War Against ISIS – Strategy, Tactics & Reality


President Holland of France declared War against ISIS this week. French airplanes began bombing ISIS positions in Raqqa & nearby areas. Russians stepped up their own bombings of ISIS positions in Raqqa & the supply lines of ISIS oil. The political & media scene in America exploded into an orgasm of rhetoric. Forgotten is the need for cold, hard, unemotional analysis of what is necessary to damage ISIS. Below is our contribution to such analysis.

1. “Defeating ISIS” – Remember the Dempsey Reality?

General Dempsey, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on August 21, 2014 in his press conference with then Secretary of Defense Hagel:

  • ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad

vision or reality ISIS

This is the map we used back on August 23, 2014 in our article ISIS – a Histrio-Strategic View of What Follows. Nothing material has changed in the above map. The Sunni “state” now exists in reality even though it has none of the hallmarks of a state. Just look at the map. This Sunni “state” is bigger than all three surrounding  ethnic “states” combined – Shiite Iraq, the area controlled by today’s Iraqi government, the Kurdish “state” and Assad’s remaining Alawite “state”. 

None of these neighboring “states” can do much in the above Sunni “state”. The Shiite militias of Iraq-Iran will not venture into this Sunni “state”. The Kurds will not either. Iraq-Iran will be satisfied if they can cordon off the neighborhood of Baghdad up to Ramadi and Kurds will be satisfied if they can seal off their areas. The Assad forces, meaning the Hezbollah & Iranian fighters in Syria, will be satisfied to seal off enough area to establish an Alawite zone. And they can only do so with the help of massive Russian air power.   

What about troops from the so-called “allies” of America? Forget about these rhetorical dreams. Jordan has enough problems managing its own territory. Saudi Arabia is now trying to extricate itself from Yemen. They have no desire to send troops into Sunni Iraq. That for one will create a bull market in body bags in Saudi Arabia, something the Saudis cannot tolerate, Secondly, Sunni troops from the Defender of the Two Mosques killing fellow Sunni Arabs? That could shake the foundations of the consensus that allows the Saudi regime to remain in power. The Egyptians are far away and have enough trouble managing terrorism within Egypt. Turkey is ethnically non-Arab and has to first occupy the Kurdish “state” before occupying Sunni Iraq-Syria. Therefore, as we wrote in our ISIS 2.0 & 3.0 article on September 23, 2014:

  • “So what ground forces would be acceptable to all sides …? You guessed it – American forces. The only acceptable solution to all sides would be a short term super-surge a la 2006-2007 under General Petraeus.”

No one was willing to even imagine the possibility of another surge in Iraq-Syria a year ago. Now, especially after last week’s attacks in Paris, it is getting some verbal attention, mainly because of the desire to “crush them once & for all“.

Forget “for all” for now. The big question can it work once more?

2.A 2015-2016 US Boots on the Ground “Surge Nouveau” in Iraq-Syria?

Remember the horrors of Iraq in 2005-2006? Daily bombings of civilians, attacks on US troops, explosives going off under Humvees – America paid a very heavy price to stabilize Sunni Iraq back then. That was with a much smaller Al Qaeda of Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS. And that was when we had 150,000 US troops in Iraq and when we ran the Iraqi Government in Baghdad. Today’s Iraqi Government would be hostile to the presence of even 25,000 US troops and no American leader will even think of sending that many to Iraq. Forget about 150,000. Can you then imagine the violence that may be inflicted on a much smaller US force in a twice as large area of Sunni Iraq + Sunni Syria by a much larger ISIS?

And the big X factor of 2006 is absent today. People severely underestimate the message W sent to the Sunni insurgents with his surge. It was simple & brutal. President Bush communicated that he was going to remain in Iraq for the duration – he had greater power, greater resources and he had greater tenacity & will than they did. And the Sunni leaders of Anbar province read him loud & clear. Once they realized that W was there for the duration of the fight, the smarter among them came over & began working with Generals Petraeus, Keane & McCrystal. 

This was one of the main reasons why General McCrystal was successful in Iraq under President Bush but failed in Afghanistan under President Obama. Recall that President Obama promised to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 before he launched his Afghan surge in late 2009.

There is not a single US leader that will commit to keep a massive US troop presence in Iraq-Syria for the duration of the next fight. Every leader in Sunni Iraq-Syria knows that and that is why no Sunni leader would commit to working with US troops in a surge nouveau.

So how do we “defeat” ISIS? Defeating an enemy is really about defeating the enemy’s objectives and ideally the enemy’s central mission. 

