Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Forces and Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2016: An Update

Please note: This commentary has been updated to reflect a new briefing by a Department of Defense spokesman.

In November 2015, the Burke Chair issued a detailed report on the history of fighting in Iraq and Syria entitled Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015 . In the months that have followed, the United States has continued this process of creeping incrementalism in building up its forces in Iraq and Syria and its efforts to degrade and dislodge ISIS from its ability to act as proto-state.

Still Creeping, Still Incrementalism, and Still no Coherent Strategy

The United States and its allies have made some gains in the process, and the U.S. led coalition now provides substantial amounts of airpower in attacks on ISIS and in support of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Arab rebel forces. In broad terms, however, the United States has still reacted slowly to the threat posed by ISIS and the internal division with Iraq and Syria, and made only low levels of incremental increases in its forces.

At the same time, the United States has seen Iraq become more divided on a sectarian and ethnic basis, has seen Russian intervention in Syria increase Assad’s chance of survival, and has still failed to create either effective Iraqi land forces or Arab rebel forces in Syria. It has not succeeded in reducing Iranian influence in the region, or brought effective unity to its partnership in either Syria or Iraq in dealing with its Arab allies.

Iraq now seems at least as divided along Sunni and Shiite, and Arab and Kurdish lines as it did under Maliki. Efforts to negotiate some settlement in Syria that can bring a lasting end to the fighting seem more than an extension of war by other means. It is still unclear that any solution has been found to developing a workable relationship between Arab and Kurd, or Sunni and Shi’ite, in either creating effective security forces or the basis for a stable Iraq that can offer its people effective governance, recovery, and economic development.

The United States has had to effectively abandon Kurds and supporting Saudi Arabia and other Arab partners in their efforts to create effective Arab rebel forces. It is far from clear that this effort is effective in dealing with the pro-Assad forces, and all too clear that it is deeply divided, has violent Islamist extremist elements, is largely focused on Assad to the exclusion of ISIS, and is supported by Arab states whose primary focus has shifted to the war in Yemen and confronting Iran.

The U.S objective in sponsoring a peace negotiation in Syria has become increasingly uncertain, as are its efforts to push Assad and those who have supported his violent repression of his own people out of power and to limit the role of Iran and Russian intervention. The creation of a Syrian rebel Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC) that supposedly represents most rebel armed and civilian groups seems more a façade than a real body, and its ability to provide any form of effective political leadership and role in government, and commit even a majority of Arab rebel forces to any settlement with the pro-Assad faction is as uncertain as the Assad faction’s willingness to actually implement any peace settlement that could end the war and be willing to join in a common effort to govern and recover.

The United States has never defined an integrated approach to the wars in Syria and Iraq, or address how it will deal with Arab-Kurdish-Turkish tension, Iran’s influence, Russian presence, the bitter sectarian division between Sunnis and other sects, and recovery from fighting that has created millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, massive damage to the economies of both Iraq and Syria, and changed the demographic map of sects and ethnic groups in both states. It has never explained what will happen to the volunteers and fighters supporting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or whether “defeating” ISIS as a proto-state will end the fighting or suppress violent Islamic extremism and terrorism in Syria, Iraq, or the rest of the Islamic world.

The United States has never shown it has a credible strategy to bring stability to either Iraq or Syria, move them toward recovery and development, or create some political structure in either country that can develop effective governance in spite of the deep division between religious sects and ethnic groups. The United States still clearly lacks any overall strategy that can defeat the broader forces of Islamist extremism even if it can drive ISIS out of its proto-state.

In fairness, there are no good or easy options in any of these areas, only the ability to choose the least bad approach. There is only so much that the United States can do in a region with so many divisions along national, sectarian, and ethnic lines, and which faces so many pressures from population growth, weak and corrupt governance, and problems in meaningful employment and income distribution. Many of its critics also seem more interested in over-simplistic partisan criticism than offering credible and realistic solutions.

The fact remains, however, that there is far too little coherence to U.S. actions in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the region, and far too little realism and transparency in reporting on the real world impact of U.S. actions. The United States remains mired in various forms of creeping incrementalism that seem largely reactive and too little and too late to exploit the opportunities that do exist.

U.S. Shifts in the Land Forces Train and Assist Mission to Iraqi Government, Kurdish, and Arab Sunni Tribal Forces

Creating effective Iraqi and Syria land forces remain critical challenges. The U.S. has been attempting to create a stable Iraq since 2003, and supported covert operations in Syria since 2012. It returned to a state of war in Iraq in 2014 and will soon have been actively at war in Iraq and Syria for more than two years.

The Current U.S. Train and Assist Mission

In the process, the United States has slowly built up a major military “train and assist” mission in in Iraq that now includes Iraqi government security forces, substantial elements of Iraqi Kurdish forces, and some Iraqi Sunni tribal forces. It has not been successful to date in persuading Iraq to adopt legislation that would create a National Guard that would formally give Sunni Arab and Kurds some form of “federal” security forces.

The United States has not limited Iran’s role in either Iraq or Syria, the role of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, or the role of the Hezbollah in Syria. If anything, its actions have created a new Syrian Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria, and helped Iraq’s Kurds greatly expand the area controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government at the expense of Iraq’s Arabs as well as helped create new tensions with Turkey.

