MERI Forum 2014 | S2: War on ISIS (Part 3)


Session 2: The War on ISIS
Date: 05/11/2014

Part 1: Intervention of Anwar Muslim (Kobane Canton)
Part 2: Intervention of Galip Dalay (SETA)
Part 3: Intervention of Max Hoffman (CPA)
Part 4: Questions & Answers Session


Transcription of Max Hoffman (Policy Analyst, CPA)

Thank you Dlawer and the MERI staff for putting together such a remarkable conference. I wanted to talk particularly about the US role in the war against ISIS as the token representative of Washington here. But first, this is obviously a regional problem so I will touch on both Iraq and Syria. To begin with, I really wanted to give some context on how these decisions are being taken in Washington and the political situation around them in Washington because I think it’s often easy and understandable in the tumult of events to lose track of the political side in the United States. President Obama in 2008 defeated Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primary which eventually of course led to the Presidency. In that campaign he was really running as the anti-war candidate. He pledged and said famously, that he wants to be a President that ends wars, not a President that begins wars. He said that we need to focus on nation building at home, after many years of deep involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

So this is his big picture, and still remains the big picture for President Obama to this day and he is deeply reluctant to be drawn into deep commitments in the Middle East, particularly ground troops in the Middle East. The US public meanwhile, I am sure as you have read, is very inward oriented at the moment. They are tired of war after the long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are worried about the economy after years of growth and a sizeable amount of Americans in polls now regard the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as mistakes. Just yesterday of course the US held elections and the election results are still coming in but it appears very clear that the Republican Party will take control of the Senate and these election results to some extent demonstrate the continued American anger towards their leaders and the desire for many Americans to focus back home.

I just give that to you as the foundation, the political atmosphere in which the decisions are being taken in Washington and given all of that it’s actually somewhat remarkable that the level of involvement we have seen since August in particular by the United States, in terms of the air campaign against ISIS. I also wanted to briefly address one central criticism of the US approach towards this problem and its focus in Syria in this case and that’s the accusation that the US is ignoring Assad by focusing on ISIS. I think there is some merit to that criticism. They have a point. The US needs to clarify how the long-term strategy will deal with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, but I think President Obama, given his political constraints at home and looking at the situation in Syria, concluded several years ago, there was little he could do short of a large-scale ground invasion, which he did not want and which the Syrians did not want, to remove Bashar Al-Assad and then stabilise Syria subsequently. So I just wanted to address that before I get into the details of the campaign.

I would also say that both in Iraq and Syria the use of US military force, primarily the air-force, has to be very careful given our history in the region. The US and President Obama are deeply concerned and do not want to be seen as any one groups’ air-force in either country. They don’t want to be seen as taking sides in the Syrian civil war or in Iraq. And finally President Obama and the US administration believe at a fundamental level that the future of these countries of course will be decided by the people of these countries. The US cannot dictate. They can help shape towards a positive outcome but they cannot dictate the outcome. So that’s the context, that is, the wider context of the US strategy and the war against ISIS. I would like now to turn to talk a bit briefly about how the campaign is going so far.

First it’s still very early, as we have heard already and I am sure we will hear again, this will be a long term campaign to push ISIS back and eventually reach political arrangements with the groups you can negotiate with and eliminate the groups that you cannot negotiate with. The air campaign and the cooperation of forces on the ground have achieved some important things already.

First, it helped stopped the psychological momentum that ISIS had built up in the wake of the fall of Mosul. If you think back to those days in June and July it seemed as if ISIS was carrying everything before them and people were wondering what would stop them. I think we have gotten past that. It’s clear that we have seen the high water mark of ISIS in the region. I think this is thanks in part to the air campaign. Second, and I think this is a very important military point, the air campaign has taken away ISIS’s mobility and their ability to concentrate forces. In the early days of their campaign, they could mass forces against small outposts or small towns and overwhelm the defenders that contributed to this psychological momentum that they built up. Now they cannot mass their forces or an air-strike can hit them. They cannot be as mobile because the United States and the coalition partners will hit their convoys on the road. That is very important and it evens the playing field.

