If you recall, President Obama spoke to the nation in September 2014 and pledged to “degrade” the capabilities of ISIS and “destroy” it. It was a strong speech, a Presidential speech. If speeches could replace smart decisive military action, then ISIS would have been destroyed by now, at least severely degraded.
Instead of getting degraded, ISIS won two big military victories this week. ISIS captured Ramadi in a final assault and forced Iraqi Government troops to flee leaving their arms & military assets behind. Ramadi is not just any town, it is the capital of the Sunni Anbar Province of Iraq. America had sacrificed 200 soldiers to recapture Ramadi from the pre-ISIS insurgents and to lose that now to ISIS feels horrible. That is why American TV gave so much coverage to the fall of Ramadi and the spectacle of Iraqi troops fleeing from Ramadi.
ISIS also captured the Syrian town of Palmyra-Tadmur and the defending Syrian army ran away like the Iraqi army ran away from Ramadi. The loss of Tadmur is strategic because it sits on the critical road link between Damascus and Homs. This is a step towards winning a big part of Syria and isolating the Assad regime into the Damascus area.
1. How did “degrading” turn into “enhancing”?
President Obama’s strategy was to train the Iraqi military, to provide American advisors to help them and to provide aerial support by bombing ISIS fighters during battles like the one for Ramadi. That failed miserably in Ramadi.
Frankly, it was and remains an insane strategy. The concept of US training of foreign troops & providing aerial bombing support failed in Vietnam, has failed in Afghanistan and now is failing in Iraq. Continuing that strategy again and again to fail again and again is the textbook definition of insanity.
As we wrote in our Histrio-Strategic View of ISIS on August 23, 2014:
- “The religious fervor, the historical yearning of conquest within ISIS, cannot be countered by paid soldiers fighting for some “secular”, “inclusive” government in a distant capital. It needs to be fought by fighters who are motivated by an intensely religious or ethnic counter-fervor.”
This has been the story of ISIS against the Iraqi military from Mosul back in 2014 to Ramadi today. Smaller, smart, innovative, mobile formations of committed ISIS fighters have caused havoc in larger set Iraqi formations and caused them to flee the battle. They neutralized the US air force by launching their final assault under a huge sandstorm that blinded US planes. Before that, they fought a battle of attrition for a year sapping the morale of Iraqi troops who fought without adequate supplies or inspired leadership from Baghdad.
Wars of attrition are won by the side that is fighting for a bigger purpose than wages. We are being to see this reality change the battle in Syria. The Syrian army fighting for Assad is getting tired both physically and mentally. They are beginning to give up and run away from battles with ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters. Consequently, the Assad regime is getting more and more isolated into a small narrow corridor.
The Iraq story is becoming the story of US strategy in Vietnam, of training & supplying the South Vietnamese military only to see them lose to more determined committed Vietcong & North Vietnamese troops; the story of US strategy in Afghanistan, of training & supplying the Afghani military only to see them lose to more determined & committed Talebani fighters. It is the story of paid soldiers fighting mainly for wages from a “secular” or “inclusive” government against determined committed fighters fighting for their land or religion.
Just look at the Iraqi government leaders safely ensconced in Baghdad and ask yourselves if you would fight for these fat corrupt slobs. Remember how the problems of Iraq were mainly due to Al-Maliki, the previous prime minister and how the new guy, al-Abadi, was going to make things right? Remember how the problems of Afghanistan were mainly due to Hamid Karzai and how the new guy, Ashraf Ghani, was going to make things right? Remember how the previous South Vietnamese president was all wrong and the new president was going to make things right?
And it is not as if we don’t have real successes on the ground against ISIS using a different strategy. The Kurds, committed determined Kurds, Kurds fighting for their own land, Kurds fighting for their very survival, defeated ISIS in battles with a fraction of US airpower and supplies that was given to the Iraqi army. The religious Shiite militias were the main & leading component of the force that defeated ISIS in Tikrit a few weeks ago with the US airforce coming in only at the end to clear out entrenched ISIS fighters cornered in a small part of Tikrit.
But these successes were “wrong” because they did not fit US policy.
2. US Policy in Iraq vs. the Reality
The US policy demands that Iraq be a “secular” and “inclusive” state under central rule in which power must be shared with & resources allocated to all religious & ethnic groups in an inclusive manner. And the dictates of US policy are paramount regardless of the consequences.
This is why brave Kurds, the one absolute ally of US in Iraq, are not being given weapons they need. All military assistance is being routed through central government in Baghdad where it is held as ransom. The Kurdish Peshmarga is being systematically starved of military vehicles, armor and heavy artillery that is vitally important for future battles against ISIS. In the meantime, ISIS is concentrating against weaker targets and seizing heavy weaponry from fleeing Iraqi troops. At some point, a stronger, better-armed ISIS will attack under-armed, under-supported Kurds and perhaps run them over.
