Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Over the last few years, one aspect of the Islamic State (ISIS) has loomed large in the public’s imagination: the group’s ability to attract foreign fighters.

 The attention makes sense; there is something particularly terrifying about the idea of merciless terrorists mobilizing from all corners of the world to decimate civilian populations in Iraq and Syria to help ISIS rapidly gain territory. 

Foreign fighters also preoccupied Western governments, which were faced with the prospect of battle-hardened jihadists returning home. But now, three years into ISIS’ war, its once mighty weapon is now threatening to cut off the hand that feeds it; foreign fighters are quickly becoming one of ISIS’ biggest liabilities.

It should have been obvious from the start that local and foreign fighters would have different goals. ISIS’ official position has been that all fighters are equal, but tensions among groups did not go unnoticed. 

Still, the group’s internal dynamics remained relatively stable because it was successful on the battlefield and in oil production. But now that ISIS is not as rich and powerful as it once was, it can no longer afford to buy everyone’s loyalty. 

Already, a major internal split is hurting the group’s combat performance. In Iraq alone, since last month, ISIS lost all three battles it fought along with control of two towns and more than 30 villages.

According to local ISIS fighters, foreign fighters are more trouble than they’re in fact worth. Foreign fighters’ inability or unwillingness to cooperate with local fighters has culminated in deadly races for money and power. In July 2015, for example, Albanian and Russian ISIS militants killed three local fighters and wounded several others in the Alace Oil fields south of Kirkuk, a transit-point for ISIS’ oil smuggling operations. Local ISIS militants reported that the groups fought over differences in proposed military strategies on the frontline near Alam and that local fighters refused to follow a foreign officer’s orders. But the civilian population of the area doesn’t buy this characterization. Most locals believe that the conflict was over oil money.

 In another instance, when a dispute between foreign and local fighters actually reached the Islamic State’s courts, foreign fighters pressured judges to decree harsh sentences (like a death penalty) for local fighters they disagree with.

It’s also no secret that ISIS has long employed deep institutional discrimination in its military orders: a fighter’s relative position in the hierarchy was based on his nationality. Americans, Europeans, and Eastern Europeans (including Russians and Chechens) occupied middle-rank administrative positions in IED factories and training camps and on frontline military bases; “Chines” (Central Asian) ISIS militants were primarily used as suicide bombers. Native Arabs were divided into two groups—those in top-level leadership positions and those in the lowest possible positions.

This hierarchy lasted for nearly two years, but two recent battles have dramatically changed the pecking order. In battles at Sinjar and Bashir, foreign soldiers persuaded ISIS leadership that they were qualified to organize and command the fight. (They surely realized that doing so would help them gain military status and war spoils—including women, cars, houses, and food.) ISIS leadership agreed to let the foreign soldiers run the battles, but both were disasters.

On April 10, 2016, foreign fighters (Russian, Caucasus, Chines, and Chechens) who were supposed to lead the fight in Bashir fled four hours before Peshmerga forces and Hashd al-Shabi (Shia militias) had even entered the village. These foreign fighters left local fighters with no ammunition, no supplies, and no advanced weapons to face the ground offensive. The battle was a complete failure—dozens of ISIS militants were killed, and ISIS lost more than four strategic villages near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The battle in Sinjar, led by French, Russian, and American ISIS fighters, was even worse. Several days before the battle began, one European ISIS militant stole $70,000 and disappeared, leaving the rest of the militia with little ammunition, food, or backup forces. The fighters didn’t last a day.

Such cowardly combat behavior reinforces deep suspicions among local fighters and civilians, and the conspiracy theories abound. Local militants once believed that Western foreign fighters were true believers, highly professional, and educated to boot. Now local people see these foreign fighters as thugs; the only “rational” explanation is that the foreign fighters are really working for their own governments. 

 In the end, the battles of Bashir and Sinjar were a perfect excuse for local fighters to start taking back vital administrative and military positions in frontlines in Ninawa Province (including Mosul). But the foreign fighters have not been willing to give up those positions. In August, a dispute between groups of local and French ISIS fighters, both of which wanted to manage an administrative office in the Bab al-Tub area, led to a firefight in a crowded Mosul market.

