Eliminate IS

Operation Eliminate the ‘Islamic State’!

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

The ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the self-declared caliphate of believers, continues to rage across the Levant leaving behind a trace of blood and destruction. Ethnic cleansing, mass-executions, rape and other horrific war crimes have become the trademark of an organization trampling Islamic values under foot. While Western publics got used to these atrocities, they have now been roused from a doze of general apathy by the carefully staged and broadcasted beheading of another US journalist in Syria. Sotloff’s cruel execution follows last month’s ferocious beheading of James Foley – both videos are a graphic demonstration of power amid superpower impotence exercised by an organization of merely a few thousand ideologically motivated thugs. Both times, the mummed executioner directly addressed the US President, calling on the superpower to stop its military operation against the ‘caliphate’. In reality, however, apart from intending to spread fear among adversaries or attracting new recruits, IS’ well-staged videos have one purpose: luring the superpower and its Western allies into escalating their military engagement in Iraq. And as it seems, Western publics take the bait. Public pressure on US President Obama is mounting. Both Republicans and Democrats urge the President to not just contain the threat of IS but to eliminate an organization that in the hearts and minds of Western publics has become the embodiment of evil. Yet, there are few Western options for bringing down this pseudo-Islamic empire – even fewer military options. But what can the world do to stop this bloodshed?

So far, the Islamic State does not constitute a direct threat to the West, neither to Europe nor to the US. Although its foreign fighters could become future perpetrators of terror in the West, were they to return, for the time being IS’ butchery primarily concerns the people in Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq – and secondly, the riparian states in the region. The ‘Islamic State’ is a hollow construct, brutally trying to coerce Muslims and non-Muslims alike, into a submission to the radical utopia of a caliphate that in this shape and form has never existed. It is the chimaera of an old vanguard, nourished by decades of fruitless jihad and inspired by the transfigured interpretations of the Prophet’s teachings by unimpressive provincial clerics. The new generation of mujahedeen joining IS to follow this vanguard into abyss, are mostly disillusioned young adults barely able to speak Arabic, let alone recite Quran. They have become the willing executioners of an ideologically motivated criminal organization not just failing to respond to public grievances in the region but most importantly exacerbating public grievances in their area of responsibility. Their uncompromising application of misinterpreted divine laws does not resonate well with the millions of people IS has forced to pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi, its wizard-in-chief. The economy in the ‘Islamic State’ lies in tatters, citizens have been deprived of their earthly pleasures and civil liberties, women and children subjected to humiliating and gruesome punishments. The little sympathy for the mujahedeen that IS might have initially enjoyed as the people’s liberator from Assad’s or Maliki’s patrimonial regimes, has vanished. In Mosul and Raqqa, the biggest cities in the Islamic State, a few thousand mujahedeen see themselves confronted with the challenge of coercing millions into allegiance whose hearts and minds they have lost a while ago. Public outreach initiatives by IS fighters distributing charity to the poor, cannot belie the long-term fragility of dissident masses being repressive ruled by a delusional band of bearded thugs. If not within the civilian population, where do the ‘Islamic State’s’ centres of gravity lie, and how can they be targeted to bring down this jihadist house of cards?

Strategically, the ‘Islamic State’ has three centres of gravity, namely what the military defines as the “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act”. The most important strategic centre of gravity (CoG) for IS, are the Sunni tribes that have jumped on the jihadi bandwagon not based on ideological conviction but pragmatist considerations. Marginalized by a widely Shia dominated regime in Baghdad, many Sunni tribes, including members of Saddam’s Tikriti clan, have accepted IS as a vehicle to achieve their objective of ousting the sectarian patronage system permeating state institutions from Baghdad all the way to the local level. Second, IS relies on a well-established ‘jihadi highway’ that allows extra-regional recruits to join the organization. The steady flow of ideologically intoxicated, often Western youngsters making their way from Turkey to Syria, ensures that IS can keep its growing territory in check. Third, the ‘Caliphate’ can rely on an extensive self-sustaining economy of extortion financing its various activities. Although the resources might be scarce to adequately run a proper state of its current size, they generate an income that makes IS probably the most affluent jihadi organization in modern history. On the operational level, IS centre of gravity are its lines of communication enabling IS to rely on well-coordinated swarm tactics, i.e. a hybrid of traditional armoured formations supported by suicide bombers. It grants IS a high degree of manoeuvrability and operational flexibility in its rapid advances.