And third, the US and the coalition involvement has provided intelligence and aerial surveillance to partners on the ground that was not there before. This has allowed partners like the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces and now the YPG fighters in Syria to anticipate where ISIS will strike and to react in a timely fashion to those offensives and that’s very important as well. So I think that overall, the momentum has at least, if it hasn’t shifted it has evened out. I don’t think we will see drastic ISIS expansion any further. But as US officials keep saying and everyone here knows well, this is going to be long campaign and to push ISIS out of the urban areas they control will be very very difficult and that cannot be done from the air as we keep hearing. These are densely populated urban environments in Mosul and Fallujah and the United States will not conduct air-strikes in areas where there are civilians and where civilian casualties would be a large problem. So, of course, we need strong partners on the ground and this goes back to the US not being able to dictate results but having to help partners in the region decide their own destiny. In Iraq and Northern Syria the US has strong partners in the Kurdish political and military groups. The US are working to rebuild the Iraqi Security Forces after years of corruption and years of neglect that means equipment that means training and that is a long and very difficult process. I think that the way that the Iraqi security forces collapsed surprised everyone including the United States. So that is high on the list of priorities and alongside with the equipment and the training there is the need to reform the security channel and make them a more open body that all Iraqis can respect and cooperate with and that is absolutely crucial.

And finally particularly in Anbar and in Syria, there is the need for outreach to Sunni groups. This is probably the biggest challenge moving forward to peel away the more moderate, the more reasonable Sunni groups who have, if not cooperated allowed the ISIS advance in certain areas. That is crucial. This problem will not be solved without Sunni cooperation in the campaign. So that is perhaps the biggest political challenge moving forward.

In Syria, partly due to US reluctance, and I don’t think we want to debate the history too much, but partly because the US was slow to engage in Syria, we have fewer partners and that’s why what happened in Kobane, as Mr. Muslim was talking about was such a dramatic turning point. If you think back to the time line in October when Kobane was reaching its peak. On October 8 you had Admiral Kirby of the US Pentagon saying that ‘we have no partners on the ground.’ On October 9th Secretary of State Kerry came out and said while the violence and atrocities were terrible, Kobane was not a strategic objective and then very quickly something changed and the air-strikes ramped up dramatically. The news came out that the US was coordinating air-strikes with YPG fighters on the ground and then on October 19th, there was a very dramatic development with the air-drops of equipment to YPG fighters in Kobane. This action was taken unilaterally without Turkish acceptance which is something the United States does not usually do on Turkey’s border against Turkey’s wishes. What this meant was the importance of trying to reach out to new actors within the Syrian war. Actors who can help secure territory on the ground, actors who are moderate and respect civilian in areas which they control and who can contribute to an eventual political settlement. I think the growing cooperation between the United States and the Syrian Kurdish groups, could be a model applied to other moderate groups in Syria moving forward.

So now to talk about the campaign going forward and what to expect. In Syria and of course Iraq, there is only a political solution to these problems. In Syria though, right now there is no space for political negotiations. The war has gotten too terrible, the factions are too divided and there is too much hatred. So the plan, to move forward in Syria, is to create conditions which would allow for political negotiations. The United States and coalition allies are trying, very slowly, to put the pieces in place perhaps leading to a pause in the fighting and some sort of negotiation, but this is a very difficult process. It is this political angle that explains quite a lot why the bombing campaign is targeted. There is the question, why isn’t the United States doing more, why are not they hitting more ISIS targets? Given there can only be a political solution the United States cannot cause high casualties. They have to be very precise, very targeted or else they will end up alienating the Sunni groups who will be central to solving the problem in the end.

I must also add that the campaign is very expensive and the United States is using five million dollar missiles to take out a twenty thousand dollar pick up truck. That speaks to the very targeted and political nature of the air campaign. And finally, as the President and US officials keep saying, the air-strikes can only go so far until there are partners on the ground that can deliver some basic governance and some basic services to the areas and that’s why, I think, moving forward, you see the United States pressuring their new partners in Syria the YPG and the PYD. You will see them being pressured to work with the moderate non-Kurdish Sunni opposition. You will see the US train and equip programme which has been very slow to get started. You will see that come into effect over the next year or year and a half. The aim is to train between 10 to 15 thousand moderate fighters. It is a very difficult task to train these moderate fighters and arm them and send them back into Syria. It is a very difficult process.

But then in Iraq the need for some sort of National Guard deal, and of course we will leave this to Iraqis, but some sort of National Guard deal to accommodate Sunnis into providing security in their areas will be central. And of course from all parties there needs to be tremendous political restraint to avoid deepening the tensions and divisions which are already present. In all of this, the United States hopes to be a partner. It will refuse to be drawn onto one particular groups’ side against the other. The United States is interested in stabilising the situation and trying to improve the conditions of the people of the region and so I think that that will dictate all of the military options moving forward. I don’t think you will see any meaningful deployment of US ground forces. I don’t think anyone here wants that, I don’t think anyone in the United States wants that. So it is a question of what we can do to help. To help arm to help provide intelligence, to help with air support in a military campaign to defeat ISIS and within the wider political context going towards a political settlement that can last and that can prevent this from happening again. Thank you very much and thank you again to Professor Dlawer and to MERI.

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