can be scrapped up and trained.
As long as this remains the only option that Obama is willing to commit to, there is no viable possibility for a near term victory over ISIS. The latest White House decisions are no more than rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic
The Osama bin Laden Library
This week, bin Laden’s personal library was released. The timing of the release have given the US government a chance to redirect attention from an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who claims the Obama administration has lied about the bin Laden raid. In his article for The London Review of Books, Hersh says the raid was staged in co-operation with Pakistan, which had been holding bin Laden imprisoned in his compound.
Much of what came out of the compound remains classified, but the latest release of material brings to 103 the total number of documents from the raid that are now publicly available. It was an eclectic collection that ranged from intellectual literature, to conspiracy books, to books on the war on terror.
Bin Laden’s library included Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, as well as Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward. He owned a copy of Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer, the former CIA official who once ran the intelligence organisation’s bin Laden desk.
He also had dozens of publicly available US government documents, including The 9/11 Commission Report.
Although many will focus on certain parts of the collection (including a large collection of pornography), it appears that the collection was an attempt to see inside Western culture, including its war fighting ability, politics, and culture. There is a definite desire to understand how America and other Western powers have fought war over the centuries. These included, Unfinished Business, U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century by Michael O’Hanlon and The U.S. and Vietnam 1787-1941 by Robert Hopkins Miller.
There was the expected interest in seeing how the US viewed the war on terror. They included, New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 by David Ray Griffin, New Political Religions, or Analysis of Modern Terrorism by Barry Cooper, and Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward
There was also a degree of interest in conspiracy theories and secret organizations. These included, Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier, The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall (1928), and Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins.
In all, it was a broad selection of books that would seem normal for someone interested in fighting the US.
The Defeat in Ramadi: A Time for Transparency, Integrity, and Change
By Anthony H. Cordesman
The Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 21, 2015
On Wednesday, a State Department official did something that the U.S. government has not done in years. They provided a meaningful and in-depth explanation of the course of the fighting in Ramadi. They also provide a realistic assessment of the problems the United States faced, the uncertainties in its plans for reacting, the fact it might take years to succeed, and the risks the United States now faced. It makes a particularly striking contrast to the constant stream of vacuous spin the Department of Defense has issued on the war against ISIS – as well as Afghanistan and Yemen and had previously issued in reaction to the defeat in Ramada Briefings like “Dempsey: Iraqi Forces Not Driven From Ramadi, They Drove Out of Ramadi” and “Centcom Officials ‘Confident’ Iraqi Security Forces Will Recover Ramadi.”
U.S. Commando Raid in Syria
By Rick “Ozzie” Nelson
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 18, 2015
Who was Abu Sayyaf and what does this raid mean for ISIL?
Answer: Much speculation exists regarding the importance of Abu Sayyaf, particularly since his true identity remains unreported. He has been described in a range of importance from ISIL’s key financial leader and “emir of oil and gas” to a mid-level, but emerging leader in the group. We do know that U.S. officials placed such an importance on him that they authorized this high-risk, boots-on-the-ground mission deep into eastern Syria instead of launching a stand-off attack such as a bombing mission. Most noteworthy seems to be the trove of intelligence seized by the commandos including mobile phones, computers, and other materials. These types of sources can lead U.S. forces to other key leaders in ISIL and help the intelligence community better dissect the organization. Depending on the information captured, the raid could be a significant blow to ISIL, which since its inception has benefited from not being widely understood by external forces. While we may never know the full effect of the raid, it should be seen as a significant tactical success for the United States both in terms eliminating a key Islamic State leader and gathering important intelligence.
More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 15, 2015
The declarations that follow summit meetings rarely disclose much of substance, and the declaration following the U.S.-GCC summit at Camp David is no exception. The Joint Statement is an almost ritual reiteration of the fact that the U.S.-GCC strategic partnership will continue, nations will consult and aid each other, and the U.S. and GCC want peace but will use force to achieve it. Reasserting the U.S. Strategic Partnership with the Arab Gulf. There is one truly important theme. The ritualistic statements do include a clear and continuing U.S. commitment to a strategic partnership with the GCC and Arab Gulf, and U.S. efforts to make it clear America will not somehow turn away from its Arab partners and “normalize” relations with Iran in ways that ignore the many other threats Tehran poses to the region.
If Palmyra is destroyed, thank Saudi Arabia
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
May 22, 2015
The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) has reportedly seized Palmyra, an ancient city known for some of the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome. Syrians and outsiders fear that the Islamic State will destroy the site. After all, they have already bulldozed Nimrud, smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum, and destroyed Nineveh. The irony of the Islamic State’s action is how inconsistent they are with Islamic history. After all, the Umayyad Caliphate, based in Damascus, reigned supreme over all these sites in the decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Likewise, these sites—and many others—also survived the Abbasid dynasty which the Islamic Empire from Baghdad between 750 – 1258 AD. The chief responsibility for the destruction of this heritage, of course, rests on the Islamic State. And those individuals who partook in the looting and destruction should certainly face justice whenever it can be delivered, whether next month or decades from now.
Three Big Trends That Will Shape the Arab World
By Maha Yahya
May 11, 2015
Arab countries are in the midst of violent convulsions that are fundamentally reshaping the region. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how the chaos will unfold, there are three major trends that will define the future. All three promise more catastrophic scenarios over the next few years unless governments reverse course. First, political violence is remaking Arab societies. The violent onslaught of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) and the loss of state control over national territories have uprooted millions of individuals, families, and entire communities mainly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Today, more than 53 percent of the world’s refugees are in the Arab region, which is home to only 5 percent of the global population, and conflict has affected at least nine countries.
Retaking Ramadi: U.S. Assistance and Shiite-Sunni Cooperation
By Michael Knights
May 19, 2015
The May 17 retreat of Iraqi government forces from Ramadi represents the most severe setback for the fight against the “Islamic State”/ISIS since Mosul fell nearly a year ago. Ramadi is the provincial capital of Anbar — the huge desert governorate linking Baghdad to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — and was the cockpit of the U.S.-backed Sunni tribal “awakening” that defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-2007. But one lost battle does not mean the loss of a war. The Iraqi government needs to launch an immediate counteroffensive before ISIS can consolidate its power, both for symbolic reasons and because of Ramadi’s proximity to Baghdad. The ISIS campaign to control major cities began in Ramadi and nearby Fallujah in late December 2013. While Fallujah fell and remains under the group’s control, the Iraqi security forces (ISF) maintained the upper hand in Ramadi until recently. The city’s overstretched collection of Iraqi army, police, and Sunni tribal militia forces have fought a brutal, nonstop battle with little reinforcement. In the eleven months since Mosul fell, only a tiny number of new local forces have been raised in Ramadi — a weak brigade of 2,000 Federal Police and a new 1,000-strong unit of tribal paramilitaries. The army forces dotted around the city are among the most heavily damaged and exhausted units in Iraq.