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Defeating ISIS

In a crazy election year, it should come as no surprise that there is another turn waiting to be sprung on everyone. The biggest “October Surprise” in the works right now is the defeat of ISIS / Da’ish. This is quite likely to happen, and it would be a huge boost for Obama and Democrats everywhere.

The story, of course, isn’t about us – but we’ll make it that way. Our media will almost certainly portray the collapse as something the Obama administration gets all the credit for. Not only will that not be entirely true, it will also be reported very badly by the media leading up to the “final” event.

This is a complex story that requires a lot of context, which is exactly what the US media is terrible at. But even more than predicting tomorrow’s news today, Barataria is all about context. Here is what to look for if you wish to follow this story as it unfolds.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a more complicated story than the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq. There are five players on the ground and three key outside forces struggling for an advantage day by day. The best source for information displayed in an easy to follow format can be found here, in this annotated live map of the conflict:

The incredible complexity of the Syria-Iraq Wars. Please see the original map for much more detail.

The incredible complexity of the Syria-Iraq Wars. Please see the original map for much more detail.

Immediately, the complexity is obvious. Visit the site to scroll around the map if you want to learn more. Constant updates of events in this battle are placed on the map so that it is easy to understand the strategic importance of them. Links are often provided to more in depth stories from journals large and small in the region.

120,000 Syrians live in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

120,000 Syrians live in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

You can zoom in on any area to get a better understanding of what is going on. For example, the tragedy unfolding in Aleppo, with constant bombardment of civilians, becomes immediately obvious. Three groups are locked together in a death match where civilians cannot possibly avoid being caught in a murderous crossfire. It’s pure Hell, and not likely to get better even if ISIS / Da’ish is defeated.

To understand what is happening, it’s best to start with the combatants and finish with the two key battles which are pending – the immediate removal of ISIS / Da’ish from Iraq by retaking Mosul and the decapitation of Da’ish by taking their “capitol” of Ar-Raqqah, Syria.

The Combatants – On the Ground

Da'ish on the march. Yes, these monsters must be stopped.

Da’ish on the march.

Da’ish, aka Daesh, ISIS, and ISIL (in black)
Allies: None
Enemies: Everyone
What we commonly know as ISIS is usually called in regional publications Da’ish or Daesh. This comes from the Arabic acronym for the group, and it has the advantage that they hate it. It’s pronounced like Da’ish and that is becoming the preferred way to spell it in English. Little needs to be said about these vicious brutes who have angered absolutely everyone around the world. They have an estimated 100-200 thousand troops and are very well armed. Most of the weapons came from looting the Syrian and Iraqi military with their initial successes, but a lot have been purchased on the world arms market. They were also armed early on by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, with the US at least looking the other way if not supporting the effort directly.

Where Kurdish people live.

Where Kurdish people live.

Kurds (in yellow)
Allies: The United States
Enemies: Da’ish
The Kurds are a people who are spread across four nations – Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. What they want more than anything else is independence, and in northern Iraq they have achieved considerable autonomy. Their fighting forces include the Peshmerga (Face of Death) operating primarily in Iraq, the PKK from Turkey, and the YPG of Syria. Their strength estimates vary but are probably no more than 100 thousand. They have been armed by their own wits and by the US. In the past, they were loathe to operate outside of their homeland but they have spread across the Turkish border with Syria. They may be willing to finally operate as something like a US backed mercenary force, but if so it is only to impress the US and win our backing for their independence – something only we can make happen.

Members of the FSA

Members of the FSA

Syrian Rebels (in green)
Allies: United States, Kurds
Enemies: Syrian Government
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the largest group, but other elements supporting the rebellion are loosely associated – including the Kurdish YPG and the Sunni Islamic al Nusra. They have no more than about 80 thousand troops and their arms come almost entirely from the Saudi / Gulf State connections. They appear to be holding their own against the Syrian government but have been able to do so largely by ignoring Da’ish and hardly ever engaging them. Fighting has spread across Syria in a series of small pockets, as you can see on the map, which are currently incapable of forming a cohesive front.