Colonel Steve Warren, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, did state on January 20th, however, that the United States had provided basic combat training for 16,715 personnel, and put thousands more through various specialized training programs. It had helped some key elements o f Iraqi forces like the CTS Force and Iraq’s 8th Division become effective enough to play a major role in land combat in liberating Ramadi.

Other unofficial sources have made it clear that the overt U.S. train and assist mission is now based in at least six facilities in Iraq, and probably in more than eight, and some sources have indicated that the United States has some 12 to 15 land, air, and support facilities and joint bases in Iraq. All of the declared U.S. activities, however, have been involved in rebuilding or generating Iraqi, Kurdish, Arab tribal forces from facilities in the rear rather than providing the direct U.S. support of any element of Iraqi combat forces.

The United States also has various train and assist efforts dealing with Syrian Kurdish and Arab rebel forces in Syria, and has at least one air facility and a training facility in the Kurdish zone in Syria, plus a network of other small facilities elsewhere in Syria and in neighboring states.

The United States has helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as small elements of Sunni Arab tribal forces, to make gains against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Press reports indicate that the United States now plans to expand both sets of train and assist missions to provide more direct support for Iraqi combat forces, rather than limiting its official presence to train and assist centers in the rear.

Uncertain Increases to What Has Become a Post-Obama Administration Commitment

Secretary of Defense Carter stated at a House Armed Service Committee hearing on December 1st that the United States would send Special Operations Forces to Syria as well as strengthen then in Iraq, sending some 50 to Syria to “To build on that momentum, we're sending – on President Obama's orders and the Chairman's and my advice – Special Operations forces personnel to Syria to support the fight against ISIL,” Carter said, adding that the move will allow the U.S. to gain ground intelligence, enhance air capabilities, and allow local forces to gain and hold ISIS-occupied territory.”

Carter also said that the U.S. had added a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to the 200 Special Operations Forces that press reports indicate were already in Iraq… This created a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids and more momentum,” he said, adding that the raids will be conducted at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and that the forces would also be able to launch operations into Syria.

General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stated at the same hearing, however, that, “We have not contained ISIL currently.” This may help explain why Dunford said on January 24, 2016 that the Obama Administration is considering a significant increase in its land force train and assist mission that would place U.S. forces in support of Iraqi government forces in preparation for an effort to drive ISIS out of Mosul.

The Department of Defense news service quoted Chairman Dunford as stating that, the United States would potentially make recommendations to position U.S. troops with Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq to support the next phase of isolating the key city of Mosul, and place U.S. troops where they can best support the Iraqi forces in the fight.

"We're about winning. ... We want to have the Iraqis winning. It is fair to say we will have positions – we already do [in Erbil] – up in the north that will facilitate supporting Iraqi security forces as they isolate Mosul…I'm prepared to recommend a level of accompaniment that will allow us to be successful. But I want to wait for the Iraqis to tell us, based on the lessons learned in Ramadi, what they believe is right for them…. We're going to set ourselves up for success

The Department of Defense news service article stated that Dunford said the Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, was working with the Iraqi security forces to develop the concept of operations. The Iraqis will identify what support they need and what Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces need, looking at capability gaps and where the United States can be most effective in integrating its effort, and that the new U.S. forces, would be in addition to U.S. troops already in an advise-and-assist mission at Taqaddum Air Base.

The article also stated that the Chairman said that the U.S. focus would be on consolidating gains in and around Ramadi, and then moving out to Anbar province. "There is a lot of work that remains to be done in Anbar, not only in and around Ramadi and the immediate surrounds, but the entire Anbar province. The U.S. presence may change "in terms of what our weight of effort is," he said, adding the United States likely will "be in and around those locations for some time to come, because there is still work to be done." The United States will still support the Iraqi security forces, with no immediate changes there, with "the exception of probably a reorientation of main effort.”

Colonel Steve Warren, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, had stated several days earlier that,

the reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that's really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul. We know we will need more brigades to be trained, we'll need more troops trained in more specialties, right?

So there's two types of training, right? Basic combat skills training and then after that, you know, you've got your commando school, your sniper school, medical training, leadership training, you know, communications, all these different types of specialty training also need to take place in order to create a force that's got, you know, the capabilities needed for this major operation to seize Mosul.
So I don't have an exact number yet, we're working on that. You know, it's kind of a -- it's kind of a give-and-take, right? We see what's in the art of the possible and then we work that into what's required and we come up with a number. So we don't -- we don't have a solid number yet as we continue to work the analysis of the force generation process.

Where located primarily. You know, the two primary training bases at (inaudible) and Taji have plenty of capability, right? Lots of space, lots of ability to do training, and that's really been the two Iraqi army primary training locations. So they would go to existing locations. Also at Al-Asad too, I think. So, yeah.
(As to the number of new U.S. advisors) …it's difficult to say. Certainly hundreds, but I think that would probably be at the top end. Not thousands, hundreds. But I don't want to commit to that number because really, you've got to work with the government of Iraq and figure out what their throughput capabilities are going to be, et cetera. So it's just -- it's just too soon for a number.

