Canberra, 18 November 2014

[This is the second part of a two-part series analysing the on-going conflict in the Middle East]


The US-led coalition has been fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria since offensive air operations were launched on 8 August. Aside from the Western nations, the coalition includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Jordan, contributing at different levels to the overall campaign. While the advance of the IS has been effectively stopped, the push back required to diminish and thereafter defeat the group is yet to become tangibly visible. There are many reasons for this, and the fundamental issue is that an insurgent group primarily operating on the ground cannot be completely defeated without having ground forces taking the fight to the adversary in their safe havens. In this instance, the ground forces would have to be generated by the regional nations in the coalition because foreign troops on the ground will only increase the prevailing mistrust of the West within the local populace and exacerbate the situation.

The coalition is factionalised with each nation having a different understanding of the desired end-state and therefore pushing to achieve differing objectives. Since the continued participation of the Arab nations is vital to maintain the legitimacy of the campaign and to its long-term success, the dysfunctional state of the coalition needs focused attention, if a semblance of unity of purpose is to be upheld. The constant refrain from both the political and military leadership of the coalition has been that this will be a ‘long war’. However, in the absence of any accepted common and obtainable end-state other than the defeat of the IS, a ‘long war’ has the potential to become a drifting war, fought piecemeal and without coherence. The distinct possibility is of a policy drift.

This is not to suggest that coalitions should not be built. In today’s interconnected world, instability in any region will invariably generate ripples that reach far away shores that will in turn create global repercussions. Containing these disparate upheavals can only be achieved by creating coalitions with the active participation of regional nations. For any coalition to be successful, it needs to be built on trust and partnership, something that seems to be in deficit in the coalition operating in the Middle East at the moment. The coalition against the IS is a far cry from the ‘coalition of the willing’ and can at best be termed a ‘coalition to support self-interest’. Such a coalition is not going to win any wars!

The coalition fighting the IS is now supposed to be 60-nation strong. From the beginning, the US has been doing all the heavy lifting and is faced with the challenge to remain persistent, both in terms of resources and political patience. However, its patience and resolve are being sorely tested by the actions of some partners and the inaction of some others.

In Search of a Strategy

Any war, however big or small, is won based on two factors—the will to win, and a coherent strategy at the highest levels of decision-making. The ‘will to win’ entails having the means and the will to commit sufficient resources, both personnel and materiel, to achieve the end-state that has been determined at the highest levels of political decision-making. In operations involving coalitions, which is the way all contemporary wars will be fought, the will to win also involves the ability to provide strong leadership and if necessary coerce the allies to do their bit. In the case of the coalition fighting the IS, clearly US has taken the lead. However, their ability to make the allies within the coalition to contribute meaningfully and appropriately is in question. At least for the present it is difficult for an external observer to determine the side Qatar and Turkey are favouring, while being members of the coalition. Here it is also worth mentioning that Turkey’s ambivalent approach goes completely against its double responsibility to act correctly since it is also a member of NATO of long standing.

The second, overarching strategy, will have to contain two distinct parts that should dovetail into each other. One should be oriented towards unambiguously achieving the laid down military objectives and the other to fill the political, economic, and social void that a military victory will invariably create. At the moment there is no clear strategy visible on either front. For example, if and when the IS is defeated in Syria, the current regime of Bashar al-Assad will be the beneficiary. It cannot be forgotten that the Assad regime has been fighting a civil war that has already left more than 200,000 of its own citizens dead and is also accused of using chemical weapons on its countrymen. Therefore, benefitting the Assad regime is obviously not the end-state that the coalition wants and this is demonstrated by the differences of opinion within the member nations. A defeat of the IS in Iraq will give power back to an unproven Shiite regime, which could then take the country back to the days of the sectarian rule of Nur ul-Maliki. The appearance of another IS-like group will then be only a matter of time. The cycle will repeat!