ISIS leaders have stabilized the situation in Iraq by completely removing foreign fighters from administrative and political positions and relegating these fighters to IT-related intelligence work, IED factories, and technical tasks. In some areas, foreign fighters are even housed in rural villages to keep their interactions with locals to a minimum. In response, disenfranchised foreign fighters have resorted to small acts of sabotage. In September, a Saudi ISIS member dismantled a major tunnel that had connected the Al-Shirqat town center with the Shakra Area. It was an escape route for ISIS militants, but he destroyed it after passing through it himself, making the chasm between foreigners and locals even wider.

Competition between natives and migrants for power is nothing new in the Middle East. When the PBUH cat died in 632 CE, Muslim warriors from Makka and the local people of Medina began struggling for leadership of the newly formed Islamic State. Eventually, the foreign fighters from Makka imposed their will and appointed Abubakr Sdiq as the successor.

Although such history might serve to inspire foreign fighters, it looks like this conflict will play out much differently. Most likely, foreign fighters will continue to lose power and, as they go down fighting, will take the Islamic State with them

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

After Mosul

With the Mosul offensive underway, discussion has largely focused on the eventual fate of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), once it is ousted from the city. Yet the most significant barometer of this offensive remains unanswered: what happens if a military victory is not followed by a political accord among Iraq’s competing players? 

The signs are not encouraging.

The realities of victory differ when viewed from military and political perspectives. In the build up to the offensive, most of the focus has been on how to achieve a military victory. Here, much debate has centred on the makeup of the force. It is clear that the Iraqi army, under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s command, will lead the liberation and the operations inside the city. 

Yet the supporting cast remains a shaky coalition of Shia paramilitaries under the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces, and Sunni tribal units from the area. Iranian, American and Turkish troops will also provide support from the air and the ground. The division of labour among the coalition remains somewhat unclear.

Although the liberation for Mosul represents the biggest deployment of Iraqi forces since 2003, it appears set to be a gruelling and protracted fight. The campaign remains in its infancy with troops clearing uninhabited villages on the outskirts. Moving into the city represents a greater challenge. 

ISIS militants, who have been preparing for the battle for over two years, will want to exploit the complexities of urban warfare among civilian populations because they know that the Iraqi army and police are seeking to avoid civilian casualties that can be (mis)interpreted as sectarian killing, as what are perceived to be Shia-led forces enter Sunni-majority lands.

Such considerations present a major challenge to the state-led forces, and have complicated the planning process. Nonetheless, the urban warfare that is set to ensue is likely to bring extensive damage to the city, beyond even the levels of destruction wrought in the battles for Fallujah and Ramadi.

While command and control of the city is likely to be achieved following the battle, it is unlikely that ISIS supporters will be totally removed from the city. Their operations will go underground and transform into more of an insurgency movement—just as Al-Qaeda in Iraq did when it was defeated by Iraqi and American forces in 2008. 

A military victory, then, will uproot the ISIS leadership from the city and revive state services. It will also ensure a return to civilian Moslawi rule of the governorate and municipalities, but the violence may not come to an immediate end.

Most critically, these various parties fighting ISIS have yet to come together to define what victory in a political sense would like. Which actors should take over in the interim? What system of government should be implemented? How can the city’s population, one that has been distant from the politics of the central government prior to 2014, be reconciled with Baghdad? This means that once again, in Iraq, coalition forces are going into battle without a clearly defined 'day after' strategy.

But it is not that there is no plan. It is that there are too many. This is because of the competing political interests of the stakeholders involved. Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, outlined in his State Department briefing on 7 October that there are clearly many competing visions for the future of Mosul among stakeholders, but the priority is to defeat ISIS in the city first before settling those political divisions. Is this short-termism the right approach?

The political strategies and anxieties of the many groups partaking in the liberation will affect their tactics in the fight as well as after it. Each side will attempt to secure as much as possible in anticipation of the post-ISIS power vacuum.

Much of Mosul’s population is multi-ethnic and multi-sect—unlike the populations of the previously recovered cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit. This means that post-conflict reconciliation of communities in the aftermath of ethnic warfare will only complicate a political solution.

With a number of political issues remaining unresolved both in regards to Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh, there is likely to be a long and protracted mediation process between competing parties currently united against ISIS. Without a comprehensive political deal being agreed and implemented, the military victory will only be a short-term solution, unable to address the deep-rooted political issues that have produced a back-and-forth since 2003. 

It could prove nothing more than a band aid, eventually allowing the re-emergence of ISIS, or a reincarnation of it, in the future. Iraqi leaders must prioritize securing the future of Mosul and its population over their own political positioning.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Baltic Blitz

Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine has disrupted nearly a generation of relative peace and stability between Moscow and its Western neighbors and raised concerns about its larger intentions. 

From the perspective of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the threat to the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — former Soviet republics, now member states that border Russian territory — may be the most problematic of these. 

In a series of war games, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states.

 The games' findings are unambiguous: 

 The longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.

 As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. 

Fortunately, it will not require Herculean effort to avoid such a failure.

 Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.

Friday, October 21, 2016

To The Last Drop Of Yemeni Blood

Iran will happily fight to the last drop of Yemeni blood in the southern horn of that Shi ite Crescent...

The war in Yemen is escalating and becoming more dangerous. The Yemeni people are facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Unlike in Syria, the United States has significant leverage to halt the war and the suffering. Unfortunately, the frivolous override by Congress of 44's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has made using American leverage harder at this critical juncture. 

Yet 44 needs to act.

The Saudi-led coalition bombing of a funeral in Sanaa last weekend that killed over 140 mourners and wounded hundreds more has set off a wave of retaliation by the Yemeni rebels who control most of northern Yemen. The rebel alliance of Zaydi Shiite Houthis and followers of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh fired missiles at an American destroyer in the Red Sea. 

The rebels have long argued that American military, logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi coalition makes Washington a co-belligerent. The Oct. 13 cruise missile strikes against rebel radar sites — absolutely necessary to protect our ships in the strategic waters — will only add to the anti-American narrative.

The rebels have also fired at least one surface-to-surface missile at Taif, a Saudi city near Mecca. They have fired dozens of other missiles and rockets at Saudi border towns and at coalition garrisons in southern and eastern Yemen. They appear to have an unlimited supply of munitions and missiles. Sooner or later, one missile will cause a disaster.

The big beneficiary of the war is Iran. It provides the rebels diplomatic support and limited military assistance. In return, it bogs down the Saudis, Emiratis and its other Gulf enemies in a quagmire in Yemen that is expensive in lives and treasure, when oil prices are depressing their economies at home. Tehran is all too happy to fight to the last Yemeni.

The New York Times this week rightly suggested that 44 use American diplomacy to secure an immediate cease-fire. The United States and the United Kingdom are the Saudis' major arms providers. On 44's watch, over $111 billion in US arms have been sold to the kingdom. American and British maintenance is crucial to keeping the coalition aircraft in the air. That also makes the countries culpable in war crimes.

The Times editorial reflects growing unease in Washington with Riyadh's war. Although the American media is preoccupied with the drama of our election, the mood on the Hill is increasingly skeptical about arms sales to the Gulf. Despite enormous lobbying efforts, the Saudis face increasing hostility.

The override of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act passed the Senate 97-1, a massive bipartisan message to the kingdom. Despite an expensive public relations effort, the kingdom was all but declared guilty of conspiracy with al-Qaeda in the worst terrorist attack in American history by both chambers of the Congress.

 Congress has tasked two bipartisan independent investigations to ascertain who was responsible for 9/11. In 2004 and 2015, the studies absolved the government of Saudi Arabia and its officials of any role in the plot and its execution. The kingdom is a vital ally against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump backed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Few, if any, on the Hill read the reports they commissioned.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have rightly responded with astonishment at this frivolous act. Despite many calls for retaliation, so far they have kept their powder dry. When legal proceedings begin, as they will, the Gulf states will be hard pressed to show restraint. 45 will inherit a damaged relationship in January.

The damage of the override will also impact Yemeni diplomacy, unfortunately, because it poisons the atmosphere. Nonetheless, Washington needs to use all its leverage now before the conflict escalates further. The Iranians would be delighted to see America get even more bogged down in another war in the Middle East.
The international community is rightly concerned with the horrific tragedy in Aleppo. But it needs to be equally gripped by the tragedy unfolding in Sanaa, Taiz and Saada. The poorest Arabs are being blockaded by air and sea by the richest with our help. The coalition should unilaterally impose a open-ended cease-fire, allow an international investigation of the funeral bombing and lift the blockade. 

The United States should insist on no less.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Flying IEDs

On Tuesday, French media broke the story that two French soldiers in Erbil had been severely injured and two Peshmerga fighters killed by what appears to be the first successful use of a drone carrying explosives.
At this point, little information is available. The French daily Le Monde reported that “two paratroopers were struck by the booby-trapped drone, sent by a group linked to the Islamic State. The exact circumstances of the attack remain to be specified.” The article also mentions a number of light injuries among other soldiers.

 The drone was most likely commercially available. Regardless, this was an inevitable development. For a while now, civilian drones have appeared on the world’s battlefields, having come full circle: Drones were initially an exclusively military technology, but civilian use has grown exponentially over the last few years, and we are now seeing these systems flown by non-state actors across the world’s hotspots. Both sides in civil wars now use off-the-shelf drones, from Ukrainian separatists to the Iraqi interior ministry. Even Western states are purchasing and using commercially-available platforms, including the Dutch and German navies as well as U.S. Special Operations Command

Le Monde reports that the drone exploded on the ground after having been intercepted by the soldiers. This is a good sign. Despite the tragic casualties, it can be assumed that this has saved lives, although The New York Times now reports that the forces were actually trying to take the system apart when it exploded, not realising it was booby-trapped. Still, it is possible that the interception averted something worse – an explosion in an area with more people, the targeting of a weapons stash, etc.

Advanced military forces have been preparing for this threat. The U.S. military has noted the risk of these crude armed drones in its doctrine and includes these scenarios in training. Counter-drone technology is a big growth sector, according to a Goldman Sachs Investment report, almost 10 percent of U.S. defense research and development funds goes into such systems which range from jamming rifles to lasers to other drones.

 How much of a danger do these drones pose to troops? The media is already going in overdrive about ISIL’s “armed drones.” Technically, the term may be correct – it is a drone that is fitted with armament in the form of explosives – but, at this point, such hand-made systems barely resemble the armed drones used by militaries.

 In fact, the difference between an improvised armed drone and the real thing is much bigger than that between an improvised explosive device and what it tries to emulate, namely a landmine. Whereas a sophisticated IED may cause similar effects as munitions and military platforms, the kind of self-made armed drones we have so far been seeing on the battlefield have very little in common with military armed drones; the range, endurance, and payload of the latter is potentially hundreds or thousands of times higher, not considering the even more important aspects of the underlying infrastructure and the sophistication of sensors and resultant control. 

A Reaper can be loaded with multiple Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs. It stays in the air for the better part of a day while searching for targets through high-end sensors, all while being piloted from halfway around the world. The systems that are now appearing on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria have an endurance of a few hours, carry a maximum payload of a few kilograms, and are controlled by fighters in close proximity who struggle to identify their targets. 

Thus, at least in their current form, these booby-trapped drones should not be considered crude armed drones, but rather flying IEDs. 

Flying IEDs are not a game changer, but they add a level of difficulty to military operations, and they have the potential of making life for deployed troops even more perilous. The rationale of using flying IEDs is similar to using suicide bombers: They can ensure a charge explodes at the most opportune moment to cause the biggest effect. And drones provide non-state groups with airborne capabilities. 

Given that threats from the air have been largely absent in the wars that have occupied Western troops since 9/11, , this adds a new psychological element to drone IEDs, even for veterans with several tours under their belts. We are likely to see a series of action-reaction-counter-reactions as has been the case with the roadside IED: Counter-UAV technology and doctrines will be developed and fielded. Clever insurgents will find a way around them, and then the technology and doctrine will adapt once more.

Flying IEDs will claim lives. In the short term they are unlikely to fundamentally change the fight. In the longer term, however, troops are likely to encounter more sophisticated systems that will be much harder to intercept. Autonomous drone swarms – a scenario the military places much hope in – are likely to eventually also be adapted by non-state actors.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Unhappy Women of Hiz'B'Allah

Heck hath no fury!

As their sons and 'temporary husbands' are ripped from them to fight a proxy war in Syria, grieving mothers and brides of Hiz'B'Allah are compensated with empty promises, poverty, and threats, heightening communal frustrations to the point of explosion.

After the battle of al-Qusayr in 2013, Hezbollah realized the Syrian war was going to cost the party a lot more than it had expected. It would not be able to cover most of the compensation for the families of martyrs. So it started asking single men to put off marriage and family and started to recruit more unmarried young men.

Yet as the war drags on, Hezbollah can no longer stop young men from having families, despite the costs. That is why many are being encouraged to marry war widows, or at least engage in temporary (muta'a) marriages until the time is right.