3.What Drives ISIS and their Recruits?

Every Sunni Arab man knows that he is the descendant of conquerors. Under Prophet Muhammad and after him, they exploded with the force of the desert whirlwind to conquer the Persian Sassanid empire, Africa and parts of Europe. They defeated the Crusaders and their kin in Central Asia attacked the Indian Subcontinent, Indonesia & Malaysia. There is an intense yearning deep in the hearts of Sunnis to recapture their lost glory as they live in relative poverty under the norms imposed by the west.

Osama Bin Laden knew this and used it effectively. But he was an ascetic fighter, not a conqueror. ISIS combines the fervency of Bin Laden with the actions of a military conqueror. They act with the prowess, ability, and speed that characterized previous Arab conquerors. And ISIS delivers to its fighters what Muslim Conquerors have delivered for the past 1,400 years. Look at the Arabs, look at the Uzbeks, look at Afghans, look at Timurid Mongols. These Sunni conquerors through out history recruited angry young men with promises of glory and prizes of riches & women.

Conquest is a young man’s game and spoils of war for young men are the same today as they have been since the birth of our species. And nothing appeals to disillusioned angry young men like Islam’s call to conquer. The promise of heaven after death and riches & women with victory on earth is a heady brew indeed.  Clarissa Ward of CNN described these ISIS recruits as “street kids drunk on glory & ideology“. Paul Cruikshank of CNN agreed and added these are “radicals getting Islamized rather than Islamists getting radicalized“. 

This heady mix is also the reason why so many young women, especially women raised in Europe, have moved in with the young men of ISIS. Look at the woman terrorist who died in the French raid in Paris, the cousin of the alleged master mind of last week’s attack in Paris – this woman loved to drink, went to parties and took semi nude selfies of herself. Then she joined her ISIS cousin and died with him in pursuit of his glory. This is the allure of ISIS men for many young women who joined ISIS, said a CBS reporter last year (either Clarissa Ward or Holly Williams).

The point is you can’t stop recruitment of young men into ISIS unless you inflict horrific defeats on ISIS. That is also a historical reality of Muslim conquering armies. Young men motivated by glory & spoils of war don’t hang around when glory is extinguished & spoils become scarce. 

So we are back to square one.

4. How to vanquish ISIS?

It is rather easy. And that “easy answer” from US military sources was quoted by an analyst on TV (either Fox or CNN) this week “we can finish off ISIS by doing to a section of the Middle East what we did to Germany or Japan in WWII“. Look at the photos of Dresden, Germany after the massive carpet bombing by Allies:


This level of destruction was deemed necessary before the allied armies marched into Germany. The concern about collateral damage was not in vogue in 1945. You can look at the photos of Hiroshima & Nagasaki yourselves. Those cities were nuked mainly to avoid US casualties that would have occurred during an invasion of Japan. Are today’s US casualties less important than the ones in 1945?

The reality is that today’s America is different than the America of 1945 and the war against ISIS is vastly different for America than the war against Germany & Japan. So there is no way today’s America would be willing to inflict such damage on Sunni Iraq-Syria to vanquish ISIS.

But some one else might. For that country and that leader, the fight against ISIS is an extension of the fight they had to wage at the start of the 21st century. Look at what they did to a city in 2000:



Did that work? Look at the same city now:

The city is Grozny, capital of Chechnian province of Russia. The war against Islamic insurgents in Chechnya was won by Putin both with smart tactics and with necessary brutality. It worked and led to the next stage of Russia’s resurgence, as Stratfor wrote in 2012. The war against ISIS in Sunni Iraq-Syria is an extension of the Chechnian conflict for Putin. As W did in 2004 in Iraq, Putin has been asking Chechnian insurgents to move to Syria to fight so that they can all be vanquished there more easily.

The point is Russia-Putin have greater interests, greater need and greater will to vanquish the Sunni Jihadis in Syria than America. Now the post-Paris Europe does as well. That is why you see French President Holland seeking to cooperate with Russia in his war on ISIS. He knows that, unlike the Obama Administration, Putin has played the game in Chechnya and knows the game better.

