Published at Left Foot Forward
A year into the campaign against the Islamic State, the American-led coalition has precious little to show for it. Tactical victories in Kobani, Tikrit and Tel Abyad have been more than offset not only by the negative long-term side-effects of those victories but by direct I.S. military gains in the present—notably the capture of a third provincial capital in Ramadi, the capture of Palmyra and a push into Homs and southern Syria; as well as increasing I.S. infiltration of Idlib, an area cleared entirely of I.S. by a rebel offensive in early 2014.
All three victories of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE—Kobani, Tikrit and Tel Abyad—are tactical successes that evince what has gone so wrong with the campaign.
Kobani became a major symbolic fight in late 2014. With the overwhelming concentration of Allied air power I.S. were eventually driven back in January 2015 after a four-month siege, but they were back in June. Nothing lasting was achieved and, even had it been, it would scarcely have mattered to the overall health of the Takfiri Caliphate.
Tikrit was a short-term success at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader war with I.S.. The anti-I.S. ground force was led openly by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), and Shi’a militias like Kataib Hizballah (KH) that are proxies of the IRGC-QF responsible for killing and wounding more than 1,000 American soldiers in Iraq over the last decade. Suleimani, IRGC-QF, and KH are U.S.-designated terrorists.
Their ground operation stalled and only succeeded in driving I.S. from Tikrit with the help of U.S. airstrikes. What the U.S. thought would be gained by being the air force for Iranian terrorists against I.S. terrorists was never clear. The Iranian-led forces committed atrocities against Sunni civilians during and after the Tikrit offensive. With Iraq’s armed forces still incapable of leading an operation to liberate Mosul, it would be left to the militias, who as every Mosulawi now knows make no distinction between I.S. and a military-age Sunni male. In short, the Tikrit “victory” has solidified I.S. in Mosul.
Tel Abyad was a more positive development, cutting off a key supply route for I.S.’s foreign fighters and revenue via oil and antiquities smuggling. But it was accomplished by the YPG, the Syrian Kurds, who are the only force inside Syria that can call in Allied airstrikes.
The YPG cannot and (quite reasonably) have no interest in pacifying areas too far outside Kurdish-majority zones. Defeating I.S. requires Sunni Arabs to take control of security in that swathe of territory now under I.S. control. The reliance on Shi’a and Kurdish forces is thus not only unsustainable in defeating I.S.; it is counter-productive, playing into a major I.S. narrative and recruiting tactic that says only I.S. can defend Sunnis.
Likewise, another major success claimed by the coalition is degrading I.S.’s financial infrastructure, namely disabling the I.S.-run oil refineries. Unfortunately this has done more harm than good. Many observers said that I.S.’s oil trade should be disrupted in transit because hitting the refineries would mostly cause misery to local populations, denying then fuel over winter and more generally collapsing whatever economic activity there was, leading to a spread of extreme poverty and its attendant cousins, hunger and disease. This is now becoming evident
Hassan Hassan recently reported that his native Deir Ezzor has fallen so deeply into poverty and hunger as a result of the coalition airstrikes against the oil facilities that families are sending members to join I.S. simply to provide food.
The coalition had hoped that by denying I.S. revenue it would cause I.S.’s governance to fail and induce an internal revolt. But the coalition did nothing to help the tribal revolts against I.S. that were out down with unmerciful slaughter last year and, for all its failings, I.S.’s parasitic administration is not that much worse than what preceded it and it does at least provide order—a reasonable trade-off for many after years of chaos.
The U.S. train-and-equip program for the Syrian rebellion looks to a cynic as if it was designed to fail and now duly has—providing those who never wanted to do it in the first place further ammunition for doing even less to help a desperate population in revolt against a tyrant whose downfall is our stated policy.
The folly of the politically-motivated ban on boots-on-the-ground is also now making itself evident. Beyond these individual policy errors, however, is a mistaken overarching strategy.
Put simply, the United States is treating Iran in Syria and Iraq as a stabilising agent and partner. For more than two years now Iran’s remorseless arrogation of power on the ground has proceeded with de facto American support. This is catastrophic: Iran thrives on the same sectarian and destabilising dynamics that I.S. does; they are symbiotic, and a rise in Iran’s power is an increase in I.S.’s power.
The most recent development in Syria, the open intrusion of Russian ground forces and soon-to-be airstrikes on the side of the Assad regime is the inevitable consequence of outsourcing Middle East policy to Vladimir Putin two years ago over the calamitous chemical weapons redline. President Obama’s defenders might like to pass that episode off as something other than a defeat for the West and Western-aligned Syrian rebel forces, and a victory for Russia, Assad, Iran, and the Salafist insurgents, but nobody else is fooled.
Russia is presenting its intervention in counter-I.S. and counter-terrorist terms while funnelling I.S. volunteers from the Caucasus to Syria and running reconnaissance missions that target non-I.S. insurgents. Russia’s coming attack on the insurgents on Idlib is going to remove the principle barrier to I.S.’s efforts to move back in and aide the Russia-Iran-Assad effort to make Syria a binary choice of Assad-or-I.S., but it won’t help fight Islamic terrorism or improve the situation for Syrian human rights.
The coalition’s campaign has managed to combine a feckless military component with a misaligned strategic vision that sees the arsonists in Moscow and Tehran as potential fire-fighters. Little wonder, a year on, that I.S. looks stronger than ever.