August 25, 2015

U.S. and Turkey to launch "comprehensive" operation against ISIS

Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters

The Turkish foreign minister announced that Turkey and the United States will soon commence what he called "comprehensive" air operations to force fighters of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) from a security zone to be established in northern Syria.

The establishment of this security zone has been a longstanding Turkish requirement for its cooperation in the fight against ISIS, and was no doubt a condition in the recent agreement by which American forces can conduct operations from three Turkish air bases just north of the Syria's border with Turkey. U.S. Air Force F-16's deployed to Incirlik Air Base near Adana have already conducted airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq. Armed Predator drones are also being flown from the base.

Turkish participation in the fight against ISIS is welcome, and according to some analysts (including me), long overdue. Turkey has been the primary conduit for thousands of foreign fighters to enter Syria and join ISIS. ISIS still controls a portion of the Syrian border with Turkey north of Aleppo. It is this area that the Turks want to declare a security zone. The Turks hope that the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees will return to this area and alleviate the huge burden on Turkish social services.

Declaring a security zone and establishing it are two different things. As can be seen on the map, the area designated as the security zone - a 50 mile stretch of land along the Turkish-Syrian border - is firmly under control of ISIS.

Given the generally anemic air campaign conducted over the past year, it is doubtful that even with Turkish Air Force participation air power alone will clear ISIS fighters from the area. At some point, some ground force is going to have to move into the area and occupy the territory.

This is a key piece of territory - again, it is the only remaining portion of the Turkish border that is still controlled by ISIS. Cutting ISIS's access to the border - now easily traversed despite the large presence of Turkish troops - will staunch the flow of arms and recruits to the Islamist group. Without this portal to Turkey, logistics support and manpower replacements become exponentially more difficult, as does the sale and transport of black market oil to unscrupulous Turkish dealers.

According to the announcement by the Turkish official, American and Turkish aircraft will provide air support for a force of "moderate Syrian rebels" who will remove ISIS forces from the area. This is laughable - thus far the United States has only trained somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 "moderate Syrian rebels" willing to forego their main objective of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and confront ISIS on behalf of the United States.

These few untested troops constitute our "boots on the ground." Add to this the fact that many of the initial group of 60 have been killed or co-opted by the Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria. Pitiful. To think they are going to remove ISIS from this rather large area is fantasy.

There are Kurds in the area willing to be the proverbial "boots on the ground" - in fact, they have functioned in that role in the areas to the east of the erstwhile security zone. The successful defense of Kobani with Kurdish forces on the ground and substantial American airpower shows how effective this match-up can be. The Turks have vetoed any Kurdish participation, fearing that Kurdish control of almost the entire border area will lead to either Kurdish autonomy or an effort to establish an independent Kurdish homeland.

As a CNN military analyst, I was interviewed about this subject. American and Turkish aircraft acting in concert can bring enormous firepower to the fight. However, someone is going to have to remove ISIS fighters - firmly ensconced in the area. The force of a handful of "moderate Syrian rebels" are not up to the task. I asked then, and I ask now, who is going to do it?

I fear that without the Kurds as our "boots on the ground," we will employ massive amounts of airpower and still not dislodge ISIS from the area. It is as if we are setting this up for failure. The Turks are going to have to either let the Kurds participate or they will have to introduce Turkish troops to confront ISIS.

More half measures - when are we going to get serious?