Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘The West’s War Against Islamic State: Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria and Iraq’

On the 29th of June 2014 ISIS declared the establishment of a caliphate stretching across territories in Iraq and Syria. In response, Operation Inherent Resolve, a U.S.-led 77 nation coalition, was launched to respond to the threat of Islamic State. “The West’s War Against Islamic State” offers the first history of Operation Inherent Resolve and the West’s war against ISIS, from its inception in 2014 to the fall of Raqqa in 2017.

Andrew Mumford offers a comprehensive analysis and assessment of the military campaign deployed against ISIS in Syria and Iraq by examining the West’s strategic objectives as well as the conflicting interests of rival powers, namely Russia, Iran and Turkey. By examining individual operational components of this military engagement such as drone usage, cyber warfare, special forces operations and sponsorship of guerrilla forces, this book offers a unique insight into the nature of modern warfare.

EVALUATING OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE

Amidst the chaos of the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq in 2011, the insurgent group Al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Having used its paramilitary force to take control of territory across both nations in the subsequent years, ISIS declared the foundation of a caliphate stretching across 423 miles of Iraq and Syria on 29 June 2014. In response a 74-nation Global Coalition was formed in September 2014, a few months after ISIS announced its caliphate. This coalition became the umbrella organisation that would support the US-led Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), established in October 2014 to co-ordinate the multi-national response to the ISIS threat.

At its zenith in 2015, ISIS governed over 11 million people with an income equivalent to the gross domestic product of Lichtenstein. But the proxy ground forces supported under the auspices of Operation Inherent Resolve forced a constriction of the territory under ISIS control by retaking key cities and swathes of land by rival militias and Iraqi and Syrian armed forces. ISIS underwent a 23% reduction of its territorial space in 2016 (leaving 60,400 sq km under its control), down to just 20 sq km left by the end of 2018 - a loss equivalent to going from the landmass of the United Kingdom to that of downtown Manhattan.

Understanding Operation Inherent Resolve allows us to go some way towards understanding how by the second decade of the twenty-first century Western political perceptions of risk management had become ubiquitous. It reveals how the long shadow cast by the 2003 invasion of Iraq still hung over Western willingness to militarily engage in large-scale warfare with an irregular enemy. It reveals a strategic preference for a mix of limited kinetic action (lower risk air strikes and an increasing reliance of Special Operations Forces [SOF]) and a dependence on proxies to take the fight to ISIS on the ground. The result was an uncomfortable strategic premise for Operation Inherent Resolve – defeat ISIS but without expending too much conventional force whilst displacing the highest kinetic risk to others.

Two key, intertwined weaknesses fundamentally undermined Operation Inherent Resolve. The first weakness was a lack of a political vision for post-ISIS Syria. Bashar al-Assad still remains in Damascus, even if ISIS has been largely purged. The fate of this leader and that group are inextricably linked. The West’s response to Assad’s actions during the Syrian civil war which began in 2011 coloured their actions in relation to the rise of ISIS in 2014. Assad’s astute self-characterisation as a lynchpin in the war against ISIS transformed him into a de facto ally and ultimately preserved his own regime – but at the price of the West being unable to offer an effective counter-narrative to the Syrian people living under the control of ISIS.

The second weakness was the fact that the ghost of Operation Iraqi Freedom roamed Banquo-like through the corridors of Operation Inherent Resolve policy planning. The massive blowback resulting from the removal of Saddam Hussein – the creation of a huge security vacuum in which jihadist groups could proliferate – caused a quantum shift in opinion in Washington, and the West more widely, that regime-changing wars that put large numbers of Western troops in Middle Eastern countries were politically disastrous, financially unviable, and militarily unrewarding. Assad got to stay precisely because Saddam had gone. A major legacy of the Iraq War has been an intrinsic aversion – clearly fostered in the politically diverse figures of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump – towards large-scale military interventions that would be costly in blood and treasure. The dilemma facing the West with the rise of ISIS was therefore: how do we attain the objective of minimising our exposure to risk whilst simultaneously reducing the threat of the group? The result was a strategy that offered leadership but not ownership of the problem.

Unsurprisingly a strategy based on political compromise has ultimately only produced partial success. ISIS has been degraded but not destroyed. The self-declared caliphate may have been rolled up, but the threat from the group will evolve, be it through inspiring affiliates to attack targets in the West or through territorial expansion in its wilayets (provinces) where it has a presence. This is a reflection of a strategy that was never truly designed to be capable of destroying ISIS given the mitigation of risk adhered to by leading members of the coalition. When assessing the strategic outcome of Operation Inherent Resolve, much of the explanation lies in understanding its strategic design. This was a campaign built around minimal kinetic exposure in the hope of gaining maximum possible effect via proxy forces. It also owes as much to ISIS’s own internal deficiencies and tactical errors as it does to any stroke of coalition strategic genius.

Responding to the millenarian ideology of ISIS that inspired brutal acts of individual violence and societal repression was never going to be easy. The general desire to ‘do something’ was stronger than the specific vision of what that something should be. Operation Inherent Resolve is symbolic of the coalition-based war-fighting approach that has now become representative of Western uses of force in the twenty-first century (building on the NATO-based mission in Afghanistan and the informal, albeit more controversial, ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq). There was a clear disparity of effort among coalition members, but this is as much a by-product of a lack of military engagement by many nations as it is the American desire to lead the war effort but not own it. The Global Coalition proved effective at stymying the eventual growth of ISIS and coordinated a military campaign that did help contribute to its territorial diminution, but it never offered a convincing political solution to the problems that sparked the groups’ rise in the first place. The coalition was caught up in the intractability of the enmeshed Syrian civil war, yet became overtly conscience of avoiding a repetition of the egregious mistakes of Operation Iraqi Freedom by engineering regime change or mass nation-building projects. Each member nation brought to the coalition its own particular domestic imperatives to want to act against the group, be it a desire to politically align more closely with Washington or enact a combination of retribution and deterrence against past and future terrorist attacks on their soil. The result was a fragmented strategic affair – a vehicle to purportedly ‘defeat’ made up of many moving parts, each not quite knowing what the other was doing, with only a vague sense of direction towards its final destination.

Andrew Mumford is professor of war studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. His book The West’s War Against Islamic State” was published in February by IB Tauris.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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