The essential foundation to win a war is good strategy. Splendid tactics at the operational level will produce spectacular victories in brief encounters and even in some long-drawn battles. However, even overwhelming military victory only paves the way for the ultimate and lasting victory over an adversary, which will always have to be political in nature. Defeating the IS completely through the application of military power, however awesome, is an impossibility. In order to achieve the desired end-state and ‘win’, the ideology that fuels the IS has to be targeted. The first step in this process will have to be the rejection of the IS brand of Islam by all the Sunnis of the Middle East. This is where the importance of the contribution of the Arab members of the coalition is underlined repeatedly.

Currently the coalition is functioning within a strategic mess. The current strategy, which is still oriented towards the ‘war on terror’ is by itself self-defeating. This is a paradigm that the US must realise and accept, if necessary swallowing its considerable pride. A broader, long-term strategy that confronts religious extremism as an ideology, which goes beyond a country and region and is not tailored specifically to counter one movement or group has to be carefully evolved. There is no sign of any such strategy being crafted, at least for the present. The strategic disarray that the coalition is displaying can be gauged by looking at the actions and reactions of some of the parties in the fray—the Assad regime in Syria is taking advantage of the actions being taken against the IS and consolidating its position, which had earlier become extremely precarious; Turkey is fully befuddled by its own actions and rhetoric and has started supporting Sunni extremism from within the coalition; and the Kurds are embarked on a last ditch attempt to create a unified Kurdistan built on three nationalities.

To the credit of the US military planners, they have always maintained that the air campaign is only part of a wider strategy, as yet non-existent, and that air power alone will not defeat the IS. As of 6 October, almost two months to the day of the first air strike, 4802 sorties have been flown against the IS by US and allied aircraft. However, what is illuminative is the further statistics that only 362 of these have involved weapon release—less than 10% of total missions flown. This cannot be termed intensive even by a stretch of imagination. Air power can achieve the desired effects only when it is brought down as a sudden and precipitous downpour not when it is dissipated by being applied like minor drizzle. The lack of intensity can be attributed to strategic, operational and tactical level challenges that face the air commander in terms of rules of engagement and the chain of command. However, that factor is not going to explain away the apparent ineffectiveness of air power to ‘defeat’ the IS. Even though it is acknowledged that a military victory alone will not be enough to destroy the IS, it is an essential first step. However, in the current situation a military victory cannot be achieved without regional Arab ground forces pushing forward on the ground. By continuing a desultory air campaign that has already lasted more than two months it is certain that air power is being set up to fail—catastrophically.

The Current Operation

So far the results of the current operation have been mixed. The IS fighters are veterans of earlier insurgencies, a majority of them seasoned guerrilla fighters since 2003, and clearly understand the strengths and drawbacks of air power. As the conflict continues into its third month and the Western reluctance to put boots-on-the-ground becomes blatantly obvious to everyone, the IS fighters have started to blend with the civilian population and burrow down. The increasing difficulty in finding the appropriate target to strike, makes the success of the air campaign a receding possibility. It is also appropriate to point out here that no insurgency has been defeated by air power alone, even when there have been supporting troops on the ground. At the same time, the broader impact of the destruction of dual-use infrastructure such as oil refineries and power plants have introduced shortages and price rises, which is being felt directly by the civilian population. Admittedly, the infrastructure was being used by the IS to generate finances, but they were genuine dual-use facilities, the loss is perhaps more important to the civilians than the IS.

Without trusted allies on the ground, appropriately equipped, well-versed in the employment of the necessary tactics, and willing to take the fight to the adversary at the opportune moment, air strikes at best create breathing space to initiate further action. In briefing the Press regarding the fierce fight for the town of Kobane, Admiral John Kirby spokesperson for the Pentagon stated, ‘Air strikes alone are not going to… save the town of Kobani’. The air campaign so far seems to be under resourced, even with the regional Arab nations contributing amidst a great deal of admiring talk from the Western partners in the coalition. Why these nations, the root cause for the current imbroglio, should be applauded so cannot be fathomed—after all they are only saving themselves from their own creation! Further, the US is still unable to find regional partner(s) willing to put ‘boots-on-the-ground’ to take on the IS in their lairs. Here again Turkey is the key—they have a 600 kilometre border with Syria, out of which a stretch of nearly 200 kilometres is now controlled by the IS.