This “US policy above all reality” doctrine is why US refused to provide air support for Ramadi until Shia militias were withdrawn from that battle. That left only the US trained Iraqi troops and they ran away from the final battle. Ramadi might have been lost but US policy was upheld. That is why the fall of Ramadi was only a minor setback and not a failure.
We called Iraq Humpty-Dumpty back on June 14, 2014 and argued that Iraq has split between Kurdish region, a Shia region and a Sunni region. The US policy states that Iraq is one country despite all reality on the ground. As long as this remains US policy, American actions will lead to a war of attrition which is to the advantage of ISIS and an eventual hard breakup of the central government.
Actually, the reality is much broader.
3. A New Sunni State – the Dempsey Reality
Back on June 14, 2014 we wrote in our article Rinse & Repeat Levant-i-Stan:
- “The Humpty-Dumpty that was Shia-controlled Sunni-majority northern Iraq cannot be put together again, not even with all the horses & men of the Obama Administration. There is no way the Sunnis of northwestern Iraq will ever work again with a Shia regime in Baghdad. There is also no way the Sunnis of northeastern Syria will work with any Alawite regime in Damascus. There is now a new Sunni state in much of Mesopotamia. The sooner the Obama Administration accepts it the better it will be for both America and the region.”
And what does this new Sunni state look like? Look at the map from September 2014:
Look at the size of this new Sunni state. And now recall the words of General Dempsey from September 2014:
- “ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.”
This is a state of 20 million Sunnis, a new Sunni state of Iraq-Syria. Does any one believe that any central Government in Shia-Baghdad can ever establish its writ in this massive Sunni state?
The central problem of US policy is that it refuses to accept this reality on the ground, a reality that is sensible from a religious-ethnic self-rule doctrine. The US policy continues to regard that white line between old Syria & old Iraq as a real border and continues to believe that old Iraqi portions of this new Sunni state can be governed from Baghdad.
This US policy doesn’t get that Sunni Iraq-Syria has now become Pashtun-Afghanistan & Vietnam in which one religious-ethnic community is divided by an artificial partition that hardly exists on the ground. At least the line of control between South & North Vietnam was guarded by a large number of troops, at least the line of control between Pashtun-Afghanistan & Pashtun-Pakistan is guarded by a large number of troops. And look what happened in Vietnam and what is happening in Af-Pak. These lines on the ground are porous and mean nothing.
ISIS has gone much farther than Vietnam ever did and than Afghanistan even thinks of doing. ISIS has eliminated this border by capturing the last border post between old Syria & old Iraq. Yes, the Syrian troops ran from that battle too. So ISIS fighters can easily move back and forth between Sunni Iraq to Sunni Syria and enjoy uninterrupted supply lines. This is why a new “surge” in old Iraq will not work.
Look at the new Sunni state in the map above. Kurdish & Shia forces will be of no use in that Sunni area. America will eventually need Sunni troops to win in that new state. Where will they come from? Turkey is non-Arab and their entry will smack of a new Ottoman regime. Egypt is too far and Egypt couldn’t even handle Yemen when the Egyptian military was much stronger. Saudi Arabia? That would be a disaster. First Saudis are already in some trouble with their intervention in Yemen. Secondly, if Saudi troops enter Sunni Iraq, wouldn’t Shia troops enter Southern Shia regions of Saudi Arabia, the regions that contain the largest Saudi oil fields? Any entry of Saudi Arabia into Sunni Iraq would boomerang on them and create major risks for turmoil within Saudi Arabia. Just this week, a suicide bomber from ISIS blew himself up in a Shia mosque inside Saudi Arabia killing 21 people.
US policy has to completely reorient itself and begin thinking about a new Sunni leadership and future government for this new Sunni state of 20 million Sunnis located in the epicenter of the Middle East – the region between Damascus & Baghdad. But that is only the next step. The first state is to destroy today’s ISIS – the guys who are fighting to run this new Sunni state, the guys who use brutality as a weapon and extreme fanatism as their shield. The most effective way would be a new “surge” but for a much bigger Sunni region of Iraq & Syria. Such a bigger & better surge could work but only for the short term. Sooner or later, the US troops of the surge would leave and then a new ISIS-Al Qaeda 3.0 will be born.
The other alternative is to continue this war of attrition against ISIS in a series of “win some-lose some” wins & setbacks. This war began 25 years ago in 1990 with Saddam Hussein and will likely continue for another 25 years. That is assuming Saudi Arabia remains stable under its royal family rule.
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