Let’s just be clear about one thing: the idea that retaking Raqqa from Islamic State is some kind of monumental task that the US army and its regional allies in Riyadh and Doha couldn’t accomplish in short order if it were absolutely necessary is just silly.
The same thing goes for the Russians and Iranians on the other side of this equation.
Clearly this is an oversimplification (on all kinds of levels), but if for some reason it became imperative to rout ISIS in Raqqa tomorrow, lest the entire world should end the following day, the US, or Russia, or Iran, or Britain, or France, or China, or [fill in country with a sizable conventional army that hasn’t been recently disbanded and/or torn apart like the Iraqi armed forces] could for all intents and purposes just march right on in there and take the city. End of story.
Sure, there would be all kinds of collateral damage, scores of dead civilians, booby traps everywhere, etc. but it’s important to keep some perspective here. This isn’t the Allies landing at Normandy and beating back the Wehrmacht on the way to Berlin. Or, again on the flip side, this isn’t the Red army beating back Operation Barbarossa and pushing all the way from Leningrad to the German capital.
The Mosul experience was a misnomer. That was a demoralized, poorly-trained and recently reconstituted Iraqi army fleeing in the face of a balls-out, bum-rush by AK-wielding, black-flag-waving jihadists. It wasn’t some feat of military strategy on the part of Islamic State. It was more “let’s see if we can scare the Iraqi army enough to make them just turn tail and run away.” And it worked. There’s no telling if that would have been successful had the Iraqi army decided to put up a fight.
At the end of the day, it was probably wrong to call ISIS a “JV team” – as Barack Obama infamously did – but hey, they are what they are. And that’s a ragtag group of Wahhabi desert bandits. That’s it. There’s exactly zero chance that they can defend Raqqa successfully against a serious assault by a real army. You don’t need to be a military historian to surmise that.
If you need evidence to support that assessment, just have a look at how other Sunni insurgent groups fighting in Syria fared after the Russian air force showed up at Latakia in late September, 2015.
It’s important (really important if you want to have some perspective here) to remember exactly how this went down. Assad was on the ropes that summer (2015). Then in June, there was a Qassem Soleimani sighting in Syria. “The world will be surprised by what [I’m] preparing for the coming days,” Iran’s official IRNA state news agency quoted the Quds commander as saying at the time.
Well, fast forward a few weeks and, in what amounted to a violation of a UN travel ban, Soleimani showed up in Moscow.
To anyone who knew anything at all about Iran and Syria, it was painfully obvious what was about to happen (I suggested as much to my boss at the time only to be told I was crazy).
Soleimani was asking the Kremlin to effectively serve as Hezbollah’s air force in “useful Syria.” And that’s exactly what happened two months later.
The Quds ran the show on the ground, directing and collaborating with Hezbollah while the Kremlin’s Sukhois provided the air cover.
Coming full circle, do you know what happened to the Sunni insurgents unlucky enough to be fighting in northwestern Syria? They folded up like wet cardboard, that’s what they did and the only reason it took Hezbollah (oh wait, I guess I’m supposed to say it was “the Syrian army”) so long to retake Aleppo was because at that point, the city had become the focus of the international media. So optically, it would have been bad to just roll in and overrun the resistance.
Meanwhile, ISIS was concentrated relatively far from that battlefield and do you know what? They were having their own problems battling the Syrian Kurds who were (and still are) armed by the US.
The point here is simple: these Sunni insurgencies (whether “moderate” or “extreme”) can’t even hold their own against Hezbollah when Hassan Nasrallah’s army has a hint of Russian air power or against the Kurds when they’re supplied by and receiving air cover from the US. (Aside: one of the silliest things about the whole US alliance with the Syrian Kurds is that the US uses a Turkish airbase to fly sorties, and Erodgan is convinced that these very same Syrian Kurds who are receiving air support from US planes flying out of Incirlik are in league with the PKK with whom the Turkish dictator is at war).