The New York Times reported on January 28th, that the United States already had some 3,700 uniformed personnel in Iraq, including a small number of special forces in Syria, and that the number was unlikely to rise above 4,500 over time, but gave no details. It is unclear that this total includes headquarters personnel or covert uniformed personnel, and it clearly does not include civilians and any CIA personnel, or U.S. military or civilian personnel in Turkey, Jordan, or the Arab Gulf states.

The Times also quoted a Pentagon spokesman as saying that, “commanders were still studying whether they would need more American forces. Once our commanders on the ground have a clearer picture of the capabilities required to accelerate the campaign, as well as the contributions from our coalition partners, we will have a better idea what if any additional resources may be needed.”

No Clear Move Beyond Ineffective Creeping Incrementalism: A Continued Focus on Largely Meaningless Manpower Data

It is still unclear, however, as to whether United States will actually take enough action to create an effective Iraqi capability to win, exactly what new activities will be involved, and what level of military manpower and other resources will be involved. The U.S. government has never provided a convincing picture that the Iraqi Army is increasing the effectiveness of its overall order of battle beyond the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) major elements of units like the 8th and 10th Divisions, and selected elements of the Federal Police to the point it can defeat ISIS fully in Anbar, much less in far more populated areas like Ninewa province and its capital in Mosul.

The Department of Defense spokesman have taken advantage of the lack of media and outside analytic expertise to keep issuing meaningless figures on total manpower rather than the progress the train and assist mission is making in creation of combat effective units.

Total military manpower has virtually never been a meaningful measure of combat effectiveness through the entire course of military history, and the real world focus of the U.S. effort in aiding allied forces has been to create more effective combat units, not larger forces measured in the number of warm bodies authorized or assumed to be present. No official U.S. statement has, however, address progress in creating an effective order of battle in meaningful detail or gone beyond largely meaningless manpower totals.

The closest official statements have gotten to any meaningful reporting came in a press briefing by Colonel Warren on January 29, 2016. Colonel Warren again repeated claims that ISIS has lost major amounts of territory – “this reflects our estimate that ISIL has lost approximately 40 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq. Approximately 5 percent of the territory it once held in Syria” – without noting that such claims referred to a zone determined by the maximum ISIS advance and consisted largely of empty and unpopulated desert. He also, however, responded to press questions as follows:

Q: …Can you expand a little bit on your training information? About how many Iraqi soldiers have gone through this advanced training? And as you look ahead to operations moving towards Hit and Mosul, is there a number that the coalition is looking to have trained before you actually have to start the major operations up there?

COL. WARREN: We've trained -- right now, we've trained about 20,000 total Iraqi security forces. That does include police and it also includes the tribal fighters, the -- the Sunni tribal fighters. So - pretty good number. What we're doing now is in the process of -- of building the force that will go to Mosul eventually.

We don't -- we're not really prepared to put out a number right now. We think it will be roughly 10 brigades, you know, with anywhere from, you know, about 2000, sometimes 3000. It depends on the brigade -- how many people are in the brigade. So we think roughly, ballpark of 10 brigades that need to be built. And these all have to be trained.

Some of the -- some of the brigades that will go to Mosul we have already trained, but we want to touch them again. We want to give them some -- some additional training that they can use to build on what they learned first through our training, and second, through their experiences in -- in Ramadi. So that's kind of where we are right now.

Q: The ones that you say are -- have been trained, are any -- and I guess maybe this -- this 70 -- 77 -- 72nd -- are any fully trained and prepared for Mosul? Are there none at this point -- none of those brigades at this point who the coalition believe are fully trained for those advanced operations?

COL. WARREN: We believe that all of the forces that we've already trained and run through Ramadi, for example, are certainly capable of -- of moving to Mosul. But we have made a decision that we want to run them through another cycle of training. So are they trained? Yes. Could they go to Mosul now? Yes. But we would prefer to give them additional training before they go.

And I think the -- you know, and this is our recommendation to the Iraqis. Of course, the Iraqis agree with us. So we're building the plan now as to how rapidly we can move these brigades through the -- through the training pipeline…

Q: … Of the 10 brigades that you need and, you know, some of them will go through training again, others will get trained from the start, could you give some sense of the extent of those individual training? In other words, the brigades that haven't gone through yet, are they going to need several months of training or -- or -- what sort of -- what sort of timeline are we looking at?

COL. WARREN: Well, the training -- our -- our -- our standard training is eight weeks of training. Additionally, we've got things like commando school, sniper school, some medic training, things like that. But the -- the standard block is -- is 10 weeks.

That may expand based on, you know, a specific unit, perhaps as earmarked, to do a specific thing, may need some additional, specific training. For example, if there is the unit that is going to be the first one to go across a bridge, let's just say, we would want that unit to get some training on how to do that…So again, it's always going to vary, but the baseline is eight weeks….

Q: … those additional 10 brigades, have you looked at how many additional U.S. or coalition trainers are going to be needed to train them and have you made any recommendations back here to Washington?

COL. WARREN: So, that's -- we have -- the short answer to your question is no. We have not yet. We're in that process now of determining. And it's not so much about whether or not we can do it. It's how rapidly you can get them through right? You know, we can train all 10 with what we have so then it becomes a question of, you know, do you make the pipe a little bit bigger so that you can put more through the pipe faster?

