The U.S. and Syria: After ISIS

It was recently announced that, for the second time in the last twelve months, that significant numbers of U.S. Marines have been deployed in the fight against the Islamic State. The first time was in March of 2016, when around 100 Marines were deployed to an artillery position in northern Iraq to support U.S. backed Iraqi forces in their assault on the city of Mosul, resulting in the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. This month we have word of a second, apparently much larger, deployment of U.S. Marines to Syria. They include members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unity (MEU) who have established an artillery base to provide support for U.S. backed local forces that have recently intensified their focus on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital city.

The Marines are not the only U.S. forces operating in Syria, as they are part of an estimated 400 additional U.S. troops being sent to the country to prepare for the fight to take Raqqa, which could represent one of the most significant and bloody battles of the war to date. In addition to the Marine artillery unit, U.S. Army Rangers have also been deployed to the area, which became apparent recently when they were witnessed driving around the northern Syrian town of Manbij, about 90 miles northwest of Raqqa, in armored vehicles. Additionally, Pentagon officials recently confirmed that American backed militia troops had dealt a blow to IS fighters in Raqqa by taking control of a key route out of the city. The recent addition of hundreds of Army Rangers and Marines represents an estimated doubling of U.S. forces active on the ground in Syria, including hundreds of special forces troops already operating there, all in addition to many more U.S. troops involved in air or drone campaigns in the region.

These are clear signs that things are heating up in Syria and only going to become more intense in the months, if not years, to come. I have little doubt that zealous Islamic State fighters will wage a vicious war in defense of their capital city, the seat of their self declared Caliphate. The large civilian population living under their rule will be deployed, with or without their support, in ways that will make attacking the city as hazardous as possible to the civilian population living there, with the intention of bringing international pressure (for humanitarian reasons) on U.S. backed forces trying to take the city. The Islamic State will no doubt frame any such attack on Raqqa as an American attack, during which they will frame the attackers as “crusaders” attacking Muslims, and they have ruled in the city long enough that it is no stretch to think that at least some of the population living under their rule and extensive influence over the last several years might embrace that narrative in defense of the city or in their cooperation with IS forces. I recall an interview with a British fighter, who had gone to Syria to join the Kurdish forces, for the documentary Frontline Fighting: Battling ISIS, in which the Brit lamented the years of control and influence the Islamic State had had in the region. He made the point that even once the Islamic State is dislodged, there will still be an ideological mess left behind in the minds and hearts of the civilian populations under their control that will need to be cleaned up somehow. Indeed, according to a 2015 ORB International poll, 22% of Syrians (nearly 1 out of 4) support the Islamic State.

The addition of the Marine artillery unit in support of local forces working toward Raqqa is particularly significant. The abilities of modern artillery forces, like those that will be operated by the Marines, will add an extraordinary new punch to the efforts of U.S. backed fighters seeking to retake Raqqa. Consider the comments of the great modern war correspondent Michael Yon, a former Green Beret, who in response to news of the deployment of the Marine artillery units noted the following in a Facebook post:

“Marines take their Big Guns to Syria. ISIS is in for a bad surprise. Our cannon folks are incredibly great shots. If our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan were as good with rockets and mortars, I probably would not be writing this.

Our folks can hit a parked car on the first shot 20 miles away, or using our rockets much farther than that. We have GPS guided rounds that are fantastically accurate, but even without those rounds ISIS is in for a bad surprise when the Marines unpack those cannons.

Keep in mind that cannon fire is not inhibited by many things that can inhibit air support, and cannons are quick. You might have to wait a long time for A-10s to show up, but those cannons can start shooting rain or shine, night and day, within a minute. They can have rounds on target within minutes, and they don’t run out of gas or ammo. That is why the US Army calls artillery the King of Battle. Artillery is bad, bad news. Say prayers, ISIS.”

But there is of course the fear, I assume, that the Islamic State will defend itself by cloaking its fighters among the local civilian population of Raqqa, which U.S. forces will be hesitant to fire on. Although modern U.S. artillery has evolved to the point of having great accuracy, and will be useful for moments when solid intelligence can help target IS leaders, it is still not perfect and there will undoubtedly be civilian casualties resulting from any extensive use of it. Its military effectiveness in going after IS targets will likely be blunted by U.S. leaders seeking to avoid charges of excessive humanitarian indifference to the plight of civilians there, which I assume is what the leaders of the Islamic State desire. So in this sense the civilian population of Raqqa will serve to some degree as human shields for the members of the Islamic State. I am not sure how this will play out, of course, but I can see these issues hindering the effort to take Raqqa from Islamic State die-hards.

Regardless of any delays U.S. backed forces may experience in taking the city of Raqqa, whether it takes only months, or years, it seems likely it will happen eventually.

Of course this will not result in the end of the Islamic State, which is reported to have a significant presence in around 20 countries, most notably in Nigeria, where the murderous Boko Haram has pledged their allegiance, Libya, where thousands of IS fighters have established a presence, and Egypt, where Islamic State fighters are in regular combat with Egyptian forces in the Sinai. As I noted in a recent blog post:

But the problem of the Islamic State is no longer limited to just their territorial possessions in Syria and Iraq. While they have beaten back from their holdings in Iraq, the Islamic State has expanded beyond its borders in Syria and Iraq quite a bit over the last two years. Indeed, they now claim organized militant followers in at least 20 nations, with standing armies in many of them. Most notably, in Libya they claim up to 8000 fighters while in Nigeria (where Boko Haram has pledged their allegiance) they claim forces numbering up to 7000. Yet they also have smaller standing armies in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere. In Egypt, for example, hundreds of government soldiers have been killed engaging Islamic State forces in the Sinai, as Islamic State inspired terrorism has also killed Egyptian state officials and civilians. Such efforts have even reached the Philippines where Abu Sayyaf militants have pledged themselves to the Islamic State. Recently beheading videos of westerners with Islamic State flags displayed in the background have emerged from the Philippines as the separatist group continues to engage in deadly conflict with government forces. In April of 2016, for example, the group slaughtered 18 troops in an ambush that represented the Philippine military’s greatest single day combat loss so far this year.

But in Syria, at least, its presence will have been dealt a significant blow. An important partial means by which an Islamic caliphate could historically claim legitimacy is by having direct authority over a significant landmass, but with the beating back of IS gains in Iraq and Syria that argument is tougher to make, particularly if Raqqa falls.

But a significant problem for the U.S. is, after the fall of the Islamic State in Syria, what comes next?

A recent piece by the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti addressed this issue, suggesting the primary goal of the build-up of U.S. forces in Manbij near Raqqa does not have anything to do with liberating the place from the Islamic State, as Manjib has already been liberated, but rather to “dissuade rival factions from massacring one another….” Indeed, the various rebel groups collectively fighting in Syria for the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s government are often in conflict with each other. Most notably, perhaps, Al-Qaeda linked rebels have clashed with the Islamic State, demonstrating the active engagement of the two major Islamic terrorist groups of the 21st century in Syria and their opposition to each other in all but Assad’s overthrow. But beyond the various Islamic militia forces, which fall under the three major umbrella groups of the Syrian Opposition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Islamic State and their allies, there are other perhaps more significant players for the U.S. to be concerned with, including Turkey and Russia no less, particularly as it relates more immediately to Manbij and, possibly in the near future, Raqqa. As Continetti notes:

One of the factions we are trying to intimidate is none other than the army of Turkey, a NATO member and purported ally. Turkey moved in on Manbij not because of ISIS but because of the Kurds. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish autocrat, opposes one of our Kurdish proxies. He says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has conducted an insurgency against his government for decades. Yet the YPG is also the most effective indigenous anti-ISIS force on the ground. We need it to take Raqqa.

 Things get even more complicated.

Also in Manbij are the Russians, who are helping units of the Syrian army police a group of villages. The Kurds invited them, too, presumably as a separate hedge against Turkey. To keep score: The Americans, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Syrians are all converging on an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States.One needn’t have read The Guns of August to fret about the risks of miscalculation and misinterpretation.

The situation in Syria has been complicated since the civil war there first emerged in 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring. This complexity has in large part been the reason the U.S. has not moved decisively in the region over the last six years, following a very cautious approach under the Obama administration, thereby (in part) allowing for the explosive growth of the Islamic State beyond the region. Worn out by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government has been hesitant to involve itself significantly in another conflict in the Middle East, requiring massive use of U.S. ground forces, which would not likely be popular on the U.S. home front.

Do these recent efforts to double the small number of U.S. ground forces in Syria represent a significant new approach to the conflict promised by the Trump administration? At this point, it is too early to tell, as the total numbers committed to the fight as of right now are still relatively small (perhaps 800 total troops on the ground) in comparison to what we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be interesting to watch how this develops over the coming months, particularly if significant additional U.S. forces or other military assets are moved to the region. It will also be interesting to keep watch on the activities and statements of James Mattis, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense. Nobody in the higher reaches of the Trump administration has as much experience or knowledge of the Middle East as Mattis, a former Marine General with extensive service in the region, and one would hope that his voice is an important one within the Trump administration as it carefully considers its current moves.