US: Composure in the sky, chaos on the ground

US: Composure in the sky, chaos on the ground
The US-led coalition are winning the war against the Islamic State group, Steve Warren has said, but an overall defeat of the extremists will likely remain elusive with current tactics.
6 min read
23 February, 2016
America's air power has helped chip away at the Islamic State group's power [Getty]

The Islamic State [IS] group is on the ropes, says Washington, as US air power and local ground forces in Iraq and Syria are winning the war against the extremists.

"If you are Daesh [IS] in Iraq you can expect a very short lifespan," Colonel Steve Warren, spokesperson for the US-led anti-IS alliance, told reporters at the US embassy in London.

The United States-led 65 nation air alliance is aimed at decimating IS' oil infrastructure, hitting fighters and armour on the battlefield, and taking out its top brass at a rate of one leader killed every two days.

Simultaneous pressures are forcing IS to make "bad decisions", the colonel said on Monday, pushing them out of 40 percent of their territories in Iraq, and 10 percent in Syria.

Piling on the pressure

There are other strategic concerns that remain unanswered and Warren admits that bombs alone will not defeat IS.

Ultimately, its disturbing ideology needs to be eradicated.

Warren believes this can be helped by reaching a reconciliation deal in divided Iraq and ending the civil war in Syria, which has cost as many as half a million lives.

If you are [IS] in Iraq there's a very good chance you will be killed soon. It's not a job with a bright future...
- Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson

"This is a generational problem. We will militarily defeat their field forces relatively soon… but to defeat their ideology that is where [we] need your help [the media's]."

Warren admits that the US war efforts have become a game of 'hit the mole' with IS militants struck in one area only to reappear elsewhere.

"If you are [IS] in Iraq there's a very good chance you will be killed soon. It's not a job with a bright future which is why they squirt out to other ungoverned spaces where they can sink their hooks," Warren said.

These "ungoverned spaces" include parts of South Asia, Yemen, and North Africa.

Among the threat of IS, the chief is the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, where militants loyal to the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have secured a base on the Mediterranean coast.

From here the fighters are able to threaten the country's nearby oil fields, just as they have in Iraq and Syria, leading to a possible perpetual war against the resource-wealthy group in North Africa.

"Because [IS] is threatened in Iraq and Syria they are looking for new places and this may be Libya... the secretary of state [John Kerry] said wherever [IS] is we will pursue them and we will eliminate them and this will continue," he said.

US has launched one airstrike against the militants in Libya already, and Kerry's comments open up the possibility of more in the future.

Because [IS] is threatened in Iraq and Syria they are looking for new places and this may be Libya
- Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson

However, there appears to be little evidence of a mass flight of militants from the Syria and Iraq, to North Africa. The Libya base appears to be a national franchise aimed at feeding off local grievances caused by the country's civil war. 

Management of savagery
IS and al-Qaeda have been most successful in war zones, where they can harness the anger, frustration and pain of local Sunni populations.

Jihadi ideologue Abu Bakr Naji spelled this out in Management of Savagery which became a blueprint for IS operations.

IS' ranks appear to be filled with fighters driven by money and anger rather than affinity to extremist ideology.

Desperation has been the greatest recruiting tool of areas in areas of loss. As has fear that cows the majority population into accepting IS tutelage. The greater the threat to its power, the more it uses its whip.

IS' ranks appear to be filled with fighters driven by money and anger rather than affinity to extremist ideology

Heavy financial losses to IS' industrial infrastructure has led the group to step up killings against suspected "spies", analysts say. Fear has allowed it to pass on the greater economic pressures to the rest of the population, while it pursues a policy of "military first".

Meanwhile, US aerial support have allowed some unsavoury forces to advance in Syria and Iraq.

In 2011, popular protests in large parts of Syrian led to the country's war when regime forces tried to brutally suppress demonstrations and re-establish its order. Shortly afterwards in Iraq, anti-government protests in Sunni areas were also put down by soldiers.

Both led to IS establishing its control among disillusioned, sympathetic and apathetic communities in these areas.

US strategy provides no solution to these bigger questions. Its current policy appears to be aimed at short term gains – of replacing the brutal over lordship IS with groups that sparked unrest in the first place. Many militias are looking at retribution after years of horrific fighting.

Amnesty International have reported mass killings by Iraqi Shia militias, known as Popular Mobilisation Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi – an essential component of Baghdad's fight against IS.

"There's a spectrum [of militias and] we haven't trained any of them," said Warren. 

"They train themselves and we have seen them work to good effect in Baiji, where they were really instrumental in covering their flanks and in assisting in that operation."

We are guests of the government of Iraq... [they] approve every single bomb we drop in Iraq
- Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson

Warren says that Washington has provided Iraq with $2 billion to support its fight against IS, and equipment is passed on to armed groups through Baghdad.

Since the Popular Mobilisation Forces now operate as part of the Iraqi armed forces umbrella, it is likely that they too receive US military equipment as well as training and air support.

Ethnic cleansing

Abu Ali al-Basari, a leading figure in the militia movement, told Iranian media earlier this month that Iraqi forces were poised to launch an offensive on Mosul.

Without proper guidance and overview, this would likely lead to another mass flight of civilians. This has been a regular feature when non-Sunni or non-Arab forces have captured territories from IS. As have reprisals and mass killings of civilians, and Washington appear to be helpless to stop this.

"We are in Iraq because the Iraqi government invited us there," said Warren. "We are guests of the government of Iraq... [they] approve every single bomb we drop in Iraq. So they decide where the Hashd al-Shaabi go and fight, they send them there."

US-backed Iraqi-Kurdish militias operating in the north of the country have also been accused of ethnic cleansing Arab villages.

[Kurdish] forces appear to be spearheading a concerted campaign to forcibly displace Arab communities by destroying entire villages
- Amnesty International

"[Kurdish] forces appear to be spearheading a concerted campaign to forcibly displace Arab communities by destroying entire villages in areas they have recaptured from IS in northern Iraq," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Response Advisor earlier this year.

"The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification, may amount to war crimes."

Other US-backed Kurdish groups in Syria also appear to have embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing

Kurdish YPG fighters recently launched a war against Syrian rebels under the cover of Russian and regime war planes and captured non-Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

This has caused them to lock horns with Washington's NATO ally, Turkey, who have provided an air base for anti-IS operations. The border war between Turkey and the YPG militias has added stress to Washington-Ankara's relationship causing more people to flee the country. 

If Kurdish and regime forces flush rebels out of northern Syria, then grievances of a majority of Syrians would go unanswered. This would likely lead many into the hands of the extremists, Syrian analysts and activists have said.

This is not something the US hopes will happen, but so far the overriding priority for Washington in the Syria war is to defeat IS.

"We continue to urge all forces there to focus on the most urgent threat which we believe is [IS]," Warren said. 

"It hasn't worked itself out yet but we will keep on trying." 

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @pmcloughlin9