So that's what we're working on now and that's working on several levels obviously. You know, at the higher level it's a matter of working with other partner nations to see what else they are able to contribute. For example, there's an additional 15 Italian Carabinieri trainers due in here in the coming weeks. Fifteen may seem like a small number, but they're going there to build and train and police.

And that's enough for them to be able to rapidly, you know, increase the thorough-put of police that are getting trained. So, we're doing the analysis to determine how rapidly we believe we can train with what we have on the ground and then what enablers and what additional trainers could be requested, always through the government of Iraq, and how -- how much that would allow us to increase our throughput…

Q: Back on the 10 brigades for the Mosul offensive. I think last week you said two would be Peshmerga. Would the rest be regular ISF? What would the rest look like? And how many of them received some training? And how many of them would -- you know, are not trained? How many Sunni tribal forces would be needed? And how many police? And how long does it take to get a brigade trained from scratch?

COL. WARREN: So, it takes eight weeks to get a brigade trained from scratch. The disposition of forces on the battlefield -- so, how many police, how many pesh, how many CTS, how many everything. These are all part of the plan that's in development by the government of Iraq. So the answer to your question doesn't exist yet.

The government of Iraq is continuing their planning process, you know, analyzing the battlefield, analyzing the enemy situation, taking into account the expected degradation of the enemy based on our airstrikes, et cetera, taking into account the advice that we give them based on the pressure that we're able to place on the enemy in Syria. So all of these factors have to come into play as the Iraqis kind of develop their scheme of maneuver on the ground….So there isn't an answer to your question yet. It's part of the plan.

Q: You estimated 10 so far. I -- I think you did say two would be peshmerga, right? So then would the rest -- what's the rest envisioned to be?

COL. WARREN: So the -- the rest will be, you know, determined by the Iraqi government's decision process, right? So they haven't -- they haven't decided that yet. They're working with us. We're advising them. We're giving them some -- some, I think, good advice. But -- but they haven't been able to determine it yet because they've got other factors that they have to worry about as well….You know, so I think the -- the prime minister of Iraq, along with the chief of defense and the minister of defense, and they're weighing all those different factors that they have the weigh as, you know, the elected and appointed leadership of the country. So we just don't have a number for you.

Q: …the degradation of the enemy may -- may be one factor in how many troops in Mosul. Is there a new estimate for how many ISIS are in Iraq and/or Syria right now? Has the -- have the numbers changed?

COL. WARREN: You know, I think they have, but I don't have the most updated numbers. I just didn't check on that one, Courtney. So the last set of numbers, you know, we know are 19,000 to 30,000. It's my understanding that those numbers have begun to -- that there's a new consolidated intelligence community estimate, but I don't have those numbers for you. But we'll -- we'll research it and get it back to you.

Q: …On the 10 brigades, can I just clarify with you? I think previously you and others had mentioned eight brigades, so is the 10 just now including pesh and police or has the topline number of brigades gone up?

COL. WARREN: It's -- it's an approximate number, right? So it hasn't gone up. You know, it kind of continues to evolve over time.

So you're right. We had a different number before and we had a different number today and there will be a different number next week. So I really have to caution everyone that it is -- we are too early to really start putting numbers out because numbers haven't been determined. And next week, as we continue analysis, it may change again.

So we're -- we're trying to, you know, develop a what we believe will be a workable and -- and (iaudible) and effective plan in conjunction with the Iraqis. So we're going to continue to iterate this. We're going to continue to chip away at this until something finally comes together, but we're -- we're simply not there yet. It's just -- you know, this is still January. You know, this is -- this is going to be many months before we see actual operations for -- for Mosul begin.

So right now, our focus is let's start training some brigades. Let's start building some combat power. Let's continue to train some police and start building up some combat power while we simultaneously continue to iterate this plan and continue to iterate this scheme of maneuver, and while we simultaneously continue to degrade the enemy…So this is going -- this is going to change. It's going to evolve. Nobody's ready to really slap the table yet and just -- and say okay. This is -- this is it, we're moving out. It's -- it's simply too soon for that.

Colonel Warren also touched briefly on stability operations in Ramadi, focusing on the continuing critical role of the Counter Terrorism service, but leaving the impression that little real world progress was being made towards recovery:

Q: Follow on Ramadi, you mentioned that the Anbar police are starting to provide security which is allowing the conventional forces and the counterterrorism forces to leave. Do you have a general sense of what percentage of the city the police is securing now?

COL. WARREN: I hadn't looked at it that way. Percentages, I can tell you, I think it's six of the CTS battalions have already withdrawn from Ramadi and have been replaced by police. There are three CTS battalions remaining in Ramadi. So, I don't have a percentage for you Joe, I just haven't looked at that way, but we are seeing the turnover begin to happen, specifically from the CTS.

The army, the conventional army, they still haven't turned anything over yet to the police. But the CTS, the counterterrorism service has. So really, it's majority army at this point with some neighborhoods, a handful of neighborhoods in control by the police. It's the conventional arm.

Like other briefings, no details were given on the level of estimate progress being made in rehabilitating, rebuilding, and building combat capable forces; which units were involved, how large they were, and the timing for future action. Whenever Colonel Warren was asked about details, he was vague to the point that there seemed to be broad goals without any actual plan – a strategy so vague as to have little real meaning. A reference to “10 brigades” of Iraqi forces can also mean the equivalent of a force close to 10 larger U.S. battalions than full U.S. brigades. The liberation of Mosul may or may not begin in 2016, and means leaving Iraq’s second largest city and key Sunni populated area under ISIS for at least two full years with steadily increasing damage to the economy and civil institutions in Iraq’s primary Sunni area.

No Clear Move Beyond Ineffective Creeping Incrementalism: Moving Beyond Force Rehabilitation in the rear to Forward Train and Assist of Combat Units

There also has been little to no coverage of the long debate in shaping the train and assist missions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan over whether such missions can ever be properly effective if they do not embed U.S. military in actual combat forces rather than rely on training and retraining in compounds in the rear.

One of the clear lessons of past U.S. efforts is that training and rebuilding forces in the rear rarely makes them combat capable. It takes U.S. advisors and trainers in the actual combat unit to help develop actual combat leaders, help with tactics and actual operations, assist in using air support and intelligence, provide feedback on the need for reinforcement and resupply, and provide intelligence on failed leaders, corruption, and internal problems. This means risking U.S. casualties, but the alternative can easily lead to failure and a massive waste of resources.

The added deployment of U.S. special forces and other advisors, and General Dunford’s comments on a further U.S. deployment of ground forces, seem to indicate that the United States will now provide the kind of direct advice on leadership, tactics, the use of air power, intelligence, and the need for reinforcements and resupply that can only come from embedded advisors, but the past history of too little, too late, to far from the fighting still raises serious questions about the Administration’s future reliance on creeping incrementalism.

Clear Additional Limits to U.S. Success

At the same time, it is clear that the United States has done little to reduce Iranian influence in an Iraq whose Shi’ite dominated government is both deeply divided and tilts towards Iran rather than Iraq’s Arab neighbors. It has done little to marginalize Iraqi Shi’ite militias, particularly those that pose the greatest challenge to efforts to bring Sunni and Shi’ite together and the successes of the Abadi government.

U.S. efforts to create some form of Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal forces still seem more cosmetic than real, Shiite militias still present a major challenge, and no real progress has been made in either integrating Kurdish Pesh Merga and Iraqi government forces, or eliminating the tensions between the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi central government and a deeply divided Kurdish regional government. Iraqi politics and effective unity remain an inchoate mess.

U.S. Shifts in the Land Forces Train and Assist Mission to Syrian Kurdish, and Arab Rebel Forces

There are few signs of any matching movement towards a coherent approach to Syria. The United States does seem to have largely abandoned the futile effort to create “moderate” independent Arab rebel forces in Jordan and northern Syria, and no longer quotes meaningless goals of training 5,000 such men and a total force of 15,000. It now seems to rely largely on its Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar to arms and equip Arab rebels forces and to accept the fact that they seem the Assad regime and forces as the primary threat and not ISIS.

The United States also now seems to be cooperating with the Arab Gulf states in supporting the Arab rebel forces. Saudi Arabia has long given up on Prince Bandar’s fantasy of creating an instantly effective rebel force, and the overall mix of Arab and U.S. efforts seemed to be far more effective in challenging Assad’s Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian volunteer until Russia intervened by providing them with major amounts of air support and strikes against the Arab rebel forces.

An article in the New York Times indicates that some aspects of U.S.-Saudi cooperation in aiding the rebels, like Operation Timber Sycamore, place the Saudis in the position of providing weapons and money, while the CIA takes the lead in training the more moderate and reliable rebel forces in using AK-47 assault rifles and anti-tack rockets and missile.

The article notes that, /p>

When Mr. Obama signed off on arming the rebels  in the spring of 2013, it was partly to try to gain control of the apparent free-for-all in the region. The Qataris and the Saudis had been funneling weapons into Syria for more than a year. The Qataris had even smuggled in shipments of Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles  over the border from Turkey.

The Saudi efforts were led by the flamboyant Prince Bandar bin Sultan, at the time the intelligence chief, who directed Saudi spies to buy thousands of AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition in Eastern Europe for the Syrian rebels. The C.I.A. helped arrange some of the arms purchases for the Saudis, including a large deal in Croatia in 2012.

By the summer of 2012, a freewheeling feel had taken hold along Turkey’s border with Syria as the gulf nations funneled cash and weapons to rebel groups — even some that American officials were concerned had ties to radical groups like Al Qaeda.

The C.I.A. was mostly on the sidelines during this period, authorized by the White House under the Timber Sycamore training program to deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels but not weapons. In late 2012, according to two former senior American officials, David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, delivered a stern lecture to intelligence officials of several gulf nations at a meeting near the Dead Sea in Jordan. He chastised them for sending arms into Syria without coordinating with one another or with C.I.A. officers in Jordan and Turkey.

The United States may have similar or joint efforts with the UAE and Kuwait. No unclassified source has yet reported in depth on the funding and full level of coordination involved, or the numbers and types of weapons being transferred, the scale of training, the numbers and types of U.S. trainers and support, or the particular Arab rebel units involved.

Deeply Divided Arab Rebel Forces

The Arab Rebel forces remain deeply divided, however, and by some estimates include well over 50-100 factions. Many elements of the so-called free Syrian Army, Army of Conquest or Jaish al-Fatah, and Ahrar as-Sham include Islamist elements. Some, like the Al Nusra Front and Jabhat Ansar al-Din, support Al Qaida and Islamist extremist beliefs and discipline.

The largely cosmetic titles given to creating coordinated Arab rebel commands – the efforts like the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC) that is supposed to participated in the peace negotiations – seem to be little more than facades. While Saudi Arabia seems to have brought some level of coordination to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwaiti, and Qatari official efforts to support and arm such forces, most lack the arms necessary to effectively compete with the mix of different Assad ground forces or defend against the new combination of Assad and Russian airpower.

In spite of the now major air campaign being carried out by a U.S.-led coalition, it is the pro-Assad Forces that are gaining, and Russia and Iran that have growing influence. The some 6,000 sorties Russian has flown as of mid-January 2016 – since beginning to engage in Syria on September 30 2015 – have tilted the balance of fighting in favor of the pro-Assad forces, as well as Iran and the Hezbollah.

More Effective Kurdish Forces…with a Price Tag

As is the case in Iraq, the United States has had considerable success in creating more effective Kurdish forces, whose location drives them to engage ISIS as a critical part of creating any kind of Kurdish enclave. This U.S. effort has created a more effective force mix in Syria, largely by relying on the Syrian Kurds. Like their Iraqi counterparts, the Syrian Kurds have been far more effective in fighting ISIS than Arab forces, largely because they are far more motivated to focus on ISIS than either the Syrian Arab rebel forces – who see Assad as their major enemy – or the Assad forces, which see the Arab rebels as the primary threat.

It again, however, is leaving a legacy of tension and future struggles over the level of autonomy that the Kurds will have if ISIS is defeated. U.S. support of elements of the People's Protection Units (YPG), Jabhat al-Akrad, and the Kurdish National Council has created tension with Turkey, and has greatly expanded the area of Kurdish control and influence in both Iraq and Syria in ways which may well lead to serious new tension and/or conflict if ISIS is defeated.

A Peace to End All Peace, Mark II?

It may not be fair to say that U.S. efforts negotiate some form of peace, settlement, or ceasefire in Syria will make things worse. They might ease the provision of humanitarian aid and shift part of the struggle from a military to a political dimension. At the same time, they may also end in strengthening the Assad faction, and in further dividing the Arab rebels and shifting their focus away from ISIS to Assad.

It is also very hard to see, however, how they can succeed in creating a stable new regime, ease Assad out for something better, limit Russian and Iranian influence, unite the deeply splintered Arab rebel factions, or lead to any unified focus in Syria on defeating ISIS. If anything, peace negotiations may well become a form of war by other means – if they have not become one already.

The U.S.-Led Air Effort

The U.S.-led coalition only began air operations on August 8, 2014 – after ISIS had scored major gains in Iraq as well as Syria The question of whether an early and more decisive U.S. air effort could have push Assad out in 2012 to 2013, and sharply limited or prevented the rise of ISIS and the radicalization of many Arab rebel fighters is one that now can never be resolved. It is always easy to postulate the success of unchosen alternatives, but the human and strategic costs of waiting until late in 2014 to begin a serious effort are all too clear.

Building Up the Number of U.S. Air Strikes

Since that time, the United States has slowly built up its airpower to the point where it can play a role in attacking ISIS at every level from its top leadership to its forces in the field and fundraising activities in the rear. In the process, it has shown how important airpower can be in supporting Iraqi forces in the successful effort to drive ISIS out of Ramadi. So far, however, it has not shown that it has created an effective enough mix of Iraqi forces and U.S. Coalition airpower to drive ISIS out of Mosul and the rest of western Iraq.

Some in the Gulf downplay the U.S.-led air effort, including a number of Iraqi Shi’ite political and militia leaders, and the Arab role in such missions has been largely a token one since Saudi-led intervention in the civil war in Yemen. In fact, however, that air effort has become steadily larger and more effective.

The BBC reports that as of December 31, 2015, the Coalition had flown nearly 6,300 strike sorties in Iraq and 3,100 in Syria. The U.S. Air Force reports that the Coalition flew 6,591 close air support, escort, or interdiction sorties in 2014 and 21,113 in 2015, and that 2,003 of these sorties delivered at least one weapons release in 2014, and 9,908 in 2015. This makes a total of 27,704 strike sorties for both 2014 and 2015, and 11,911 of them delivered at least one munition.

As of January 10, 2016, the United States and coalition forces had conducted a total of 9,560 strikes (6,341 Iraq / 3,219 Syria). The United States had conducted 7,390 strikes in Iraq and Syria (4,361 Iraq / 3,029 Syria). The rest of the Coalition had conducted 2,170 strikes in Iraq and Syria (1,980 Iraq /190 Syria). The countries that participated in the strikes included:

  • In Iraq: (1) Australia, (2) Belgium, (3) Canada, (4) Denmark, (5) France, (6) Jordan, (7) The Netherlands, and (8) UK.
  • In Syria: (1) Australia, (2) Bahrain, (3) Canada, (4) France, (5) Jordan, (6) Saudi Arabia, (7) Turkey, (8) UAE, and (9) UK.

These totals do not include another 2,247 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (IS&R) sorties in 2014, and 9,401 in 2015, for a total of 11,648. In addition, the Coalition flew 1,992 airlift and airdrop sorties in 2014, and 10,050 in 2015, for a total of 12,042 sorties. It also flew 4,859 airlift and airdrop sorties in 2014, and 14,737 in 2015, for a total of 19,596 sorties. The end result has become a massive air effort that involved a total of 70,990 sorties.

The Effect of Airpower to Date

Some of the effects of the air campaign that U.S. officials and spokesmen have claimed seem to be more spin than real – the equivalent of Vietnam era body counts. The various casualty claims – ranging from casualty levels in the tens of thousands to one that coalition air strikes killed, “Approximately 2,500 enemy fighter in December 2015,” – have never been properly explained or justified. A few surveillance photos of dead bodies do not explain how anyone can accurately make such estimates on a broader basis.

Claims that air strikes have destroyed millions of dollars of ISIS money holds or that 65 airstrikes in Operation Tidal Wave II cut its oil output from 45,000 barrels per day to 34,000 seem somewhat more credible – given the number of sorties involved – but are still uncertain.

Other claims seem to be so vague as to deliberately exaggerate what has been done. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported that airpower “damaged/destroyed” 136 tanks, 368 HMMWV’s, 906 staging areas, 5,418 buildings, 6,221 fighting positions, 1,170 oil infrastructure, and 6,133 other targets as of January 10, 2016.

Quite aside from the unrealistic precision of these numbers, “damage/destroyed” can mean anything, and all the targets except tanks and HMMWV’s are too vaguely defined to be meaningful. In fact, at least 13,260 of these targets (65%) are either area targets or “other” where it is unclear what – if anything – air strikes can accomplish.

Weapons Released and Impact on the Ground Campaign

What is more meaningful is that the number of weapons released in the air strikes – almost all of which are precision guided – rose from 269 a month in August 2014, to 1,888 in December 2014, 2,823 in July 2015, and were well over 3,000 in November and December 2015.

A wide range of media sources confirm that these strikes played a critical role in Iraqi gains in Ramadi. A briefing by Colonel Steve Warren, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, on September 29, 2015 seems fully correct in putting this effort in perspective,

…, the Iraqi security forces have achieved considerable success in Ramadi. They've raised the Iraqi flag over the provincial government center in the downtown area. The clearance of the government center is a significant milestone and is the result of many months' hard work.

The coalition conducted more than 630 airstrikes since July, with more than 150 occurring in the last month alone. We trained several of the Iraqi army brigades, CTS units and police forces who fought there. We provided specialized engineering equipment to clear IEDs, a floating bridge to help get combat power into downtown Ramadi, and we partnered with the Iraqis to give advice and assistance at multiple Iraqi army headquarters.

… I would agree that probably 80 percent of the effort -- I would agree with that Iraqi officer who said that 80 percent of the effort in Ramadi was due to coalition airstrikes. I think that is a fair assessment….We don't kind of keep those numbers. That is really just more instinct and feel. But I would not argue with that…The airstrikes have been significant. We believe that over the last six months, in the over 600 strikes, which translates to over 2,500 kinetic events, 2,500 different targets that destroyed, you know, 70 VBIED truck bombs, almost 300 other enemy vehicles, nearly 800 structures, 400 various types of weapons. This is significant. And this is what really facilitated or enabled the Iraqi forces to move in.

At the same time, virtually all media sources and independent military commentaries indicate that the Iraqi ground advance was critically limited by the fact that so few effective Iraqi ground forces were available, that the ground advance often halted while air strikes effectively destroyed many of the properties that the advance was intended to liberate, that any Sunni Arab tribal forces had limited support and effect, and that the Iraqi government remained as unprepared as ever to deal with stability operations and the “hold and build” phases of a “win, hold, and build” counterinsurgency campaign. Air power can make a critical difference, but air-ground warfare requires effective ground forces, and strategic victory – as distinguish from meaningless temporary tactical success – depends on stability operations and lasting civil success.

It is also important to point out that creeping incrementalism is anything but cheap. Along with the U.S. train and assist missions, and various intelligence efforts, the total cost of operations related to ISIL since kinetic operations started on Aug. 8, 2014, was $5.53 billion as of Dec. 15, 2015. The average daily cost was $11 million for 495 days of operations.

Looking Beyond Security to Grand Strategy

One thing has not changed since the initial report on the U.S. Strategy of Creeping Incrementalism: the U.S. must do far more to address the issues in grand strategy that it so far has either left unaddressed or attempted to pursue in ways where even apparent initial success can mean little more than eventual failure.

Defeating ISIS will do little to bring regional security and stability if it is not tied to efforts to deal with the broader sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq and Syria, and to efforts to help the leaders in both states make reforms in politics, governance, and economics that can bring recovery and broader development.

Future Civil Conflict is Not Tied to the Survival of ISIS

Many aspects of the sectarian and ethnic tensions within Iraq and Syria have grown far worse during the course of the fighting in each country since 2011, and make any lasting form of stability and security even harder to achieve. If these issues are not addressed now, there is a serious risk that ISIS may only be the prelude to far worse problems.

Iraq: The Long War Mutates and Goes On and On?