So all this global hand-wringing about how to “defeat” ISIS and/or retake Raqqa is to a certain extent silly. Yes, Sunni extremists have proven to be quite adept at carrying on wars of attrition after the initial battle is lost. But ask Hezbollah how quickly these same Sunni groups fold under pressure in a toe-to-toe battle. Similarly, ask the Tehran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq how “fearless” ISIS really is when confronted.
All of that to make the point that if Washington, or Moscow, or Tehran, etc. decides (and I mean really decides) it’s time for ISIS to go, then that will be that. But it’s going to require an actual troop commitment.
And that brings us (in a really long-winded, roundabout sort of way) to the following out Thursday evening from Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, which I’ll present with no further comment because God (or Allah) knows I’ve talked enough for one post.
Listening to his campaign rhetoric, the last thing you would expect Donald Trump to do as president would be to escalate a ground war in the Middle East. He won the Republican nomination last year by campaigning against both George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s war in Libya.
But as Trump’s young presidency has shown, many of the candidate’s foreign policy positions are not as firmly held as his supporters had hoped. It’s not just that Trump struck the Syrian regime after last week’s chemical weapons attack on rebels outside of Damascus. It’s not just his recent reversals on Chinese currency manipulation and the NATO alliance. The president’s biggest foreign policy surprise may be yet to come.
Senior White House and administration officials tell me Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has been quietly pressing his colleagues to question the underlying assumptions of a draft war plan against the Islamic State that would maintain only a light U.S. ground troop presence in Syria. McMaster’s critics inside the administration say he wants to send tens of thousands of ground troops to the Euphrates River Valley. His supporters insist he is only trying to facilitate a better interagency process to develop Trump’s new strategy to defeat the self-described caliphate that controls territory in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. special operations forces and some conventional forces have been in Iraq and Syria since 2014, when Obama reversed course and ordered a new air campaign against the Islamic State. But so far, the U.S. presence on the ground has been much smaller and quieter than more traditional military campaigns, particularly for Syria. It’s the difference between boots on the ground and slippers on the ground.
Trump himself has been on different sides of this issue. He promised during his campaign that he would develop a plan to destroy the Islamic State. At times during the campaign he said he favored sending ground troops to Syria to accomplish this task. More recently, Trump told Fox Business this week that that would not be his approach to fighting the Syrian regime: “We’re not going into Syria,” he said.
McMaster himself has found resistance to a more robust ground troop presence in Syria. In two meetings since the end of February of Trump’s national security cabinet, known as the principals’ committee, Trump’s top advisers have failed to reach consensus on the Islamic State strategy. The White House and administration officials say Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of U.S. Central Command, oppose sending more conventional forces into Syria. Meanwhile, White House senior strategist Stephen Bannon has derided McMaster to his colleagues as trying to start a new Iraq War, according to these sources.
Because Trump’s national security cabinet has not reached consensus, the Islamic State war plan is now being debated at the policy coordinating committee, the interagency group hosted at the State Department of subject matter experts that prepares issues for the principals’ committee and deputies’ committee, after which a question reaches the president’s desk for a decision.
The genesis of this debate starts with one of Trump’s first actions as president, when he told the Pentagon to develop a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, opposed sending conventional forces into a complicated war zone, where they would be targets of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Iran and Russia. In Flynn’s brief tenure, he supported a deal with Russia to work together against the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, similar to a bargain Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry’s tried and failed to seal with Moscow.
Inside the Pentagon, military leaders favor a more robust version of Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State. This has been a combination of airstrikes and special operations forces that train and support local forces. Military leaders favor lifting restrictive rules of engagement for U.S. special operations forces and using more close air support, like attack helicopters, in future operations against the Islamic State capital in Raqqa.
McMaster however is skeptical of this approach. To start, it relies primarily on Syrian Kurdish militias to conquer and hold Arab-majority territory. Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general who is close to McMaster, acknowledged to me this week that the Kurdish forces have been willing to fight the Islamic State, whereas Arab militias have primarily fought against the Assad regime.