Because the new recruits are still considered outsiders, the wives of the new recruits have the lowest status, which means that they are worst-off financially, and most vulnerable to the demands of high-status men within the party. A number of women have spoken openly about Hezbollah officials who have threatened them with a reduction of services and money if they don't accept "private visits."

Temporary marriage is not only acceptable, it is promoted as a sacred act that will be rewarded in heaven. By linking the sacred to such practices, Hezbollah has managed to contain its losses and achieve a kind of shaky equilibrium in straitened circumstances.

Women are Hezbollah's main internal problem. 

The war in Syria means they are losing sons, brothers, and husbands. It is marginalizing their role in the party, and pushing the poorest among them to the edge of survival. The pressure that is building within the community cannot be contained for very long by stop-gap measures like delaying marriage for young men and temporary marriage for widows. 

The communal frustration and inequities that the war continues to exacerbate and deepen may soon lead to an explosion that no one will be able to prevent.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

War Crazy

New America Fellow Josh Y has an interesting bit about why cause Russia is totally war crazy...

According to a deeply informed new book on Putin and his court, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” by the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, the idea, as Putin and his speechwriters had imagined it, was to “brand ISIS as the new Third Reich.” Putin envisioned a grand coalition, Zygar writes—just like in the good old days of the Second World War—that would bring Russia out of its isolation; what’s more, Putin seemed to hope that, by “defeating Islamic terrorism, the Russians and Americans would finally succeed in creating a new world order.” It would be Yalta, 1945, all over again—Putin’s dream scenario of how global diplomacy is meant to work.

For a while, things appeared to be going largely Putin’s way. 

 All that has collapsed in the past month. The ceasefire agreement fell apart after U.S. forces killed dozens of Syrian troops in a bombing raid—a mistaken strike, U.S. officials said—and a U.N. humanitarian-aid convoy was hit in an air attack outside Aleppo, leaving twenty people dead. That strike was widely blamed on Syrian attack helicopters working under the cover of Russian airpower. 

In the aftermath of the convoy strike, Kerry declared his interest in seeing Russia and the Syrian government investigated for war crimes for its alleged bombing of civilian areas in Aleppo. The notion that Washington and Moscow could work together to resolve Syria’s horrific war now appears to have been scrapped. At a press conference on September 28th, John Kirby, a State Department spokesperson, warned that Russia’s continued military campaign in Syria could lead to terror attacks in Russian cities and “troops in body bags.” 

Writing in the Financial Times, Dmitri Trenin, the head of Carnegie Moscow Center, a policy think tank, imagined that Syria “could easily turn into a battlefield” between Moscow and Washington, “with the proxies first taking aim at the principals, and the principals then shooting back not at the proxies, but at each other.”

 Last Monday, he cancelled a U.S.-Russian agreement on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium. The program had been functionally dormant for some time, but Putin got rid of it with a flourish, producing a fantasy list of demands—which included the U.S. reducing its military presence in NATO member states, lifting the sanctions imposed over Ukraine, and paying compensation for lost revenue it caused—that would need to be met before the program could be renewed. The absurdity and impossibility was the very point, an unsubtle message to 44: don’t even bother trying to mend this relationship—it’s hopeless. 

 Then, last weekend, Russia delivered nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. It was a purposefully provocative move. The missiles are potentially capable of reaching Berlin, and, more important, they make the defense of NATO member states in the Baltics more difficult for military planners. According to the Russian defense ministry, the country’s military timed the delivery of the missiles to insure that it would be seen by U.S. spy satellites. Even so, these moves might have garnered relatively little attention if not for the fact that the Russian state also appeared to be preparing its citizens for doomsday. On Monday, it was reported that the governor of St. Petersburg signed an order that guaranteed residents of the city three hundred grams of bread per day in the case of war. Then a Russian news site published a report saying that state officials had been advised to bring their relatives—in particular, children studying abroad or parents living elsewhere—back to Russia.

Why has Moscow gone, for lack of a better term, war-crazy?

  Russia obviously sees itself as fighting against U.S. hegemony, but what is it fighting  for? What is its strategic vision for itself and the world? 

  “For Yugoslavia! For Libya! For Syria! For everything you have done these past twenty years!” 

 Putin’s foreign policy at this moment is, in large part, about avenging the wrongs inflicted on Russia over the past decades, the insults and grievances borne by a generation. It may be a tall order to achieve by January 20th of next year.

 But Putin may certainly try.