Streetwise Professor

May 19, 2015

Fiasco on the Euphrates

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:54 pm

The situation in Ramadi (and Anbar generally) is an utter fiasco, with the Iraqi forces reprising the rout that occurred in Mosul almost exactly a year ago, thereby helping re-equip Isis with brand new American equipment. To paraphrase Wellington: Isis came on in the same old way, and the Iraqi army ran away in the same old way.

The Shia Hashd militia are claiming that they will retake Ramadi. As if. In Patton’s felicitous phrase, they couldn’t fight their way out of a piss soaked paper bag, especially in the offensive: “militia” means “militarily ineffective amateurs”. Oh they will no doubt die in large numbers, but in another Patton phrase: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” (Or sect, as is the case here.) Their reputation alone will drive those few Anbari Sunnis who haven’t thrown over to Isis out of self-preservation into arms of the caliphate.

The only thing that can redeem the situation is a major commitment of American ground forces. But that is not in the cards. The most Obama could muster today was a milquetoast statement that he was “weighing” “accelerating” training of Iraqi troops. That is so wildly inadequate to the emergency of the moment that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Obama has no one to blame but himself for the appalling choices that face him: he is entirely responsible for this dilemma because of an earlier choice that he made eagerly, indeed, triumphantly. When a preening and supercilious Obama decided to declare victory in Iraq, and withdraw every American soldier, Marine, and airman from the country, he opened the door for Isis. And once Isis barged through, he was left with two, and only two, alternatives: go back in heavy with a major commitment of American combat forces, or turn the mess over to Iran to sort out.

He is constitutionally unable to make the former choice, so by default, he is left with the latter. This helps to explain (but is not the entire explanation) for his deference to Iran on everything. But this will prove unavailing as well, because for all of its blood curdling rhetoric, Iran does not have the military capacity to achieve anything except get a lot of people killed.

So absent a road to Jerusalem conversion by Obama, Isis will consolidate, and likely expand, its hold in Anbar and other parts of Iraq.

Adding insult to injury are statements from the administration and the Pentagon that are so divorced from reality that they would make Baghdad Bob blush. Baghdad Brett McGurk is probably the worst offender, but he has much company.

As I’ve written before, you know that most people in the military must be beside themselves watching this. As I’ve also written, this is being enabled, rather than opposed, by the senior military leadership, especially the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They should all be reading Dereliction of Duty, and thinking very, very hard about how its lessons apply to them, today.

The situation is arguably beyond recovery, at least at any affordable cost. And even were Obama to go against ever instinct in his body and decide to intervene with American combat troops, I shudder to think of going to war under such an uncertain and inept commander.

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  1. What is the strategic goal of rolling back ISIS? And is it worth (now) the costs? Both direct and down the road.

    Comment by Krzys — May 20, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

  2. @Krzys-If it establishes itself in Iraq and Syria, ISIS could pose a serious threat to Saudi Arabia and the rest of Iraq. This could have serious repercussions in the oil markets. Given its aggressiveness, Isis in Iraq also creates the potential for a wider regional conflict with Iran, and perhaps Turkey. Isis is also expanding to Libya and other Muslim countries, as far away as Malaysia. It could be a uniquely destabilizing force.

    All that said, as I suggest at the end of my post, the costs of attacking/rolling back/destroying Isis today (which were needlessly and heedlessly inflated as the result of Obama’s premature declaration of victory and subsequent withdrawal) are arguably prohibitively high. We are talking several divisions, and casualties greater than suffered in Anbar 2003-2008. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to trying to contain Isis. Due to Obama’s catastrophic decision, that may be the best we can do. The humanitarian cost of this will be very high.

    There are no good options. This administration made horrific choices in the past that have left us in this horrible predicament.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 20, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Not many good reasons for nuclear war. But Anbar might be the place. We simply have to stop this virulent force before too long.

    Comment by The Pilot — May 20, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

  4. Evan after all of this, these catastrophes remain only as fodder for Obama, et al, to continue saying “I told you so” in regards to the original war. They won’t even recognize their complicity in, well, most of it, as far as I’m concerned. This is truly horrific.

    Comment by Howard Roark — May 20, 2015 @ 9:02 pm

  5. I don’t think SA would be in (military) danger. ISIS still have the Shiite Iraq to go through. That’s where Iran would be involved. I can actually see a strategic advantage in which ISIS binds Iran and prevents the emergence of Shiite crescent: an ugly replay of the 80’s.

