May 25, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Fragile Alliances Against the Islamic State

• On May 24, the Western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces announced an offensive in northern Raqqa in order to solidify areas of control and further pressure Islamic State defenses before a move on the nearby city of Raqqa

• On May 23, the Iraqi government announced the launch of its campaign to retake Fallujah from the Islamic State, which has held the important city since January 2014

• The U.S. is directly supporting both of these campaigns, with combat air support in Fallujah and Special Operations Forces advisors in Syria

• For the U.S., the issue of finding the most capable partners has long since given way to finding the least objectionable partners in order to minimize destructive infighting and reprisals.


On May 23 and May 24, major offensives against the so-called Islamic State were announced in both Iraq and Syria. In a sign of how treacherous efforts against the Islamic State have been, reaction to both announcements has focused less on how the fighting will unfold, and more on who will do the fighting—and how long before they end up fighting each other. The challenges involved in weakening and dislodging the Islamic State from long-held fortified positions are enormous—even for a unified military front. Unfortunately, such a unified front does not exist in these conjoined conflicts, only adding to the challenge. Defeating the Islamic State in its strongholds requires addressing local concerns and regional machinations as much as it requires sound infantry tactics and air support. The social, ethnic, and sectarian tensions that facilitated the rise of the Islamic State are the same ones causing battles within battles as pressure mounts against the group.

In Iraq, retaking Fallujah poses the biggest military challenge Iraqi forces have faced in the two years since Mosul was lost to the Islamic State. The Iraqi government’s efforts to root out the Islamic State from Fallujah will draw on lessons learned from the Ramadi campaign, which utilized a methodical approach that included extensive U.S. air and artillery support. Such an approach will likely prove effective again, though with heavier fighting and greater tactical challenges. The Iraq Security Forces (ISF) are still far from a level of sustained proficiency, but enough military units are adequately trained and equipped to defeat the Islamic State with the assistance of U.S. combat support. However, pervasive sectarian concerns that have long plagued the country continue to threaten to trigger infighting and reprisals. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), most of which are made up of Shi'a militias, have reportedly been sidelined in the initial fight for Fallujah, which is located in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province. The ISF and several Sunni PMUs are reportedly spearheading the campaign—a strategy employed in the hopes of limiting sectarian tensions and violence in the post-conflict time frame.

An even greater concern for the Iraqi government is the reality of what ‘post-conflict’ Iraq will look like. While the threat of renewed sectarian violence is real, even more pressing is the overwhelming challenge of rebuilding cities that have been all but destroyed. While Ramadi is viewed as a military success, it remains a humanitarian and counter-insurgency disaster. Conditions in Fallujah will be worse, and Mosul worse still. Once the Islamic State is dislodged, enormous effort and expense will be required to navigate the minefields of intersecting Kurdish, Sunni, Shi’a, and tribal dynamics. Likewise, with the immediate threat posed by the Islamic State mitigated, the long-term commitment of regional and international powers will be tested.

In Syria, the situation is even more complicated. On May 24, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the beginning of an offensive to liberate Raqqa—the capital of Islamic State. Fighting was reported in Ain Issa, a town 50 kilometers from the city of Raqqa. The determination of Islamic State fighters to defend the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate will likely make the battle to retake Raqqa one of the fiercest yet; concerns amongst factions within the SDF over what role various groups play in the fighting will only compound the already daunting task. From a combat capability standpoint, the SDF is primarily a Kurdish-led coalition. The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) have been among the most consistently effective forces fighting the Islamic State, though much of that fighting took place in Kurdish areas of control and influence. Further south in Syria, Kurds are less welcome; Raqqa is a Sunni city, and any liberating army made up of primarily Kurdish fighters will not be seen as liberators. A great deal of effort has gone into putting an Arab face to the upcoming battles. Long-term stability depends on resisting tactical military necessities and preferences.

Adding to the complex internal dynamics of the battle for Raqqa are Turkey's objections towards the YPG, which Ankara views as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey views the PKK as its biggest internal threat, and the United States has also designated the PKK as a terrorist group. The U.S., however, has continually made a distinction between the PKK and the YPG, as much of the U.S. anti-Islamic State strategy has rested upon the latter. That distinction is lost on Turkey, and has been the cause of significant tension, which has only been further complicated by Russian support for PKK and YPG. Even as pressure mounts against the Islamic State in its core strongholds, significant questions remain as to whether the delicate web of alliances combating the group can stay intact.


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