Lessons learned from Arab military contributions to the war on ISIS
Dubai - Arab Gulf states have performed an important role as part of the US-led international coalition that brings together as many as 60 members against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Prior to the beginning of the Yemen war in 2015, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Jordan, had declared their participation in the international military coalition that came together under American leadership for taking on the growing threat of ISIS.
However, the overwhelming number of air strikes in Syria and Iraq against ISIS have been conducted by the US military. For the first time since 2015, US air strikes have surpassed 3,000 a month. In contrast, the next most active country has been Britain, which has launched 464 strikes during the first six months of the year.
While the White House had been seeking to avoid perceptions of another US-led war in the Middle East, the American military has ultimately had to assume the bulk of responsibility for activity taking place in Syria against ISIS.
This is partly explained by a lack of strategic clarity for an international coalition that is large in numbers but still cannot effectively engineer a conclusive outcome to the quagmire in Syria.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently met with counterparts from more than 30 countries in Washington to consider the next steps in the war against ISIS. According to the IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq has shrunk 12% this year to 68,300 sq. km, mainly in western Iraq and northern Syria.
Clearly, ISIS remains some way from being defeated as Brett McGurk, the US president’s special representative to the counter-ISIS coalition recently declared. “[W]e are succeeding on the ground in Iraq and Syria but we have a lot of work to do… This is an enormous challenge that will be with us for years to come,” he said.
Yet it has been evident for some time that at the political level the underlying approach to the Syrian civil war has remained a point of disagreement between the United States and its main Arab partners. The United States has flip-flopped on policy towards Syria and as a result threats such as ISIS have ultimately been the beneficiary.
Despite efforts to achieve a truly aligned approach, expectations between the Americans and regional Arab states have fallen short for both sides, albeit for different reasons.
Saudi Arabia has brought together a group of 34 Muslim-majority states to combat terrorism. Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and Qatar, has put on record that it is prepared to contribute ground troops under a US-led military intervention.
UAE Air Force F-16s have been operating from Jordan to conduct air strikes against ISIS and the Armed Forces of Saudi Arabia have deployed to Incirlik air base in Turkey from where participation in a multinational ground operation could take place.
American military commanders have lauded the contribution of their regional Arab allies but probably realise that, in terms of hardware and systems, there are capability gaps if partner Arab militaries are to take on a greater burden of the activity. Still, Arab states have made important contributions and their skill and professionalism have dispelled misconceptions about their apparent lack of experience in hostile environments.
On the other hand, the United States has been expanding bombing of ISIS target and cultivated a growing operational relationship with Kurdish militias fighting the terror group on the ground in northern Syria. Kurdish rebels, however, can only get so far against ISIS.
Arab states have demonstrated competency both with their air forces in a front-line role or through facilitating coalition partners logistically.
Perhaps fortunately, the nature of the conflict has meant command and control as well as interoperability issues have not proved a showstopper but there are important challenges to overcome if this US-led coalition is to truly function as one.
There will also be important discussions Arab states will have with their American partners on logistics and supply chain dynamics.
In terms of air operations themselves Arab states can build on their contributions in important ways and it seems both capacity and will for them to assume greater burden from the Americans are there if the necessary sort of framework can be worked out.
Anti-ISIS military operations have not seen the overall burden-sharing coalition partners had been expecting, probably on all sides.
Policy differences between coalition members that can come across as subtle have hindered more effective collaboration and the progress that promises. As a result, achievements for the coalition overall have so far been important, though smaller than expected, and joint operations have not really been on the menu.