Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Anthony Alfidi's Talk On "ISIS and the Middle East" In July 2015

The Middle East Discussion Group at the Commonwealth Club invited me to give a brief talk last night at their monthly meeting.  I had to accept because I am in love with the sound of my own voice.  More importantly, I wanted to hear input from the rest of the group as they reacted to my ideas, because many of them have spent significant time in the Middle East.  I spoke on “ISIS and the Middle East” and my main points are below.  All opinions are my own, based on unclassified open source material available in public media.  Nothing I said reflects any official position of any US government agency.

***BEGIN TALK***

Every war story starts with a personal recollection.  “There I was . . .”  Back in 2009, I served as a staff officer at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.  The US military at the time had a plan to leave enough of our forces in Iraq at the conclusion of the drawdown to sustain a strong advisory mission.  We would keep these forces at several large bases so our presence would be minimally intrusive to the Iraqi people.  Our military staff knew several crucial deficiencies about Iraq’s armed forces in 2009.  The Iraqi army staff exhibited poor planning that hampered its operations, and was still driven by internal sectarian divisions that mirrored Iraq’s lack of national unity.

I privately gave the Iraqi government a 60% chance of successfully holding the country together, provided the US maintained its troop presence and advisory mission (both military and diplomatic).  The Obama administration’s unwillingness to strongly pursue a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government led to a complete exit of US combat forces . . . a policy that created a vacuum.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics.

ISIS began as an Al Qaeda / Al Nusra Front splinter group fighting the Syrian government.  They gained credibility by matching the Assad regime’s spectacular brutality on the battlefield.  ISIS’s top cadre include former Baath party officials from Saddam’s regime and former Iraqi army intelligence officers who refused to reconcile with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

I want to mention two things that set ISIS apart from other violent groups.  First, ISIS’s very successful media messaging emphasizes themes of honor and adventure that appeal to Islamic youths worldwide.  We’ve all seen their atrocities on YouTube; these are choreographed to match specific propaganda themes (i.e., the Jordanian pilot burned as retaliation for Allied bombs burning Arabs).  Second, ISIS uses very unconventional means of control over its warriors.  Fighters maintain their battlefield stamina with locally produced versions of methamphetamine.  Media reports have noted how ISIS fighters enter battle high on drugs and even steal drugs from their dead comrades' corpses.

I had to dispel three very popular myths about ISIS.  Myth #1 is that ISIS is some kind of competent fighting force.  I cannot find any evidence in public sources that ISIS can field conventional forces that can execute combined arms operations at battalion level and above.  Photos of their use of vehicles show an amateurish appreciation for weapons and tactics at best.  Individual fighters fire crew-served weapons from unsupported positions, with no visible appreciation for bipod or tripod mounts that will enhance grazing fire.  Trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons for use against ground units show little communication between driver and gunner; indeed, the pickup trucks have to stop and face their rear towards an opposing force so the anti-air weapon can traverse horizontally across the truck bed.  Media reports about ISIS’s ability to capture American-made military vehicles from fleeing Iraqi forces make little mention of whether ISIS can competently employ these weapons in combat.  Mastering a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter or M1 Abrams tank takes months of constant crew training.  Operating these systems in combat requires a logistical structure that ISIS probably does not possess.

Myth #2 is that the US somehow supported ISIS or at least encouraged its creation.  This narrative plays well among Middle Eastern audiences predisposed to suspect the US’s strategic intentions but it is devoid of any factual basis.  The US activist organization Judicial Watch used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain some declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and US State Department reports on the rise of ISIS that noted the likelihood of an Islamic extremist breakaway state developing in eastern Syria.  The tone of the reports noted this was an alarming development that would harm the US’s interest in keeping Iraq stable.  Furthermore, the US’s abortive efforts to support the moderate Free Syrian Army fanned the flames of Arab suspicion.  The Free Syrian Army’s tendency to occupy enclaves surrounded by either Syrian state forces or ISIS required the US to attempt airdrops of weapons and material.  Some of the airdrops blew off course and ended up in the hands of ISIS, giving rise to Arab media claims that the US really supported ISIS after all.