5. Why must Assad stay?

This is the central reality of the war against ISIS. It has been so for over a year. Read the comments of military experts from August 2014

  • Colonel Jack Jacobs on MSNBC Hardball on Friday [August 22, 2014] – “the irony is that our ally in the whole thing is going to have to be Syria. …  if we are going after ISIS at all, our ally, oddly enough, has to be Assad, otherwise we are not going to be able to do it; it is going to require not only air assets, but also assets on the ground and that means Assad“
  • Mr. Dannatt, former head of Britain’s army, in the Guardian – “the west must build bridges with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to tackle Isis. … The Syrian dimension has got to be addressed. You cannot deal with half a problem, … The old saying ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran. I think it’s going to have to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad.”

The above is merely tactical. The greater argument for supporting Assad is the calamitous consequence of his fall. The fall of Assad will be hailed by ISIS as an epochal victory of the Sunni Jihad and rightly so. Not only will it send joyous waves all over the Sunni world, not only will it result in a massive recruitment drive but more importantly it will give new life to Sunni conflicts all over the world – Chechnya, Israel, Afghanistan just to name the obvious. The violent attacks in Europe will increase not decrease.

We cannot stress this point enough. The Sunni conflict in Syria-Iraq will not simmer down or end without the realization that Assad leadership is there to stay. Putin understands this and that is why he has drawn a line in the sand. King Hussein of Jordan understands this and that is why he recently welcomed Russia’ involvement in the war in Syria.

Smart American lawmakers also understand this. This week Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran of Iraq, and Congressman Austin Scott introduced legislation to End Illegal U.S. War to Overthrow Syrian Government of Assad.

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard – The U.S. is waging two wars in Syria. The first is the war against ISIS and other Islamic extremists, which Congress authorized after the terrorist attack on 9/11.  The second war is the illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad. … The war to overthrow Assad is counter-productive because it actually helps ISIS and other Islamic extremists achieve their goal of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad and taking control of all of Syria—which will simply increase human suffering in the region, exacerbate the refugee crisis, and pose a greater threat to the world.  Also, the war to overthrow Assad is illegal because Congress never authorized it.”
  • Rep. Austin Scott – “Our primary mission should be the war against ISIS, al Qaeda, and radical Islamic extremists that have operations both inside and outside of Syria and Iraq.  Those groups have carried out attacks on American allies, and are currently threatening attacks on our homeland.  This represents a clear and present danger to our citizens, and I support eliminating these radical Islamic terrorists through any means necessary.  Working to remove Assad at this stage is counter-productive to what I believe our primary mission should be.”

6. The real problem in the “war” against ISIS

The reality is that virtually no one considers ISIS as their main enemy or adversary. Saudi Arabia & the Gulf countries, America’s vaunted allies, consider Iran as their primary & semi-existential enemy. To them, ISIS is a counter thrust against Iran’s drive to dominate the arc across Iraq & Syria. Turkey is sworn to remove Assad and thinks of ISIS as an enemy of both Assad and of Kurds, Turkey’s immediate problem. Iran will remain satisfied if the Assad regime is protected in Syria and if the Baghdad neighborhood & Shiite Iraq is secure with an ISIS confined to its Raqqa neighborhood.

Even veteran, smart and capable segments of the US leadership consider ISIS as a lesser threat. General Jack Keane, who worked with General Petraeus in the 2006 surge, was explicit in his comments to Meghyn Kelly of Fox. Russian entry into the Middle East is a long term threat to US interests and removal of the Assad regime and taking down Iran are more important to him than vanquishing ISIS.

This is why ISIS has remained “contained” and below the radar for the past year. That changed with the entry of Russia into Syria and their absolute commitment to the Assad regime. That forced an embarrassed Obama Administration to step up their support of Kurds with more weapons and bombing. That enabled the Kurds to attack & seize the town of Sinjar and cut the highway between Mosul & Syria. The Iraqi army took back some areas of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

As we said defeats are death to the allure of ISIS. This series of defeats & reverses forced ISIS to hit back at soft targets such as the Russian metro jet in Egypt and the center of Paris last week. The shock of Paris was so intense & visceral that it forced Europe to focus on ISIS as the primary enemy. The question is how long will this week’s outrage last. Because the war on ISIS will last only as long as the memory of the Paris attacks lingers. Once that memory is dulled, so will the intensity of the Western focus on ISIS.


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1 Comment

  1. Some hard headed analysis, thanks. All seem to boil down to proper ‘containment’ of the 20 million Sunnis in the ‘Arab heartland” whose ‘Prophetically inspired leadership’ want to hold the world hostage for its existential violence. And brutality seems to be asking for brutality, & Putin might be the man, along with the latent brutality of western europe aroused to defend its home turf. The big boys in Germany -heart of Euro warrior ethos – may start flexing their muscled soon, too ?

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