Bashar al-Assad, the Butcher of Damascus

Bashar al-Assad

Syrian Government (in red)
Allies: Russia
Enemies: Syrian Rebels, The United States, Turkey, Da’ish
After five years of conflict, the civil war shows no signs of letting up. More than 7 million Syrians have been “internally displaced” by this war and another 4 million are refugees outside the country. It is a horror that appears to have no end. The government has about 200 thousand soldiers fighting for it, including Hezbollah and other groups. They have modern weapons provided by Russia. While the Syrian government has sometimes been accused by Syrians of deliberately creating Da’ish as a distraction, they are actively pursuing them now. An offensive last June towards ar-Raqqah stopped just short of taking the city, largely because of a lack of close air support from either Russia or the US. This was probably due to their inability to work with larger powers from behind a distrustful veil of secrecy, but allegations are rife that the great powers either do not want the Syrian government to get credit for crushing Da’ish or that they actually support Da’ish in secret.

The Iraqi Army is heavily defined by US advisors and arms

The Iraqi Army is heavily defined by US advisors and arms

Iraqi Government (also in red)
Allies: The United States
Enemies: Da’ish
The Iraqi army has about 150 thousand troops who are well equipped by the US. They also have no stomach for fighting. When first confronted by Da’ish in 2013 they famously surrendered before the battle really started. It is up to them to retake their territory, so their effectiveness is about to be put to the test. Very few have much faith in them.  But it will likely be up to them to rid their nation of Da’ish once and for all in the next month or less.

The Combatants – Outside Powers

A carrier based F-18

A carrier based F-18

The United States
Allies: Kurds, Syrian Rebels, Iraqi Government
Enemies: Syrian Government, Da’ish
We are the big dog in this fight, but officially we have no troops on the ground fighting. It’s clear that we have “advisors” who are really forward scouts providing target identification, something very necessary for the recent close support of our airstrikes in support of the Kurds and Iraqi government. Our combat role is almost entirely air support, launched from Incirlik airbase in Turkey and from carriers in the Mediterranean.

You're not as clever as you think, Vlad.

You’re not as clever as you think, Vlad.

Russia
Allies: Syrian Government
Enemies: Syrian Rebels, Da’ish
Exactly what Putin is up to remains a mystery. Their support of the Syrian Government is almost entirely based on their desire to block a pipeline from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to Europe, which would compete with the current Russian monopoly on oil and gas in the region. In that sense, a chaotic Hell in Syria is about as good as control. It’s also possible that Putin saw a chance to humiliate the US by taking command of the situation, but if that is the case the quagmire has consumed him as well. Their combat role is also entirely airstrikes, launched from Syrian government controlled bases and recently from Iranian airfields.  Overall, however, Putin appears to want to limit Russia’s role and may be seeking a way out.

Recep Erdogan of Turkey

Recep Erdogan of Turkey

Turkey
Allies: Syrian Rebels
Enemies: Syrian Government, Da’ish
It’s impossible to say too much about the difficult situation Turkey is in, now made much more complicated by the ongoing purge by Erdogan. They are traditional enemies of the Syrian government and have always supported the Rebels. They clearly even supported Da’ish for a time, and some in Turkey clearly still have connections to the group. Their enemy’s enemy is clearly something like a friend, even as that broke down due to the horror that Da’ish quickly became. Their role has been confined to periodic artillery support of combat as well as providing bases for the US and, at times, the Kurds- again, the enemy of an enemy. Turkey also has heavily suppressed their own Kurdish population, and as such is wary of all Kurdish groups. Erdogan apparently became enraged when they recently took land west of the Euphrates River along the Turkish border in apparent violation of an agreement with the Kurdish YPG. The rise of Kurdish armies clearly has Erdogan very upset, which may be the main reason why relations with the US are becoming very strained and relations with Russia were patched up in a hurry.

The Key Battlefields Ahead

Mosul, Iraq

The area around Mosul, from the same map. Note that this is only about 150 km square.

The area around Mosul, from the same map. Note that this is only about 150 km square.

The Peshmerga has surrounded Mosul on the North, but apparently is loathe to take it as it is outside their territory. They are waiting for the Iraqi Army to come in from the South to liberate the city from Da’ish, which may come very soon. There has been a lot of action all around the city and the Da’ish soldiers have dug in, prepared for battle. Taking Mosul will effectively eliminate Da’ish from Iraq and will be declared a big victory. It will also free up Peshmerga forces to move into Syria, if they are willing to do so. If they wind up having to clear Da’ish they will probably demand a stiff price for doing so – independence.

