The Pentagon needs Sunni tribes and Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. But they're not ready even as more American troops prepare to arrive in Iraq.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.
The United States is moving ahead with the deployment of an additional 1,500 American troops to Iraq as part of an effort to retrain the Iraqi military forces in the fight against the Islamic State even though key pieces of the larger coalition strategy to squeeze the militant group from multiple directions have yet to come together.
President Barack Obama approved the deployments last month, and outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed the final orders this week, a senior U.S. military official said. All of the additional forces are expected to arrive in Iraq by February and will join the 1,710 American troops already in the country, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss troop details.
The key goal for the additional U.S. troops is to retrain and rebuild the Iraqi army, nearly half of which melted away when heavily-armed Islamic State militants swept through the country this past spring and summer. While U.S.-led airstrikes have slowed the militant group’s advances in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, a top U.S. commander, said that rebuilding the country’s military forces to full capability may take at least three years.
The U.S.-led coalition’s strategy in Iraq to defeat the Islamic State rests on three pillars: using the existing American troops in Iraq to coordinate coalition airstrikes against Islamic State targets, as well as help Iraqi forces defend themselves and mount small offensive operations; sendi in additional U.S. troops to train nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish peshmerga brigades in preparation for a major counteroffensive against the militant group in the first half of next year; and third, work with the Iraqi government to create national guard units drawn from Sunni tribes in areas the Islamic State controls, with an initial force of about 5,000 troops that could eventually grow to include a total of 15,000 fighters.
Without all three elements it would be impossible to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, which the Islamic State captured in June, said Nick Heras, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
The U.S.-led coalition is still grappling with the question of getting an adequate number of “tribal fighters to flip to your side and become part of the national guard,” said Heras, who has studied the rise of the Islamic State and remains in contact with some Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq he came to know during his years as a research associate at the National Defense University.
“To begin to push back and remove Islamic State from the ground and move on the city of Mosul” will require a tribal force to mount an assault from the west, he said, “with Kurdish forces from the north and Iraqi forces from the south and east.”
Efforts to establish such a tribal force has been slowed down because of many factors including distrust between the Sunni tribes and the Iraqi government of new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, Heras said.
Abadi told Hagel in a Dec. 9 meeting in Baghdad that some of the Sunni tribal group leaders in Anbar province that the United States wants to organize and equip into national guard brigades are not trustworthy, according to the two U.S. officials and a European official whose country is involved in the coalition against the Islamic State.
The tribal leaders for their part don’t believe that Abadi will be any different than former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had a reputation for using the country’s security forces to pursue a strictly sectarian agenda that included brutal crackdowns on the country’s embattled Sunni minority. Both political leaders belong to the same Dawa political party in Iraq and Maliki, while no longer the country’s prime minister, still retains considerable power in the party, Heras said.
Maliki’s alienation of the country’s Sunnis is widely seen as the main reason for the rise of the Islamic State. The militants captured large parts of the country’s west and northern provinces when Sunni residents threw their support to the group after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battled the Islamic State’s precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2011, Maliki also arrested several prominent Sunni lawmakers and tried to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, after accusing him of running an anti-government death squad. Hashimi later fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Still, the U.S. believes that Abadi is keeping his promise to create a national guard force, according to Terry, who is leading the military push against the Islamic State.
“This current government is I think a little over 100 days old,” Terry said at a Dec. 18 Pentagon news conference. “And they’ve started several initiatives out there, one of which is this kind of tribal outreach, tribal engagement, one of which is this national guard piece that they’re trying to move the legislation through the Council of Representatives to do that.”
Creating such a force could take time, but “I see the current prime minister at least moving in that direction,” Terry said. “And so how the Iraqi government pulls those in over time, like I said, is going to be – going to be pretty critical.”
Even if the Abadi government approves and selects Sunni tribal leaders, some of them may be tainted by such approval coming from a Shiite-led government seen by the tribal members as beholden to Iran, Heras said.
Bringing Syrian rebels into the fight is likely to be the most challenging part of the strategy. The U.S.-led coalition has emphasized military attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq first before turning to Syria, where the militant group has its headquarters in the city of Raqqah. Identifying, recruiting and vetting moderate Syrian rebels who can dislodge the Islamic State has taken time because the opposition groups are fractured and weakened by their involvement in a multi-front war against forces belonging to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as the Islamic State and the Jabhat al-Nusra front.
The Pentagon’s request for $1.6 billion for the fight against the Islamic State — including funds to begin recruiting and vetting Syrian rebels — was just approved by Congress this week and signed into law by Obama. The U.S. and its allies have identified training sites, approved a training curriculum and established criteria for vetting rebels once they’re recruited, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Dec. 12.
Even with the budget approval, “there is still some spade work that we need to do to get it up and running,” Kirby said of the program to recruit Syrian rebels. “It’s going to be a three to five month process to get through recruiting and vetting. It has not begun yet.”
The plan calls for training an initial group of 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels to wage a ground-war against the Islamic State forces inside Syria. Such a modest force is unlikely to dislodge the militants’ strongholds across Syria and the long-term goal is to have as many as 15,000 rebels, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said. That is the number “we believe they would need to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria,” Dempsey said at a Sept. 26 news conference.
Creating such a large rebel force must be done carefully so that they have a political structure in place and “that’s going to take some time,” Dempsey said. The Obama administration’s focus on creating a rebel force with the singular goal of defeating the Islamic State while leaving Assad in place has met with strong criticism from Republican lawmakers like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-time critic of Obama, who’s set to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee in January .
“They want to train 5,000 Free Syrian Army people in Saudi Arabia and send them back. But are we going to do anything about Bashar al-Assad’s air attacks?” McCain told CNN in September. “Are you going to ask these young people … to fight against ISIS but not against Assad. It’s not only unworkable, it’s immoral.”
The Islamic State also has made recruiting rebels difficult by building strong “social and political links among local tribes,” Heras said. The group buys off opposition with money and other blandishments or puts down any rebellion with brutal power, Heras said.
As a result there isn’t a sustained armed opposition on the ground against the Islamic State in Syria, Heras said. If and when there’s an uprising against the group in Syria the rebels recruited, vetted and trained by the U.S.-led coalition will have to be ready to support the uprising but it’s not there yet, he said. Not having an indigenous force opposing the militant group either in Iraq or in Syria are the “two challenges we face,” in taking the fight to the Islamic State, Heras said.