When the military campaign to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria was first mooted it was never made clear how disjointed US-led Operation Inherent Resolve was, nor how several member states of the coalition each had different strategic endgames. In an interview this month, US Colonel Steve Warren puts a gloss on its limited success almost two years on but when pressed admitted to several concerns and complications about the overall mission.
Launched as a self-styled Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a general long-term strategy was set out “to degrade and defeat ISIL/Daesh.” This included military operations, capacity building, and training; stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters; cutting off access to financing and funding; addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises; and what was called the ideological delegitimization of ISIL/Daesh through exposing their true nature.
It is estimated that nearly 11,000 airstrikes (over 7,000 in Iraq and the remainder in Syria) have been launched killing over 27,000 fighters and striking over 22,000 targets.
Approximately 80% were conducted by American forces and 20% by other members, including the UK. Warren claimed that Daesh had lost 40% of the territory they had held in Iraq and about 10% of the territory they once held in Syria both mostly in the Kurdish regions.
After indirectly supplying Kurdistan with small arms through the CIA, the US moved to directly supply the Peshmerga. Like the Sunni and Hashd Al Sha’abi militias, they remain outside the official Iraqi Security Forces, which are already depleted to less than a third of the 380,000 secular strong force the US had intended to bequeath upon its withdrawal. With less than 20,000 trained under the current operation, it underlines the sheer size of the task ahead.
The added complications include the Turkish interest in limiting the power of any allies of their Kurdish rebels; and Saudi Arabia seeking to lead their own so-called Sunni coalition that will only prove to be as much divisive as it is sectarian. In his interview, the US spokesman revealed that the Americans not only had no relations with the Iranians who have not only a long shared history with its neighbour Iraq, but has also military advisors. The US were also not training some of Iraq’s own Shi’a Muslim militia.
As time has passed, the situation on the ground has become increasingly complex, which has implications not only for efforts to find a durable political settlement in Syria and possibly Iraq, but also for the military campaign against ISIS.
Before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, it was feared that the country could eventually be divided into three sections: a proposal which again appears to be coming yet again to the fore.
The military picture in Syria is even more distorted as time passed especially with the involvement of Russia, which like Iran, has thus far remained supportive of the Assad regime.
On the other side of the battlefield, the attempt to overthrow the Government and support the civil war has continued without the seeking of permission to be a legitimate actor as the coalition had previously done in Iraq. Among the rebel coalitions, it has been calculated that there has been no less than two dozen nationwide and regional groups including some now defunct.
Warren admitted it was “hard” to find people to work with in Syria as there were “many disparate sub groups”. In the end, the establishment of the Syrian Democratic Force of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrians, Armenian, and Turkmen militias was selected as legitimate partners to fight against the Government forces.
Comments last September by US intelligence chiefs have given credence to conspiracy theorists that the map of the Middle East was being redrawn. The Head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen Vincent Stewart, said he could see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts and that the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern : Iraq was unlikely to come back under Baghdad’s control – a view agreed by the CIA Director, John Brennan.
It seems ironic that the US President Barack Obama in his last year, is expected to leave the Middle East in a much bigger mess than when he came to power in 2008, when he was seen as a saviour.
If Daesh present the largest security threat faced by Britain and other countries, why is the campaign to defeat it so partisan, divisive and relying on terrorist groups.