What good, can the West do in targeting these centres of gravity militarily, both on the strategic and operational level? The short answer is: very little. In a complex environment such as Northern Syria and Iraq, air strikes without boots on the ground can only provide cosmetic solutions at best. Even the employment of the Kurdish Peshmerga as Western proxies can only do little more than cracking the organization’s military façade. Due to its flexible operational approach, Al Baghdadi’s mujahedeen can only be contained by these external military operations, not eliminated. Armour and larger formations of fighters can be destroyed from the air, yet, in an urban environment small groups of mujahedeen become difficult to target. The unlikely alliance of the willing that has opened the front against IS in Northern Iraq, just embarked on a costly and long-lasting war of attrition that will not be won on the battlefield as long as IS’ strategic centres of gravity remain untouched. The solution to the ‘Islamic State’s’ disintegration, the elimination of its forlorn disciples as well as the burial of its crooked ideology, lies with the Sunni tribes who have provided the organization with the momentum it needed to advance. Winning over these tribesmen who are often in the fight for more autonomy and political self-determination rather than religious fanaticism, would be an approach that could eliminate this cancer from within – yet, it would be a strategy doomed to fail if pursued by the West. Given the West’s awful record of meddling with Arab and Muslim internal affairs in past decades, this political solution would have to be implemented by those who first, enjoy credibility among Sunni tribes; second, are abundant with resources to support the tribes; and third, enjoy the stability within a disintegrating Middle East to commit to this solution long-term: the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Increasingly recognizing the immense threat emanating from IS on its doorstep, the GCC has to overcome its negligible internal differences and assume the leadership role the West groomed it for in the past decade. This means going beyond clamping down on mujahedeen trying to join the ‘Islamic State’ or drying up IS’ increasingly unnecessary external donations. The West, including Turkey, should limit their strategic activities to eliminating the ‘jihadi highway’ and ensuring that IS cannot convert its extorted rents and produced oil into war-sustaining capability. For the GCC to be able to achieve its strategic objective, the international community in general and the West in particular, would probably have to abandon the idea of Iraq as a unitary nation-state. Accepting the de facto political fragmentation of Mesopotamia might be a prerequisite to dealing with the root cause of the current conflict, which IS has hijacked for its own ideological agenda.


No Sacred Cows


Continuing the series of posts to drive professional military and scholarly discussion, this piece challenges your thinking to exceed its normal bounds and question that which you hold to be eternally true. No problems! Comment here and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Battery Park City and the Port of Newark are separated by a mere five miles. However, between this short distance one spans more than three centuries of military history.

‎The former – now a forest of high rise residences – earned its name as the site of the battery of guns protecting the island of Manhattan from its earliest settlement through the first decades of the 19th century. In that period, coastal defense focused upon direct maritime threats to critical harbors and nodes. The latter represents a current front line defending the homelands. Today’s volume of transoceanic shipping has allowed people and weapons to become the deadly needle in a haystack of anonymous containers.

Within the centuries bracketed by these two points defense of the homeland at the coast has evolved through several other phases as well. Mapping the point of critical threat and necessary defense over time would make for an interesting exercise, but this shifting ‎locus of effort has deeper significance as a symbol of the relentless and ceaseless march of change across warfare. Yes, warfare is marked by many important constants, but its greater character is entirely mutable. What worked yesterday may seem quaint today and novel tomorrow.

So, to today’s questions, which are intended to drag you in entirely two different directions:

1. That thing which you hold to be sacrosanct in warfare – from strategy to tactics, doctrine to weapons, soup to nuts – is now irrelevant. You don’t defend the homeland with local artillery any longer, right? What might replace it? Why?

2. Alternatively‎, give a thought to those local batteries. The examples of Mumbai and Benghazi point to the rise of local, lightly armed threats to urban centres, with rivers/harbours providing infiltration points. Such developments would make battery parks relevant to the defense of the urban landscape again. What other “relics” of past warfare might be on the rise?