Ar-Raqqah, Syria

The area around ar-Raqqah, from the same map. Note the scale - this map is about 200km by 150 km

The area around ar-Raqqah, from the same map. Note the scale – this map is about 200km by 150 km

This is the capitol of Da’ish, and taking it would effectively wipe them out. They would still control several smaller cities along the Euphrates River, but their presence would no longer be a threat to anyone. They have been cut off from any supply through Turkey by the recent Peshmerga supported YPG retaking of Manbij – west of the Euphrates. Kurdish forces now control all northern approaches to ar Raqqah and are no more than 80 km from it. Taking the city will be very difficult, as the Syrian government offensive showed, and will require very close air support from the US, which is to say reliable targeting by our forward observers embedded with the Kurds. But this is the main story in the defeat of Da’ish. It remains a question of when it takes place and who delivers the final blow.

It's all about us!

It’s all about us!

Through all of this, action against Da’ish is going to be undertaken by forces on the ground with the US playing only a support role. Will we demand that this be done by November, and will the US arrogantly take credit for the great victory won by the blood of brave Kurdish fighters? Of course we will, it’s what we do.

That is why we can reasonably see this story unfold quickly and ferociously. If it does happen it may have a great influence on the election, lifting at least some of the terribly unjustified bad feelings that many voters have about the present and future of our nation. Nevermind that Da’ish has never mounted a direct attack on the US – we are obsessed with the unspeakable horrors they have committed and the apparent inability of our government to put a stop to it.

Despite the media’s fascination with the terrors of Da’ish they have done a terrible job reporting on the state of the conflict. That’s somewhat understandable given the complexity and lack of good sources for updates. But as this story quickly unfolds the lack of sustained attention to explain the context of the situation will almost certainly reduce it to a scripted cartoon – ISIS is defeated, we win!

If that’s not good enough for you, and I hope it isn’t, perhaps this article will help fill in the gaps so that you can read reports from al Jazeera and even more local sources. If there is anything which is wrong or incomplete in this piece, please add your contributions to the comments below.

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29 thoughts on “Defeating ISIS

  1. I think you have got many details right but the big picture wrong, The US is no more likely to have long-term success in imposing its will on the Middle East than it was likely to have success in imposing its will on Vietnam. It does seem very likely to me that there has got to be a Kurdistan. The frightening thing about Hillary Clinton is that she seems to have no sense of the moral or practical limitations of US military power.

    • Don’t get me wrong, if we do indeed wipe Isis Isis off the face of the Earth I cannot imagine it helping the people of Syria one bit, let alone making any kind of significant change to the region. But we have set up the situation so that Isis is all the US public cares about and it is actually possible for the administration to declare Victory there.

  2. Lets see: Demonize Gaddafi. Demonize Assad. Demonize communism. Demonize ISIS (which truly is diabolical). The US will never be able to have a sane and stable foreign policy based on demonization……

    • They are both bad people, but I do agree with you. This is very far from the reboot we need, and the potential problems it all stirs up with Turkey, vis a vis the Kurdish question, are very dangerous. But yes, a foreign policy based on bogeymen is not a real policy but an electoral strategy.

  3. Thank you, Erik—this is the best “primer” on an ultimately no-win entanglement I’ve seen anywhere in the media, writ large.

  4. For ur info…kurds are the main force that are effectively fighting ISIS especially in iraq and the iraqian army cant fight ISIS..they are hopeless..kurds successfully terminated ISIS in there territory ..and they are the only people who could did that👍🏻

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  6. You’re absolutely right about the media doing a very poor job explaining the context of this war. As complex as it sounds, it begins and and ends with the Shii’te/ Sunni conflict. Daesh belongs to a Sunni wahhabi extremist ideolology exported by Saudi Arabia since the 1970’s, yet all we hear about Saudi Arabia is that they’re our allies. Hezbollah is the Shii’te version of Daesh in Lebanon, yet no media outlet looks at them to better understand the rise of ISIS, or Al Qaeda for that matter. I really liked your maps and job well done on contextualizing Daesh.

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  8. A very informed article. I just hope that the Kurds will finally form their own state, made out of Syrian and Iraqi territory they have! And I would add that you forgot to put Kurds as Turkey’s enemies. Erdogan is most preoccupied with stopping Kurds from gaining a free state.

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