The thirty-year war, renewed

Islamic State's spreading influence in a range of countries makes the military efforts of the United States-led coalition look almost irrelevant.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 August 2015

The United Kingdom's defence minister Michael Fallon announced on 4 August 2015 that the country would maintain its current Tornado bomber-force in Cyprus for an extra year, through to March 2017. The planes of number-12 squadron are deployed to RAF Akrotiri to support the United States-led air war against Islamic State. This decision means that Britain will continue its involvement in the wars across the Middle East and south-west Asia into a seventeenth year.  

Fallon said little about the other main UK contribution to the air war, the armed Reaper drones, and nothing at all about the use of special forces either in Iraq or Syria. As far as the air war is concerned, the shadowy use of drones is part of a continuing pattern (even if, at times, they have conducted most of the airstrikes). For their part the Tornadoes and Reapers have flown over 1,100 combat-flights since November 2014, and have carried out over 250 attacks. The government is very cautious in expressing any view on casualties, but unofficial reports suggest at least 240 Islamic State supporters have been killed by the British forces.

The UK component makes up barely 5% of the coalition attacks, the overwhelming majority of which are by the US. That is now getting a substantial boost from the Turkish government’s decision to allow the US to use the large airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey, which has numerous aircraft shelters barely 150 km from the Syrian border as the drone flies. The Pentagon has already announced that armed-drone flights have started from Incirlik, and that US personnel numbers will increase rapidly.   

More generally, the United States is set to expand the air war in Syria, not least from Incirlik. The Military Times reports that those targeted will “include the al-Qaida affiliate known as al-Nusra and the forces loyal to the embattled Assad regime”. 

The continued British involvement amid a further expansion of the overall war might suggest increasing confidence that Islamic State is in retreat. This mantra has been repeated over many months - but the evidence points the other way. True, a few examples exist of localised Islamic State withdrawals in Iraq, as do reports of an Iraqi government offensive against IS control of the key city of Ramadi in Anbar province. But two weeks after the start of that much-heralded offensive, the Iraqi forces backed by coalition air-support are barely in the outskirts of the city.

An expanding map

The overall picture of the war, with Islamic State making gains in Syria at a time of supposedly heavy casualties for the organisation, is of even greater concern for the Barack Obama's administration. In mid-2015 the Pentagon was reporting that 10,000 Islamic State supporters had been killed in the ten months of the air war (although little was said about civilian casualties in spite of detailed damage assessments being produced after every attack). That estimate has been revised upwards to 15,000, which would represent a very large proportion of the total IS paramilitaries the CIA said a year ago were available to the group (a range of 20,000-31,500 in the agency's view).  

USA Today, however, says that US intelligence agencies have not reduced the latter figure, indicating that either the original estimate was hugely exaggerated or Islamic State is successfully recruiting replacements. The second explanation is in some ways more worrying: if IS is recruiting at this level over a period when it has been suffering very heavy losses, that suggests it is successfully portraying itself as the protector of Islam against a foreign onslaught by a “crusader” force.

This would help explain why many in the Obama administration now regard Islamic State as a greater problem for the United States then the al-Qaida movement.  In part, though, their worry relates to the manner in which Islamic State is either embedding itself elsewhere or affiliating with existing movements. The connections in Yemen, Libya and Nigeria are well known and awareness of its influence in Afghanistan is also growing.

Perhaps the most indicative development of all, though, is Islamic State’s attempt to cause conflict and increase recruitment to its cause in Tunisia. The latest investigations confirm an earlier suspicion that the attacks on the Bardo museum on 18 March and at a Sousse beach on 26 June were directly linked, and no doubt part of a longer-term plan to damage the Tunisian economy and ensure that more young people are unemployed and marginalised. Meanwhile, from Egypt come indications that sustained repression of dissent by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is already turning young people in the direction of Islamic State.

All these factors together suggests a pattern. Islamic State is holding steady in Iraq, expanding in Syria; acquiring more influence in countries across northern Africa and the Sahel; remains entrenched in Yemen; expanding support down the east African coast; spreading connections in Afghanistan; and even making effective links with extreme Islamist elements in the Caucasus.

The response from the coalition, not least from Britain, is to increase airstrikes in Iraq and extend them further in Syria. Towards the second decade of war there is precious little evidence of a rethinking of policies, and every indication of what several columns in this series have referred to as a "thirty-year war". Over twelve years since the prospect was first raised, there seems no reason to revise it.

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