US President Barack Obama presented “systematic” US air strikes and support for ground forces as the great strength of the strategy he unveiled Wednesday, Sept. 10, for fighting IS. But the low intensity of the air campaign makes it more of a weakness.
The low number of 154 fighter-bomber and drone strikes over Iraq in the four months, since the Islamist State of Iraq and Levant began its land grab in Iraq, was not nearly enough to wrest a single piece of territory or strategic site from its clutches.
The Kurdish Peshmerga force alone made gains in Nineveh Province, retaking some captured villages. However, IS fighters had previously withdrawn from hundreds of those villages, after they were depopulated and the homes of the terrified inhabitants were destroyed or burned down.
However, on other battlefronts, such as the approach to the Kurdish Republic’s capital of Irbil or the strategic Mosul Dam, Kurdish forces were no match for IS fighters and, without US air bombardments, would have had to fall back.
Aside from small units of special forces, the Iraqi army fell apart in the initial IS march through Iraq, throwing down its American-made weapons.
This leaves the Obama strategy with no combat troops to work with in Iraq at this time.
No regional government has extra elite troops to spare for Iraq
Wednesday, Sept. 10, the Obama administration promised to release $25 million worth of hardware to the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia without delay. The most urgent items for the two forces are anti-tank missiles, because IS will likely deploy the hundreds of US-made tanks and armored vehicles captured as booty from the fleeing Iraqi troops. However, this sum is not enough to provide the quantity of weapons needed to alter the battlefield imbalance, which is currently in favor of the Islamists.
To make up for this deficiency, President Obama had hoped that Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan will agree to contribute special forces units to help Iraq combat IS.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources were skeptical. Some of those governments are not ease with one another – especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and none is likely to step up readily with enough elite fighters to make a serious difference in Iraq or enable its troops to squeeze the jihadis out of captured towns.
There are four reasons for their reluctance:
1. Their special operations units are not large. Therefore, they can hardly afford to spare a substantial number for Iraq. These units are anyway designed by training to defend their government regimes and can’t be retooled overnight into forces for overseas combat against unfamiliar adversaries.
Furthermore, none of these elite forces, with the exception of Iran, can be guaranteed to be free of jihadist penetration or members with relatives serving in some Al Qaeda affiliate.
Turkey drops out leaving Obama without a prize asset
2. Any Gulf Arab emirate sending fighting units to fight IS in Iraq makes itself instantly vulnerable to Al Qaeda revenge attacks at home. Jordan is most at risk. Black IS flags flutter over many of its towns and villages, and hardly a day goes by without the funeral for a Jordanian youth who died as a jihadist in Syria or Iraq.
3. The combat record of Saudi elite units, on which the Americans are banking heavily for a contribution, is not especially distinguished. They suffered repeated upsets in recent years at the hands of Houthi insurgents in northern Yemen, when they attempted to carve out a Saudi buffer zone to secure the kingdom’s southern regions against pro-Iranian Houthi incursions.
4. The biggest upset for Obama’s game plan was inflicted by Turkey dropping out abruptly from the coalition Thursday, Sept. 11. Although its presence was problematic, the US military was badly jolted by the statement in Ankara that “Turkey will refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack jhadists in neighboring Iraq and Syria from its air bases; nor will it take part in combat operations against militants.”
Turkish special forces were seen in Washington as a prize asset for combating Islamists in Syria and in Iraq’s northern and Kurdish regions.
US can’t second-guess IS responses for lack of intelligence
At the same time, their deployment in Syria would have required prior Syrian and Iranian consent. Even then, it may have provoked fellow Muslim members to quit the coalition. A Turkish military presence in northern Iraq would have been unpopular in Baghdad and Damascus, as well as Tehran.
So while losing a prime coalition ally, the Obama administration has also saved itself some diplomatic knots. Even so, the rest of the Muslim camp were not persuaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry to join the US-led coalition against IS, when he met their leaders in Jeddah on Thursday, Sept. 11
DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism experts point to the three major weaknesses in Obama’s war plan for crushing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant:
- It fails to take IS’ armed response into account – mostly for lack of intelligence regarding the inner workings of the Islamist organization and its fighting strength. In view of the iron discipline ruling the jihadists and the support they enjoy among local Sunnis, it is hard to see how the Americans can improve their sources of intelligence and their insights.
- Iraq and Syria alone are counted as war arenas in the plan, whereas counterterrorism experts specializing in Al Qaeda would advise covering the entire Middle East as a potential war zone.
- The four stages of Obama’s operational strategy have no timelines. This raises the suspicion among would-be coalition partners that the US president is reserving his options to quit the campaign when it suits him.