The fundamental problem in the U.S.-led offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the lack of a reliable military partner on the ground, says Frederic C. Hof, a leading expert on Syria. Unless native resistance groups, like the mainstream nationalist Syrian opposition, can be developed much more quickly, he predicts the United States and its allies will seriously consider introducing ground troops, most likely special forces. On the Syrian side, he says the top priority "is to get some robust resupply into these nationalist units that are fighting ISIS and the Assad regime simultaneously."
President Obama met last week with defense ministers from many of the countries in the coalition against ISIS, but it doesn’t look like much progress is being made. What can really be done against ISIS?
The fundamental problem that’s being confronted right now in terms of the military campaign against ISIS is the absence in both Iraq and Syria of a functioning, efficient ground component. You defeat an enemy like ISIS with aircraft providing combat support to ground forces. In Iraq, [the] fundamental problem is that, after several years of a corrupt sectarian policy on the part of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi army is virtually broken. There are some brigades that still have halfway decent combat capability, but basically that army needs to be rebuilt and re-officered. Maliki was just pure poison.
What about the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga?
They have some capabilities, but even the Peshmerga, over the years, have been performing essentially checkpoint duty in defending the Kurdish regional government area in the north. There are also Shia militias being supported mainly by Iran, but those militias seem to be more in the business of rounding up and harassing Sunni Arabs, who they tend to assume are all in favor of ISIS or al-Qaeda. So you’ve got some assets in Iraq, but they are just not up to the task yet.
And in Syria?
In Syria, you’ve got very little. The [Obama] administration has stated its intention of making the mainstream, nationalist Syrian opposition the ground component for anti-ISIS air operations in Syria, but those forces are under tremendous pressure right now. In western Syria, they’re being attacked not only by the [Bashar al-] Assad regime, which has subjected them and the civilian populations to barrel bombing and artillery shelling, but they’re also being assaulted on the ground by ISIS elements.
So you have a situation in western Syria where ISIS and the Assad regime, allegedly enemies, are in effect collaborating in trying to wipe out this mainstream nationalist opposition. Thus, in both Iraq and Syria, you’re relying almost exclusively on air operations against highly maneuverable, highly adaptable ISIS units on the ground. And while these American and coalition pilots are doing a good job and have slowed some of the momentum here and have inflicted some damage and casualties, it just cannot have lasting, decisive effects in the long term.
Should we involve U.S. Special Forces?
Over time, the "no ground forces" dictum of President Obama is going to be reviewed by the administration. I don’t know how they’re going to come out, and I wouldn’t be too fast in reversing policy here, but unless something can be done to develop these native ground components much more quickly than what’s envisioned, I predict the United States and its allies will be looking very seriously about putting some forces on the ground.
In the case of the United States, I would imagine the selective use of Special Operations Forces, as opposed to conventional infantry or armored artillery units, would be considered. The top priority, though, certainly on the Syrian side, is to get some robust resupply into these nationalist units that are fighting ISIS and the Assad regime simultaneously—because if those units get sidelined then you’re faced with a real dilemma. Then the only two parties standing are the regime and ISIS, and what do you do then?
Talk about the Turks, because the Turks are right in the middle of this.
The Turks are in the middle; and the Turks have a variety of interests here, some of which at any given moment can be tactically contradictory. The Turks, from the beginning, have defined the Assad regime as the essence of the problem in Syria, and they’ve been correct in that assessment.
Assad is the number-one recruiting agent worldwide for ISIS. That regime’s portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity has attracted foreign fighters from all around the world. and the somewhat grudging assistance of the West to the mainstream fighters has created a situation where a lot of these young Syrians, who have really no appetite for terrorism or extremism or even political Islam, have walked away from these mainstream units in search of some organization that has ammunition, weapons, money, and even breakfast. This is what’s happened in Syria. This is why ISIS has had such an effect: it’s a combination of mainly the strategy and tactics of the Assad regime, supplemented by the failure of the West to support the nationalist opposition.
The Turks are facing a real dilemma. Over the past seven years, the Prime Minister, now President, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has pursued what appears to have been a fairly effective peace process with Turkish Kurds. There have been long conversations, apparently, with the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), Abdullah Ocalan, who is in jail. All of this is at risk now because of the ISIS assault on Kobani—because the Turks continue to regard the PKK, and particularly its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as a terrorist threat.
The Turks look at the PYD and they say, "you guys have made a deal with the Assad regime to set up an autonomous area along our borders, we want you to back away from that arrangement. We want you to work with the moderate, nationalist Syrian opposition against the regime. And until you agree to that, we will accept refugees, but we’re not going to intervene in any way to help you save Kobani." And this has really had a significant backlash in Kurdish populations inside Turkey. There is obviously a lot of resentment about that, and now there are reports of Turkish aircraft hitting PKK positions in eastern Turkey.
And it’s hurt Turkish relations with the United States, of course.
Clearly there has been some tension as the United States has tried to find proper terms on which Turkey can be attracted to play a major role against ISIS. My sense is that the United States is satisfied that Turkey is taking steps to restrict the passage through Turkey of foreign fighters seeking to cross into Syria to join ISIS. Beyond that there also appears to be agreement that Turkey will provide training areas for the Department of Defense to implement this $500 million train-and-equip program recently approved by Congress. But there still seems to be uncertainty about the ability of the United States to use air space in Turkey for its anti-ISIS campaign, and there appears to be a difference of opinion of the potential utility of a buffer zone or a safe zone on Syrian territory, where the opposition might establish its own government and where operation military forces might be trained.
Let’s go back quickly to Baghdad. What’s your sense of this new government? It doesn’t seem to be doing much.
You know, the gestation period has been long, and I see no indications that there will be an immediate breakthrough in terms of agreed personnel and agreed policy. I prefer to look at that particular aspect as a glass half full because the exclusion of Nouri al-Maliki from the process was of transcendent importance. It’s perfectly understandable that Prime Minister Haider el-Abadi is going to have a tough time—he’s got a lot of different constituencies to satisfy. But sidelining Maliki was urgent to be able to prosecute any kind of a fight against ISIS in Iraq. And, by the same token, ultimately sidelining Assad would have the same importance in Syria.
Would the Iraqis welcome U.S. troops?
I don’t know. Clearly there are American forces on the ground now in Iraq providing various training, logical, and target-acquisition functions. That is obviously acceptable to the government of Iraq in its current straits. If the president were to conclude, at some point, on the advice of the secretary of defense and the military that a much more robust presence is required, obviously he would have to consult with Prime Minister Abadi and see what the traffic would bear.
Earlier you said that some troops on the ground are going to be necessary.
Ultimately, it may well come to that. I don’t want to suggest that ISIS is a fifty-foot tall monster or that this is an organization with unprecedented tactical abilities. It may well be that the effect of air strikes so far is to discourage some of these elements. It certainly slowed down their momentum. ISIS has been extremely expert at filling vacuums, and that momentum’s been slowed. But I would suggest—if the view articulated by the president is correct, that this is going to be a long struggle with ups and downs on any given day—that there will be more and more focus on the absence of viable ground force components in both Iraq and Syria.