Much current rhetoric from the coalition of states fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is remarkably confident. After they met on 2 June 2015, the United States deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken even said that the war was being won. A day later, Blinken - standing in for John Kerry after his accident - told Radio France International that coalition forces had killed 10,000 Islamic State paramilitaries since the air war started in August 2014.
These figures cannot be independently verified. And more generally, this positive outlook (from the coalition’s standpoint) seems greatly at odds with other reports. On the very day of the coalition talks, a complex IS operation in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, killed forty-five Iraqi police officers. On 17 May, the provincial capital Ramadi had fallen to a small force of IS fighters; the far greater numbers of Iraqi soldiers, including member of the elite Golden Brigades, retreated rapidly from the city (see "Iraq's phantom army", 21 May 2015).
In Syria at the same time, other Islamic State units took over Palmyra and made gains towards the key northern city of Aleppo. In the latter case there were credible reports that Bashar al-Assad's regime was attacking rebels who stood in the way of the IS advance, a tactic most likely part of Assad’s long-standing (and hugely devious) policy of indirectly aiding Islamic State.
Assad's motive, which has existed in one form or another since the start of the civil war in 2011, has been to paint the rebel opposition to the regime as terrorists that present a threat to the west. Since the emergence of Islamic State as the strongest of the rebel forces, Damascus's calculation has acquired an even more brutal logic. If we aid IS, the thinking goes, that group will come to dominate the insurgency; thus, the “prophecy” will have been self-fulfilled, and the west will be forced to come to our aid.
The Assad regime’s actions in recent days are dire even by its standards. They may actually reflect a steady weakening of the regime, which would indeed be yet another complication for Washington. More relevant, though, is an effort to assess the current position in the wider conflict between the coalition and Islamic State.
A shaft of light
The smaller print of Antony Blinken’s interview is significant here, in that he also points to a singularly resilient foe that may take three years to defeat. Far more important though is that the military - in the shape of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) - is offering a rather different prognosis.
USSOCOM comprises all the United States's special forces from across the main services: army, navy, airforce and marine corps. It has grown since the start of the war to number about 70,000 personnel, a contingent highly active across the world but for the most part keeping a very low profile. Like any military force it is looking to its own future and will inevitably take a view of any conflict as requiring its actions. This is certainly the case here: USSOCOM has pleaded strongly with Barack Obama's administration to allow it a much more active role in the war.
All this is to be expected. But a more revealing insight into some of the attitudes expressed by senior USSOCOM officers is provided by reports of a special-operations forum (see Kimberly Dozier, “Special Ops to Obama: Let Us Fight ISIS, Already”, Daily Beast, 22 May 2015). The judgment of special-ops is that this will be a very long war: the head of the US airforce's special-operations command, Lieutenant-General Bradley Heithold, estimates a fifteen-year struggle, five times longer than Blinken’s timetable.
In Heithold’s view: “In this struggle you do not kill your way to victory. You do have to put pressure on the leadership in order to affect them. But it is not in itself the answer.” Even more instructive is the attitude of his army SOCOM counterpart, Lieutenant-General Charles Cleveland: “We’re going to have to start thinking of root causes”, here citing economic deprivation and instability among them. "We have to try and set the conditions so that the 8-year old today, doesn’t become the jihadi in ten years…or even less than that”.
These are the kinds of views that are almost unheard of among the great majority of western politicians and military leaders (if much more common in forums such as openDemocracy). It is therefore striking to see, from within the depths of the United States's operational military, an awareness that this is in no way a ”regular war” - and may not even be winnable. As the fifteenth year of the war on terror approaches, reality is starting to dawn. That is a welcome development. But it also comes so very late in the day.
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