ISIS is busy neutralizing the Syrian factions that might make common cause with the United States. On Thursday, Breitbart London reported that several dozen leaders of Syrian rebel factions opposed to ISIS, who were gathered at a meeting in northwestern Syria, were killed in a massive explosion on Wednesday.
Huffington Post on Friday evening summarized reports that ISIS has signed a non-aggression deal with a separate group of rebel factions in Syria, nominally so that all of the factions can continue to fight the Assad regime.
According to the Dubai-based Arabic news site Orient News, one of the signatories to the agreement is the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a group that has received U.S. support and has been touted as a likely partner for a U.S. strategy to oppose ISIS in Syria.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 12, 2014
The SRF has been losing ground in recent weeks, suffering a major blow when one of its top commanders was killed at the end of August. At the same time, the SRF was reported to be fighting alongside al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in southern Syria, including the battle for the crossing point with Israel in the Golan over which the rebel factions claimed control on 27 August.
Now it appears that the non-aggression pact with ISIS was brokered by Jabhat al-Nusra. None of this comes as a surprise to those who’ve been following along with Patrick Poole at PJ Media. On 3 September, Poole outlined the continuing cooperation of factions in the Free Syrian Army with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – cooperation that has resulted in a flow of U.S.-supplied weaponry to the latter two armies. On 9 September, he expounded on a report from the Los Angeles Times that one of the “vetted moderate” groups, Harakat Hazm, is quite open about fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra.
The U.S. has already given this group anti-tank missiles. Appended to Poole’s analysis is the tweeted text of an alliance agreement concluded by “vetted moderate” faction Harakat Hazm and other similar groups with Jabhat al-Nusra. The text was tweeted on 8 July.
It’s not just credible, it’s highly bloody likely that some of the rebel factions – including U.S. client SRF – have indeed made a pact with ISIS. The fact that it won’t be worth a bucket of warm spit ought to serve not as an encouragement to U.S. delusions of a meaningful alliance in Syria, but as a warning.
The evanescent quality of alliances and deals among factions in Syria is a terribly unpromising condition for Obama’s proposed mode of passive-aggressive U.S. military operations there. So is the ease with which ISIS (almost certainly) has just blown nearly 50 of their leaders up.
It’s hard to issue the warning about this trenchantly enough – and a similar concern must apply in Iraq as well, given the parlous state of national unity and regional cohesion. Iraq may look simpler and less like a free-for-all, but ISIS is already there, and with each day that passes is able to build a more extensive network of clients and affiliated cadre around the area in which the U.S. plans to operate.
This would be one thing if we were going in in force. But we’re not. Our posture in northern Iraq will bear no resemblance to what we’ve been used to in Afghanistan for the last five years. In Afghanistan, we have tens of thousands of troops still, and sizable, heavily fortified redoubts to quarter them in. The size of our forces and their level of protection are still prohibitive for the Taliban outside the fences.
It cannot be overemphasized that that will not be the case in Iraq. We aren’t sending in a force with overwhelming superiority. In fact, we’re actually going to be putting a small concentration of troops who aren’t professional ground-pounders in a very vulnerable position in one place in particular: the air base at Irbil (or Erbil) in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where we will reportedly be basing strike-fighters.
I’m really not sure why we’re doing this. I mean, I know why: the Turks won’t let us use their air bases to launch strike-fighters for attacks in Iraq or Syria. To operate Air Force F-15s or F-16s in either country, the most convenient operating base will therefore be in Iraq. (Up to now, Air Force strike-fighters have been using bases in Kuwait and Qatar. Navy F/A-18s have been operating from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) in the Persian Gulf. This makes for long flights and abbreviated availability on-station, however.)
We have had a small number of combat helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at Irbil since early August, providing air support for Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. (Drones are presumably being flown out of Irbil as well.) It’s not that we don’t have a small concentration of troops and high-value weaponry there already. It’s that we’re going to be expanding the size of it, but without changing the basis for our presence or operations.
Irbil is an exposed and poorly defended facility, especially for a guerrilla force that quite probably is armed with antitank missiles (which can be used effectively against anything big with a nice heat signature) and a variety of shoulder-fired and battlefield rockets. The New York Times has been posting a useful set of graphics throughout the ISIS campaign (here), and has an excellent generic view of the approaches to Irbil (below; the original annotations relate to events in early August).
Of particular note is the short distance between Irbil and the line of ISIS control to the west, which today is about 35 miles. The darker shaded areas on the terrain view indicate spots where ISIS-led fighters have recently conducted attacks on Kurdish forces.
The next map shows the larger strategic vulnerability of Irbil, with Sunni enclaves to both the west and south, and an uncertain mix of conditions to the east, on the other side of the Iranian border. The Sunni areas are ISIS’s recruiting grounds; the enclave of Sulaymaniyah and its corridor from Iran are big question marks in terms of friendliness to the U.S. presence.
