US looks for help against IS in Syria
By Brian M Downing
The astonishing and alarming Islamic State (IS) drive into northern Iraq and Kurdistan has led to American airstrikes and also to arms sales and additional support from Britain, France, and Germany to defeat the militants. The US response comes amid considerable criticism over the Obama administrationís less than forceful responses to events in Syria and the Ukraine.
Recently, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey have stated that IS can only be effectively
countered by going after it in Syria. While this suggests confidence (probably well founded) that IS is overextended and can be driven from Iraq in coming months, the implications of action across the border into Syria need to be considered. Whose ground troops will be used in Syria and what effect will that have on the future of both Syria and Iraq?
The military situation all but calls for insertions of troops along the Syrian border to prevent IS troops from reaching havens there and to grind them down inside Iraq in conjunction with Iraqi troops and militias and American airpower. That option, however, will require sizable numbers of airmobile or airborne troops but no indigenous force has the capacity to insert and support sizable forces there.
The US could accomplish this with marine units on ships in the Persian Gulf or with paratroopers based in Italy, but the deployment of regular combat units anywhere in Iraq or Syria is highly unlikely. US missions against IS will likely be limited to hostage rescue, reconnaissance, airstrikes, and commando strikes on key assets and leaders.
Appreciable ground forces will be needed to weaken let alone defeat IS in Syria. There are several forces currently fighting there, though none is militarily or politically suitable. Aside from perhaps providing intelligence for Syrian airstrikes, the US will not likely coordinate operations with forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or their Hezbollah allies. Islamic Front forces are less radical than IS but ties to the Muslim Brotherhood make them unpalatable in Washington. The Free Syrian Army is too disorganized and incompetent to be an effective partner. Further, allying with any of these forces will enmesh the US in the civil war there, perhaps deeply and indefinitely.
Using Iraqi troops poses only somewhat less vexing problems. The Iraqi national army, a Shi'te-led force, is the largest military inside Iraq, but its competence is very much in doubt even in the Shi'ite heartland and it could not be relied upon to operate effectively in Syria. It would not be welcome in Sunni regions of Syria or even Iraq. Its presence would be interpreted as an intervention in the cause of fellow Shi'ites in the Assad regime, worsening sectarian tensions.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have already cooperated on both sides of the border and should IS be forced to retreat into Syria, Iraqi Kurds will almost assuredly continue the war in Syrian Kurdistan. Their operations, however, will be chiefly to defend Kurdish people as their army is not experienced in offensive operations outside its land. (Such cooperation will lead to the further detachment of Syrian Kurds from the failing Syrian state and to their alignment with the Kurdish one coming into being.)
Remnants of Saddam Hussein's officer corps and political party retain a measure of fighting ability. However, they are presently fighting alongside IS around Tikrit. While likely to turn against IS for its desire to rule over them, the old Saddam loyalists do not have the numbers to pose a threat to IS in Iraq or Syria.
A more potent enemy of IS, in Syria and Iraq, can be found in the militia of the Dulaim tribal confederation. The Dulaim, several million strong, central parts of the anti-US insurgency and Sunni Awakening alike, have sat on the sidelines, content to watch IS weaken the Shi'ite government and strengthen the Sunni position. Occasional skirmishes have not developed into overt warfare. After recent negotiations in Baghdad with the new prime minister and American and Saudi diplomats, the Dulaim sheikhs, if given the proper incentives, may soon order their militias to battle IS more aggressively. The vast tribal confederation extends across central and western Iraq and also into eastern Syria. The Dulaim, then, are capable of waging relentless guerrilla warfare against IS not only in western Iraq but in Syria as well. However, they will demand a price for cooperating against IS - arms from Washington and autonomy from Baghdad and Damascus.
The US may soon arm the Dulaim with light weapons on both sides of the border and perhaps also provide air support - again, on both sides of the border. Arms may be delivered by US airlift or by the Dulaimís tribal networks which include ones expert at cross-border smuggling. IS troops will be harassed across large swathes of territory and will not be able to continue fighting the Kurds, Iraqi national army, the Syrian national army, and various Syrian rebel groups. The Dulaim tribes of eastern Syria may be able to recruit and arm other tribes to rid their people of foreign visionary jihadis.
Consequences, in and out of the region
An armed and successful Dulaim confederation will be in position - in better position - to demand autonomy from the frail Shi'ite governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Dulaim tribes in eastern Syria will see the Damascus government as either doomed to fall or simply no longer able to control the country and protect them from groups such as IS and the al Nusra Front. Better to find security with an emerging Sunni autonomous region in Iraq governed by sheikhs of a venerable confederation. Recent negotiations in Baghdad with the new prime minister, Saudi emissaries, and US Secretary of State Kerry almost certainly discussed the issue.
Such an autonomous region will greatly anger both Damascus and Baghdad, though neither has the military or political assets to prevent it. IS in recent months has boasted that it is undoing the boundaries that European powers imposed on the Middle East. In coming months, those boundaries may indeed have changed, though not in the manner IS dreamed of. With enough arms and fighters, IS may be retreating to a shrinking, besieged redoubt in central Syria.
A tribal insurgency in IS-controlled areas will almost certainly lead to fearful retribution on villagers from a group that uses massacres as an ordinary part of governance. This will present Washington with the dilemma of seeing valued allies slaughtered in the thousands or sending air cover and troops.
Greater American action against IS will of course lead to acts of vengeance, by IS itself or sympathetic groups and individuals. These acts may be in the region or anywhere in the world, including the United States itself. Further, US actions in Syria and Iraq will reenergize the jihadist recruitment message of opposing Western intervention - this at a time when the claim was losing credibility with potential recruits and even some adherents who see jihadis weakening the Islamic world. A group inspired by Osama bin Laden, and eager to assume the leadership of Islamist militancy from the seemingly inert men who replaced him, will be planning along these lines already.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic.