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The War on ISIS: More Than One Battle: Max Boot, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2014 — On Jan. 21, 1968, North Vietnamese troops attacked the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam near the border with Laos.
The Unserious Air War Against ISIS : Mark Gunzinger & John Stillion, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14, 2014 — Since U.S. planes first struck targets in Iraq on Aug. 8, a debate has raged over the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s air campaign against Islamic State.
Turkey’s Elusive Promised Land and the War on Islamic State: Amotz Asa-El, Jerusalem Post, Oct. 25, 2014— By sheer coincidence, the Syrian town of Kobani – where Kurdish and Islamic State fighters have been squaring off in recent weeks – happens to be tucked just west of Haran, the Turkish spot from which Abraham disembarked on his journey to the Promised Land.
Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Oct. 20, 2014 — Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Turkey Sets Conditions for Helping West in Kobane Crisis in Syria: Colin Freeman, Telegraph, Oct. 28, 2014
John Cantlie, British Hostage, Seen in ISIS Video Apparently From Kobani: Alan Cowell, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2014
Oil Gives Kurds a Path to Independence, and Conflict With Baghdad: Azam Ahmed & Clifford Krauss, New York Times, Oct. 25, 2014
ISIS Boasts of Its Yazidi Slaves: Daniel Pipes, National Review, Oct. 16, 2014
Fight for Syrian City Strains Jihadists: Asa Fitch & Dion Nissenbaum, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2014
Turkey Still Thinks This Guy Holding a Baby Bear is a Terrorist. Is He?: Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2014
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2014
On Jan. 21, 1968, North Vietnamese troops attacked the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. A 77-day siege ensued, with the U.S. pouring in ever more firepower. The U.S. would drop 100,000 tons of bombs because Gen. William Westmoreland was determined that Khe Sanh not become another defeat like Dien Bien Phu, which had effectively ended France’s colonial presence in Vietnam 14 years earlier. And it didn’t. Eventually the siege was relieved and the attacking forces melted away, having suffered more than 5,000 fatalities (while the defenders lost about 350 men).
Today, no one except some veterans and military historians remembers Khe Sanh because in the end it had scant strategic significance: Even though the U.S. won the battle, it lost the war. Not long after having “liberated” Khe Sanh, the U.S. dismantled the base because it served little purpose. This history is worth mentioning because of the parallels, limited and inexact to be sure, between Khe Sanh and Kobani, a Kurdish town in northern Syria. Jihadist forces of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have been besieging Kobani for weeks, and the U.S. has been ramping up efforts to prevent the town from falling. U.S. airstrikes have apparently taken a heavy toll, eliminating ISIS fighters, artillery, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons. Airstrikes have now been joined by airdrops of weapons and ammunition to the Kurdish defenders. Turkey, which had hitherto not lifted a finger to save Kobani, announced Monday that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to traverse Turkish territory to join in defending the town.
Kobani no longer looks to be in imminent danger of falling. It is even possible that ISIS will give up the fight and pull out. If this happens, it will certainly be good news. The remaining residents of Kobani would be saved from slaughter and their relief would give a moral boost to anti-ISIS efforts. But any celebration should be muted. Winning at Kobani will be no more devastating to ISIS than was the American victory at Khe Sanh to North Vietnam. The problem is that ISIS can readily replace the fighters it loses in Kobani, and heavy weapons are not essential to its guerrilla style of warfare. Even as ISIS is losing a little ground at Kobani, it is gaining strength elsewhere. Its fighters are advancing in Anbar Province with little resistance. They are poised on the outskirts of Baghdad; soon they may be within mortar range of Baghdad International Airport, whose closure would be a disaster. On Monday alone, its car bombs and suicide bombers in Baghdad and Karbala claimed at least 33 lives, a day after a suicide bomber in Baghdad killed at least 28 people in a Shiite mosque. The pattern is reminiscent of the terrorist atrocities perpetrated in 2006 by al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, aimed at rallying Sunnis to the terrorists’ side by provoking a civil war with Shiites.
As in those dark days, Sunni extremism is provoking an equally extreme response from Iranian-backed Shiites. The replacement of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister with Haidar al-Abadi, an apparently less sectarian Shiite, was a small step in the right direction for which the Obama administration deserves credit. But there is little reason to think the Iranian hold over a substantial portion of the Iraqi state has been broken. The Iraqi Parliament has approved ministers to run the two security ministries—Interior and Defense. While the Defense pick is Sunni technocrat Khalid al-Obedi, the Interior pick is far more worrisome: Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban is a member of the Badr Organization, one of the chief Iranian-backed Shiite militias that is further destabilizing Iraq with attacks on Sunni neighborhoods. The likelihood is that Mr. Ghabban will take orders from his ultimate sponsor, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force. This means that the Interior Ministry, in charge of Iraq’s police forces, will become, if it is not already, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Shiite militias and their Iranian string-pullers. This happened in 2006 when the Iraqi police became notorious for kidnapping and torturing Sunnis. This helped bring Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war and will do so again if not checked.
The only way to counteract the Iranian capture of the Interior Ministry is to bolster the Iraqi army as an independent fighting force, but there is little sign of this occurring. Shiite sectarians have also deeply penetrated the army and the U.S. has little ability to counteract this insidious development because President Obama will not send a large number of “embedded” advisers to work alongside army units that remain more professional and less politicized. Only 12 U.S. advisory teams have been deployed and only at the brigade level. The other 14 Iraqi brigades identified by the U.S. as “reliable partners” have no advisers at all. None of these advisers, moreover, is allowed to accompany Iraqi troops into combat, where they can be most effective. The U.S. also is not stepping in to offer direct assistance and training to the Sunnis of Anbar Province to allow them to fight back against ISIS, as they did against al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-08.
In Syria the U.S. is also doing little to oppose the Assad dictatorship, leaving it free to continue attacks on areas held by moderate militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. This, too, is feeding the radicalization of Syria and Iraq by convincing many Sunnis, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. is acquiescing to Iranian regional domination—and that ISIS is the only reliable defender that Sunnis have. That impression will be strengthened if the Obama administration reaches a deal with Iran next month that will allow Tehran to maintain its capacity to develop a nuclear weapon.
Through the limited application of air power—a mere handful of daily strikes—the U.S. may achieve tactical progress to blunt ISIS’s momentum. But Khe Sanh showed the limits of tactical military victories if they are not married to larger strategic gains—and those are elusive in Iraq and Syria today.
Mark Gunzinger & John Stillion
Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14, 2014
Since U.S. planes first struck targets in Iraq on Aug. 8, a debate has raged over the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s air campaign against Islamic State. The war of words has so far focused on the need to deploy American boots on the ground to provide accurate intelligence and possibly force ISIS fighters to defend key infrastructure they have seized, such as oil facilities. But debate is now beginning to focus on the apparent failure of airstrikes to halt the terror group’s advances in Iraq and Syria—especially Islamic State’s pending seizure of Kobani on the Syrian border with Turkey.
While it is still too early to proclaim the air campaign against Islamic State a failure, it may be instructive to compare it with other campaigns conducted by the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War that were deemed successes. For instance, during the 43-day Desert Storm air campaign against Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991, coalition fighters and bombers flew 48,224 strike sorties. This translates to roughly 1,100 sorties a day. Twelve years later, the 31-day air campaign that helped free Iraq from Saddam’s government averaged more than 800 offensive sorties a day. By contrast, over the past two months U.S. aircraft and a small number of partner forces have conducted 412 total strikes in Iraq and Syria—an average of seven strikes a day. With Islamic State in control of an area approaching 50,000 square miles, it is easy to see why this level of effort has not had much impact on its operations.
Of course, air operations during Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom were each supported by a massive coalition force on the ground. Thus it may be more appropriate to compare current operations against Islamic State with the 78-day air campaign against Serbian forces and their proxies in 1999, or the 75-day air campaign in Afghanistan that was instrumental in forcing the Taliban out of power in 2001. Both campaigns relied heavily on partner forces on the ground augmented by a small but significant number of U.S. troops. These air campaigns averaged 138 and 86 strike sorties a day respectively—orders of magnitude greater than the current tempo of operations against Islamic State.
Perhaps the small number of strikes in the air campaign against Islamic State is due to the lack of suitable ground targets. Yet representatives from the Pentagon have characterized forces fighting under Islamic State’s black banner as more of a conventional army than a highly dispersed, irregular force similar to today’s Taliban. Moreover, Islamic State fighters are using captured armored vehicles, artillery, mortars and other implements of modern land warfare to seize and hold terrain. These operations require a considerable amount of movement and resupply that can be detected by airborne surveillance. The low daily strike count could be the result of the Pentagon’s applying counterterrorism man-hunting operations over the past decade to the current crisis in Iraq and Syria. These operations generally rely on detailed knowledge of the “pattern of life” of specific small terrorist cells built up over days or weeks of persistent surveillance.
The resources required on the ground and in the air to generate such high-fidelity intelligence are considerable in terms of time, money, personnel and surveillance aircraft. While the low strike count appears to support this thesis, it is unlikely that the highly competent men and women in our nation’s military, many of whom are likely to have planned and executed previous successful air campaigns, would adopt such a half-measure approach to operations against ISIS forces. There’s another possibility: The moral imperative and strategic desire to avoid civilian casualties and gratuitous collateral damage may be constraining the coalition’s target-selection process. While these are important factors in any conflict, they must be balanced against the reality that allowing Islamic State fighters to continue their savage aggression nearly unchecked will result in far more civilian casualties and destruction than a more aggressive air campaign that uses precision weapons to rapidly destroy the group’s heavy weapons and troop concentrations.
Finally, the daily strike count suggests that the strategy underlying the air campaign may be influenced by a desire to apply the least amount of force possible while still claiming credit for doing something about Islamic State. This rationale would fit with the administration’s claims that degrading and eventually defeating ISIS is likely to take many years. It may reflect lingering doubts by some policy makers over how serious and far-reaching the threat of an Islamic State caliphate really is to our nation’s vital interests. Or it may be a simple reluctance to begin another open-ended military operation in the Middle East. In the end, no matter the reason, the timorous use of air power against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to reduce the territory under their control, curb the brutal murder of innocent civilians, or prevent the creation of a sanctuary for an enemy that has sworn to continue its fight on a more global scale.
Jerualsem Post, Oct. 25, 2014
By sheer coincidence, the Syrian town of Kobani – where Kurdish and Islamic State fighters have been squaring off in recent weeks – happens to be tucked just west of Haran, the Turkish spot from which Abraham disembarked on his journey to the Promised Land. The current confrontation’s many protagonists may have different ideas about their own promised land, but they all know its location and all carry a road map leading there. The Kurds want a state that will weld slivers of Turkey, Syria and Iraq; President Bashar Assad wants a Syria that will sprawl from the Anti-Lebanon to the Tigris; Iran wants to suspend a Shi’ite bridge between the thresholds of Afghanistan and Egypt; Saudi Arabia wants quiet outside its palaces’ gilded windows; and Islamic State’s jihadists want to drown the Middle East in blood and then, as their leader put it, march on Rome. One actor, however, seems increasingly disoriented and indecipherable: Turkey.
Hardly a mile from Kobani, Turkish officers were seen in recent weeks surveying pillars of smoke and listening to machine-gun staccatos from atop their American- made tanks this side of the border. Their failure to come to the rescue of the predominantly Kurdish town has brought to mind the Red Army’s two-week wait before storming Warsaw, a choice Poles say was designed to let the Nazis kill more Poles; as well as the Allies’ delay in launching D-Day, which Stalin saw as an Anglo-American ploy to let the Germans kill yet more Soviets before Germany’s defeat. The stakes in Kobani are different, as even on the eve of the Syrian civil war, the dusty town was inhabited by just 50,000; unlike Warsaw, it is a godforsaken frontier town. Even so, this is where the war on Islamic State reached Turkey’s doorstep, and where the Turkish response kept the whole world guessing just where Ankara stands, and what its war aims might be.
The analogies to wartime Germany and Russia have come to mind because of Turkey’s apparent abandonment of Syria’s Kurds to Islamic State’s devices. Like the Red Army at Warsaw’s gates, the mighty Turkish army, the world’s eighth-largest, can roll ahead and effortlessly scatter Islamic State’s black-clad fighters under a hailstorm of artillery, armor and fighter jet bombs. Convinced that Turkey was deliberately abandoning their brethren, Kurdish rioters took to the streets in early October in cities throughout Turkey, where police confronted them forcefully, leaving at least 30 dead and dozens wounded. The Kurdish aspect of the situation is particularly confusing because a mere 20 months ago, Turkey launched a peace process with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), its nemesis of 40 years, which in turn formally announced a ceasefire and also ordered its fighters to retreat beyond Turkish borders. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government saw in this deal a major accomplishment, leaving the impression that such a spirit of appeasement came more easily to a religious leadership that cared for nationalism less than its secular predecessors. Now, all this has unraveled. The Kurds canceled the cease-fire, and many among Turkey’s 20-percent Kurdish minority are ready to renew their struggle for independence.
