Tuesday, October 14, 2014


An army in all but name ISIS same M23

Under assault by U.S.-led coalition, Islamic State may shift tactics.

This summer, Islamic State fighters swept into the expanse of desert straddling the Iraq-Syria border. Riding in pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, supported by skilled snipers and at least one tank, the Islamists captured the town of Rabia on the Syrian side of the border.

Kurdish militia fighters from the People’s Protection Units — known by its Kurdish acronym YGP — rushed to the neighboring town of Al Yarubiyah, on the Iraqi side, in a desperate effort to contain the militants’ advance. What followed was a two-month stalemate, as both sides harassed each other with machine guns, mortars and snipers.

Then in late September, U.S.-led airstrikes hit Islamic State forces in Rabia. The Kurdish YPG troops timed their counterattack perfectly. Reeling from the combined aerial and ground assault, the militants fell back. The Kurds liberated Rabia.

The battle for Rabia is an important object lesson in the fast-expanding war on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As long as the militants fight like a traditional army, with infantry, heavy weapons, vehicles and fortified positions, the United States and its allies can attack them as they would any traditional army — and beat them.

But that depends on Islamic State cooperating. It’s evident the group is already changing up its methods — a prospect that should deeply worry the rest of the world.

The U.S. military is still the planet’s best in conventional terms. It has more and better planes, helicopters, ships and vehicles than any other military — and more training and experience using all this high-tech weaponry.

Combined with Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops, U.S. warships and aircraft in the Middle East represent a far superior fighting force compared to Islamic State. As long as the militants insist on fighting the U.S.-led alliance on Washington’s terms, they will lose. The allies’ victory might be slow. It might be painful. But it’s inevitable.

What the United States and its allies should fear, however, is what comes next — after Islamic State gives up on traditional methods of making war. The militants could borrow a page from the proverbial field manuals of countless rebellions, insurgencies and terrorist groups throughout modern history, ditching their heavy weapons and infantry tactics. They could return to blending into the civilian population and striking when and where their enemies least expect them.

Indeed, there’s already evidence Islamic State is shifting toward those methods, hastening its evolution from a regular fighting force to an irregular one. Or rather, evolving back into an irregular force — just as the current Islamic State is an outgrowth of a hybrid terrorist and insurgent group that formed in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

An army in all but name

Islamic State coalesced in western Iraq around the same time the U.S. military was withdrawing after eight years of war and occupation. The militant group, drawing many of its fighters, leaders, tactics and philosophy from the now-defunct Al Qaeda in Iraq, began a series of bombings and killings across Iraq.

When civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, Islamic State expanded there as well, fighting alongside Syrian rebels against the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fierce fighters, the Islamists attracted significant funding from Saudi and Qatari donors. The group attracted recruits from all over the world, most notably countries with their own active Islamic insurgencies, including Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Islamic State soon gained ground against the Syrian regime, capturing tanks, artillery and even a handful of functional jet warplanes. To this arsenal, the militants added weaponry they bought on the black market, including Chinese-made antiaircraft missiles supplied by Sudan.

In early 2014, Islamic State returned in force to western Iraq, capturing the city of Fallujah from Iraqi government troops. In June, the militants seized Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq. Demoralized and poorly led Iraqi troops fled — leaving behind millions of dollars worth of U.S.-manufactured trucks, tanks and artillery that Islamic State promptly added to its own arsenal.

By summer 2014, Islamic State was an army in all but name. It practiced traditional military tactics, firing artillery to soften up enemy defenses before sending in tanks and infantry. Air-defense troops guarded supply and command centers, firing their Chinese rockets at attacking Iraqi helicopters.

“Given the rapidness in which it is able to maneuver,” a senior White House official said of Islamic State in an Aug. 7 conference call with reporters, “given its ability to direct indirect-fire attacks followed by direct assaults with heavy weapons, it is a militarily proficient organization.”

There were persistent rumors that the Islamists managed to recruit a few trained pilots and actually formed a nascent air force, using the L-39 jets they had captured from the Syrian air arm. The prospect of an Islamic State air force deeply worried the Syrian regime. Damascus reportedly pulled some of its powerful MiG-25 fighters out of mothballs in an apparent effort to hunt down the militants’ planes over eastern Syria.

As Islamic State advanced across northwestern Iraq in early August, Washington finally intervened, launching warplanes, drones and attack helicopters from ships and land bases in the region. The Pentagon was soon leading an international coalition, including scores of ships and hundreds of aircraft. The Pentagon extended air raids and cruise missile strikes into Syria in late September.

In spite of skepticism from pundits, politicians and much of the public, the air raids have helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces push back against the militants. “They have been effective at what they are trying to achieve,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said on Oct. 8, referring to the airstrikes.

The West’s aerial bombing was decisive in allowing Kurdish troops to end the Islamic State militants’ siege of Sinjar Mountain in north Iraq, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Yazidi religious group were slowly dying of hunger and thirst.

U.S. and allied air support also helped Kurdish and Iraqi troops recapture the strategic Mosul Dam, plus Rabia and other towns. When militants attacked toward Baghdad in early October, U.S. Army Apache helicopters swooped in, blunting their advance. An Islamic State brigade with tanks and artillery was on the verge of capturing the town of Kobani, near Syria’s border with Turkey, until warplanes struck back.

Across eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq in late summer and early fall, the situation has been the same. Islamic State deployed traditional fighting units in heavy vehicles — and the U.S.-led coalition promptly targeted these forces with drones, jet fighters and bombers, missiles and helicopters, helping local ground troops to slow, halt or even reverse the militants’ territorial gains.

Evolve or die

If the militants stick to their conventional tactics, they could find themselves suffering the same fate that the rebel group M23 did in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2013. After months of dithering, the United Nations deployed a strong force of mostly South African infantry, armored vehicles and helicopters and launched an all-out military assault on M23 near Goma in eastern Congo.

M23 chose to fight man-to-man, tank-to-tank — and lost. The United Nations swiftly liberated rebel-held towns, destroying enemy vehicles and killing opposition fighters as it went. By the end of 2013, M23 ceased to exist.

To be fair, other African rebel groups have proved more resilient. For several years now, the African Union has been fighting its own military campaign against the Al Shabab militant group in Somalia. And in early October, African Union and Somali troops finally recaptured Al Shabab’s last major stronghold on the Somali coast.

But in contrast to M23, which failed to evolve in the face of the U.N.’s attacks, Al Shabab has quickly abandoned traditional military tactics. “Instead of trying to hold onto large swathes of territory,” wrote Peter Dörrie, an independent expert on African security, “the militants increasingly employ guerrilla and terror tactics.”

Al Shabab’s bombings and gun attacks in Somalia, Uganda and Kenya has killed hundreds of people in recent years.

Islamic State has already signaled that it’s likely to follow Al Shabab’s evolutionary model rather than M23′s dead-end one. It is “an adaptive and learning force,” Lieutenant General William Mayville, the Pentagon’s director of operations, told reporters on Sept. 23.

By late September, the militants in Iraq and Syria had begun adapting to U.S. and allied airstrikes, spreading out and hiding among civilians to present harder targets. “Yes, they’re blending in more,” Kirby said on Sept. 30. “Yes, they’re dispersing, and yes they aren’t communicating quite as openly or as boldly as they once were.”

When British jets launched their first armed patrols over Iraq on Sept. 27, they found no militants to bomb — and returned to their base in Cyprus with all their munitions still underwing. When the Australian Air Force flew its first combat mission over Iraq on Oct. 5, it also found no militants. “They’ve made themselves a much harder target,” former Australian army chief Peter Leahy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The logical next step for Islamic State is to return to its roots as a guerrilla and terror group — one that doesn’t try to match the United States and its allies’ arsenals of vehicles, artillery and aircraft. Iraqi and Kurdish troops could, technically speaking, liberate every town and city Islamic State currently occupies — without coming close to defeating it as an organization.

What followed would likely be a bloody, drawn-out campaign of bombings and nighttime killings by small groups of militants infiltrating communities across Syria and Iraq, and possibly even neighboring countries.

As the long U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved, rooting out terrorists and insurgents can be bloody, expensive and frustrating. Even bloodier, more expensive and more frustrating than bombing their infantry and tank formations from the air.

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