In whatever guise US President Barack Obama may wish to clothe his strategy for battling Al Qaeda’s Islamist State, he has undeniably declared a new Middle East War and ushered in America’s military comeback to the region. That strategy is bound by five constants, as outlined by DEBKA Weekly’s military experts (see full-size interactive MAP):
1. America is committed to a major armed conflict in the least stable world region that will inevitably last years. The plan he unveiled to the American people Wednesday, Sept. 10, is just the curtain-raiser. It was put together in a hurry to address a hugely perilous situation. The complete play will be extensively rewritten and restaged as inherently fluid situations unfold.
2. Although the Obama strategy addresses IS in Iraq and Syria, US military architects understand that America will be obliged to extend its military involvement for “rolling back, degrading and ultimately defeating” this dangerous foe to other parts of the Middle East – and in particular revisit Libya – more about which in a separate article in this issue.
3. In his six years in the White House, Barack Obama has jettisoned the regular bricks and mortar of US foreign and security policy. He has pulled US troops out of the Middle East and gradually divorced Washington from its ties in the region and the concerns of its nations, while clinging to a single fixed idea: The normalization of US relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is the frame for two leading powers to emerge to dominate, respectively, the international arena and the regional stage. Their policies will go hand in hand.
US cobbles together resources after major defense cutbacks
That is precisely the built-in explosive trap that could trip up the Obama strategy for tackling Al Qaeda at the head of a broad Western and regional coalition. America’s would-be regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and a clutch of Gulf emirates, are concerned about the effect on their national interests of an association in which Iran is powerfully engaged. That was one of the reasons that US Secretary of State John Kerry came away empty-handed from his first bid to construct a regional coalition of 11 governments in Jeddah Thursday, Sept. 11.
(The Iranian dimension is analyzed in detail in a separate article in this issue.)
4. The “comprehensive and sustained counter-terror mission,” Obama has launched to hunt terrorists down in the Middle East, is living evidence that his regional policies heretofore were totally wrongheaded, and that his defense spending cutbacks, which cut America’s military strength to the bone, was even more misguided.
The US Navy is left with 11 aircraft carriers (down from 15 or 19 – depending on a carrier’s definition) and a large number of shuttered operational US Air Force squadrons.
Just eight months ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commented that the cuts assume the United States will no longer become involved in large, prolonged stability operations overseas on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“An Amy of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy,” said Hagel. “It is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready.”
Iraqi and Kurdish troops will tackle IS with US air cover
5. Those comments might have been uttered in a different world and a different time from the reality addressed by Obama in his speech Wednesday.
The stark contrast between them shows again how unrealistic were Obama’s hopes for leaving behind him a relatively stable economy and shunting aside the world’s most daunting crises to his successor when he bowed out of the White House in 2016.
Having been forced to address the acute peril of an Islamist terrorist scourge without delay, our military sources report that he has laid out an operational strategy that is programmed to unfold in stages:
- The US will lead off with systematic air strikes 24/7 over ISIS targets in all parts of Iraq as well as their transport routes. The initial object is to immobilize Islamist fighters and render them unable to move from point A to point B anywhere in their quasi-state.
- After two weeks of massive US bombardment, Kurdish Peshmerga militia and Iraqi army troops will attack IS-held terrain in two spearheads: the Kurds will go for Mosul and its outlying towns including Tal Afar, whereas the Iraqi army will focus on locations in the Tigris region, such as Tikrit, as well as fallen towns in the eastern Diyala province bordering on Iran. These ground offensives will have American air cover.
This stage is computed to go on until early 2015.
No attempt will be made to expel IS from the western province of Anbar. US military strategists have decided that this arena is not a determining factor in the campaign.
US air strikes in Syria only after objectives achieved in Iraq
- After the ground offensives achieve their objective of reclaiming territory currently held by ISIS, the US Air Force will move over to the skies of Syria. Initial air strikes will target the Islamic State ”capital” of Raqqa in northern Syria, and Deir a-Zor in the north east. This aerial blitz will have the same object in Syria as it did in Iraq: To deprive the Islamists of mobility and pin them down.
- The US will arm Iraqi and Kurdish military forces with advanced heavy weaponry, including different types of missiles and assault helicopters. Pro-Western Syrian rebel militias will also be well-armed for fighting IS – after three years of skimpy supplies for the war on Bashar Assad.
- The American war plan takes into account that aerial warfare, however heavy and sustained, will not suffice to defeat ISIS without ground action. It is based on the premise that Al Qaeda’s tacticians have devised methods for staying out of sight of US spy satellites and reconnaissance planes and will therefore be comparatively safe from some of the US targeted air strikes which are guided by surveillance.
The US script therefore rests on supplementary ground action by special operations forces, which the Americans expect to be put up by seven Mid East nations: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
A lengthy conflict dictated by the narrow scale of Obama’s plan
In the course of compiling this plan, its authors fell out over its fundamental strategy.
The Pentagon experts complained that the president’s advisers were cutting the overall plan down to a scale that was too narrow to be effective. Instead of inflicting a categorical defeat on the Islamist enemy, the mission as conceived by the White House would deteriorate into a protracted war and drag on for many years – even outlasting the 13 year-Afghan conflict, in some views.
These military planners strongly advised a short, sharp and concentrated campaign, to quickly eradicate the Islamists’ and their military and territorial gains, before they were give the chance for further expansion.
However, since this plan would have necessitated the outlay of many more warplanes, naval vessels and special forces than the narrow blueprint, it was vetoed by President Obama.