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1. Why is Daesh advancing in Syria and Iraq? Is the international coalition failing?
Daesh is able to advance because it is not being effectively stopped. That is because the international community is not prioritising the threat from Daesh high enough. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the USA put together the largest coalition in history and removed him with six months. Last week, President Obama met with Gulf leaders in Washington to discuss the Yemen Conflict, but no such meeting has taken place to address Daesh. Yemen is currently a contained problem while Daesh is a threat to the West and to all Muslims, including Sunni and Shia. This shows a lack of regional and international priority.
This lack of priority means that no one is taking overall responsibility. One of the basic principles of warfare is clear command and coordination of forces. That singularity drives a strategy and a plan in a focused way. There appears to be no such thing in Iraq let alone in Syria. The de facto strategy of Iraqi ground forces being trained and supported by Coalition airpower has a couple of fundamental flaws:
- Insurgencies are good at adapting their fighting style over time. Conventional forces are good at reacting quickly to threats and opportunities. The current slow pace of operations against Daesh plays to the strengths of the Daesh insurgency, while not exploiting the strengths of conventional forces of nation states.
- Airpower has a tremendous ability to disrupt and destroy an enemy's capability, but its impact is perishable over time. Airpower without effective land forces capable of exploiting its advantages is unlikely to succeed.
2. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the rebels fighting Assad. Does that help Daesh succeed?
Anything that weakens the Assad regime will inevitably strengthen Daesh, as the Assad forces are the only opposition to Daesh on the ground. This situation is another symptom of poor prioritisation by regional powers. It is one of the reasons why the conflict in Syria is protracted.
Despite the help of outside powers, the other rebel forces together only control about the same amount of territory as Daesh, indicating the ineffectiveness of the current strategy. It would be better to freeze the issue of Assad until Daesh is tackled. In the longer term, Daesh is a greater threat to a greater number of people than Assad.
3. What is the role of the Tehran regimen in the conflict?
It is apparent that the Iranians have been providing training and support to Shia militias whereas the USA has been concentrating mainly on re-training the army and providing some support to the Peshmerga. The Iranians have also provided some aircraft and pilots to the Iraqi air force. Unlike the USA trainers, the Iranians seem to be providing support in combat judging by the number of Iranian officers killed.
While the Iranian trained militia appear to be doing better than the army in some operations, their use in the long term is likely to weaken the authority of the government and add to the already great sectarian divisions in the country. Therefore, it is preferable to support the Iraqi army with Sunni troops from other countries than relying on sectarian militia.
4. What Threat Does Daesh Pose to Europe?
Europe has suffered a number of Daesh inspired terrorist attacks such as the Paris Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015. These attacks are becoming bolder and harder to stop. There is a continuing flow of fighters and supporters including women and children from Europe to Syria. Those that are stopped from going pose a threat as they may wish to conduct the violence they crave on European soil instead of the Middle East. Those that go threaten Western economic interests in the Middle East and may pose a serious threat if any of them return radicalized and trained in terror tactics. In the meantime, the increasing scale of surveillance and monitoring by security agencies and the police is putting a strain on the resources of nearly all European countries.
The recent attacks in Tunisia indicate that the spectrum of direct threats to UK and European publics is rapidly evolving. Perhaps the greatest damage to economic prosperity, social cohesion and political stability will be felt several years from now if the migrant crisis in Europe, mostly fueled by refugees from Al-Qa’ida and Daesh inspired conflicts, continues. Of Syria’s almost 12 million refugees, about 4 million are living abroad, many determined to move to Europe. A smaller but significant number are similarly fleeing Iraq. Only when Daesh is eliminated can any hope of peace and stability arise in those countries.
5. What should the Obama administration do in order to defeat Daesh?
The US Administration needs to recognise that Daesh is an existential threat to all nations and peoples of the region. It is also a security threat to the USA and Europe through terror activities carried out by Daesh supporters in those countries. Daesh has further been responsible for the greatest increase in international radicalisation ever recorded and it has contributed to the largest displacement of people in history.
All of these issues should make Daesh the greatest threat to US interests, making it the top priority. Only when it is truly prioritised as the greatest and most urgent threat facing the USA will the necessary leadership and strategy for the fight against Daesh emerge within both the International community and the regional powers.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.