The Troubled Past of Foreign Relations with the Kurds

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Twitter @EugenioLilli

A few weeks ago, fighters of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, seized control of significant swaths of territory in northern Iraq. Ostensibly to stop the IS offensive toward the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil and to provide indispensable humanitarian relief to thousands of displaced civilians, the international community soon mobilized.

US President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes against IS forces and humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq. The US administration also began to send hundreds of military advisors and weapons to help the Kurdish peshmerga in their effort to fight the Islamists back.

French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said their countries were also ready to supply arms and other forms of aid to Iraq’s Kurds. Similarly, in a meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministries of  EU countries agreed to arm the Kurdish forces.

There have been speculations that the current international support for Iraqi Kurds could translate in the near future into international support for a Kurdish breakaway from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

What does the 20th century history of  Kurdish relations with foreign powers tell us about such a possibility?

After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied powers met to dismember the vast territories of a defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed the creation of an autonomous homeland for the Kurdish people. Noticeably, this proposed Kurdistan would not include the Kurdish communities of Iran, French-controlled Syria, and British-controlled Iraq but would grant the Kurds control of an area on what is now Turkish territory. The Allies also made quite clear that they would not provide military or financial assistance to the fledging Kurdish state. As a consequence, it did not take long before Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist forces, who strongly opposed the recognition of autonomy to ethnic or cultural minorities within Turkey, violently dashed Kurdish hopes for an autonomous homeland.

In 1946, when Soviet troops were still occupying northern Iran, the Soviet Union encouraged Iran’s Kurds to form an autonomous state entity. In doing so, Soviet leaders were reaffirming the longstanding Czarist Russia’s objective of exerting influence on Iranian territory. The resulting Kurdish Mahabad Republic was short-lived though. Under increasing US and British pressure, in fact, the Soviet Union was eventually compelled to withdraw its troops from Iran. Abandoned by their foreign patron, the Kurds were left defenseless against the subsequent offensive mounted by Iranian government forces.

During 1974-75, Iran, with US and Israeli blessing, supported a Kurdish uprising against Iraq’s central government. Iranian leaders were only too willing to seize any opportunity of weakening their rivals in Baghdad. However, in a sudden about-face, Iran concluded a treaty with Iraq, known as the Algiers Agreement, where Teheran pledged to cease assisting the Kurds’ rebellion in Iraq. The agreement resulted in the quick end of the uprising and the forced relocation of more than 250,000 Kurds from northern Iraq to other areas of the country. 

In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union played Iran and Iraq against each other as part of their cold-war struggle for global dominance. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in a renewed effort to gain independence. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein responded by using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels. In one particularly infamous case, the use of poison gas by Iraqi armed forces led to the death of at least 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Confronted with such a blatant violation of international law, the international community stayed silent.

Again, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States instigated Iraqi Kurds to take arms against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, by the end of February of that year, US President George H.W. Bush abruptly halted Operation Desert Storm thus providing the opportunity to the Iraqi military to regroup and crash the Kurdish upheaval in the north. Fearing a repetition of the terrible events of the 1980s, two million Kurds escaped toward the Turkish and Iranian borders; at least 20,000 of them died in trying to do so.

Even today, while the international community has declared its willingness to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, important international actors, including the United States, are contributing to a problem that is weakening the Kurds at their most vulnerable moment: the Kurds, in fact, are running out of money. The Iraqi central government is required to share oil revenues with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, but Kurdish authorities have stated that authorities in Baghdad have failed to do so recently. At the same time, the US administration and others have stopped Kurds’ attempts to sell oil of their own. Tellingly, a tanker carrying about $100 million worth of Kurdish oil is currently sitting off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico unable to unload its valuable cargo. For the Kurds, reaching economic self-sufficiency would undoubtedly represent an essential step toward achieving political independence.

