Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Assessing the Anti-Islamic State Efforts Thus Far

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times    


     The United States has been militarily striking the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) for roughly three months.  It is just over one month, though, since the United States and their unlikely Arab coalition partners began hitting IS targets inside Syria.  Officials are adamant that the coalition efforts are succeeding thus far, though US and coalition forces involvement is still in its infancy and will take years to yield any tangible results.

     With that said, what are tangible results?  In the short term, where are US and coalition efforts now and what on fronts has the US and its coalition hit IS?  What is the goal of the coalition?  The quagmire of the Syrian civil war and the extremism it has harbored distorts the answers to these questions somewhat.  Depending on whom one asks, the answers could be different to varying degrees.

        The United States has been firm that no American "combat boots" will be deployed to directly fight the Islamic State insurgency.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has also stated that he will not accept foreign troops to assist the Iraqi army in its pursuit to reclaim territory.  The United States just approved a funding measure to train and equip members of the Syrian opposition to serve as the main fighting force against the Islamic State in Syria.  With weathered indigenous forces beaten, tangible results at this point are:  halting IS advances, crippling their self sustaining revenue, combating the foreign fighter crisis, and countering IS social media messaging.

     General John Allen, President Obama's Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State, stated in remarks in Kuwait this week that the conflict with the Islamic state can be simplified into three spaces:  physical, financial, and informational.  The physical space consists of the battlefield and military conflict with the Islamic State, whom General Allen noted "will be defeated militarily. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen."  General Allen cited recent examples of "encouraging operations by Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga," referring to successes in Jurf al-Sakhar and Zumar where Iraqi forces recaptured territory from the Islamic State this weekend.  

     On the financial side, the US Treasury Department has carefully crafted a strategy to target the Islamic State, who many describe as the wealthiest terrorist group in history.  What makes the Islamic State's financial standing so troubling is that they are a self-sustaining group, unlike their predecessor organization, al-Qaeda and others, who rely on wealthy Gulf donors or kidnap-for-ransom operations.  Despite also utilizing such tactics, the majority of the Islamic State's bounty is derived from selling oil on the black market.  Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, in an address last week, outlined the Treasury Department's plan to squelch IS finances from oil and gas revenue, kidnap-for-ransom operations, extortion rackets, and generous donations through a sophisticated sanctions network that targets groups and individuals who support IS (as well as members of the group directly) and isolating IS and their supporters from the world market.  "Operating entirely in cash is both cumbersome and risky – cash is bulky, vulnerable to theft, and requires complicated logistics to transport.  Moreover, ISIL will have a hard time funding external operations, including facilitating the movement of foreign fighters, without access to the international financial system," Cohen read from prepared remarks last week.

In terms of the foreign fighter crisis, President Obama was able to pass UN Security Council Resolution 2170, which "call[s] on Member States to take national measures to prevent fighters from travelling from their soil to join the groups."  In addition, the US has also ramped up security at major federal facilities in light of the recent terror attacks in Canada and the threat posed by calls from IS members to either lone wolf actors, or returning fighters to bring the fight directly to western governments. 

     General Allen addressed a key issue this week that has been essential to the Islamic State's early gains and support among thousands of disaffected youths around the world - their online presence, propaganda, and radicalization messaging.  By working with Arab heads of state and religious leaders, General Allen and the US hope to discredit the Islamic State's messaging as "the true and victorious representatives of Islam."

     Despite efforts to silence online propaganda and recent military gains in the field, IS continues its relentless push.  In a video published over the weekend, IS prisoner, John Cantlie who has appeared in many IS propaganda videos since his capture, is seen giving a faux news report from what appears to be the beleaguered Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane that has been the target of ferocious IS sieges lately.  The Islamic State has put much effort into taking the city and a failure to control it would be a disastrous embarrassment for the group.  The United States and coalition forces have heavily targeted the Islamic State around Kobane and Iraqi Kurds have offered their assistance to their brothers in Syria as well.  In fact, Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby stated last week that, "Kurdish forces are in control of the majority of the Syrian city of [Kobane]."  The IS propaganda footage directly refutes this sentiment as Cantile states the territory is controlled entirely by the Islamic State.  He touts,"Without any safe access, there are no journalists here in the city [thought to be Kobane].  So the media are getting their information from Kurdish commanders and White House press secretaries, neither of whom have the slightest intention of telling the truth."     

     The overall goal expressed by the Obama administration is to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.  The efforts of the administration, however, have not fully supported their strategy, and what is more, many partners of the coalition share different goals - chief among them is ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The Obama administration has expressed they no longer see Assad as a legitimate ruler, however, they have not overtly acknowledged regime change.  The conflicting goals of partners has hurt the US on the ground as Syrian rebels the US has purported to help decree that strikes are not being coordinated with them and some in fact have come just meters from their operating facilities (though, as some report, that is because the US has precisely targeted members of al-Qaeda fighting in Syria who share familiar tactical relations with Syrian rebels.)

     In the long run, the efforts to defeat the Islamic State must eventually address the Syrian state as a whole.  Focusing on one without focusing on the other would be an incorrect approach with drastic complications.  Given the recent gains of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq, and the assistance of Iraqi Kurds to those in Syria, the Islamic State does not seem as formidable as they once were.  However, they are still a deadly group who is constantly evolving in the battlefield - recently releasing a manual on how to take down Apache helicopters with MANPADS or a man-portable air-defense system, though the US has not confirmed IS has them - and evolving social media propaganda to combat messages of western media that refute the success of the Islamic State in Kobane.  Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was correct in saying "It is imprudent to assess the U.S. strategy against terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after only three months."  Several experts are skeptical of the coalition and bombing campaign as it neglects the key political issue of Assad's existence.  Thus far, the anti-Islamic State efforts have proven successful, though on a very small tactical level.           

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