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Kobani: A Metaphor For the Contradictions Facing The West

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Nestled on the Turkish border in northern Syria is the city of Kobani, once inhabited by some 50,000 Kurds. Its Syrian name Ayn al-Arab reflects the stateless nature of the Kurds in Assad’s Syria, where they are denied citizenship and any social rights. For the Kurds of Kobani are trapped in Syria, hemmed in by Turkey and under attack by the Islamic State.

Questioned as to why the IS assault was not being stopped, Admiral John Kirby responded,  “Airstrikes alone, are not going to . . . to save the town of Kobani.” However, the bravery and tenacity of its Kurdish fighters, combined with airstrikes have permitted it to hang on. It also proves that the IS is not omnipotent in the face of spirited resistance. Quite the contrary.

The Kurds will fight to the end--the examples of IS making prisoners dig their own graves give no reason for them to think that surrender is an option. The old, infirm or the young are left behind, unable to run; their fates predictable if the city falls.

The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has warned of an impending massacre. So desperate is the projected scenario for Kobani that Mistura has even asked Turkey to permit volunteers to cross the border to fight the IS and failing that, to assist the US-led coalition "through whatever means from their own territory".

Turkey however won’t act alone, and if it does it is only in the context of defeating Assad – an invitation for mission creep. Our goals are fundamentally different. Instead, thousands gather on hills on the Turkish side of the border, spectators to the carnage unfolding below.

The Obama plan, for which airstrikes are only the opening act, is seemingly unable to find regional actors to provide the ground forces on which the very success of his plan to degrade and destroy the IS rests. If Turkey with a 400 kilometer long border--now occupied by the IS--will not act, despite the recommendations of its own high command, there is little likelihood that other, smaller regional Arab nations will.

Whether Kobani falls or not it presents a series of contradictions for everyone--whichever camp they belong to.

Days of airstrikes have blunted the IS advance, thanks to Kurdish resistance, but the aerial campaign is under-resourced. It can degrade the IS, but it cannot provide for the persistent air coverage necessary to do more alone. Already choices are being made whether to direct resources towards Kobani, or to the ISIS danger around Bagdhad. Desert Storm was far better resourced.

Of all the nations contributing to the coalition, most will not fly over Syria; the niceties of international law rooted in the Westphalian notion of states’ rights standing in the way of any responsibility to protect (R2P). Under international law, Syria has not explicitly granted permission for coalition airstrikes against the IS but to seek that authority, would politically for some nations, be seen as siding with or abetting that regime. It is difficult to see how saving Kobani from falling and avoiding yet more thousands of refugees could in any way be argued as helping Assad. On the contrary, allowing the IS to destroy the Kurds physically, only does what Assad’s regime was doing materially.

The same Westphalian niceties prevent the direct arming of the Kurds with more sophisticated weaponry, instead directing arms to the so far invisible Iraqi Army.

And that in a nutshell is what the Kobani metaphor reveals. Airpower alone will not stop the IS without fierce resistance on the ground. And in not attacking the IS in its entirety, meaning both in Syria and in Iraq, by coordinated air and ground offensives, an incoherent piecemeal effect will be the result. The Kurds can hold, but are not large enough or well enough equipped to defeat the IS alone. The Iraqi Army seems to exist in name only. The longer we wait, the more difficult the task of destroying the IS will be.

Hope cannot supplant the glaringly obvious and despite US and western reluctance to intervene with ground forces, only with some western troops committed, will regional partners be enticed join us. If we insist on none of our boots on the ground, why would regional partners volunteer?

As in Gulf War One, aims limited to recapturing territory and destroying ISIS strongholds should be the limit of our military aspirations. We should not be drawn into reconstruction or the reconstitution of government and civil society by military means. Regional actors can do that and deal with wider issues like Syria’s Assad after we're gone.

If not, the goal of all this, the rapid destruction of the IS, will somehow be forgotten, as are the people we are trying to protect; bogged down in a lengthy air campaign and the interminable search for willing partners. We will undoubtedly face the spectre of more Kobanis and the thousands more dead and displaced that will impose.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, and in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

Howard Coombs is a graduate of the United States Army Command and General Staff College, as well as the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He is currently a professor of military history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsKobani RegionsMiddle East

China: Sharpening Swords for War?

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From a realist’s geopolitical perspective, the United States needs to keep eyes on global hot spots with concentrations of power that could adversely affect American national interests.  Of the three geographic centers of global power today, two are engulfed in war while the third is on the war’s precipice.  In Europe, Russia has returned to its quest for global power with its steely paramilitary and military disembowelment of Ukraine.  Moscow’s aggression now looms over other states in Europe, especially the Baltic states and Poland.  In the Middle East, the Islamic State has lurched onto the international scene with a bloody rampage that has torn apart Syria and Iraq.  The Islamic State looks ready is to expand and spill more blood along the borders of Jordan and Turkey and in Kurdish areas in Iraq, notwithstanding the American and international coalition air campaign against the jihadists.

In Asia, China has not yet shed any blood in war.  But a read of Robert Haddick’s new book Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific painstakingly shows through his level-headed, scholarly, and realist analysis that Beijing is sharpening its swords for war while Washington is distracted by chaos elsewhere.  Haddick rightly judges that the United States “acting as an outside balancer, has played the central role in East Asia’s security, a responsibility that has boosted the prosperity of all.  But just like Europe a century ago, it is doubtful that Asia, left on its own, could shape a stable balance of power in the face of China’s dramatic rise.”

Haddick is deliberate and measured and “calls it as he sees it,” which is a tone to be welcomed in the often ideological debates on China’s future in international security.  Nevertheless, with his formidable political-military expertise Haddick makes a damning case that China is wielding astute diplomacy and building-up its military forces to exploit weaknesses in American military force projection capabilities into the Asian theater.  China has diplomatically labored to settle numerous land disputes with neighbors.  As Haddick tallies the diplomatic score, “Since 1998 China settled eleven lingering land border disputes with six of its neighbors, steps that removed security friction from potential overland threats.”  China’s $400 billion deal to buy gas from Russia signed in May 2014 and its economic development agreements signed with India in September 2014 bolster Haddick’s assessment that Beijing is shoring-up relations with land border states.

Settling border disputes allows Beijing to turn and focus its geopolitical attention to the sea.  China is using a paramilitary maritime force to place footholds on disputed islands and assert hegemony in the East and South China Seas.  Haddick observes a disturbing contrast in behavior.  While China has settled land disputes, “it has accelerated its demands for its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.” China is playing a shrewd “salami tactics” game with assertive actions that taken in isolation fall short of cause for war, but collectively and over time significantly expand Chinese influence and coercion in Asia.

China couples its paramilitary maritime operations with a substantial build-up of military power for deterring and attacking American carrier battle groups.  Haddick’s book details that the Chinese are growing land-based and space-based systems for detecting and targeting American battle groups, as well as building surface ships and attack submarines for firing anti-ship cruise missiles.  All of these Chinese naval capabilities are designed to push American naval access beyond some 2,000 km from China’s coastline.  

Chinese military capabilities to deny the United States the ability to operate fixed-wing aircraft add to the formidable threats to American forces in the region.  As Haddick judges, “China’s Flanker fighter-bombers present a particular challenge to the United States and its allies because of their relatively long combat radius.  The Flanker variants have an unrefueled combat radius of at least 1,500 kilometers.  Five of the six U.S. air bases in the western Pacific (two in South Korea, three in Japan) lie within the combat radius of China’s Flankers.”  China’s increasingly sophisticated and thickening air defenses, moreover, significantly increases the potential costs for American aircraft to hold at risk military assets on the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese are unconstrained in building-up their ballistic and cruise missile capabilities as the United States is by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  Washington and Moscow signed the INF Treaty that bans land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.  China is churning out ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to increasingly hold at risk regional airbases that host American short-range fighters.  This is a particularly unnerving situation for the United States because Russia has been violating the terms of the INF Treaty by testing prohibited cruise missiles.

On top of conventional military capabilities to deny American military access, the Chinese are fielding unconventional capabilities to deter American military intervention.  They are broadening their anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities that could be harnessed to disable American command, control, communications, and intelligence.  The Chinese too are modernizing their strategic nuclear forces to include mobile land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles—the likes of which the United States does not have in its nuclear triad—and submarine-based nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.  

The Chinese are resolved to never again be intimidated by American conventional and strategic forces as they were during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.  While that crisis in the minds of American—if they even know about it—was a mere footnote in American security policy history, it was a watershed event for the Chinese.  Haddick judges that “China’s military modernization program, begun in earnest after PLA planners carefully studied the results of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, has been specifically designed to exploit vulnerabilities in U.S. force structure, doctrine, and planning.  Assumptions that U.S. commanders had long taken for granted will no longer be operative by the end of the decade.”  Americans—with our sweeping demands to watch the globe to protect interests—are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition with Chinese who have a tighter basket of security interests upon which they can focus their strategic energies.   

Haddick persuasively rejects an “offshore balancing” strategy for the United States in the Pacific and strenuously argues for a “forward presence.”  In his analysis, “Offshore balancing would not only increase the likelihood that the United States would have to return during a conflict to restore stability (because without a U.S. forward presence, the likelihood of major power conflict rises), the strategy ensures that the U.S. would have to do so under very unfavorable circumstances.”  Haddick hastens to add that “The U.S. forward presence strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is not charity work.  The United States has performed this task for seven decades in order to protect U.S. security, to avert more costly great-power wars that would inevitably involve the United States, and to bolster America’s standard of living by promoting the security and growth of its trading partners in the region.”

Haddick’s assessment of how the American military would fare in battle against this tsunami of growing Chinese military capabilities is devastating.  His analysis should break all the china (pun intended) of American military services whose procurement priorities focus on fighting the last wars.  As Haddick captures the problem, “Simply put, military doctrine, long-ingrained service cultures, and defense acquisition practices have resulted in U.S. military forces that are far too heavily weighted toward short-range weapons systems unsuited for the vast operational distances in East Asia.”  The navy is fixated on increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers.  The air force is preoccupied with short-range and exorbitantly expensive short-range fighters.  The marines are struggling to find the means to mount amphibious assaults in an era in which cruise missiles can sink marines afloat long before they get anywhere close to a beach.  And the army is largely AWOL in thinking about the future of warfare in Asia.

American policymakers and military planners need to rapidly and drastically rethink strategy for Asia, as well as the national means needed to fulfill it.  Haddick calls for “a broad range of persuasive and dissuasive capabilities—diplomatic, economic, and military (irregular and conventional)—designed to convince China’s leaders that they will achieve no gains in the region from coercion.  The strategy will do this by threatening to impose costs, creating resistance to coercive Chinese gains, and holding at risk assets and conditions valued by China’s leaders.” Haddick stresses that his recommended strategy relies on a hefty mix of long-range striking platforms and differs markedly from the navy-air force “Air-Sea Battle” concept because his does not call for first-strikes on China’s reconnaissance and command systems.  Nor does Haddick expect American forward bases to be useful after war breaks out or American surface ships to operate for sustained periods within Chinese ballistic missile ranges.

Fire on the War provides superb political-military analysis unencumbered by the interests of the armed services, national security bureaucracies, and defense industries.  It is an insightful and constructive contribution to better inform American decision-making, policy, military procurement, and, yes indeed, war planning for China.  This book should be placed on the top of the reading stacks for anyone, from informed citizens, to students, faculty, military commanders, and policy makers, who want to get smart fast on the acute challenges for American security policy in Asia.  Above all, Robert Haddick provides a great public and national service by warning those of us distracted by global crises in Europe and the Middle East of China’s strategically impressive and ominous sharpening of political and military swords in Asia.

Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Real Ebola Threat

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West Africa may be at the center of the ongoing Ebola crisis, but the fear of the virus is pan-African. Much of the world sees Ebola as an African problem and Africans are beginning to internalize this perception as well. The continent’s response to the virus is seen domestically and internationally as a litmus test of the capacity and abilities of national governments which are using the crisis as a means to assure their citizens and international partners of their newfound capacities and crisis response potential.

In southern Africa, Zambia was one of the first countries to announce restrictions on travel from the Ebola affected countries in early August. Shortly thereafter, Kenya Airways halted flights to countries at the center of the Ebola epidemic.* South Africa, a major destination of travelers from West Africa, blocked visitors from the affected countries a few weeks later despite advice to the contrary from the World Health Organization. Namibia and Botswana followed suit soon after.

More recently, the continued spread of the virus has started to impact travel within Africa even outside of the Ebola hotspots. In late September, Namibia’s health minister advised Namibian nationals not to visit Zimbabwe due to Ebola fears. Zimbabwean officials in turn have encouraged their citizens to avoid all of West Africa, explicitly requesting that they cancel visits to popular Nigerian preachers.

Delving further into the Zimbabwe example, the Ebola crisis regularly makes headlines in the national press there. The country has adopted stringent Ebola prevention measures; including placing nearly one hundred travelers from West Africa under close observation for twenty-one days. Doctors and nurses have received Ebola training and a forty-bed Ebola treatment center has been established in Harare. Ebola has severely disrupted customary cultural greetings in West Africa and Zimbabwe’s minister of health has similarly advised Zimbabweans to avoid handshakes and other intimate greetings. From HIV testing centers in the high-density township of Chitungwiza, to Africa University near the border with Mozambique, Ebola awareness posters are common across the country, indicating that both the state and its citizens take the disease very seriously.

Despite the precautionary measures, rumors of Ebola deaths at several Zimbabwean hospitals have gained traction. As a result of these fears, there have been major cancellations of reservations in resort towns like Victoria Falls and postponement of public events. Opponents of the governing party have used the disease as a political tool, leveraging that with Zimbabwe’s decaying health infrastructure and susceptibility to diseases like cholera, Ebola is positioned to devastate the country.

Following successful containment efforts in Nigeria and Senegal, Ebola now appears to be confined to the countries of the Mano River Basin. However, the inadequate conditions that allowed the disease to spread in those countries can be found across the continent. Citizens of countries like Zimbabwe, vividly remember similar failings of their governments to contain impending disasters, such as the initial voices of dissent from war veterans that culminated in the violent appropriation of farmland and hyperinflation. For much of the world, Africa is seen as a monolithic block, and Ebola perceptions will tarnish the whole continent, not only the countries where people are suffering from the virus.

Despite previous failings, authorities in Zimbabwe are demonstrating a significant commitment to ensure that the virus does not penetrate their borders. As the embarrassing American response to a case of Ebola in Texas shows, response to the unprecedented outbreak is not easy. While Ebola has sparked panic across Africa, its states are engaged in major efforts to limit the impact of the virus. Some countries are better equipped to respond to the crisis than others – these efforts, combined with international assistance, are critical to ensure that the virus is defeated and that the destruction it causes, both physical and reputational, is minimal.

* There have been recent indications that many regional flights to the countries most severely impacted by the Ebola crisis in West Africa will soon resume.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s Africa in Transition blog here.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdcglobal/14723720857/sizes/lImage: Flickr. 

TopicsEbola RegionsAfrica

Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles: A New Weapon for America and its Allies in Asia?

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has developed an impressive array of land-based anti-ship missile systems, which are part of a robust sea-denial capability. That growing capability is forcing the United States (US) and Australia to rethink Pacific strategy. Some are now asking why the US, and Australia for that matter, have no land-based anti-ship missile systems in their inventory. After all, we want to be able to do sea denial in Asia as well. So, should we be developing our own?

Both the US and Australia have other anti-ship systems in their arsenal of air and sea-launched weapons. But there’s a real prospect that land-based systems would pay operational and strategic dividends. That’s a view that has also been recently expressed by members of the US Congress, think tanks, and scholars.

Some definitions are helpful here: sea denial is the ability to deny or prevent an adversary from operating in an area of the sea. On the other hand, sea control is the ability to operate freely in a maritime area while preventing adversaries from doing the same. Sea control requires that you have sea denial, but also that you can prevent an adversary from exercising effective sea denial over the same area. For years, sea control has required the integration of air and sea power. Though land-based systems alone can provide only sea denial and not sea control, the joint integration of land-, sea-, and air-based systems would be a powerful tool in gaining and maintaining sea control, especially in littoral regions.

The development of China’s maritime-denial missile capabilities puts enormous pressure on the US and its allies in the Western Pacific. Gone are the days of having the capability to impose sea control just about anywhere. Furthermore, China’s carrier, aircraft, and submarine programs suggest a desire in Beijing for some measure of sea control and power projection in the future—in the current context of strategic rivalry, which indicates a serious challenge to the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether this challenge manifests itself peacefully or violently will depend in part on how the US and its allies employ military power across all domains.

The three strongest arguments for land-based systems can be categorized as lower escalation risk, strategic flexibility, and mitigation of platform vulnerability.

Land-based systems, especially if they are mobile, deployable and of limited range, (like Japan’s type 88s) will provide leaders with a denial option that is less threatening and so less prone to escalation. That point is made effectively by naval strategists Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes. Simply put, deploying a carrier group or air assets in response to actions involving territorial disputes may threaten the sovereign territory and vital interests of an adversary. Using anti-ship missiles to impose only sea-denial in a disputed area of operations is inherently defensive and less threatening, which gives leaders the option to demonstrate resolve in protecting economic exclusion zones and littoral regions without directly threatening undisputed sovereign territory. Choosing land-based anti-ship systems as a flexible deterrent option increases opportunities for peaceful resolution.

Deployable and non-deployable (fixed) land-based systems also would allow the US and Australia to maximize the power of their existing sea-control assets in a conflict by providing strategic and operational flexibility. By using deployable land-based systems in littoral regions and fixed systems at key choke points along sea lines of communication, allied leaders could then surge air and sea power to more critical and decisive regions.

Perhaps the most compelling argument is that it’s becoming harder to ensure the survivability of platforms (with the relative exception of submarines) against a capable adversary. Air-Sea Battle, with all the risks that it entails, appears in part intended to provide an environment where US carriers can survive in a conflict in the Western Pacific. The high cost per unit of fifth-generation aircraft (the F-22 and to a lesser extent the F-35) is also a result of the great challenge of keeping them flying till they can successfully launch their weapons, and hopefully return home. By contrast, hardening fixed missile sites is likely to provide inexpensive survivability for land-based systems.

There are still many questions ahead in the research concerning ground-based systems. For example, developing those weapons may require withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That treaty limits ground-based missile systems to a range of less than 499km, or more than 5,500. But the US alleges Russia has already violated the treaty. And, of course China was never a signatory, so its current systems are unhindered by the treaty’s provisions. Additionally, the defense community must weigh the advantages of hardened and fixed systems versus mobile and deployable ones. Finally, other characteristics, including speed, range, and targeting systems, require consideration and analysis.

While there are challenges, any capability which preserves or enhances allied capacity to deny the Western Pacific and reduces the risks to (and our dependence on) carrier-based air-power would have to be extremely expensive not to merit further investigation. (ASPI has initiated research on the subject so watch this space for further publications and analysis.) Land-based anti-ship missiles could easily have a larger role in underpinning America’s position in Asia, and that means they’re important to Australia’s strategists and policymakers.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. The views expressed in this post are his own. Harry White is an analyst at ASPI where this piece first appeared

Image: Creative Commons License. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Ten Fascinating Facts About China's President Xi Jinping

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A friend recently dropped off a hot-off-the-press copy of Xi Jinping: The Goverance of China. It is a compilation of speeches, main points of speeches, pictures, interviews, and a biographical sketch of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Several different parts of the Chinese government bureaucracy participated in producing the book, which runs more than 500 pages. While I can’t do justice to all the material presented, here are some things I learned from reading through Xi’s musings and the musings of others about him.

Xi loves the classics:

Although many of Xi’s speeches suffer from the same tedious socialist rhetoric that characterized those of his predecessors, Xi often enlivens his remarks with sayings from Chinese philosophers. When discussing the development of Chinese youth, for example, he reflects, “Learning is the bow, while competence is the arrow” and “Virtue uplifts, while vice debases” (55-57). Indeed, in a speech before professors and students at Peking University, Xi relates at least forty different quotations from ancient Chinese thinkers (185-199). No one says it better than an ancient Chinese philosopher.

 

Xi is a true believer—but only in the Communist Party:

Indeed, the Chinese president has no kind words for officials who “worship Buddha”; seek “god’s advice for solving their problems”; “perform their duties in a muddle-headed manner”; “yearn for Western social systems and values”; “lose their confidence in the future of socialism”; or “adopt an equivocal attitude towards political provocations against the leadership of the CPC” (463-464). He may have a revelation later in life, but for now there is no room at the Inn.

Xi never lets you see him sweat:

Xi does not whine. Although he states that he spends all his private time on his work, he doesn’t complain. Instead he simply says: “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state, I must put them above everything else, bear in mind my responsibilities that are as weighty as Mount Tai, always worry about the people’s security and well-being, and work conscientiously day and night; share the same feelings with the people, share both good and bad times with them, and work in concerted efforts with them” (114). Xi’s life in pictures similarly suggests someone who is calm, in control, and generally enjoying serving as president. Either he is constitutionally better suited to being president of a large power than most recent U.S. presidents or he just has a better public relations team.

Xi plays to win:

Xi has the soul of a competitor. In discussing his desire for China to become an innovation nation, Xi clearly is unhappy with China’s second-tier status, stating: “We cannot always decorate our tomorrow with others’ yesterdays. We cannot always rely on others’ scientific and technological achievements for our own progress.” The answer for him rests overwhelmingly in indigenous innovation: “Most importantly, we should unswervingly follow an independent innovation path featuring Chinese characteristics…. Only by holding key technology in our own hands can we really take the initiative in competition and development, and ensure our economic security, national security, and security in other areas.” He concludes: “Scientific and technological competition is like short-track speed skating. When we speed up, so will others. Those who can skate faster and maintain a high speed longer will win the title” (135-136).

How did I get here anyway?:

While Xi may enjoy being president of China, he may not quite understand how he got there, claiming “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state…” (114).

What you see is what you get:

While it is possible that there is an alternative Xi Jinping lurking beyond these 500 pages, there is remarkable consistency in the ideas and values that he espouses through his speeches and his actions. Morality, virtue, and responsibility to the people, for example, emerge as consistent themes in his discussions of the necessary qualities for Chinese officials. His efforts to streamline the bureaucracy, understand the needs of the people, and ensure proper oversight of Party officials are also hallmarks of Xi’s long tenure as a Communist Party official.

Almost there but not quite…:

Xi’s musings on soft power suggest some remaining confusion about how it all works. While he calls for bringing back to life “relics sleeping in closed palaces, legacies of the vast land of China and records in ancient books”—all of which would serve Chinese soft power desires—he nonetheless holds fast to the CCP’s traditional—if misguided—approach to soft power: “To strengthen our cultural soft power, we should intensify our international right of speech, enhance our capability of international communication, and spare no efforts in establishing a system for international speech to tell, in the right way, the true story of our country…. we should also enhance education in patriotism, collectivism and socialism through school, film, and television to help our people build up and persist in a correct concept of history, national viewpoint, state outlook and cultural perspective, so as to fortify the will of the Chinese people, who should be prouder of being Chinese” (180).

Lei Feng lives:

No biographical sketch of a senior Chinese official can ignore the opportunity to honor the (possibly apocryphal) model communist citizen Lei Feng by embracing his superhuman work ethic and devotion to the ideals of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping is no exception. When as a teenager Xi was sent down to a small village in Shaanxi Province during the Cultural Revolution, for example, he was “able to walk for 5 km on a mountainous path with two dangling baskets filled with almost one hundred kg of wheat on a shoulder-pole.” He also exchanged a motorized tricycle he won after being named a model educated youth for a “walking tractor, a flour milling machine, a wheat winnowing machine, and a water pump to benefit the villagers” (480).

A man of letters:

Xi talks about reading as one of his favorite pastimes—in fact the only one for which he still has time—and he is apparently a fan of Russian literature. Impressively, he can reel off more than ten different favorite Russian authors, including Gogol—whose writings must resonate with him as he tries to clean up corruption in the Chinese bureaucracy. Of course, he expressed his affection for Russian literature in an interview with a Russian television, so he may have been simply playing to the home crowd (114). Still in the village to which he was sent during the Cultural Revolution (note: the Cultural Revolution is not actually identified as such in the book), the local people remember him as “reading books as thick as bricks while herding sheep on mountain slopes or under a kerosene lamp at night” (480).

I have a dream:

Xi Jinping’s China dream looks set to become one of the defining elements of his tenure as Chinese president. It represents patriotism, innovation, and unity. “One can do well only when one’s country and nation do well.” For Xi, Chinese everywhere should contribute to realizing the China dream: “For Chinese people both at home and abroad, a united Chinese nation is our shared root, the profound Chinese culture is our shared soul, and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is our shared dream” (p. 69). And Taiwan should get ready as well. As Xi says, “Sooner or later we will have to resolve the political disputes that have long existed in cross-Straits relations rather than leave them to later generations” (254).

This piece first appeared in CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsChina

Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

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On September 10, President Barak Obama announced that he had ordered the United States military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State (known as ISIS and ISIL).  He said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”  Many well-known former US officials, both Democrat and Republican, were quick to share their opinions regarding how the President’s plan might be adjusted to ensure success.  The recommendations offered by a number of these senior officials, however, exposes a troubling lack of understanding of critical on-the-ground fundamentals and an almost disregard for a decade’s worth of physical evidence.  If this advice were to be acted upon in the future, the current bad situation could deteriorate into disaster.

One week after the speech, former Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced his disapproval of the President’s vow that the mission would not result in American “boots on the ground.”  The reality, he said on CBS This Morning, is that “they're not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own…  So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”  Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, shared a very different opinion about the use of ground troops.

On September 23 he told a CNN audience he believed the mission would require “an extended involvement with air power and with providing intelligence and other institutional support to the people who are fighting ISIS… I actually think in this case the…strategy has a chance to succeed…  We don't need to be there on the ground and I don't think it means a land war in Iraq."  There was one important point on which both men agreed: both maintained the mission could succeed if President Obama would only follow their advice.  Current conditions in the region and an analysis of numerous wars and battles over the past two decades, however, suggest that both are wrong.

Consider a few critical facts regarding the situation with ISIS before US airstrikes began.  Many of the members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have a decade or more experience in fighting insurgent and guerilla warfare.  As most know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has fought against the US in Iraq since 2003.  al-Baghdadi and his men are well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of American air power, and critically, how to survive it by burrowing deeper into civilian areas.

Further, and of greater significance to the current situation, since 9/11 there has been no location in the world where modern air power – even when complemented with hundreds of thousands of ground troops – has militarily defeated a committed insurgent enemy.  The list is long and painful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and others.

Many in recent months have argued that the 2007 surge in Iraq “set the conditions” for success in Iraq, but the Obama Administration’s inability to keep 10,000 US troops there after 2011 was, as former Army General Jack Keane recently said, “an absolute strategic failure.” Such claims, however, do not stand up to examination.  An analysis of the 2007 Iraq surge and scrutiny of the current situation in Afghanistan explains why this claim is dubious at best.

In combination with the tactical cooperation of Sunni tribes, the 2007 Iraq surge succeeded in reducing the violence by the near-destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  But as has been well chronicled in recent weeks, AQI wasn’t destroyed.  It merely limped off to reform itself, learned from its mistakes, and renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  In 2013 ISI moved across the border into Syria to fight in the civil war, changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by February of this year launched an offensive, eventually capturing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

As I explained in a 2010 analysis, however, it wasn’t primarily the 20,000 additional ground troops the US sent to Baghdad that dramatically reduced the violence.  Then-Colonel Sean MacFarland was the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division said, “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause… But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

Even as most Western eyes were riveted on events in Iraq this summer, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly.  In a 1 October 2014 report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman assessed the current situation in Afghanistan:  “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” he wrote.  “The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present US approach to Transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic, and governance levels.”

The Taliban has made these troubling gains despite the fact that, according to official NATO figures, as of September 3 there were still 28,970 American troops in Afghanistan (and a total of 41,124 NATO troops).  It is unclear upon what logic some claim that 10,000 Americans in Baghdad would have prevented ISIS from rising, when over 40,000 NATO troops and approximately 350,000 Afghan National Army troops have proven unable to prevent the Taliban from rising.

So long as an insurgent force is willing to die for their cause and the population is unwilling to turn against them, it could take more than a decade before one side or the other – or both – are exhausted to the point a negotiated settlement ends the fighting.  The ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria still has yet to reach even stasis, as illustrated by recent gains in northern Syria at Kobani and in eastern Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad.  This extension of territory has come despite now weeks of US and allied airpower.  These gains provide stark evidence of why former President Clinton’s strategic advice of using indigenous ground troops with allied air power cannot succeed: whether it’s been the rebels in Syria, the Peshmerga in Kurdish areas, or Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, all have proven incapable of standing firm.

I have served a total of four combat deployments in my career.  In 2009 I served as a military trainer for an Iraqi border battalion, and in 2011 on the ground throughout Afghanistan.  It is my opinion, based on all the available evidence and my own experience that if the United States follows the recommendations of either President Clinton or Secretary Gates, mission failure is the most likely outcome.

If using American air power in conjunction with unsuccessful and untrained ground fighters is likely to fail, and sending in highly trained US ground troops would likely result in a long term, bloody, and ultimately inclusive outcome, what options exist?

It is paramount that the United States set strategic objectives that can be reasonably attained.  In this current messy environment, I would recommend that the US repurpose its allied airpower to the establishment of a no-go zone some number of kilometers around all ISIS-controlled areas for the purpose of isolating ISIS and pinning it to its current territory; any ISIS forces or military vehicles that enter the zone without permission would be destroyed.  This no-go zone would be established via coordination with the US, Baghdad, and Ankara.  The Syrian regime would be informed of the location of the no-go zone in the northeastern part of their country and warned to keep their air force and ground troops from interfering or suffer a blistering coalition attack.

We would put diplomatic pressure on all the nations that border ISIS areas to effectively, aggressively control all effective logistic routes into and out of ISIS territory.  If there is a theoretical danger to the United States of ISIS-sponsored terror strikes, it is important to note the nations in and around ISIS territory face a far greater, direct threat.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular should deploy considerable numbers of ground troops at their borders to seal it so ISIS is unable to get sufficient amounts of the war-making material they need.  We might also encourage Baghdad and Riyadh to consider bolstering Iraqi troops with limited Saudi ground forces if it appears Iraq cannot adequately defend its capital city with its own troops.

Part of our diplomatic efforts should center on requiring the regional nations with the most to lose by a successful ISIS to put more skin in the game.  It appears some nations are content to let the United States expend its resources, spill its blood, in the defense of their national and regional interests.  The United States can provide the leadership and spearhead the establishment of the no-go zone, but we should insist the regional powers provide the ground troops necessary to enforce the zone and stabilize the current forward lines of contact."

Furthermore, we should increase our economic pressure on ISIS by aggressively seeking out all who do business with them and place uncomfortable pressure, if necessary, on such entities to sever ties with it.

As President Obama has already pledged, we should combine an aggressive and honest counter-social media campaign with robust Arab-led humanitarian support for all civil populations under ISIS domination for the purpose of demonstrating our support for the people.

At the same time, the United States should do more than merely ask Baghdad to form a more inclusive government; we must insist upon it.  If the United States is willing to expend its treasure, resources, and potentially blood in defense of Iraqi sovereignty (again), we must condition support on specified political developments; if ever the Sunni population in occupied areas are to turn against ISIS, they will have to be convinced Baghdad would not again abuse and marginalize them.

The ISIS fighters and leadership, meanwhile, will be denied the ability to fight their opponents on their terms.  Instead, if they venture out into the no-go zones, they will be destroyed on our terms.  As has already begun to occur, in time ISIS itself will so alienate the people under their domination – as well as some among their own group – that they lose the support or acquiescence of the local populations.  If ISIS loses the security of a pliant population and the people concurrently begin to believe their legitimate government is genuinely going to look out for their interests and give them freedoms and protections promised, ISIS’ support will eventually collapse.

It is crucial that the United States and regional nations not merely “service targets” from the air but actively seek to reduce the underlying causes of instability.  If we fail to do so, then even if by some miracle we eventually succeeded in militarily destroying ISIS, it would be a pyric victory: there would be no shortage of other groups ready and willing to take their place.  We must end the cycle of violence by applying comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic and social measures; military power has a role to play, but if the intent is to resolve the instability, military must take a subordinate role.

There has been so much damage, so many deaths, so much anguish suffered by so many, over such a long time that at this point even the best solution would require years of consistent application to bring general stability to Iraq and the Middle East at large.  But we must avoid choosing courses of action that analysis and evidence clearly indicate will likely fail.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the US Army.  He has deployed into combat zones four times, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm, and in 2012 was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

The opinions contained in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

Nuclear North Korea's Next Nightmare: A Succession Crisis?

The Buzz

Kim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance recently brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong-un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing “discomfort.” Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong-un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humor that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a “nine-millimeter headache.”

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong-un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a “grand bargain” about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the “Where’s Wally?” framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

The Air War Against ISIS: The Deciding Factor

The Buzz

On the first night of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, U.S. warplanes were not alone. They were accompanied by several others in the anti-ISIS coalition, including fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a big deal.

Over several decades, the United States has provided advanced equipment and world-class training for partner nations, including the five mentioned above. These investments have been controversial at times, but now they are having significant payoffs. The continued participation of Middle Eastern states in anti-ISIS operations is crucial for their long-term success, and it has far-reaching implications for U.S. leadership throughout the world.

With U.S. help, these air forces have made tremendous progress. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have purchased very capable aircraft from the United States. UAE F-16s, for example, are superior in many respects to the United States’ legacy F-16s. In addition to providing advanced equipment, the United States has encouraged participation in the most realistic training exercises, including the flagship Red Flag exercise in Nevada (where I had the opportunity to observe U.A.E. training personally).

Another major development is the Gulf Air Warfare Center in U.A.E., which has grown steadily since its establishment in 2000 to become a leader in tactical training. Its “Iron Falcon”exercise comes complete with dedicated aircraft that act as the enemy, excellent planning and briefing facilities, and tracking and debriefing technology that allows the participants to visualize how the battle unfolded—and identify what they could do better.

The payoff for these investments came last month when Middle Eastern air forces participated in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. As a U.S. Air Force weapons and tactics instructor, I have helped to plan numerous raids and strikes similar to this one. Prior to my experiences with partner nations at Red Flag, I would have argued against having them participate on a first-night strike where precise execution is critical for both safety and mission accomplishment. I simply would not have trusted the Middle Eastern air forces to be where they were supposed to be.

My opinion of them changed as I watched their growth in realistic training scenarios. These air forces prepared well in peacetime, and when war came, they were ready. They have acquitted themselves well against ISIS, and their performance shows how much progress they have made since partnering with the United States.

Solid tactics cannot win wars in the absence of good strategy; this is another reason why these nations’ participation is critical. If we are to “destroy” ISIS, it will not be accomplished with military power. Instead, the ideology that fuels ISIS must be soundly rejected by people around the world, and most importantly, it must be disavowed by Sunnis in the Middle East. Having adherents of Sunni Islam participate in attacking ISIS sends a powerful message to the rest of the Sunni world that the teachings of ISIS are flat wrong. It also sent a message to others that Middle Eastern countries are willing to stand against ISIS, making it much more palatable to join a coalition that has now grown to over forty members.

As they participate in operations against ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are also sending a very important message to Iran, their neighbor across the Gulf. These countries now have very credible air defenses—in many ways superior to Iran’s—that are interoperable with western countries such as the United States and France, as well as with each other. This creates a powerful balancing effect in the Gulf, one that works to stabilize the world economy.

This success also enhances U.S. credibility with our allies and potential partners. As we look forward to an increasingly interconnected world where instability in far-flung places can have global implications, developing effective partnerships is crucial, because the United States cannot be everywhere all the time. Over years of building partnerships around the globe, we have proven that the U.S. is a good “friend.” This year, U.S. Airmen have helped to increase the capabilities of air forces around the globe, including in exercises such as Max Thunder in Korea, Commando Sling and Pitch Black in Australia, Red Flag-Alaska in the Pacific, and the Tactical Leadership Program in NATO. In addition, the main Red Flag program in Nevada continues to host our partners. These programs have developed positive momentum, and they are working well.

Finally, several press reports highlighted the fact that the UAE flight leader on the first night of airstrikes was female. This brings up a more subtle point: it is not inconsequential that UAE military leaders have watched female fighter pilots from the United States perform on an equal level with their male counterparts in demanding training scenarios. Every time a member of the U.S. military interacts with our partners, it provides an opportunity to influence them for good. Our people provide living examples of how a professional military can show deference to civilian leaders, provide opportunities for its members, and treat all with dignity and respect. This potent combination of hard and soft power works to lift up others, which is both in our self interest and the right thing to do. We need to keep doing it.

Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Defense in Depth here

TopicsISIS RegionsUnited States

America's Real Pivot: Time For a Treaty Alliance With Vietnam?

The Buzz

Last week, after the Obama administration’s decision to begin selling Vietnam limited amounts of lethal arms, a shift in the policy that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, I noted in a blog post that I believed the administration had made the right move, despite Vietnam’s serious—and worsening—rights abuses. Administration officials note that any further lethal arms sales, and closer relations with Vietnam and the Vietnamese military, will be contingent on Vietnam making progress in tolerating dissent of all types. Indeed, according to a report on the lethal arms sales in the New York Times:

The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems and asserted that the decision reflected modest improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

I actually don’t think that there is any evidence of improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record at all in recent years; this is just a convenient fiction to placate those in Congress who are opposed to selling lethal arms because of Hanoi’s rights record. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s own annual country report on Vietnam notes no real improvements in human rights in the past year, and summarizes the situation in Vietnam by saying that “the most significant human rights problems in the country continued to be severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government; increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties; and corruption in the judicial system and police.”

Still, although I think that overall the administration has badly ignored human rights and democracy promotion in its strategy of re-engagement with Southeast Asia, I think Washington needs to build much closer ties with Vietnam no matter the country’s rights record. I am hardly a realist, but this is one time realpolitik should win out. For one, boosting lethal arms sales may help position the pro-United States faction with the Vietnamese leadership to gain strength vis-à-vis the more pro-China faction in the leadership. Several Vietnamese academics and officials say that the pro-China faction in Vietnam’s leadership is already on its heels, due to increasing China-Vietnam conflict over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

More specifically, the United States should build on its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and work toward a formal treaty alliance with Hanoi. Besides ending the ban on selling lethal arms to Vietnam, the United States should work toward expanding access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay, expanding training programs for senior Vietnamese officers, and institutionalizing the annual United States–Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, ensuring that the secretary of defense and his Vietnamese counterpart participates in the strategic dialogue annually.

Working toward a treaty alliance with Vietnam would be central to maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and finding new ports and potential forward operating bases for the U.S. military as domestic political concerns in Japan and Thailand threaten military relationships with these states. For Vietnam, closer ties with the United States would allow the Vietnamese military to rapidly upgrade its equipment, would ensure close trade relations with Washington, and would provide the kind of security against an assertive China that, it appears, ASEAN could never offer.

Let’s drop the false rationale of an improving human rights record in Vietnam and call this relationship what it is: a strategic partnership that could be critical to both countries’ interests in Asia.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Department of Defense Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Turkey's Crucial Role in America's Campaign against ISIL

The Buzz

Two months ago, a medium-sized Yazidi village in Iraq called Sinjar was in desperate need of help. Surrounded and besieged by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—a group that explicitly stated its intention to destroy those who practice the Yazidi faith—tens of thousands of men, women and children vacated their homes for a remote, dry and uninhabitable mountain range. Under siege with nowhere to go, thousands of men, women and children were forced to endure the hardship of living without food, water and shelter for days on end. Old men were starving to death, young children were dying of thirst and for the first time in a very long time, there was the possibility of an act of genocide occurring right under the world’s nose.

Thankfully for those Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the United States took notice of their dire humanitarian plight. On August 7, in the State Dining Room at the White House, President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium and explained to the American people in a prime-time speech why the United States could not allow such a barbaric group of people to succeed in killing innocent civilians simply because of their faith. “When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The situation was eventually resolved: U.S. air strikes bombarded ISIL positions on the foot of the mountain, opening up a humanitarian corridor that allowed thousands of civilians to escape the horrendous conditions in which they were living. That act would come to represent the opening salvo of a broader and more comprehensive U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State group—as of August 8, over 400 air strikes have hit hundreds of ISIL targets, from artillery pieces and ISIL formations to armed vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons. A broad coalition of European partners has since joined the United States to conduct operations of its own.

If “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State within the borders of Iraq is hard, doing the same in Syria is harder. Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. airpower can be matched with forces on the ground like the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, allies in Syria are in short supply. It will take an estimated twelve months for the training and equipping program established in Saudi Arabia to churn out the first batch of moderate Syrian fighters (which will number 5,000), and according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby, the vetting hasn’t even begun yet. Elements of the Free Syrian Army who are already on the ground wedged between Assad forces and ISIL are angry and bewildered as to why the United States is not coordinating the air campaign with them. The fact that the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane is about to fall into the hands of ISIL, despite nearly eleven air strikes around the town in a 36-hour period serves as a perfect microcosm to the challenges and inherent flaws in Washington’s counterterrorism strategy in Syria: that is, without allies on the ground that can be trusted and are equipped with the weapons they need, air strikes will be limited to creating breathing space for fighters that are locked into their positions and unable to move.

Blaming America first is easy to do in this context. It is the United States, after all, that effectively drew up the campaign plan against ISIL, assembled the sixty-nation coalition and devoted far more combat aircraft, personnel and military resources to the fight than any other country. But that in and of itself is a significant problem, for it shows that despite claims from the Obama administration about the impressive breadth of the anti-ISIL coalition, its durability is severely tested by nations who are either unable or unwilling to do their share.

Turkey, a country that has the second biggest army in all of NATO, is perhaps the most critical player in the U.S.-led coalition. Yet, instead of President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu doing what they pledged to do publicly, both men are reticent of using Turkish troops and artillery to push ISIL back from their own border. It was Davutoglu himself who declared that Turkey “will do whatever we can so that Kobane does not fall,” and yet the reality is far different: Turkish tanks, standing by, watching ISIL creep even closer to the center of Kobane without doing anything about it. Turkish leaders, like Davutoglu, are also choosing to complain about what is not happening (like a no-fly zone inside Syria), rather than using Turkey’s considerable resources to improve what is. It’s a divergence between words and deeds that is beginning to upset Washington. As one anonymous U.S. official confided to The New York Times, “[t]his isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

What once looked like an air campaign that was effectively diminishing the command-and-control and financial capability of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, now looks like a campaign, two months in, that is impeded by a lack of ground troops in Syria and a set of supposed allies that are not buying into what the United States is trying to accomplish. Every military campaign has its troubles and pitfalls along the way—the question is whether the United States will convince its regional allies, like Turkey, to act on their pledges.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary Strategy RegionsIraqSyriaUnited StatesTurkey

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