The Dilemma of Kobane

The fight to capture or save Kobane, depending on the point of view, has been going on for more than six weeks now. The Syrian name for Kobane, Ayn al-Arab, reflects the stateless nature of the Kurds who occupy the town. The Assad government denies citizenship and social rights to the Kurds and the Kurds are aware that whether at the hands of the IS or the Syrian government, they will suffer the same fate when this fight is over unless they can create a safe haven for themselves. Therefore, every foot of territory in Kobane will be contested. Its fate in now inexorably tied up to the success or otherwise of the US strategy. Perhaps more importantly, it is an indelible symbol of Turkey’s failure on many fronts—diplomatic, military and humanitarian.

Some members of the coalition, including Western partners, have refused to take part in any air attacks over Syria. They want to seek the permission of the Syrian government to do so, which is viewed by some others as accepting the legitimacy of the Assad regime, an unacceptable situation to some other coalition members. Further, initially the resistance to the IS on the ground in Kobane was only from the Syrian Kurds, now bolstered by the arrival of the better trained and equipped Iraqi Kurds. However, even this late concession by Turkey in letting the Iraqi Kurds transit through their nation is not sufficient to defeat the IS. The Kurds are only managing to ensure that the IS advance is halted. While this life and death struggle is being fought by the Kurds, the Turkish army that is considered the most powerful in the NATO outside of the US, sits on their hands less than a kilometre from the border in sight of the raging fight in Kobane. There is no more powerful demonstration of how far Turkey has come in the process of becoming yet another Sunni Muslim nation, bent on prosecuting the minority sects that make up the rest of Islam. Observing the actions of Turkey, it is easy to predict the spread of the current unrest into its own territories sooner rather than later.

At least for the time being, Western air forces have become the backbone that holds the line against the IS in Kobane. The only way success can be achieved in driving the IS out of Kobane is for the regional powers—Turkey and Saudi Arabia—to pick up the sword and embrace the will to win by deploying ground forces.

The Challenges

The air campaign, even though applying air power in dribbles, still faces a number of challenges in terms of the actual conduct of operations. The coalition is constrained by a cumbersome joint decision-making process in the creation of ‘open’ engagement zones in Iraq that requires the approval of the Iraqi government and also that of the Kurds. Even after the open zones are approved, the actual targets for the strikes need the approval of the US-led Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at the Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar who clear it through both Baghdad and Arbil, the capital of the Kurds. To say the least, this process delays the authorisation of individual strikes. This command and control challenge is gradually being addressed and ameliorated through the employment of airborne early warning and control aircraft. There is also a proposal to increase the number of Joint Terminal Air Controllers to carryout efficient forward air control for strike missions. While this move would be a step forward, it risks the campaign falling into the trap of mission creep. However, this is the easiest and most efficient way to increase the success rate of air strikes.

The command and control of operations in Syria are much more streamlined since there is no consultation being held with the Syrian government. However, the coalition is wary of the Syrian integrated air-defence network which has necessitated the employment of strike packages with a mix of self-protection capabilities. It has been revealed that the first strike into Syria on 23 September was led by F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters and accompanied by EA-6B Prowlers in the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) role as well by F-16CJs armed with AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation missiles. Although this level of protection to strike packages are not the case anymore, there is a reluctance within the coalition to maintain a persistent air presence over Syria. Therefore, the ability to engage targets of fleeting opportunity in Syria is almost non-existent, especially to the west of the country where the air defences are the heaviest.

Finding and validating targets is the biggest challenge at the operational level in both Iraq and Syria. The coalition has acknowledged the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in both areas of operation. However, details of the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets being used is not readily available, although it is certain from the mobile nature of some of the targets that have been attacked that platforms with ground moving target indicators (GMTI) are deployed. The coalition is in the process of bringing into theatre more ISTAR assets which in turn will permit more engagement zones to be patrolled and significantly increase the success rate of strikes. However, the possibility of the Syrian airspace becoming contested would be an added challenge to the employment of the vulnerable UAVs.