In Iraq’s case, prolonged fighting may end in dividing Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites to the point where unity is impossible. It has already left a legacy of tension and conflicting territorial goals between Arab and Kurd that will divide Iraq along ethnic lines as well as sectarian ones. Sectarian segregation is a growing problem in Arab areas, and the country increasingly divided into separate economies: The Sunni, ISIS areas in the West, the Kurdish economy in the KRG, the mixed agricultural economy in the East and north of Baghdad, the mixed urban economy around Baghdad, and the largely Shi’ite petroleum economy in the Southeast.

Iraq needs far more than military assistance, anti-corruption measures, or some simplistic approach to federalism. It needs a central government that responds to its sectarian and ethnic divisions in a functional way, and whose leaders and legislators actually represent given constituencies rather than party lists. It needs to agree on a meaningful way of sharing the nation’s oil wealth, and to agree on reforms of its government, state-owned enterprise sectors, and agricultural sectors that will be paced at rates that encourage job creation and stability

Only Iraqis can ultimately shape and agree on such plans, but they need help in forming them and they need it as soon as possible. Here, the U.S. has already shown it lacks core competence within USAID to conduct such planning, just as the UN and UNAMA have failed in Afghanistan. The World Bank, however, does seem to have such capabilities and a major U.S. effort to support such an aid effort in support of Iraq could help Iraqi political leaders without imposing an uncertain U.S. effort.

Syria: The Worst Case for Stability and Recovery

In Syria’s case, the problem is vastly complicated by the fact that more than half the population is either internally displaced persons or refugees and the massive levels of damage done by the civil war. It is also the sheer lack of any credible moderate political center or faction that is a credible source of effective governance and economic reconstruction and recovery.

Syria is now so divided and so lacking in unity and effective leadership that its only options now seem to be a paralyzing form of ceasefire, negotiations that cannot produce a stable lasting outcome, or a form of burnout that can only lead to a “peace” of the vanished and the dead. Defeating ISIS cannot deal with these problems.

Real progress in Syria probably cannot be achieved from the outside. It depends on a level of Syrian initiative, leadership, and cooperation from within – problems even more serious than in Iraq. It cannot take place under Assad, but it is unclear how Syria’s factions can agree or who in any faction has the political ability, capability for governance, and economic planning capability to propose a program that even offers real hope. Unlike Iraq, Syria has no real petroleum wealth to fall back upon, and this means it will need both more help in planning than Iraq and far more aid.

Once again, the United States cannot succeed in “nation building” or “nation rebuilding” when the leaders and peoples of a given state fail to unify around such goals. Moreover, Iraq and Syria’s Arab neighbors have as much – or more – responsibility to help both countries as the United States.

So far, however, the Obama Administration has not even articulated a clear set of options for helping Iraq and Syria deal with their broader problems. It has not sought some effort to find solutions within the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or other international institutions.

Will the Lack of Stability Strategy and Plans in 2016 Match the Lack of Such US Strategy and Plans in 2003?

“Lessons of war” tend to be an American oxymoron. No one to date in the Obama Administration has shown that there is any overall U.S. strategy that ties the U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS to a credible plan to oust Assad, to bring some form of stability and unity/federalism to Syria and Iraq, rebuild them, and to move them towards development.

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Anthony J. Blinken did note the need for such efforts in his address at the Manama Security Conference on October 31, 2015,

Ultimately, …lasting peace and stability for the region cannot be imposed from above, from the outside, or by force. They need to be built from within by governments that are inclusive, accountable to their citizens, and interconnected with the world. Security assistance alone cannot get governments there. It requires political accommodation to ensure the freedom, dignity, and security for all citizens.

… the civil war in Syria remains the region’s most immediate and complex challenge. The refugee catastrophe is an outgrowth of Assad’s vengeance against his own people, and the cost of the conflict rises every day—for the region, for Europe, but most of all, for Syrians. There is no end in sight unless we make one. And this is exactly what Secretary Kerry is working so hard to do, including in Vienna this week, where parties came together with a new sense of urgency. The discussions were constructive, and all participants agreed to a number of things, including to press for a nationwide ceasefire and pursue a political transition that ensures Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character. As Secretary Kerry said, this is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter.

… we share many important interests with Russia in Syria. Defeating Daesh, which poses a threat to all of us. And preserving Syria as a unified, sovereign state, with a secular, inclusive and non-sectarian government, its institutions intact. We can and we should make common cause of these common objectives. That requires a political transition that leads to Assad’s departure, because none of those goals is achievable as long as he remains. As Secretary Kerry has said, Russia has a choice now about how to move forward—and we would welcome it making the right choice for our shared interests. We have to break the mindset—encouraged by both Assad and Daesh—that the only choice Syrians have is between the two of them. A different future not only is possible—it is imperative

Somewhere along the line, however, the Administration seems to have forgotten Blinken’s statement that a solution in Syria requires a political transition that leads to Assad’s departure. It has met the challenge of creating stability in Iraq and Syria largely by ignoring it, and its political critics largely do the same.

It is now less than eleven months to a divisive and partisan Presidential election. The practical question is whether the Obama Administration can even make a serious start in addressing these broader issues during its remaining time in office — even if only to create a UN or World Bank effort that could propose solutions, reforms and offer some tangible form of hope. Ultimately, there is no meaningful military strategy that is not tied to grand strategy in the civil-military terms. From this perspective, both ISIS and Assad are far more the symptoms than the disease.


Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy