TLDRUpFront: In the last forty-eight hours three cities have officially changed hands in different countries on opposite sides of the planet. The fall of Ar-Raqqah in Syria, liberation of Marawi in the Philippines and seizure of Kirkuk in Iraq are a Dickens menagerie representing the ghosts of ISIS past, ISIS present and post-ISIS future conflicts.
SDF fighters celebrate the fall of ISIS in Ar-Raqqah.
Full Context in the Back:
After a nearly year-long strategic offensive and nearly five months of urban warfare, the former capital of the so called Islamic Caliphate fell to US-backed Kurdish forces on Monday. This was a foregone conclusion since the fall of Mosul, itself subject to a yearlong campaign, in Iraq fell earlier in the summer. Still the progress was slow, if methodical, and showed the tenacious nature of the ISIS militants. Only a few dozen had holed up in one of the cities hospital complexes for the last few weeks. Literally confined to no more than a city block. (1)
The victory of Ar-Raqqah at this point is more symbolic than strategic, though a huge symbol nonetheless. As the first city captured by what was then ISI after it’s divorce from a mutually-hated marriage with Al-Queda, Ar-Raqqah represents the first time in the 21st Century a Salafi-takfiri terrorist group seized territory, proclaimed itself sovereign and began governing on its own. This represented a dramatic shift in strategy from the Al-Queda 1.0 & 2.0 the US had come to expect to fight. Seizing territory and governing it openly allowed Emerging-State Actors like ISIS to take control of valuable resources tied to control of the land – in this case oil. It also allowed it to begin taxing its ‘citizens’ as well as businesses, providing armed civil affairs and an approximation of social service. That ISIS waged as much of a campaign of brutality against its own citizens as it did abroad made it a hated government. After about 8 months experience in Ar-Raqqah, ISIS next conquered Fallujah, a much larger city in Iraq.
The money made from black-market oil sales and the taxation, extortion, sale of blood antiquities allowed ISIS to fuel a world-wide expansion. Like a multi-billon tech startup pursuing growth through acquisition. ISIS sent money abroad soliciting agreements of loyalty from existing, indigenous insurgent groups that would take on the ISIS brand. (See Marawi next.) Unfortunately, it is this global expansion that makes the final removal of ISIS from openly governing in Iraq and Syria more symbolic than strategic.
ISIS now has nearly two dozen so-called Wilayah’s, or Provinces, affiliates of the ISIS brand. These provinces are connected loosely to one another by common tactics and strategic methodology, funneling of money and resources into the country, and exportation of fighters abroad to other countries. This global ISIS network remains largely unaffected by the fall of Ar-Raqqah and includes presences in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Nigeria, North-Caucuses, Gaza, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of these groups are knew – others were well established forces in their local regions. Such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Abu Sayeff in the Philippines.
When asked “How bad is ISIS now”? the InfoMullet’s answer is: “Only slightly worse than Al-Queda ever was.” With a worldwide brand, franchisees in over a dozen countries and plenty of brand-recognition for taking the fight to Western countries, ISIS will remain a potent threat for years to come. The train of containing ISIS to Iraq and Syria is well past the station.
That doesn’t mean removing it out of Iraq and Syria, and that President Obama doesn’t deserve the credit for initiating the US backed campaigns or President Trump for staying the course. Ideally the US would’ve intervened before ISIS was able to metastasize into a global presence and a lot-less Twitter posturing about bombing-the-shit out of its opponents. Still the massive revenue streams that put ISIS’s finances on that of a small country are largely cut off now just as the oil fields are.
The fall of Ar-Raqqah also proved out a winning strategy for US interventions, an arena where wins have been few and far between. This new approach involves avoiding the commitment of massive conventional US Army and Marine ground forces, either to fight a conventional or traditional counter-insurgency operation. Instead the new strategy of the last two years has been to leverage local proxies, backed by US special forces teams and supported by overwhelming US airpower. This limits the footprint of US forces on the ground, cutting the feedback effect of the “Accidental Guerilla” syndrome described by insurgent anthropologist Kilcullen. This syndrome, the bane of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts occurs when foreign forces provoke ‘accidental guerillas’ to take up arms and resist occupation who otherwise wouldn’t be fighting, were it not for the presence of the foreign forces. This isn’t a uniquely US phenomena, but we have blundered through it with the best of them.
Instead in both Syria and Iraq, the US partnered with Kurdish Peshmerga and what became known as the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF). The Peshmerga of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq have been staunch US allies ever since the introduction of no-fly zones by President Bush in 1991. Aided by US kit and training for decades, the 200,000 strong Peshmerga is one of the most effective military forces in the region. The SDF in Syria consisted of Kurdish self-defense militias from northern Syria, fighters from the PKK as well as Arab militias. The SDF, now some 80,000 strong, has a more recent relationship with the US – borne out of mutual self-interest to confront ISIS and begun with the intervention in support of Kobani.
A Risk Game from Hell: Orange is Syrian, Grey ISIS (still), Puke Green the SDF, Green Green Syrian Rebels, White Al-Nusra and Turkey’s in there somewhere too.
The final disposition of Ar-Raqqah, as is the case in most of Syria, is an open question. The SDF is making a claim of the city – but Assad’s forces are not far away. Technically speaking the situation in the country is what military analysts term “a bloody mess,” despite the local defeat of ISIS. There are still over a dozen state-actors, not all acting on the same side, actively intervening and well over two-dozen significant non-state actors involved.
Black flags replaced with the red, white & blue of the Philippines.
As an example of the reach, and continuing threat of ISIS – the Philippines city of Marawi was also just liberated in the last 48hours.(2) This after nearly six months of continuous fighting in what was once a city of 250,000. As reported in the InfoMullet, ISIS forces once known as Abu Sayeff took control of the city in May after a failed military operation to capture the leader. Close to one thousand heavily armed ISIS fighters poured into the area from surrounding areas or were broken out of jails. Despite Philippine President Duterte calling martial law, sending in the military including use of airpower and artillery inside the city, as anticipated dislodging ISIS has taken months. Despite the use of airpower and artillery which devastated the city, it’s taken until now for Duterte’s military to retake the city. Although largely overlooked in the west, this battle represents a staggering cost to the Philippines and risk that ISIS poses for even countries not in a persistent state of war as Iraq and Syria were. With only a few hundred fighters ISIS seized, and held, a major modern metropolitan city for nearly 150 days. Although nearly all ISIS fighters were killed or captured, the military suffered over 160 killed and 1400 wounded. The civilian population is virtually gone from Marawi evacuated and staying in nearby refugee camps. It cost the Philippines government $120m(USD) to push ISIS out of the city and it will cost an estimated $1B(USD) to rebuild the city. (3) This is close to a third of the Philippines defense budget. And despite losing Marawi, ISIS cum Abu Sayeff is by no means ‘defeated’ in the country. Though it has lost its best fighters and leaders.
Stabbed in the Front
At almost the same time the last major city of ISIS fell in Syria and Marawi was being liberated – a new front in Iraq’s woes opened. Iraqi military forces battled against the Kurdish Peshmerga in and around the long-disputed city of Kirkuk. (4) The Iraqi military, backed by Iranian militias prevailed seizing the city, its oil fields, and military bases. (5)
Although Kirkuk is majority Arab as of the last, pre- Gulf-War II census nearly 15 years ago, that was largely a reflection of a decades long ‘Arabization’ policy of Saddam Hussein. This policy saw the forced removal of ethnic Kurds, and incentivized relocation of Arabs, into the city. Historical claims aside – it won’t take three guesses to understand why both the autonomous province of Kurdistan and Iraqi government want official claim over Kirkuk. The city is a major hub for oil production and distribution, accounting for about 10% of the country’s output. (6)
Prior to the rise of ISIS, under the US led coalition oversight, the two sides had split control in the area. The Kurds controlled the city which has long been thought of as their spiritual capital. And the Iraqi government controlled the oil fields and military bases. But when ISIS launched its blitzkrieg Anbar Offensive in mid-2015, Iraqi forces fled the region leaving the Kurdish Peshmerga to take on ISIS on their own. Which they did just barely. ISIS was so close to overrunning Kirkuk that it’s reasonable to assume President Obama’s much delayed decision to intervene with US airpower to halt ISIS’s advance had as much to do with preserving Kirkuk as it did preserving Yazd’s.
Now with the fall of ISIS in Mosul, and a recent referendum on Kurdish independence in the region, the Iraqi government felt it imperative to stake its claim. Despite the cooperation between the US and Kurds against ISIS and over the last two decades mentioned above, the US has pulled a Pontus Pilus on the whole mess. The official statement of the US led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) operating in the area as reported by the LongWarJournal read in part:
“The Coalition is monitoring movements of military vehicles and personnel in the vicinity of Kirkuk. These movements of military vehicles, so far, have been coordinated movements, not attacks.
Coalition forces and advisors are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness Oct. 16. We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.” (7)
Leaked image of CJTF-OIR press liaison in staff briefing.
Outside of being a masterful example of nonsensical newspeak that rivals the work of Baghdad Bob, the statement doesn’t even pass the sniff test. As recently as last Thursday, the Iraqi government clearly ordered all Peshmerga to leave the city. This prompted a rush of Kurdish fighters into the city in expectation of imminent attack. An attack which came yesterday. (6)
The US is now in the position of having supplied both equipment and training, and ostensibly in alliance, with both sides of what could be a new phase of conflict. This as the Iraqi military was redeploying to roust ISIS out of its last positions in the country.
It’s not entirely clear how far the Iraqi, or Kurdish, governments are willing to push. Or whether the Kurdistan Peshmerga can depend on the aid of the largely Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from Syria. The two militaries have been working together closely now for nearly two years in combined campaigns in both companies. Together they represent nearly 300,000 battle-hardened veterans. The Iraqi army is no slouch either. The military of barely trained conscripts abandoned by commanders and fleeing ISIS during the Anbar Offensive is gone. After a grinding string of victories in retaking cities and territory from ISIS over the last year and a half the Iraqi Army, led by their US trained special commando forces, have begun punching at their class. Extra support has also come from Iranian QODS advisors, under the direction of Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who has a bone to pick with ISIS. These QODS soldiers act in similar roles as US Special Forces – providing training assistance and technical capability to the Iraqi Army. With an official strength of 300,000 – the Army also is backed by between 60,000-90,000 Shia dominated Popular Mobilization Fronts (PMF). The PMF’s are almost entirely a creature of Iranian intervention into Iraq during the conflict with ISIS that stiffened the Army’s fighting capability but who’s loyalty is split between Iraq and Iran. (8)
Red is Iraqi, Puke Green is Kurdish, Grey is ISIS (still.)
Although one can strategically understand Iraq’s desire to take-back Kirkuk from the Kurds, it begs comparison to the allegory of the scorpion and the frog. If it wants another Kurdish insurgency, or a full on conventional fight with the Peshmerga, this is one way to get that. If the US stays out of it the Kurds will not have access to the airpower they enjoyed against ISIS, but the Iraqi air force is virtually non-existent itself. And it’s not clear if the US would maintain neutrality if Iranian jets began attacking Kurds, versus the ISIS targets they have been firing at.
A Merry Christmas Bob
Although Scrooge ends Dickens play in a jolly mood with ‘an earnestness that cannot be mistaken’ its unlikely these three ghosts will give way to such joy. Surely the victims of the ISIS’s wretched government and the fighters who dislodged it deserve some pause for celebration. But there is no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, and a new one appears ready to begin in Iraq on the heels of the last. Strategically this is just a transition to another phase of countering ISIS – one far less obvious in its targets or approaches. The InfoMullet stands by its belief that having been defeated in the open, ISIS will not reemerge as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria. At least not for several years. There is just too much resentment, and association of the force with foreign fighters to engender the kind of local support needed for an insurgency. ISIS will however maintain a potent capability as a terrorist force capable of creating huge instability and risk in both countries, as well as abroad – from Asia to Europa to North America.