This all but complete historical overview clearly shows that the relations between the Kurds and foreign powers have been characterized by a pattern of cynical exploitation and cold abandonment. If I were a Kurd, I would be extremely skeptical about the possibility that the current international mobilization will translate into genuine future support for the creation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

Qatar Doha Andreas Krieg

#Reminder: Qatar’s Foreign Policy: Islamists YES – Islamic State NO

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

In recent weeks, Qatar has come under criticism once more – this time not for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, or for the inhumane working conditions of many local labourers, and also not for alleged unorthodox practices when it came to winning the bid for the FIFA World Cup 2022. This time criticism revolves around Qatar’s alleged support for the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) as the world’s current ‘empire of evil’. This time, it is not Qatar’s neighbours who engage in public ‘Qatar-bashing’ but Western politicians, blogs and social media outlets. These unsubstantiated allegations if echoed often enough, might develop into just another cyber-myth surrounding the rich Gulf Emirate.

Based on the populist image that has been drawn by Western media, Qatar is ruled by an ultra-conservative, Wahabist family who ideologically subject the country’s foreign and security policy to spreading radical Islam. In fact, Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and affiliate groups in Libya and Syria; it supports the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offspring Hamas, as well as backed jihadi militants in the Libyan and Syrian Civil War. Based on this observation experts believe to have identified a trend whereby Qatar’s foreign and security policy is increasingly ideologically motivated by radical Islamist considerations. In so doing, media reports lump together Islamist political parties, charity organizations or religiously motivated opposition forces and Al Qaeda. More recently, in many reports, particularly at the more conservative end of the spectrum, the distinction between political Islam and global jihadi organizations such as IS, completely vanished. Despite its development into an established, respected and sustainable political power in the Arab World, political Islam and its role in the Arab public sphere has been discredited. Yet, it is important to differentiate between those Islamists that primarily cater for the inclusive provision of public goods or adl (social justice), and those subordinating common good with brute force to the fanaticism of a minority. Although IS has realized in the meantime that the administration of territory and people requires more than terror and brute force, its mujahedeen nonetheless belong to the latter group.

These nuances are important to understand when judging Qatar’s raison d’état post-Arab Spring. As a small peninsula at the Gulf, wedged between the regional superpowers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar traditionally had to choose between autonomy and influence when defining its foreign and security policy. Influence meant typically having to bandwagon along Saudi Arabia as its bigger brother, thereby relinquishing its autonomy in parts. Achieving autonomy, on the other hand, was tantamount with the loss of influence, resulting in an augmented sense of insecurity. The Father Emir, who handed over his rule to his son Sheikh Tamim last year, tried in his reign to overcome this dilemma by establishing Qatar as an independently acting, yet influential regional player – a player who autonomously from the sometimes counterproductive ideological conventions of Riyadh approaches foreign and security policy with a degree of pragmatism. Fuelled by the sheer unlimited wealth generated from its hydrocarbon resources, Qatar managed to not only attract the US as its external protector or open an Israeli trade office, but also to build relations with the Taliban and Hamas as well as reach out to Hezbollah and the Houthis when needed. The hedging of international and transnational relations was the direct path to transform neutrality into influence.

The Arab Spring seemingly created new opportunities for Qatar to expand its influence. The region threatened to sink further into the authoritarian quagmire and Qatar’s neighbours adopted a growingly hostile stance towards the dawn of democratization on the horizon. Qatar on the contrary, saw the developments as a chance to buy credit and trust from those that it deemed to be the region’s future decision-makers: the Arab publics who had taken to the streets. Qatar decided to support those groups and organizations who it thought could most effectively fulfil the people’s demand for more social justice. A new maxim in Qatar’s foreign and security policy emerged: to align with those forces who could most effectively, sustainably and inclusively provide social justice and security (adl wa al-amin). This maxim was not just inspired by the altruistic decision to do what is right, but by the pragmatic attempt to gain influence as a small state. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its Islamist offshoots in other countries, can be partially explained by these pragmatist considerations. As the only opposition force amid decades of tyranny able to provide public goods inclusively to the masses whenever states were unwilling or unfit to do so, Islamism was regarded by Qatar as the people’s natural choice to be supported. In countries where the path to more social justice remained obstructed by tyrannical regimes refusing to step down, like in Libya and Syria, Qatar intended to support those militant groups that with discipline, morale and experience could most effectively engage regime forces militarily: jihadist fighters who regarded the liberation of their home country from authoritarian oppression as their personal duty under Islam such as the Tawhid Brigades in Northern Syria.

