August 6, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Battling the Islamic State: A Multi-Front War

• Recent gains by the Islamic State (IS) against Kurdish peshmerga and Lebanese border forces reveal yet again more weaknesses in military units thought to be somewhat capable; IS also exposed the utter rot in the Iraqi army earlier this summer

• IS’s success stems from its heavy weapons and aggressive tactics as well as targeting units that are more fearsome on paper than on the ground; and the Kurdish unit reportedly running out of ammunition against the well-equipped IS forces

• The longer IS holds strategically important areas, the more it gains in revenue and in a sense of permanence

• It will take a near-term sustained effort from military units as disparate as the Lebanese, the Kurds, and the Iraqi army to begin taking back seized areas; popular resistance to IS will increase once their aura of omnipotence is punctured

• As long as Syria remains a cauldron of civil war, there is no realistic prospect for dismantling IS, which leaves Iraq to face this threat for the foreseeable future, even if it pushes IS out of its current areas of control.

Success breeds success, and the Islamic State (IS)
has had a remarkable run of late. IS isn’t so much showing that it can hold land (though it has certainly done so for almost two months in the case of Mosul) as that the supposed powers in the region simply can’t. In a way, the terrorist group is trying to demonstrate that the governments in Syria, Iraq, and to a smaller-but-still worrisome degree in Lebanon, are destined to failure due to their apostate ways; each tactical victory is part of this overall strategy. IS has done this by leveraging their possession of modern heavy weapons in large quantities against well-chosen targets who, despite reputation, aren’t actually very well-equipped or well-led. This tactic serves IS's strategy of taking over lightly guarded but critical locations (near crossroads or oil wells, for instance) while avoiding crushing losses. When the strength of IS is combined with the fractious nature of its opponents, the prospects for a near-term reversal of IS fortunes appear dim.

The fierce fighting and at least temporary victory by IS in driving off the peshmerga from Sinjar and Tal Afar in Nineveh Province, Iraq, doesn't mean that IS can confidently take on the Kurds en masse but it does show an uncomfortable disparity in levels of capability among peshmerga forces. Indeed, at every stage, IS has revealed depressing insufficiencies in its opponents, starting with the truly awful performance of the well-equipped Iraqi Army (IA). To be fair, even well-led forces would face difficulties against a foe that roams the country side without fear and has artillery, heavy machine guns, missiles, and armored vehicles. But the performances to date suggest that the governments in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil will need to improve quickly to avoid losing more territory, let alone reclaiming vital areas such as Mosul. The longer a force holds an area, the more it can shape it for its defense, and the harder it will be to reclaim.

Three years of fighting in Syria has provided unparalleled training and learning opportunities for IS, and its wealth and newly acquired cache of modern weapons from fleeing Iraqi forces make it a formidable foe. This presents serious problems for the Kurds and the IA who might have hoped IS would ebb back to Syria of its own accord after a brief occupation, or from local pressure. IS has picked its battles well, based on potential revenue and projected defense. It remains to be seen how it will react to a meaningful defeat in Iraq; IS has been rebuffed but not replaced, which are two different things entirely.

The statement by the Iraqi government that it will support Kurdish efforts against IS are a welcome sign that perhaps all parties are seeing the situation more as a threat and less as an opportunity for political gain. However, there is great mistrust and animosity between the Kurds and still-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. It was just a few weeks ago that al-Maliki accused the Kurds of aiding and abetting IS forces, so expectations should be reasonably low as they relate to any early joint operations. Still, for the country as a whole (or what remains of the whole) to repulse IS, successful joint military operations are vital despite the challenges. The alternative is unthinkably worse.

Unfortunately, even in the best-case, and perhaps unrealistic, scenario of the IA and Kurds effectively coming together, along with popular Sunni opposition, to form a less divisive government and take back what IS has seized, it still doesn’t solve the larger problem of the cancer next door in Syria. IS became what it is primarily because of Syria, and as long as it has not just a sanctuary but a veritable ATM of a country to fund its operations, then Iraq, and increasingly Lebanon, will not be able to stabilize enough to rid themselves of the menace.


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