Are we now approaching the beginning of the end game in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? This “existential battle” and the fight of our generation that we must win, according to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, appear to have grabbed the attention of all “free world” leaders.
As Kuwaitis died at a suicide bombing in a Shia mosque, British citizens were gunned on a beach in Tunisia, and a French person decapitated near Lyon on June 26, is this the right moment for the world leaders to galvanise a concerted and coordinated action, at last, against ISIL?
I, for one, hope so.
I have seen the misery and devastation first hand of the terror in Syria, but also for the last 27 years in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan – the destruction and death of the innocent is the key common factor, the response of the “free world” has been inconsistent and invariably driven by politics rather than humanitarian concerns.
Hopefully, now is the time for a comprehensive and coordinated response from the “free world”, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll call the anti-ISIL coalition.
Air strikes on their own, without troops on the ground to follow up, have never had strategic effect hitherto on battlefields, and the current battle against ISIL only underwrites this prognosis.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the military wing of Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party – and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces have demonstrated unequivocally that they have fighting spirit. With the help from coalition air strikes, they have been successful in defeating ISIL in tactical engagements.
This is a good building block to be “a” or even “the” key element of a coalition plan to fight ISIL. However, tactical successes must be turned into multiple and strategic victories in order to lead a comprehensive defeat of ISIL and bring some sort of global harmony.
Having spent time with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria’s northwest in the autumn of 2014, I witnessed their success against ISIL. At the time they did not appear to have direct access to coalition air strikes.
And hence I suggest that the coalition campaign against ISIL should focus on the YPG, Peshmerga, and FSA in order to defeat ISIL on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
However, the US, the UK and others must accept that they need to do more than air strikes and put some troops on the ground, especially as advisers to use the combat power arrayed against ISIL to best effect.
What YPG, Peshmerga, and FSA lack is a comprehensive understanding of the “all arms battle” needed to defeat ISIL.
When executed effectively, the overwhelming fire power and shock action of air strikes, infantry forces, tanks, artillery, and psychology is the best chance to break the fighting spirit of ISIL and destroy its method of “psychological warfare”, which it is so effectively using to break the spirit and the will to fight of those who oppose the group.
My personal experience with the FSA is that they could be more efficient fighters, but lack the technical and practical know-how to coordinate air strikes, tanks and artillery. With this support and know-how they could become a very effective fighting force.
The only way to do this in the short to medium term is to embed British and American (and other) soldiers who do have these capabilities in spades.
At the political level, it will be up to the United Nations and the coalition to reconcile this support to YPG and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with Turkey – natural antagonists at the moment and for generations. They could help resolve this whole course of action.
Turkey’s air strikes on Friday against the PKK bring an additional complexity to the Kurdish issue. They have been in conflict for the last three decades, but the PKK withdrew to northern Iraq in 2013 under a ceasefire. Now with the Turks and Kurds all fighting ISIL but also resuming their confrontation, the latest development adds an internal conflict dimension to this extraordinary coalition.
It is highly likely that Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in particular, will be after further autonomy, with the Iraqi Kurds pushing hard for an independent Kurdistan.
It is also plausible that Iraq’s Kurdistan region could self-sustain with the abundance of hydrocarbons available, but this may not be the case for the Syrian Kurds and the PKK (Kurds in Turkey), thus more challenging to reconcile, especially the latter.
The first and only issue at the moment to focus the world’s attention on is to defeat ISIL by coalition troops on the ground, in the air, and in all the media; but politicians must manage the fallout in a robust and thoughtful manner.
The battle with ISIL over the next few months – possibly longer – will shape the political, religious and financial outlook of the globe for the rest of this century. It is now time across the free world, for politicians, soldiers, civilians, and NGOs to all start pulling together for the common objective.
The chances of the US and UK committing tanks and divisions of infantry on the ground in Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIL are very low, and hence as part of a comprehensive and global approach, regional actors are going to have to do the bulk of the front-line fighting.
But those regional actors must be heavily guided and supported by the first grade militaries around the world.
The bottom line, so far, is that only the Kurds, moderate Syrians and Iraqis on the ground seem to be the most effective to defeat ISIL. The Kurds should be the focus of the coalition’s support if we are going to see any sort of peace in the short to medium term.
In this most complex of theatres of war, the PKK and Turkish conflagration is no more ruinous than the challenges of the FSA, the Assad regime, and the al-Qaeda and ISIL fight. Let us hope it does not derail the global coalition attack against ISIL.
This is a war which our generation, globally, cannot afford to lose.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commanding officer of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion and a regular contributor to the W&Y