The ‘Islamic State’ is neither an organization that caters for the common good of the masses, nor an organization in which Syrians or Iraqis fight to liberate their homeland. IS is an organization of fanatic, extremist mercenaries, who under the banner of the Prophet, claim to establish what can only be described as a scurrile caricature of the once mighty caliphate. Thereby the self-proclaimed mujahedeen go against all conventions of what is commonly accepted as moral interpersonal or interstate behaviour. Thus, while some wealthy Qataris have privately funded IS’ predecessors in Iraq and Syria, the State of Qatar has not done so, knowing that this organization stands in opposition to Qatar’s raison d’état. Actively supporting a transnational or even global jihadist organization such as IS rejecting the legitimacy of the current regional international set-up, would be pragmatically and ideologically suicidal for Qatar. Qatar would further lose the hearts and minds of the people in the region, alienate its allies in the West and the GCC while gaining little more than the influence over a group of extremist thugs that in the eyes of Qatar’s pious leadership, negate fundamental principles of Islam. In respect to IS, Qatar stands firmly with the rest of the Arab World and the GCC making the containment of IS a foreign and security policy priority. In the meantime, Qatar has realized that the future of the Arab World belongs to the individual in a growing Arab public sphere. In the long-run, power in the Arab World will not be in the hands of autocratic tyrants but those who can cater for the needs of the majority. Qatar will continue support those who cater for the greatest possible number of people in their area of responsibility – even if that means supporting Islamist groups such as Hamas.




Start Running

It appears that a British citizen, “John”, was responsible for the murder of US journalist James Foley. No, there will be no link to the video here. Questions abound regarding Foley’s death – did America mess up a rescue attempt earlier this summer? was it the result of a failed shakedown? – as does analysis of its possible strategic impact. Over at War on The Rocks, Brian Fishman’s astute comments about the continuing disconnect between the end goal of “defeating” ISIS and the available means are worth repeating: “without real national consensus to sustain a strategy, there is no viable mechanism to defeat ISIL.” It seems John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, didn’t get the WOTR memo, as he resorted to quite non-diplomatic language to state (via Twitter, of course) “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed”. The reason that Fishman’s comments stand out in the morass of “Something must be done” commentary is that it correctly identifies the ultimate restraint on American action in Iraq (not Syria): America itself. How much will a single video change that? I don’t think that can be predicted with any accuracy, but what I do think is that “John”, and others like him, should be very, very afraid.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a “laissez faire” policy towards the “problem” of foreign fighters from Western countries running off to fight in Syria. In a nutshell, my argument was they shouldn’t be prevented from going, but they should be warned that actions have consequences, and some form of open-source watch list should be established. Since then (well, before, even) “John” and his friends have provided us with a steady stream of video footage of ISIS members committing war crimes, carnage and, with the recent Yazidis, threatening to commit crimes against humanity. Taking a step back from the immediate strategic context and potential security challenges, I think it’s quite productive to think in terms of post-conflict justice. Hence the title for this post: over a long enough time span, ISIS’s members are pretty much screwed.

In the short term: will the British government raise a fuss if someone like “John” happens to get hit by an American bomb, or riddled with bullets by American special forces, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, the Syrian government, rival foreign fighters, etc? After this, I somehow doubt it. At the end of the day, the only people that can’t kill British jihadis without tripping off lawsuits are British forces, and David Cameron seems very, very wary of committing the UK to Iraq. Even if military force won’t destroy ISIS, I expect that Iraq is going to get more dangerous for anyone who fights for them. Syria isn’t exactly a safe haven, either.

The medium and long term, are, however, more interesting. After all, are the people committing war crimes going to stick around Iraq forever? I doubt it, and when the time comes to leave, they are going to have problems. At the moment security services across Europe are very worried about tracking the foreign fighters that return. One of the problems is that it’s often difficult to convict them of anything, since evidence from Syria and Iraq is scant (at the moment). Western states like Canada are finding that their laws intended to stop people fighting abroad don’t really fit with conflict in the 21st century. Many have either rushed through new legislation, or are considering it. But we don’t need new laws for war crimes – “John”, if he is indeed a British citizen, is a murderer, and we have laws that mean British citizens committing murder outside the UK can still be charged with that crime in British courts. That’s why, I think, from the perspective of justice, the deck is stacked against war criminals in jihadi groups for two reasons: politics and information.

