THE REAL CENTER OF GRAVITY IN THE WAR AGAINST ISLAMIC STATE
By Anthony H. Cordesman
30 Sep 14. Much of the debate over the air war and “boots on the ground” ignores the real center of gravity in the campaign against the Islamic State. There is no near-term possibility of any form of military victory unless the new Iraqi government can bring Iraq’s Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds back together as some form of functioning state.
Even if the United States could solve the logistic and sustainment issues involved on a timely basis, the United States cannot deploy its own major ground force combat units into the middle of a civil war. The rise of the Islamic State and the support it has gained from Iraq’s Sunnis is the result of the conflict between Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoked between 2010 and being pushed out of the position in 2014. Far too many Iraqis will now see any U.S. action as taking sides in their civil war, there are far too many hostile Shi’ite and Sunni militias, and far too many Iraqi politicians who will exploit the situation for their own benefit.
These problems go beyond Iraq’s borders and involve ethnic as well as sectarian conflicts. There are no clear dividing lines between Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and Iraqi Sunnis who will seek to secure Iraq out of some loyalty to the central government. Iraq’s Kurds have had far too few reasons to be loyal to the central government, strong incentives to turn to Turkey for exporting oil, and very different incentives to come to the aid of Syria’s Kurds and grab as much disputed territory in Iraq as they can. The United States cannot deploy ground forces where it will be seen by one side or another as either supporting Kurdish claims and separatism or taking sides against them.
The United States also faces the problem that there are no clear boundaries between Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurds and deeply divided factions within them as well as the problem of coping with the PKK – a group the United States has labeled as a terrorist organization. The United States also could not easily avoid coming to the aid of every threatened minority or humanitarian crisis in Syria, or being perceived – as many in the region already perceive it – as supporting Assad and Alawites in some conspiracy against the Sunnis and Turkey.
Furthermore, virtually no one really believes that the United States can create a meaningful moderate rebel force in Syria in time to deal with the Islamic State. All it can do is to weaken it that a mix of other rebel forces – many Islamic extremists – will take advantage of its weakness along with the pro-Assad forces while the United States hopes that some kind of meaningful moderate forces will gain real power and credibility with several years of U.S., Jordanian, and Saudi support. It is always possible that such hopes will triumph over experience, but it is more probable that Iraq is the country the United States and its allies can salvage and Syria will remain a divided mess: a mess where U.S. ground combat units would face a nightmare of hostile and uncertain factions.
It is also essential to understand that some kind of political accommodation is critical to any effort to coopt the Sunnis into the provincial national guard units. The United States has made this the key to reassuring the Sunnis that this time they will get both security and a fair share of power if they support the government.
It is essential to making the Iraqi Kurds and pesh merga strong enough as military forces to truly secure the Kurdistan Regional Government without leaving a future conflict in the making over the disputes as to how much territory the Kurds should control. And, it is essential to addressing the shattered, corrupt, and Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government military and police forces, and cleaning out the abusive, Shi’ite aligned, and incompetent elements of such forces.
A survey of Iraqi gove