War against ISIS: The picture is gloomy


islamic-newOn September 11, 2014 at Jeddah, US Secretary of State John Kerry got together a rather reluctant bunch of 10 Arab States to sign up a Joint Communique in agreeing to fight the most savage terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that had occupied one third of the territory of Iraq and Syria. The Joint Communique signed by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states, including rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar (that have recently patched up their differences on the latter’s support to Muslim Brotherhood – which had gone from being a ruling party in Egypt, post Arab-Spring, to being a terror group after the military take-over by Gen. Abdul Fateh Sisi), listed the following main tasks:

•  Stopping the flow of foreign fighters

•  Countering ISIS financing

•  Repudiating their ideology

•  Ending impunity

•  Providing humanitarian relief

•  Reconstruction of ISIS-hit areas

•  Supporting states that face ‘acute’ ISIS threats, and

•  ‘Appropriately joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign’.

The US is the overall coordinator of the military campaign. Assistance was assured from a motley bunch of about 60 countries, from Albania to Australia and several West and East European countries that are generally happy to pay up some cash and let others do the job.

Secretary John Kerry clarified in an address to the Coalition of the Willing, in Paris on September 15, that “this is not the Gulf War of 1991 nor is it the Iraq war of 2003. We are not building a military coalition for invasion but a military coalition ….for the elimination of the ISIL (ISIS).” Now, two months down the line, how has the war progressed so far? How has the Coalition fulfilled the tasks?

Well, as for stopping the flow of foreign fighters, many Western countries have reported intercepting several young men and women from flying to Turkey and onward to the ISIS- held territory. Progress on this score is difficult to measure as no one is clear about the cadre strength of the ISIS, let alone how it has swelled after September. Rough estimates range from ‘18,000 hard core cadre’ according to Gen. Martin Dempsey to 30,000 soldiers as per the reported estimate of CIA.

However, the largest contribution of manpower to the ISIS comes from the Arab States themselves, particularly the Gulf monarchies and that is almost impossible to stem, in view of their open borders and acute frustration of the youth with their rulers. It may be recalled that 15 of the 18 terrorists that attacked the WTC and other targets in New York and Washington came from Saudi Arabia. And there were thousands fighting in Afghanistan too. In a direct appeal to this powerful constituency Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of the Islamic Caliphate, has called for ‘several volcanoes of jihad’ to be ignited in Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, no such call was made against the rulers of Saudi Arabia as long as the so-called ‘private donors’ kept up a steady flow of funds, arms and sparkling new SUVs to the ISIS.

Does that mean the Coalition has succeeded in countering ISIS financing? Hardly. The main source of funding for the ISIS comes from smuggling oil out of the oil wells it has seized and that revenue is estimated to be around $3 to 4 million per month. This is in addition to the huge funds it seized from banks and other private sources in the territory from Anbar to Fallujah to Tikrit. Turkey has been entrusted the task of stemming the oil smuggling, but how far it will go to disable the ISIS is a moot point.

On the tasks of repudiating their ideology, well, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and other prominent clerics of Gulf Kingdoms have all condemned the ‘Islamic State’ as un-Islamic and barbaric. This has, however, not curtailed its appeal to the discontented youth who, living under corrupt and despotic dictators and monarchs of the Islamic world, regard anyone fighting the ‘Satanic West’ as a just cause. Any amount of condemnation by the State-paid clerics will neither hurt the appeal of ISIS nor end its impunity.

On the task of providing humanitarian relief, the Coalition’s warplanes did a commendable job in saving the Yazidis perched on top of the Sinjar mountains, while its performance on saving the Kurds in Kobani was a mixed one. Turkey’s indifference to prevent the slaughter of Kurds in Kobani showed that it weighed its internal political calculations vis-à-vis the PKK.

Reconstruction of ISIS-hit areas is yet to be taken up, as there is hardly any area that has been fully and irrevocably liberated from the ISIS.

Coming to the more crucial task of ‘supporting the states that face acute ISIS threats’ how has the Coalition fared? It must be noted that the Coalition never promised ‘boots on the ground’ and that it had only assured aerial strikes against ISIS targets, and military advisers to assist the Iraqi troops. Plenty of arms, ammunition, vehicular and logistic support has been rushed in.

In Iraq, ISIS is partly or wholly in control of Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit. Smaller towns such as Heet and Zawyet Albu-Nimr (north of Ramadi) and Al-Qaim (northwest of Ramadi, on the border with Syria) and Deir al -Zor in Syria are completely under control of ISIS. Since September, its power in these regions is being contested. The contest for power, however, has certainly not gone in favour of Iraqi troops so far. According to a senior US General, Iraq will need about 80,000 ‘good’ troops to vanquish the ISIS. Meanwhile, US President Obama has sent in 1500 military advisers to assist the Iraqi troops. They have failed to tilt the balance in favour of Iraqi troops, let alone “degrade and destroy” the ISIS forces.

While in Iraq, the Coalition forces have a clear-cut friend and foe, the situation in Syria is completely blurred. The State and the regime in Iraq are allies of the Coalition forces, while in Syria the regime is the enemy of the Coalition and so too are its enemies. The ISIS, although shown in all the Western media maps as having control of more than half of Syria, much of this is uninhabited desert land. It is actually in control of Raqqa (the capital of the Islamic Caliphate), Hassakeh, Deir al-Zor, Anbu-Kamal and a few important border towns on Syria-Turkey border including Kobani. While the north-western border towns are in the hands of ISIS and other rebel forces, the north eastern half is in control of the Kurdish forces.

However discredited President Bashar al-Assad is, the Army and his militias, instead of revolting against him, as long expected in the West, have still managed to keep control of Damascus (despite sporadic attacks in the outlying districts), Homs, Hama and the crucial port towns of Latakia and Tartous.

Aleppo and Idlib are severely contested, despite all the ruins, and it is a 3-way contest between the regime forces v/s the Jabhut ul-Nusra (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS v/s the Free Syrian Army (now supported by the Coalition forces). Derra, south of Damascus, is under rebel control and they are reportedly pressing ahead with gains.

All in all, the picture is gloomy. The ISIS is unlikely to be pushed back as long as the Coalition’s War against it remains only aerial. The Iraqi troops battling them were trained by the Americans, who after spending billions of dollars on their training find that they are not up to the task. In northern Iraq, the ISIS confronts even poorly equipped and untrained Kurdish Peshmarga, which is likely to remain unequipped and untrained due to Turkey’s security concerns.

There are reports of President Obama doubling the number of US military advisers to 3100. US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey who is currently on a visit to Baghdad has spoken of the war against ISIS possibly going on ‘for years’. He has repeatedly stressed the need for ground troops to push back the ISIS. Will the newly empowered Republicans support the Pentagon and push President Obama into a full-fledged war in Iraq? Or will he let Iraq and Syria disintegrate and be permanently divided on ethnic lines?

(The writer is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)      

Courtesy: ORF