The primary reason, I think, is that these are transnational war crimes. Every criminal tribunal prosecuting war crimes has, at some point, had to deal with the balance of justice and peace. Certainly, there can be no “true” peace after massive war crimes without a measure of justice, but at the same time, demands for justice can stoke the embers of conflict. Just look at the recent furore over amnesty in Northern Ireland. Truth commissions ostensibly privilege truth-telling and the need for clarity on behalf of victims over punitive justice. But if “John” ever returns to the UK (willingly? extradited? captured?), the English courts don’t have to concern themselves with such issues – murder is murder. If “John” happens to end up in the US, well, bad luck, I suppose. There is little political barrier to prosecution in either case.

Lack of information is a traditional shield for war criminals. The circumstances of war crimes are rarely clear cut. At this point, we don’t know that much about the leaders of ISIS, let alone who is committing which atrocity. But that’s not to say that we won’t. If King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation can identify “hidden influencers” in foreign fighter networks from open sources, then we should probably bet that behind closed doors, the security services know more about these people than they can say in public. Aspects of armed conflict that would once be witnessed by individuals alone are now captured and stuck on Youtube for the world to see. Open source citizen journalism can be remarkably effective in answering “Who? What? When? Where? How?” by locating and assembling these fragments of evidence, take, for example, Bellingcat on the recent MH17 shoot down in Ukraine. For those who commit war crimes in their 20s, we should remember that efforts are still being made to track and prosecute Nazi war criminals, some 71 years after the end of World War 2. The authorities now have a world of digital information to work with, which can be stored near-indefinitely. Foreign fighter networks operate in an environment where one hidden camera phone could produce evidence linking individuals to a war crime, that is, if they don’t film it themselves and upload it for the world to see. This means that “John”, and others like him, can’t rely on the immediate anonymity that a mask provides to protect them forever. Members of armed groups that utilise social media are, over a long enough time span, likely to be identified. I doubt that any future government will be willing to “forgive and forget” ISIS’s war crimes, which means that anybody like “John” who makes it back to the UK alive and unidentified should expect to spend the rest of their lives waiting for a knock on the door from the police. Good.


How to best externalize the R2P in Iraq?

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

Ever since the bearded fighters under the Prophet’s banner rode into Mosul in June this year, the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, has been on the radar of the international community. What had long been ignored as a local phenomenon in Iraq’s al Anbar Province and parts of Northern Syria, now grasped the attention of military strategists, analysts and the intelligence community from Tehran and Riyadh over Tel Aviv to Washington. Yet, it was not so much the horrific images of barbarism circulating on social media that concerned the international community as much more the implications of IS’ seizure of strategic positions in Northern Iraq and Syria. The negative integration witnessed in the Middle East uniting Israelis and Saudis as well as Americans and Iranians, was not founded on a genuine concern for the tens of thousands of individuals exposed to ethnic cleansing, mass executions or barbaric torture, but revolved around the strategic interests of those seeing the Levant as their sphere of influence. Now the suffering of the Yazidis has become the graphic testimony to the international community’s failure to protect individuals from the inability and unwillingness of regimes in Damascus and Baghdad to provide security inclusively. The international community responds reluctantly, ignoring its duties under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), by propping up the Kurds as a surrogate to act as a force multiplier. The long-term solution to this humanitarian disaster, however, cannot be found in Kurdistan, but lies with Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq who out of feelings of abandonment by the international community and arising despair have been the backbone of jihadist advances.

