August 11, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Breaking the Islamic State Winning Streak

• With limited strikes by both manned and unmanned aircraft, the US has engaged the Islamic State (IS) directly for the first time since 2011, with the terrorist group having spent the last three years achieving significant success across Syria and Iraq

• The US air strikes in northern Iraq will protect US personnel and facilities, and help break IS’s momentum but won’t—and aren’t designed to—dismantle the group

• It is important for IS to experience an undeniable loss, as it somewhat pierces its mystique and appeal; air strikes combined with well-planned encirclement maneuvering can help deliver that loss

• The Iraqi government needs to seize the moment and select an inclusive-minded prime minister this week, since the most lasting way to blunt IS is to bring together Iraq’s opposing factions

• If the Iraqi central government and the Kurds can work together effectively to counter IS—a risky assumption, given current divisions—Iraq might stay whole; if it can’t work together on this threat, it will most likely dissolve.


With limited strikes by both manned and unmanned aircraft, the US has engaged the Islamic State (IS) directly for the first time since 2011. Since that time, the terrorist group has achieved remarkable success, territorially and financially.

The stated goal of current US intervention is to protect American personnel and interests in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil. The secondary goal is to provide humanitarian relief to besieged minorities such as the Yazidi who are at great risk, while providing some breathing space for the Kurdish peshmerga forces that had to fall back earlier this week in the face of the IS offensive. The airstrikes will likely achieve these goals. Indeed, the airstrikes helped the Kurds on August 10 to reclaim two northern towns seized by IS. However, the airstrikes will not—nor are they designed to—dismantle IS or even reduce the threat to a manageable level. That will require something the Iraqis have heretofore been unable to do: working together for common purpose.

While not a stated goal of the ongoing US air operations, dealing IS an undeniable loss might be worth strong consideration. Since 2011, IS has been on a winning streak that no terrorist group has before seen. While it has battled with its wayward Syrian offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and squabbled with al-Qaeda Central over loyalty and obedience, IS has primarily experienced only success for three years, with minor tactical losses but no strategic crushing defeat. The result is control over territory in two countries; sustained financial windfalls from oil wells, theft, extortion, and ransom payments; and self-sustaining momentum. A coordinated effort to pin down and encircle a large unit of IS members either advancing towards Irbil or even retreating back towards safer ground will not only help stabilize the situation but will also pierce IS’ mystique and legacy. Nothing hurts recruitment and support among the undecided like defeat. While the airstrikes will buy time, the Iraqi government is simply out of time as it relates to choosing a new prime minister.

The current delay in naming the next prime minister suggests there is intense maneuvering and back-room politics as supporters of the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki, resist calls for him to step away and allow a new and hopefully less divisive leader to assume power. No amount of airstrikes will help Iraq if it can’t govern itself. If al-Maliki returns for a third term , it might represent the will of the electorate (after all, his bloc did receive the most votes in April’s election), but it could represent the beginning of the end of Iraq. It will be hard enough to dislodge IS, given the weak state of the Iraqi army. It will be impossible without the support of the Sunni who actually hate al-Maliki more than they despise IS. Drone and F/A-18 strikes won’t change that.

It’s not coincidental that IS’ maximal gain has come during the Iraqi government’s minimal function. Since the April paralysis of government, IS has taken Iraq’s second biggest city, huge swathes of its countryside, invaluable oil facilities and border crossings, its largest dam, and is battling for control of its second largest in Haditha. The current situation is less a reflection of IS prowess and more a reflection of Iraqi incompetence, and that assessment still holds true. The terrorist group does possess stockpiles of heavy weapons, but so did the Iraqi government. Rearming the same inept military might be necessary in the short term but it does nothing in the long term. The only way to effectively counter IS is for Iraq to professionalize its military and purge the sectarian lackeys who currently hold power. A truly professional military would be a symbol of a truly professional government, and that will damage IS in the long term more so than airstrikes.



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