The threat problem here is not that ISIS will be able to conquer and occupy Kurdish territory, but that it will be able to infiltrate Kurdish territory to conduct attacks on the U.S. forces in Irbil as well as the Kurds. (One form of attack, we must not forget, is the use of anti-air missiles. The one thing a guerrilla force with shorter-range, lower-altitude missiles usually has trouble doing is getting close to the airfield where the aircraft have to take off and land. Oops.)
The size and character of the U.S. contingent that will be in Irbil are not suited for taking the fight to guerrilla troops operating in the local area. Our force will have to rely on the Kurds for that: for keeping ISIS fighters too far away to inflict significant damage on us. We’ll have air assets to support them with, but security for our base is not something we’ll have the final say over, in terms of its operational priority in the fight or the comfort level we might prefer.
We’ll be depending on a condition we may very well not have, at least not for long: i.e., that Irbil doesn’t need to be heavily fortified or built up. Besides the helicopters (it’s not clear if we have standard-issue Apaches, Black Hawks, or perhaps special forces helicopters based at Irbil) and the Ospreys, we’ll be moving in ground support for strike-fighters and large batches of weaponry, along with the airframes themselves. The attractiveness of the Irbil air base as a target will increase dramatically. And even if we harden the facility itself, hardening the approaches to it – keeping a guerrilla force from being able to get close to it – is going to be difficult, if there is any breach in the Kurds’ defense of Irbil as an urban stronghold.
There won’t be a secure ground line of communication (GLOC) between Irbil and the rest of Iraq. But this will not be like the 2001 entry into Afghanistan, which we made with a clear-cut and measureable purpose, and for which we had the prior buy-in of a key neighbor: Pakistan. Expanding our footprint at Irbil, with no GLOC and no formal relations with the nearest neighbor, Iran, is one of the longest-tether and most exposed things we’ve ever done.
Now add to that mix the likelihood that an unusually well-organized, well-funded ISIS can exploit shifting loyalties – or at the very least can wield intimidation – among every local faction that is not Kurdish, and perhaps it will be clear the kind of danger we are courting. ISIS isn’t going to just sit still while we increase our footprint and ramp up bombing operations, while not changing our methods or operational objectives.
Inside our “OODA loop”
In fact, ISIS hasn’t sat still. Once Obama made his speech on Wednesday, the option of mounting coordinated attacks on ISIS’s strategic rear in Syria immediately became a major threat posed by the U.S. If we could do it effectively, we could force ISIS to defend its rear: shift resources away from the campaign in Iraq, and perhaps even rework its overall strategy.
So ISIS promptly took out nearly 50 opposition rebel leaders and signed its non-aggression agreement with America’s potential partners in Syria.
Remember that ISIS doesn’t have to show good faith over time with any of those Syrian factions. It just has to preempt their cooperation with the United States. The mechanism for that is straightforward. We’re an easy read – ponderous making decisions, easily spooked, committed to at least perfunctory public transparency – and our president is a slow learner.
If ISIS can prevent anyone in Syria from cooperating with the U.S., ISIS can concentrate its effort in Iraq, where our forces on the ground will be: small, scattered, un-concentrated, embedded with local groups which may not all be fighting for the same objectives. Remember this also: Obama is determined not to overlay an obtrusively coherent U.S. framework on this operation. Kurds fighting in northern Iraq and Sunnis fighting along the Euphrates in Anbar – each with a separate ill-defined connection to the struggling Shia-majority government in Baghdad – will have the lead.
Even in Vietnam and Somalia, I don’t think we’ve ever backed into anything with our hindquarters flapping quite so egregiously in the breeze. Military success doesn’t just happen. It’s as much a matter of political will, and a coherent strategy and operational plan, as it is of training, expertise, and weapons superiority at the tactical level. Assuming we do go ahead with the plan-deficient, few-boots non-war the Obama administration has been proclaiming for the last 72 hours, I am very concerned that American troops could find themselves vulnerable under fire and fighting for their lives within weeks.
I would actually feel better at this point if we weren’t enlarging our footprint in Irbil at all, but instead planned to just keeping flying strike-fighters from Kuwait and Qatar. There are sound operational reasons to be gravely concerned about Obama’s decision to dismiss the advice of his military leaders and go with a toxic brew of half-measure objectives and exposed deployment situations.
The rapid, cynical, homicidal initiative shown by ISIS in seeking to neutralize Obama’s Syria option is a pretty good indicator of what we’ll be up against. Pundits and officials who are vocally criticizing the president are not just showing partisan sour grapes. This is real, and it’s bad.