In the shadow of civil-societal outcries over Israel’s recent Gaza campaign, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of the Islamic State has deviated so far from the righteous path of Islam that the horrors of its reign have alienated Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Chopped off heads decorate town squares in Northern Syria, women are being stoned publicly for adultery, prisoners of war beg for their life before being mass executed in desert sandpits, men are being crucified for apostasy. The Islamic State spurns Islamic traditions of peaceful coexistence and tolerance by cleansing its area of responsibility of Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and of course, all other Muslims not ascribing to a 7th century Islamic lifestyle. The most recent tragedy of Yazidi men, women and children being trapped on the Sinjar Mountains, is just another result of the Islamic State’s ruthless attempt to catapult the region back to medieval times. In face of these atrocities that essentially root in the international community’s strategic failure to deal with the Civil War in Syria, the UN Security Council has missed the opportunity to go beyond merely ‘expressing grave concern’ about the humanitarian situation in the ‘Islamic State’. Consecutive Security Council Resolutions, including the most recent resolution 2169, have ignored the de facto reality on the ground by affirming the de jure sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. The Islamic State operates transnationally providing quasi-state functions within its area of responsibility beyond any reach of the government in Baghdad, which merely controls the capital and the Shite South of the country. The territorial integrity of Iraq is history, its sovereignty undermined by the direct interventions of the US and Iran. Instead of accepting this reality, the UN Security Council beats around the bush, failing under the pressure of Western war fatigue to affirm the R2P:

“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect”[1].

Although it might be premature to speak of genocide, the crimes against humanity being committed on a large scale certainly constitute a serious threat to individual security in the region and would justify a Chapter VII intervention. However, the state-centric nature of international law seems to favour international abstinence as the current crisis is not just international but transnational and occurs in a vacuum of insecurity beyond the reach of the failed states of Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State is barely a state either – neither under international law nor by any social contractarian standards. This legal ambiguity allows the Security Council to pay lip service to the R2P without giving the international community an obligatory mandate to do something to not just contain the spread of IS but to protect those individuals under threat of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Without a clear mandate, the international community is left to deal with the Islamic State as they see fit weighing the severity of the threat against the costs of acting. The Arab World preoccupied with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has remained silent. The GCC, the only Arab consortium militarily and financially strong enough to make a difference on the ground is divided over ideological disagreements on the role of political Islam in the Middle East. Qatar’s recently more expansive foreign and security policy has come to a halt amid the protests of its neighbours in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, although generally eager to provide assistance to suffering individuals in the region, will not make any moves in Iraq or Syria without consulting Riyadh. Iran has directly intervened in Iraq by protecting an almost exclusively Shite patronage network with Maliki as its disposable figurehead. The West after drawing repeated red lines in the desert sand, has decided to use the Kurds as both a military surrogate and force multiplier for sporadic US air strikes. The US sends arms and military advisors, France provides lethal military kit, Germany non-lethal military aid and the UK air lift capability. Israel although silently, has sent military advisors to support the Kurds as a regional ally with which it maintains a constructive long-term relationship. Yet, in face of austerity, defence cuts and public casualty sensitivity, the West is reluctant to reopen a front in Iraq from which the US and the UK hastily retreated in 2011. As high-altitude air power can neither protect civilians nor defeat IS as a military organization using hybrid strategies, the West relies on the Kurds and to a lesser extent on the Iraqi Armed Forces to deliver the punch on the ground. However, looking at current capabilities of the Islamic State, Western support at current levels will, if anything, only manage to protect those civilians who already found their way to Kurdistan.

Instead of propping up the Kurds as a Western military surrogate only able to fight IS from the outside, the international community should support the Sunni tribes of Iraq who by pragmatically rather than ideologically pledging allegiance to the Caliphate constitute its strategic centre of gravity. The solution in Iraq and Syria lies with those Sunnis who have been systematically marginalized by their respective governments and who have jumped on IS’ jihadist bandwagon to achieve more political self-determination – or at least autonomy. Creating a disconnect between those Sunnis and the mostly foreign mujahedeen of IS would be an approach that would undermine IS’ momentum and deprive the organization of its ability to enforce its medieval customs on a fearful civilian population. The international community would have to distant itself from the idea of Iraq as an integral nation state, would have to accept Sunni claims for autonomy, would have to rely on strategic partners in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to establish links of communication and oversight with Sunni tribesmen, would have to be ready to provide financial and military assistance to these tribesmen, and would have to put boots on the ground as military advisors to train, equip and monitor these tribesmen in establishing stability and security in those areas lost by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to IS. The international community’s current reluctance to accept strategic risks will gradually deteriorate regional insecurity and most importantly endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals living in the conflict zone.

[1] ICISS, (2001). The Responsibility to Protect. The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa: International Development Research Center. (p.IX)


What Can We Learn from ISIS?

