Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Convoluted Conflict

As a primer for the President's speech tonight on American strategy for dealing with ISIL here's an update on the state of things in Iraq courtesy of Strategy Page:
As of September 8 American air attacks have increased and put ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) on the defensive. There have been about 150 American air attacks since they began on August 8th and now occur everywhere ISIL has forces in Iraq. Thus in the last month ISIL has lost control of a major dam, a refinery and major oil fields around Kirkuk.

ISIL is also losing control of the oil smuggling operation it had established in Syria and western Iraq. The attack against the Haditha dam includes local Sunni tribal militiamen who have refused to join ISIL. Many Sunni tribes backed away from supporting ISIL or agreed to work with the government. Haditha is the second largest dam in the country in terms of hydroelectric power and water supply.

Kurdish troops, also backed by American air power (directed by American air controllers on the ground with the Kurds) are also taking back territory around Mosul. This is one of several operations in the last month where the Kurds have shown that, with the help of American air support, they are nearly invincible against ISIL forces. Even Iraqi Shia troops and Sunni militias have some success when aided by air support.

Most ISIL fighters now accept this new battlefield reality, but some less determined ISIL gunmen are discouraged and desertions are more common. There have also been several recent instances of ISIL gunmen fleeing after the first smart bomb or missile hits, not willing to shoot it out with the oncoming Kurds. This often involves abandoning vehicles, weapons, ammo and equipment.

More American and NATO trainers and advisors on the ground have helped reform the Iraqi security forces. There are now more Shia and pro-government tribal militias involved, but the most reliable local force remains the Kurds. However, most of the Kurdish troops are deployed on the border between Kurdish and Arab Iraq. The Kurds must continue to keep Arab Islamic terrorists out and that requires reliable troops. Thousands of Kurdish women have been mobilized for this, many of them combat veterans from past crises. The women generally take care of internal security to free up more men for duty on the border.

The U.S. is depending on the Kurds and Iraqi government to provide some help on the ground to identify targets in the urban areas (Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit) the fighting is moving into. Out in the open it’s a lot easier to avoid civilian casualties since you can spot nearby civilians. In urban areas this is more difficult. The Americans want to avoid civilian casualties as ISIL can use this to generate media criticism of the military operations against the Islamic terrorists. The criticism causes political problems.

The American air strikes are expensive, costing about two million dollars each. The U.S. has managed to get nine other countries (Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Denmark and Australia) to join an effort to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The coalition will provide more advisors, weapons, ammo and air power than the U.S. itself is currently providing. The Americans will probably continue to be the major contributor.
It also seems that American intelligence is providing intelligence on the location of ISIL commanders and troop concentrations to the Syrian air force, possibly via Iran. The Syrians have used this intel recently to target and kill a number of top ISIL commanders.

The world is certainly turning upside down if the U.S. is working with Iran to help Assad in Syria defeat the Islamists. Anyone trying to follow events in this region can be forgiven if they throw up their hands in despair at trying to figure out who the players are and what side they're on.