By Paul Davis
With the administration pressed on all sides because of its lack of an effective foreign policy, a group that had been building up in Syria struck with speed and violence that caused a major breakdown in the regional status quo. Military planning requires time and information to produce a strategy that will result in a desired end state. The current US operation against the Islamic terror group ISIS (ISIL, IS) has shown none of the earmarks of a strategy.
What is strategy; it is the ways and means to an end. The end state given is the total destruction of ISIS. So what then are the ways and means, the strategy to accomplish this? The United States announced it would begin forming a coalition that would engage ISIS from the Air and then from the ground. The ground portion would consist of regional forces with the US leading with Air strikes supported by regional and international air forces. The problem is this is not a strategy; it is at best the start of a plan.
The immediate military requirement was to stop the forward momentum in Iraq. This should have been easy. We had air power in the region and we had regional ground forces engaged with the enemy, The Kurdish regional guard, the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga had eyes on the enemy and had up to date intelligence on ISIS locations and movements. What they did not have was sufficient firepower to engage effectively. Therefore, the answer is simply, coordinate targets with the Peshmerga and at the same time resupply them with needed weapons.
With everything so clear and easy why are thousands of Kurds, Yazidi, Arabs and Christians still dying at the hands of ISIS.
The United States and its allies are so tied up in the theoretical world of politics that dogma has replaced critical thinking and while waiting for an epiphany thousands more will die. The US wants to run all weapons through Baghdad, which has refused to support the Peshmerga or share in oil revenues as required by their own constitution. It is not as if the option is the Iraqi army, they are worthless. While being the recipients of US weapons and training they ran at the first sign of a fight and left the weapons and weapon systems behind. So then, give the weapons to the Kurds directly. Baghdad says no and our NATO ally Turkey is against arming Kurds at any time for any reason. Turkey has a legitimate concern since one of the Non-Iraqi Kurdish groups, the PKK, has been at war with Turkey for decades. Turkey has a less then legitimate excuse; they have been supporting ISIS in an attempt to overthrow the Assad regime.
Inside of Syria, we have disparate groups that are fighting not only ISIS, but also the Assad government and each other. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the group that receives all the press, is an amalgam of rebel groups that began the attempted overthrow of Assad in 2011, during the Arab Spring. The FSA is undisciplined, self-serving and untrained. This may have been different had the west responded to request for assistance from the beginning but it did not and the FSA is so broken and dysfunctional and infiltrated by ISIS and Assad and a number of others that it is not the boots on the ground the US needs. Therefore, whom do we turn to inside of Syria?
The Kurdish militia in Syria known as the YPG has been successfully fighting ISIS for two years. A highly disciplined and committed force they defended Kurds, Arabs and Christians from Assad and ISIL. They sent fighters to Iraq and helped rescue the Yazidi from Mt Sinjar while the west was considering action. The YPG while being Kurdish has also raised units of Arabs, Christians and Yazidi. So what is wrong with the YPG? They have been tied to the PKK.
Now back to the lack of strategy part. As said, a strategy is the ways and means to an end. If the desired end is the destruction of ISIS then there must be boots on the ground. If they are not to be US boots then they will need to be someone’s. The Iraqi army is out they are broken. The FSA is out they are incapable, Regional armies would be good but Turkey Jordan, UAE etc. will not likely commit to invade a neighbor regardless of the security situation. The Kurds are engaged. The strategy then would be to arm and support the Kurds, cooperate and coordinate air attacks. Train them to go beyond guerrilla tactics and stand and protect themselves while destroying the bad guys.
The current action of the US and allied air forces have been to seek out and destroy convoys and attack stationary targets identified as command centers. This is good, this helps. This is not a strategy to achieve the end result of the destruction of ISIS. These are actions that individually cause temporary harm, it is not a strategy designed to achieve the ultimate declared end.
I call on the US and the individual countries involved to engage with the Kurds to fight a common evil. We may not agree with their politics but they are not now, have never been nor will they ever be a threat to the west. In fact, if treated fairly we may find a good true and loyal friend in a region that is not likely to give the west many opportunities at friendship.
*Paul is a Retired Military Senior Intelligence Analyst and subject matter expert on Kurdish affairs., Former consultant to US government for Middle East, specialized in Iraq, Iran and Syria.