Yet the Turks not only provoked the same Kurds they had previously courted and placated, they also thumbed their nose at US President Barack Obama – by refusing to allow US bombers to take off from Turkish airfields at Syria’s backdoor, compelling them to instead fly almost 2,000 km. from Arab bases in the Gulf. Subsequent reports that Ankara was retreating from its refusal to allow Kurdish units to cross into the battlefields, and ongoing complaints that Turkey was enabling foreigners’ entry into Syria along the so-called “jihadist highway,” intensified confusion over Turkey’s stance. Pundits and diplomats the world over scratched their heads: Is Turkey with the Kurds or against them? Is it with America or against it, with the jihadists or against them?
Turkey’s attitude toward the Arab world’s four-year period of turmoil has been driven by three sometimes contradictory sentiments: military caution, historic pretension and regional frustration. Thrusting the Turkish military into battle is not as simple as it sounds, for three reasons: First, the Turkish army has not fought a war since invading Cyprus 40 years ago. Second, following the entire general staff’s forced resignation three years ago in the wake of Erdogan’s assault on it, the army’s new leadership is not as confident and battle hungry as their predecessors might have been. And lastly, a fighting, and potentially victorious and glorified, army would constitute a political threat to Erdogan and his Islamist administration.
Since modern Turkey’s foundation 90 years ago, its generals’ involvement in politics had been blunt and at times violent, particularly when it came to imposing secularism – until the last decade, when Erdogan boxed the military and brought its politicking to an end. Turkish generals now won’t touch politics with a 10-foot pole, but they remain suspected closet secularists. War would empower them – and empowered generals would be, from Erdogan’s viewpoint, unpredictable. This caution also explains Erdogan’s demand that the US impose a no-fly zone on Syria, and support him in creating a buffer zone in northern Syria. Such measures would mean military impact, without military heroism.
Beside its lack of appetite for military invasion, Turkey has ideological reasons to avoid the war on Islamic State. Erdogan, and even more so Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, are driven by a sense of historic mission that does not sit well with joining a Western-led assault on Muslims. Turkish scholars now call the pair’s platform “pan-Islamism,” as opposed to the previously used “neo-Ottomanism.” One such scholar, Marmara University’s Behlul Ozkan, has studied some 300 articles Davutoglu penned as an academic before the Islamists’ rise to power, most of which have never been translated. His findings indicate that Davutoglu believes Turkey has a historic mission to revive and lead a Sunni triangle that would stretch from North Africa through the Balkans to Central Asia. In a sense, Islamic State’s vision of a caliphate has stolen Davutoglu’s thunder…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
Commentary, Oct. 20, 2014
Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.
The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.
Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled. Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group. In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.
The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.
Turkey Sets Conditions for Helping West in Kobane Crisis in Syria: Colin Freeman, Telegraph, Oct. 28, 2014 —Turkey has named its price for co-operation in the West's fight to end the Islamic State's stranglehold on the Syrian border town of Kobane, saying the fight must be led by the Free Syrian Army rather than Kurdish "terrorists".
John Cantlie, British Hostage, Seen in ISIS Video Apparently From Kobani: Alan Cowell, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2014—A British hostage of the Islamic State has been shown in a video, apparently made in the beleaguered Syrian town of Kobani near the Turkish border, depicting him as a combat correspondent and forecasting that the town is about to fall to militants despite waves of American airstrikes.
Oil Gives Kurds a Path to Independence, and Conflict With Baghdad: Azam Ahmed & Clifford Krauss, New York Times, Oct. 25, 2014 —Roughly two dozen huge oil tankers are idly turning figure eights around the Mediterranean or on the high seas, loaded with oil pumped from wells in Iraqi Kurdistan but with nowhere to legally offload it.
ISIS Boasts of Its Yazidi Slaves: Daniel Pipes, National Review, Oct. 16, 2014 —That the Islamic State has enslaved Yazidi women and children it captured is an established fact.
Fight for Syrian City Strains Jihadists: Asa Fitch & Dion Nissenbaum, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2014 —Islamic State’s protracted battle for the Syrian city of Kobani against an expanding U.S.-led military campaign and Kurdish militia is straining the insurgency, Syrian opposition activists, Kurdish politicians and U.S. officials said.
Turkey Still Thinks This Guy Holding a Baby Bear is a Terrorist. Is he?: Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2014 —The photo above, of a Kurdish fighter nursing an orphaned baby bear, is a controversial one.
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