The anti-ISIS coalition - military plans and political risks

The United States ‘intends to focus its training and advisory effort on selected Iraqi forces,’ Ben Barry writes

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Since President Obama’s Sept. 10 announcement of the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a new Iraqi government has been formed. Coalition air attacks have been very tightly constrained, to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. But the air strikes have had a positive effect on the morale of Iraqi and Kurdish forces and probably prevented ISIS reaching Baghdad and Erbil. They have also forced ISIS to adapt.

Coalition Military Plans

Statements by President Obama and senior U.S. officers indicate the contours of the U.S.’ military strategy. The first part of the campaign is to counter ISIS in Iraq. Secondly, moderate Syrian opposition forces will be trained and equipped. Finally, there will be a major assault on ISIS in Syria. Currently stopping ISIS’ advances in Iraq is US CENTCOM’s main concern, with attacks in Syria designed to ‘shape’ the battle in Iraq.

In the short term the aim will be to stop the ISIS offensive. Provided that the Iraqi government maintains its political stability, the Shia areas of greater Baghdad should be held. If Iraqi politics again dissolve into chaos and disunity ISIS could pose a credible threat to Baghdad.

General Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that about half of Iraq’s 50 brigades that have been assessed by the U.S. are combat–capable. The U.S. announced that reinforcing troops will form at least 12 ‘advice and assistance’ teams that will deploy alongside Iraqi forces down to brigade level.

The U.S. has assigned the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division to take over the Baghdad operations center. Their commanding general stated that the HQs mission is to advise and assist the Iraqi forces. It will "help the Iraqis see themselves, help them understand what their capabilities are, and what assets they have available. We’ll focus on training their forces and getting them on the final touches as they prepare to go to combat.’

Evidence suggests that the United States intends to focus its training and advisory effort on selected Iraqi forces, probably on up to three or four divisions in total. These would need to be withdrawn from the front line, receive fresh training and equipment and integrate with U.S. and coalition military advisors. Once ready, these would be employed in conjunction with U.S.-led coalition airpower for offensive operations against ISIS. These are likely to be methodical and deliberate operations.

The political and economic importance of Mosul means that retaking it would be the decisive point in such an operation. But despite the local tactical success at Mosul Dam it is far from clear how long it will take before the brigades can be withdrawn from the front line, reconstituted, re-equipped and retrained in order to render them sufficiently capable of a broad counter-offensive.

Meanwhile ISIS is likely to make good use of this time to continue to increase control over the areas it occupies. ISIS units will be preparing fighting positions and IEDs, to make any Iraqi offensive operations into these areas as difficult and costly as possible. Furthermore, if the group can cause the United States and Iraqi forces to inflict civilian casualties and collateral damage, ISIS’ media operation will be quick to exploit it, thus further alienating the Sunnis and eroding regime legitimacy outside Iraq. ISIS will have been inspired by Hamas’ recent defense of Gaza.

Political Risks

The campaign is already a complex undertaking. It will probably take years and become more complex still, and its success depends on the new Iraqi government regaining the confidence of Iraq’s Sunni communities. But many Sunni politicians have lost credibility due to previous co-operation with the Maliki regime. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will need to balance engagement with the United States, outreach to the Sunnis and sustaining military support from Iran. These factors may make Iraqi politics the critical limiting factor on military plans.

There is strong evidence of ISIS insurgency in Sunni communities further south in the Iraq, particularly those in and around Baghdad. These appear to be the source of suicide attacks against Shia in the capital, and this threat will also need to be managed.

Media reports provide credible evidence that intimidation and extra-judicial killings of Sunnis have significantly increased since the summer, with evidence of complicity by Shia militias. Employment of Shia militias in offensive operations would be an option fraught with the risk of escalation of reprisals, furthering ISIS’ apparent aims of kindling a second Sunni/Shia civil war. Some powerful Shia militia are also strongly opposed to the U.S. presence.

ISIS portrays the air strikes as conducted by ‘infidel crusaders’. The group’s extremely effective information operation is proving enormously influential. It is not clear whether either the Iraqi government’s or the coalition’s information operation is adequately contesting this battle of the narrative.

The conflict is already drawing on U.S. and coalition military and intelligence capabilities from other areas, including Afghanistan, which will benefit the coalition as it strives to understand ISIS. Even so, as time goes on the risk of a coalition strike causing significant civilian casualties cumulatively increases.

Coalition politics are also a concern. The United States and some other nations consider Iraq the main effort, while others, such as the UK, see Syria as more important and many of the Arab members are restricting kinetic strikes to Syria only. Meanwhile, the Turkish position is influenced by its desire to avoid Turkish Kurds gaining more power and influence. All of these carry the risk of political and military friction.

Operations to defeat ISIS in Syria would increase risk. Whilst Iran’s aims are aligned with the coalition in Iraq, Tehran and its ally Hezbollah have invested heavily in supporting the Assad regime. As has Russia. But the stated policy of the United States, and some of its key allies, including the UK, is that President Assad should step down. Mao Tse Tung once wrote that ‘'War is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions, when they have developed to a certain stage, between classes, nations, states, or political groups.’ Attacking ISIS in Syria will make the resolution of political and military contradictions unavoidable.


Ben Barry is a Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.