Conclusion – A Peep into the Future

The immediate aim of the coalition is to contain the IS in a military sense, and then degrade it. However, as mentioned earlier, long-term objectives have not yet been articulated and this gap in an agreed overarching objective will prove to be detrimental in achieving a lasting solution to the challenge that the IS poses to global security. At this juncture it is absolutely critical to put forward the ultimate goal of the coalition. Even though the mutual dislike, and maybe fear, of the IS have brought a set of disparate actors to function together, essentially they are opposed to each other in some way or the other. In the absence of a long-term focus and an agreed end-state, it is no surprise that currently the coalition is slowly fraying at the edges. The Arab members of the coalition want Assad ousted from power and want to put a timeframe to achieving this as well as to develop a process of political transition in Syria, whereas the US is, at least for the moment, ambivalent about it.

The US has started to develop a new strategy to deal with Syria, given the reluctance of the regional partners to act decisively in the absence of a decision on Syria. This demand is also rooted in the fear of enhancing Iranian influence if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to continue as the ‘official’ President of Syria for much longer. It seems the earlier Turkish demands to remove Assad from power and the establishment of a no-fly zone is back on the agenda. This decision is obviously influenced by the demands of the Arab nations and the need to consider the increasingly vexed question of refugees who have been flowing outward from Syria. There is currently no link between the strategy to deal with Syria and the one to defeat the IS. To ensure any level of success both of them need to be dove-tailed. An Iraq first strategy that has so far been followed is untenable in the long term.

There is no doubt that Assad has to be dealt with, hopefully in a peaceful transfer of power process. The establishment of a no-fly zone to isolate the IS is also necessary. However its effectiveness will pivot on the availability of ground forces to patrol on the ground, for the IS does not have any air assets, but is completely reliant on ground manoeuvre, which cannot effectively be curtailed from the air alone. Turkey’s demands for the establishment of a no-fly zone without committing any forces to support it on the ground is bizarre to say the least. This is a classic case of an open display of self-interest with absolutely no consideration for the greater good. Even so, the isolation of the IS has to be built into the long-term strategy.

The current situation in Iraq and the strategy being followed is not conducive to letting the nation continue as a single entity. It is not difficult to imagine the trifurcation of Iraq—a Kurdish enclave in the north-east; a Shia enclave in the south; and a Sunni (read IS dominated) area in the centre. Considering the sectarian strife that has engulfed Iraq in the past decade, perhaps this is the best way forward. Further, when and if the IS is defeated, the coalition will fall apart, creating an ideal situation on the ground for another iteration of the IS to emerge and take centre stage. The cycle will continue unless the nations of the Middle East decide to end their peculiar sectarian way of doing business with their neighbours.

The question of what the ultimate goal of the current campaign is still remains unanswered. The US planners have repeatedly proclaimed that this is going to be a long-drawn struggle. Even at the end of it, and even if the coalition has been successful in defeating the IS as an entity, it is definite that some form of violent Islamic extremism will exist in the Middle-East. From a Western perspective it might require a strategic rethink on who their friends are and who the enemies in the region. For the regional Arab nations, it will be short-sighted to think that the Western nations will repeatedly come to fight their battles for them. The absolute refusal of the US and other Western nations to deploy ground forces in this instance should be like the proverbial writing on the wall for these nations. They have to shoulder the burden, both in treasure and lives, to defeat a scourge that will otherwise return the Middle East to the Dark Ages.

[This concludes the two-part analysis of the current conflict in the Middle-East]

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. A very comprehensive analysis encompassing the salient aspects of the imbroglio in the middle east. However I feel the indirect, yet prominent roles played by the US, its European allies and Israel in the inadvertent creation of the ISIS and the virulent form of Islamic terrorism that we see today, could have been dealt with in more detail. Authors somehow seem reluctant to blame the US for the current state of affairs that is witnessing heightened Islamic fanaticism and terrorism.

  2. Sanu, you hit it on the head, as usual.

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