“Our special operations guys believe rightfully so that this was a proven force that could fight,” Keane said of the Kurdish fighters. “While this makes sense tactically, it doesn’t make sense strategically. Those are Arab lands, and the Arabs are not going to put up with Syrian Kurds retaking Arab lands. Whenever you select a military option, you have got to determine what political end state will this support. Regrettably this option puts us back to the drawing board.”
There are other reasons that relying too much on the Kurds in Syria presents problems. The U.S. Air Force relies on Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to launch bombing raids over Islamic State positions in Syria. The Turks consider the Syrian Kurdish forces to be allies of Kurdish separatists within Turkey and have complained that Obama was effectively arming militias with weapons that would be turned on their own government. (Turkey’s own president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cynically declared war on his own Kurdish population in 2016, exacerbating these tensions.)
Keane, who said he was not speaking for McMaster, told me he favored a plan to begin a military operation along the Euphrates River Valley. “A better option is to start the operation in the southeast along the Euphrates River Valley, establish a U.S. base of operations, work with our Sunni Arab coalition partners, who have made repeated offers to help us against the regime and also ISIS. We have turned those down during the Obama administration.” Keane added that U.S. conventional forces would be the anchor of that initial push, which he said would most likely require around 10,000 U.S. conventional forces, with an expectation that Arab allies in the region would provide more troops to the U.S.-led effort.
“The president wants to defeat ISIS, he wants to win, what he needs is a U.S.-led conventional coalition ground force that can take Raqqa and clean out the Euphrates River Valley of ISIS all the way to the Iraq border,” Keane said. “Handwringing about U.S. ground troops in Syria was a fetish of the Obama administration. Time to look honestly at a winning military strategy.”
White House and administration officials familiar with the current debate tell me there is no consensus on how many troops to send to Syria and Iraq. Two sources told me one plan would envision sending up to 50,000 troops. Blogger and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich wrote on April 9 that McMaster wanted 150,000 ground troops for Syria, but U.S. officials I spoke with said that number was wildly inflated and no such plan has been under consideration.
In public the tightlipped McMaster has not revealed support for conventional ground forces in Syria. But on Sunday in an interview with Fox News, McMaster gave some insights into his thinking on the broader strategy against the Islamic State. “We are conducting very effective operations alongside our partners in Syria and in Iraq to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS and reestablish control of that territory, control of those populations, protect those populations, allow refugees to come back, begin reconstruction,” he said.
That’s significant. Obama never said the goal of the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria was to defeat the Islamic State, let alone to protect the population from the group and begin reconstruction. Those aims are much closer to the goals of George W. Bush’s surge strategy for Iraq at the end of his second term, under which U.S. conventional forces embedded with the Iraqi army would “clear, hold and build” areas that once belonged to al Qaeda’s franchise.
McMaster himself is no stranger to the surge. As a young colonel serving in Iraq, he was one of the first military officers to form a successful alliance with local forces, in Tal Afair, to defeat the predecessor to the Islamic State, al Qaeda in Iraq. During the Iraq War, McMaster became one of the closest advisers to David Petraeus, the four-star general who led the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq that defeated al Qaeda in Iraq — and brought about a temporary, uneasy peace there.
That peace unraveled after Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Obama himself never apologized for that decision, even though he had to send special operations forces back to Iraq in the summer of 2014 after the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. He argued that U.S. forces in Iraq would have been caught up inside a civil war had they stayed.
The cadre of former military advisers to Petraeus took a different view. They argued that America’s abandonment of Iraq gave the Shiite majority there a license to pursue a sectarian agenda that provided a political and military opening for the Islamic State. An active U.S. presence in Iraq would have restrained those sectarian forces.
One of those advisers was H.R. McMaster. It’s now up to Trump to decide whether to test the Petraeus camp’s theory or try to defeat the Islamic State with a light footprint in Syria. Put another way, Trump must decide whether he wants to wage Bush’s war or continue Obama’s.