    I can see how ISIS success can undermine religious legitimacy of SA monarchy, though.

    Comment by Krzys — May 21, 2015 @ 11:09 am

  6. At this point in time, I think the likelihood of Iraq and Syria as surviving in their current borders is very low. While the state has not collapsed as such (although Baghdad is in worse shape than Damascus), neither government has any chance of regaining control over most of its territory. It’s just a matter of time before the world accepts new borders are needed and accepts partition. 2015 and 2016 is probably when this opinion can start being stated in the open.

    Obviously a Shi’ite Iraq in the south and center will continue. Some kind of Kurdish state is inevitable. There is still a good chance for an Alawite/religious minority state in Latakia that may or may not contain Damascus – certainly Iran and Hezbollah need such a state to retain control of the corridor that supplies Hezbollah its arms. It does them no good to have an Alawite state that can’t provide that service. Recently I’ve seem some reports of a possible Druze state in southern Syria that would be protected by Jordan officially and by Israel unofficially.

    That just leaves the bulk of the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq. The problem here is that the dominant power is ISIS which no one can accept. However, no one wants to supply troops for the purpose of driving them out of the Sunni areas. The Iraqis can’t. The Kurds won’t. Neither will the Turks. The Jordanians lack the manpower and commitment. The Syrian rebels have been forced into an alliance with an Al-Qaeda affiliate and will likely fall out and fight themselves once the Assad family is driven out; in any case any group associated with Al-Nusra is just as toxic as ISIS in world opinion. The US will not be sending troops to do this either, at this point it’s airpower and other force multipliers. I don’t care if it is Obama or whoever the future President is. Things are now so bad no one could convince the American people to do that, and it would be a dubious proposition at best if not destined to fail. Iraq 2.0 is not going to happen.

    So there is a need for a Sunni group who can fight ISIS and is willing to stay in the region and occupy the territory for the long term. There is no such group although there are continued reports of former Surge militias willing to do this in Iraq, but they are being ignored right now. However, even if they are supported, they will likely be limited to Iraq and won’t travel into Syria.

    So that leaves ISIS in control of this region in the long term. Which means eventually they will either be recognized and become part of the international system, or something has to change to cause their collapse with the emergence of some new group.

    This is likely to be a generational conflict the scope of the Thirty Years War. This is going on for 10-30 years (I think it can only last more than ten if a significant power decides to enter the war ala Sweden or France in the 30 Years War; 10 years of continued war exhausts its participants). It’s already been four.

    The only Sunni power that has the capability to project power into the region and build a local group to take over is Turkey. Right now, they don’t want to do it. We’ll have to watch if they eventually decide they need to clean up the neighborhood.

    Comment by Chris — May 21, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

  7. I think it can only last more than ten if a significant power decides to enter the war ala Sweden or France in the 30 Years War

    Good grief, I initially read that as France or Sweden being current significant powers. Only once I’d stopped rolling around on the floor laughing did I realise you didn’t say that.

    I agree there is a good chance this could be Islam’s 30 years war (let’s see which holy sites remain at the end of it) and might have a similar effect on the Middle East and Islam as the 30 years war had on Europe and Christianity. What is interesting is that a lot of people have been saying Islam is incompatible with the modern world unless it goes through an equivalent of a 30 years war.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 22, 2015 @ 12:38 am

  8. The only Sunni power that has the capability to project power into the region and build a local group to take over is Turkey.

    I’m not so sure. Turkey might have the manpower, but do they really have the capability to engage an outfit like ISIS who can wage a nasty guerrilla war, sucking in Turkish regular troops a la Afghanistan? Much is made of the toughness of Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli and in Korea, probably correctly, but they were a long time ago and of a different generation, and they were fighting regular battles. Is the Turkish army actually any good? They’ve not fought in years, they have probably been weakened by increasing Islamisation of the Turkish government who sees the army as a threat, and I doubt their special forces is much good at anything other than torturing Kurds. They were only brought into Nato because they controlled the Bosporus. I could see the Turks being able to invade, make some impressive territorial gains as ISIS melt into the cities, before becoming bogged down in a bloody mess being picked off on the fringes for decades, while the Kurds take full advantage. I’m not even sure the Iraqi Sunnis like the Turks much.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 22, 2015 @ 12:45 am

  9. Tim, the Turkish are not battle tested as you say, but it has to be better than any Arab army. The Arab states generally have excellent equipment thanks to petro-dollars or American aid, but possess a horrible martial culture. Enlisted men are treated like garbage; the NCOs are little better; and the officer corps is promoted for politics, not abilities. I am sure that is not new to you. We know the Turks don’t have those problems. Even the Jordanians, who probably have the best real army in the region, couldn’t do this, much less the Egyptians or Saudis. The Turks could. Against a peer competitor? Turks might take some lumps, but then again most countries armed forces have severely declined in quality since the Cold War excepting the Chinese.

