December 22, 2014

Iraq and Syria - clarity and confusion (Part One)

CNN's Brooke Baldwin and Jim Sciutto*

There are two different wars ongoing in the Middle East, although nominally both of them are targeting the same enemy - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State, or the Islamic Caliphate.

In a perfect military world, this would be one war being waged on two fronts, with coordinated operations and attacks aimed at defeating the single enemy across the entire theater of operations.

What we have in reality is one war against ISIS inside Iraq and another war against ISIS inside Syria - the former is rather straight forward while the other is almost hopelessly chaotic.


Looking at Iraq, we have a war on ISIS conducted by the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish peshmerga ("those who confront death") supported by a U.S.-led coalition which includes Arab and non-Arab states, as well as Iranian special forces and fighter pilots, with some Russian advisory support. Although it might sound complicated, it seems to work as long as the Iranians and Russians realize they are minor players in this action and remain in the background.

It is a coalition in name only - the U.S. Air Force (overwhelmingly) and U.S. Navy are carrying the water (as much as 95 percent of the sorties), with limited support from the other members. To those of us who have served in coalitions or NATO before, this is business as usual - the United States is always the "big kid on the block" and provides the lion's share of the resources.

Coalition air forces are striking targets all over the country, sometimes in direct support of Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga forces, and at times hitting strategic ISIS targets far from the front lines. They are also striking targets in Syria - at least in the air, ISIS is being treated as a single target set.

There have also been a few independent airstrikes by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) in Iraq's Diyala province near the Iranian border. These strikes were in support of Kurdish peshmerga forces attempting to oust ISIS from positions near the city of Jalula' and regain control of the important al-Hamrayn dam.

While the U.S. Central Command claims there is no coordination between the American-led coalition and the IRIAF, there is likely coordination via the Iraqi armed forces. It is inconceivable that American tactical air commanders would permit unidentified aircraft to operate in close proximity of U.S. aircraft or U.S. ground forces deployed to the country. The days of unknown/uncleared entities approaching American forces without challenge ended with the 2000 attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden harbor.

When ISIS routed the Iraqi Army and seized the second-largest city of Mosul earlier this year, the true state of Iraq's armed forces was laid bare for all to see. After the departure of American forces in 2011, Iraqi forces deteriorated into a corrupt army worthy of a third-world country.

When challenged in Mosul, Iraqi Army units collapsed. ISIS launched a series of attacks down the Tigris River valley coincident with attacks up the Euphrates valley from their strongholds in al-Ramadi and al-Fallujah. Yes, those are the same two cities in al-Anbar province taken by American forces just a decade earlier at great cost - in this context, "cost" means young American lives and blood. (See my earlier article, Where is the Iraqi Army?)

Now we have almost 3,000 American "advisers" in Iraq. Those advisers are in Iraq to train Iraqi Army units - the same units we spent millions of dollars training before the premature American withdrawal in 2011. There is a bright spot, however: President Barack Obama has realized that the re-introduction of American troops is in the best interests of the United States - better late than never.

The strategy in Iraq is simple, and has a chance of working. The coalition is going to re-train and re-equip the Iraqi armed forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga units. It will take time and a commitment from the newly elected Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to allow merit and competence to determine senior officer appointments, not political connections.

If the coalition advisers can get the Iraqis back into fighting shape and continues to provide adequate air support, there is a chance that ISIS can be defeated in Iraq. That victory is defined as the destruction of ISIS units in Iraq or forcing their withdrawal back to Syria.

Recent actions show mixed results. In some cases, especially in and near the Kurdish areas in the north, ISIS seems to have been halted in its advances; in some areas, they have been pushed back. That is not always the case. For example, the city of Bayji, the location of the largest oil refinery in the country, has changed hands several times. Al-Anbar province in the western part of the country, remains the venue of fierce fighting as ISIS continues to advance in the Euphrates Valley.

A major battle appears to be on the horizon at an Iraqi military training facility at 'Ayn al-Asad air base. ISIS has been steadily moving toward the base for months. Last week, they attacked the base. However, the 200 American special operations troops assigned to the base as trainers engaged the attacking force, called in airstrikes and decimated the attackers. It was a stark reminder that there are American ground forces in harm's way.

ISIS will not give up easily - they will continue to attack the air base. This battle will be the bellwether of the future of the war in Iraq. If the Iraqis are not able to defend the base, the Obama Administration will be forced into a tough decision - do we pull out of al-Anbar province and leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves - which means almost certain defeat - or do we make a stand and deploy American combat units to the area - the dreaded "boots on the ground?"

Given the abysmal condition of the Iraqi armed forces, it may just come to that.

Part Two will deal with the confusion in Syria.

* Disclosure: I am a paid military analyst for CNN. Brooke and Jim are two of my favorite colleagues at CNN.