The third and final myth I had to dispel is that ISIS is competently governing the territories it occupies.  ISIS’s capture of Syria’s oil wells and Mosul’s dam sometimes look like attempts to create a real nation-state.  ISIS left in place engineers who could operate those facilities.  It did not behave the same way when it rolled through Iraq’s western provinces and replaced municipal administrators.  Areas under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria have largely seen severely degraded municipal services.  ISIS is more concerned with operating infrastructure that will earn revenue (oil/gas, hydroelectricity) and less concerned with maintaining systems that incur costs (municipal waste disposal).

I offered two predictions for the next stage in ISIS’s development.  ISIS’s messaging gives it global reach.  Its connection to affiliated narco-trafficking groups in North Africa provides a channel to export instability.  Its fighters can migrate from the Iraq-Syria theater to Libya and other unstable places.  There is some evidence that cells sympathetic to ISIS have activated in North America.  My first prediction is that ISIS will continue to expand its narco-trafficking networks in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as an alternative funding route if US and allied air strikes shut down its oil and gas production in Iraq and Syria.  Second, I predict ISIS will continue to probe the northern border of Saudi Arabia for weak points amenable to infiltration.  Control of Mecca and Medina is a major strategic prize for any Salafist movement.  The Saudi Arabian military has exhibited major operational weaknesses in its failure to dislodge Houthi rebels from Yemen.  Saudi forces comprising the core of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force were effective at putting down unarmed civilian protesters in Bahrain during the Arab Spring uprisings.  They are profoundly less effective against armed jihadi forces that disperse among civilian populations.

The US is in a very unclear position in the Middle East.  On one hand, it still maintains healthy diplomatic relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab monarchies that have at times aided and abetted the jihadis who evolved into ISIS.  On the other hand, it just concluded the P5+1 negotiations with Iran in a major diplomatic breakthrough with that heretofore isolated power.  Iran’s proxy forces have proven themselves unable to retake Mosul or other ISIS-controlled areas in northern Iraq, for a number of reasons.  Ironically, Iran may be the most stable state in the Middle East compared to the instability of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  The US’s reliance upon semi-stable Arab states to contain ISIS risks delaying combat actions.  ISIS’s disruption of the Middle East’s strategic balance invites further chaos in the absence of decisive US intervention to destroy it.  Things are going to get a lot messier as Iran’s deepening involvement in Iraq against ISIS invites other Sunni states into a pan-Islamic civil war.

I concluded my allotted time by presenting the Institute for the Study of War's "ISIS Sanctuary" graphic dated June 19, 2015.  I noted how ISIS's violent activity had been discovered as far east in Iraq as Diayala province, which borders Iran.  Saddam Hussein launched a war with Iran in 1980 after that country's revolution.  His intent was to seize Iran's Khuzestan province, which had a large Shiite Arab population and contained much of Iran's oil wealth.  ISIS may pose a similar threat in Tehran's eyes today if it attempts to penetrate provinces south of Baghdad bordering Khuzestan.

***END TALK***

The discussion that followed my ten minute presentation revealed the passions many Commonwealth Club members had for righting wrongs in the Middle East.  People who have lived in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon know first hand how local Muslims are the first victims of hatred and violence.  I believe the US still has a strong role to play in preventing ISIS from slaughtering more innocent Iraqis and Syrians, provided Americans recognize that the familiar map of the Middle East is changing forever.

Full disclosure:  I erred in my talk above when I failed to specify which anti-ISIS fighting group benefited from the US's airdropped materiel given the Free Syrian Army's lack of success.  News items from October 2014 indicate that the airdrops were intended for Kurdish volunteers fighting to liberate Kobane, Syria, from ISIS's control.  These news items also mention the Free Syrian Army's frustrations at receiving less American assistance than the Kurds.  I regret my error.