    The main problem in defeating ISIS is not going in and routing them. Any halfway competent force can do that. The areas outside the cities will be quickly taken since the geography there is mainly flat and don’t allow places for guerrillas to hide like the Kurds can in the mountains. The cities only present a problem insofar the attacker is concerned about civilian casualties. If you aren’t worried about that, you can clean them out methodically. The media will crucify the US or Israel for doing that, but doesn’t seem to care if anyone else does it.

    The problem is being willing to stay in the region and not be worried about the local Sunnis deciding to take pot shots at you. No matter how thankful Syrians and Iraqis would be to US force coming in initially, it won’t take long before they start bitching about us. I believe, and I could be mistaken, that the Turks will have a longer honeymoon because they don’t have the same cultural baggage as the US does. Long enough that it can use local groups as collaborators and set up a non-ISIS power. There are clearly lots of Sunni groups looking for someone who will do that.

    People constantly claim guerrillas are hard to defeat, but that only exists when 1) they are supported by a foreign power, 2) the local population supports you, and 3) they have a safe haven to retreat to and regroup. ISIS lacks the first. Their atrocities have significantly reduced the second. If someone moves in – like the Turks – then they lose the third as well. Even fanatics become demoralized. Reports indicate volunteers to ISIS are declining as volunteers realize what it’s really like. What’s keeping their morale up is succeeding against incompetents like the Iraqi Army. I think a few heavy defeats against a real opponent can caused a collapse.

    The only thing saving ISIS is the lack of will of a real power to come in and destroy them. The Iraqi army is a joke. The Syrian army is simply too small given the civil war and ongoing casualties. The only regional candidates who can do that are the Israelis, the Americans, and the Turks. The Israelis couldn’t hold the ground though for obvious reasons. The Americans could, but no longer have the stomach for it (I believe this has less to do with actual war fatigue, but anger that the same people who once fought us are now screaming for our hope – let them burn in a fire of their own making is the real sentiment). So it has to be the Turks or no one. I think at most the Turks could be in and out in two years as long as they prepare beforehand the organized power left behind who can take on the responsibilities of government. This is not a decades guerrilla war against mountain people like in Afghanistan. There is a reason this area of the world has been repeatedly invaded and conquered – it’s easy to do so.

    It’s leaving a functioning Sunni-lead government that can rule with the consent of the population that is the key. Until the international community is ready to accept partition though, that won’t happen.

    So the Turks won’t take on that task now. But as the war continues for several more years, they could change their minds as they see the continued presence of ISIS is a threat to them. If not, then there is a free fire zone in Syria-Iraq for years – and how long will that really last?

    The way I see it is for either the world to accept ISIS which then lives in peace, or the Turks invade. The people who run ISIS won’t make peace, if they win there, they’ll try to grab the Holy Sites in Saudi Arabia and get the oilfields. So at some point, the Turks will have to invade. That’s my $20 prediction. Don’t hold me to what year it’ll be, 😉

    Comment by Chris — May 22, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

  10. All good points Chris, very interesting, thanks!

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 22, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

  11. @chris-I agree with you, except that you are optimistic to think it will be a 30 Years War. It may be like the 100 Years War, which wasn’t fought continuously, but waxed and waned over a century.

    I too wonder about Turkey. But we’re also implicitly assuming it will be stable. I don’t think it’s likely, but I wouldn’t rule out it experiencing some sort of convulsion. The battle between Erdogan and Gulen could cause civil conflict. There is great tension between the Islamists and the more urbanized populations in Istanbul and Ankara (to a lesser degree). And I wonder if the army will remain tamed forever. This might actually restrain Erdogan from intervening in Syria or Iraq against Isis. He has to have some concern about the domestic repercussions.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 23, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

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