IDF Is Only Mid East Army Ready to Take on ISIS in Iraq
The White House and National Security Council conceded June 11 that they had been caught unawares by the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to Al Qaeda, and were further flustered by the Islamists’ advance towards Baghdad. No one in Washington had imagined that one million Iraqis under arms would collapse in a couple of days, clearing the path for Al Qaeda to go forward with its plan to establish a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were grabbing Mosul and Tikrit on June 10, the United States was otherwise engaged 3,000 km away. Its intelligence and counterterrorism agencies and special forces in the Middle East were busy in Libya, trying as they have for nearly a month now to establish a semblance of central government in Tripoli. There is no intention of diverting a major part of any of these US resources from Libya to Iraq.
Washington was not alone in being caught napping by the Islamist tempest overtaking Iraq; Tehran too didn’t see ISIS coming. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Al Quds Brigades and the man in charge of Iranian and Iraqi Shiite fighting forces in Syria, missed the ease with which Al Qaeda was able to sever the land link over Iraq between Iran and Syria, which he had worked so hard for three years to secure.
Iran caught unready by the jihadis, while Israel’s army chief is prepared
The new Sunni front opened up to the rear of the Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias fighting alongside the regime’s forces in Syria. Tehran also faces Al Qaeda in control of its western border with Iraq.
ISIS has inflicted what is easily the most devastating strategic setbacks on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have suffered in recent years.
They are caught, furthermore, without reserves for sending over to save Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s regime, or even reinforcing its own positions. Tehran is abandoning Iraq’s Shiite majority, which comprises 70 percent of a population of 38 million. With its military, intelligence and financial resources tied up in the Syria war and bolstering Hizballah, Iran never took into account that its assets in Iraq would take such a hit.
The Israeli military establishment sounded more prepared to deal with ISIS’s triumphs and threats.
On June 6, just before Mosul and the Nineveh province fell to the Iraqi Al Qaeda assault, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz remarked cryptically: “the Israeli Air Force will next month dramatically change its mode of operation.”
He was suggesting that the Israeli Air Force would begin directing its fire power at military and terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq. This fire power – including warplanes, long-range unmanned drones and helicopters – will be directed at Al Qaeda forces massing very close to Israel’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
Conventional military organization scrapped for small commando units
On May 28, foreign sources were quoted as reporting that the IAF had shut down its last AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters squadron, which had largely been used for strikes against armored and ground targets. Lighter and cheaper drones have been commissioned to replace the helicopters.
Asked to elaborate on the “dramatic change in the IAF’s mode of operations,” Gen. Gantz replied: “A different kind of enemy is at our door. It is “more mobile, better at concealment and comes from farther away.”
Gantz is the only military commander in the Middle East who was prescient enough to ready Israel’s armed forces for dealing with the events in Iraq.
In December 2011, he founded the Depth Corps of the Israel Defense Forces for coordinating long-range IDF operations at a distance or deep behind enemy lines.
The corps is equipped with new naval units and a squadron of Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft. Israeli military intelligence combat units were dismantled and reconstructed to suit the new military command’s modes of operation.
Modifications were also made on other IDF special ops forces like the Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and Shayetet – or Flotilla 13, which is the Israeli naval commando unit equivalent to US Navy SEALs.
Until the reboot, IDF special combat units were structured according to conventional brigades, battalions and companies. They are now split into small teams of no more than 15-20, and trained to operate autonomously thousands of kilometers from home.
Political constraints keep top-notch Israeli units in their barracks
This revolution in the IDF’s structure, modes of operation and objectives make it the only Middle East army capable of operating in Syria and Iraq, should this become necessary. Their only constraints are dictated by the political interplay in government.
The Depth Corps commander, a major general, answers to just three officials and is subject to their nod for any operation: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and the chief of staff.
An additional constraint derives from Washington’s demand for early warning about Israeli operations deep in any part of the region. This demand was brushed off by Netanyahu for some years, but by the early 2014, he had relented and agreed to give the Obama administration a heads-up shortly before any such missions and give the Americans the option of revising his military plans.
The only other regional army which has proved itself capable of fighting Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq is the Royal Army of Jordan. King Abdullah is commander in chief of its special units. The trouble is their size. Shortage of manpower and equipment keep those units down to less than 2,000 soldiers which are largely dependent on the US or the Israeli air force for rapid transport.
Like Israel, Jordan has small intelligence units capable of surviving in the field for extended periods of time. But the kingdom still lacks the advanced military technology its allies have at their disposal – notably drones – which prevents Amman from becoming a major player on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.