US won’t commit many boots on the ground v ISIS
Beirut - With the United States engaged in its 15th year of war against militant Islam, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says he’s hoping to expel the Islamic State (ISIS) from the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul, the key centres of its self-proclaimed caliphate, this year.
Given ISIS’s resilience, even after losing some territory it seized in a 2014-15 blitzkrieg, Carter’s expectations could be described as optimistic.
US President Barack Obama is clearly seeking to step up the fight against the jihadists, the successors of the 19 suicide attackers responsible for the deaths of about 3,000 people in the United States on September 11, 2001.
But military analysts and counterinsurgency specialists say he is refusing to order a major US-led ground offensive that they believe, after years of the United States trying to avoid yet another messy Middle East war is the only way to crush ISIS.
The Russians have been rolling up rebel groups seeking to topple their ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, with merciless and indiscriminate firepower. They have been seemingly heedless of civilian casualties, using a minimal deployment of air assets and ground forces armed with artillery and rocket launchers.
In the coming weeks, the Russian-led offensive looks likely to produce a victory for Assad, even if it means shrinking the territory his regime will control, relinquishing regions dominated by the majority Sunnis and building a new Shia-Alawite state that will probably include Lebanon, where Hezbollah, staunch ally of Shia Iran and Assad’s quasi- Shia regime, is the dominant force.
The main weapon Obama will use in the stepped-up war on ISIS is air power, which has been hammering ISIS in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014 without decisive effect. Says David Deptula, a retired US Air Force general who masterminded the crippling 40-day bombardment of Iraq during the 1990-91 Gulf war, that will continue unless Obama follows the Russians, who are using cruise missiles and strategic bombers against ISIS, and declares open season on the caliphate.
“We’re not giving air power a chance,” Deptula says. “We could do it in a matter of weeks, not years.” Seeking to minimise civilian casualties “is yielding an advantage to our adversaries that I find difficult to understand”.
Obama has shown a penchant for secret wars, in which his administration has rarely been held accountable, and it is the US secretive Special Operations Command, massively expanded over the last few years as a covert arm of the country’s policy, that he is supposedly unleashing against ISIS.
To support the special operations, the Americans have built an air base — their first military installation inside Syria — by expanding a disused airstrip south-east of Rmeilan on the eastern side of the Euphrates that was, until 2010, used by crop dusters. A 50-man US Special Forces unit is based there.
The area in eastern Hasakah province is controlled by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which, supported by intense US air strikes, seized the region from ISIS in December.
US support for the SDF, which the Turks say is an offshoot of their own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has incensed Ankara. It fears the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity in Syria will encourage their separatist cousins in the Anatolia region of south-eastern Turkey.
So the Americans, who rely on the use of the Turkish air base at Incirlik, west of the war zone, may find themselves with one hand tied behind their backs in northern Syria because of the rift with NATO ally Turkey.
The US moves in Syria are reflected in similar troop increases in Iraq and the Americans are seeking to form a new coalition to intervene in oil-rich Libya, where ISIS seeks to extend its caliphate. Europe is only 400km away, so decisive action in Libya may take precedence over Syria and Iraq, which are less of a threat to the West.
In Iraq, the United States wants to intensify pressure on ISIS, which has suffered several setbacks of late — the Americans claim to have killed 20,000 ISIS fighters, the equivalent of two army divisions — in their air campaign that began in August 2014. However, ISIS remains resilient and deadly.
There are about 3,700 US troops in Iraq, mostly on training and advisory missions. But they include 200 special operations troops who recently got the green light to go after ISIS leaders there and in Syria, the most wide-ranging mandate US forces have had since the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.
The special forces deployed in Syria and Iraq, possibly with more to follow, comprise what US military officials in Washington are rather grandiosely calling a new “expeditionary force” in response to congressional leaders’ demands for tougher action against ISIS.
The Americans want other powers to provide combat forces to support them in Syria. The problem is that the key US objective is to crush ISIS rather than topple Assad, which is what the Saudis and Turks want.
Even so, on February 4th, the Saudis offered to send ground troops. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are likely to follow suit. Arab diplomats report that the Saudis, who have so far aided rebel groups, could agree to send several thousand special forces troops to Syria, possibly in concert with Turkey. The bottom line seems to be that the Americans are finally admitting that air power alone will not win this war against apocalyptic Muslim jihadists in a region that gives every appearance of falling apart and that other options must now be explored — and fast.
It’s not clear how far the Americans are prepared to go in building up their forces in Iraq and Syria. The prospect of the kind of all-arms operations the Americans and British mounted against al-Qaeda during the eight-year occupation of Iraq, such as the 2004 assault on Falluja — ironically, once again in jihadist hands — that took months of street battles by 13,500 troops to crush 500 jihadists is no longer contemplated. The Iraqi military’s stumbling efforts to retake territory seized by ISIS in 2014 underline the problem of fighting without a substantial US ground force.
In Washington, there is more bluster than broadsides. Carter declared on December 1st that the US military will deploy a specialised expeditionary targeting force to Iraq to “put even more pressure” on ISIS and “conduct unilateral operations into Syria”.
Carter boasted before the House Armed Services Committee: “We’re at war. We’re using the might of the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Tens of thousands of US personnel are operating in the broader Middle East region, and more are on the way.”
Some senior US officials say that “this cracks open the door” for US combat operations in Iraq and Syria. On the evidence of what is under way now, however, the US military strategy remains highly limited and will probably fail.