In this week’s professional discussion I would like to consider the value of unlikely role models. We tend to look to those who resemble us for wisdom, both as individuals and organizations. Furthermore, we tend to want to look to those that are “better” according to seemingly objective criteria. I would submit that this perspective is too limited and for that puts at risk real opportunities to grow in wisdom and capability. Enjoy the read and please join the fray at #CCLKOW.


Last week the Marine Corps announced that it would re-brand its MARSOC units under the historic Raider moniker.

The grand history of the Marine Raiders is generally well known. Less well understood is that the Raider tradition is not a single, coherent thing. Two Raider legacies emerged from the war, as Mike Edson and Evans Carlson were given tremendous leeway in command to create their units as they saw fit. And here is where it gets very interesting, because Carlson’s Raiders were formed with a heavy dose of Chinese/PLA influence.

Evans Carlson was unique for many reasons. Most compelling for me, he was a man who took lessons and wisdom wherever they appeared regardless of source. This was nowhere more true than in his travels with the various Chinese forces confronting the Japanese in 1937. There Carlson had the opportunity to study closely the operations and values of the irregular warfare the PLA had adopted to fight the Japanese. Seeing their generally positive results – on the battlefield, within the units, and among the people in and near the Japanese occupation – impressed him. Many of the concepts he saw validated in China would be adapted and implemented within his Raider unit, to include the iconic battle cry, Gung Ho.

Consider that for a moment. The United States, which by the eve of WWII was already militarily potent, was taking lessons in warfare from what would have been considered at the time as a third rate army. Looking only at their record on Guadalcanal suggests that the PLA practices were indeed valuable to the Raiders. And yet conventional wisdom would never have identified the PLA as a role model for American military capabilities.

From the perspective of military innovation, from tactics to strategies, we find ourselves in very interesting times. In every corner of the globe there are niche military formations which, for their poverty and irregularity, for their freedom from institutional legacies and traditions, have taken what they needed from any sector to cobble together capabilities to relatively good effect. ISIS, for example, has created social media as a potent “arm” of its forces. Jihad by tweet won’t win any conflicts, but it certainly enhances ISIS’ interaction with its own audience and those it is trying to woo. That is but only one small piece of the innovation afoot in warfare. Even a military super-power could benefit from consideration of these advances, no matter that it might mean learning from an unlikely role model.

So, the questions for this week are:

In what areas do Western military capabilities lag behind contemporary weaker or lesser forces? That is, where might they benefit from an unlikely role model?

What or who is your unlikely role model of choice?


Mistakes were made: ‘We tortured some folks.’

We tortured some folks

Following in the footsteps of President Obama and his frank admission, ‘We tortured some folks’, several historical figures also came clean this week:

Michael Hayden, head of the NSA after 9/11: ‘We tapped some calls.’

Richard Nixon, on the Watergate scandal: ‘We bugged some bros.’

Dick Fuld, on the implosion of Lehman Brothers: ‘We lost some dough.’

Pol Pot, on his strategy to purify Kampuchea through a return to the land: ‘We worked some peeps to death.’

Reynhard Heydrich, on the subject of Kristallnacht in November 1938: ‘We smashed some windows.’

Stalin, on the subject of the forced famine of the kulaks in the 1930s: ‘We starved some dudes.’

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, on the subject of the Western Front in the First World War: ‘We dug some trenches.’



Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

I think that it is great that military commanders now have reading lists (who doesn’t have one these days?).  Encouraging military professionals to understand their profession in ways other than by dint of their own experience alone is a worthwhile endeavour and should be encouraged.

This sentiment, of course, depends on the assumption that all books so chosen have a contribution to make towards the noble aims of such an enterprise.  But what is one to make of ‘bad books’?

On the Commandant of the US Marine Corps’s Professional Reading List, I found and read this book: The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressman.  It is required reading for every Marine, regardless of rank or role.  And to me, that is a shame.

The book is chock full of bumper-sticker aphorisms, many of which are contradictory, the bulk of which are sexist, some downright misogynist.  The book advocates a turn to ‘subjective control’ of the military, rather than ‘objective control’, on the basis that the distinctions between the military culture and the civilian one are unhealthy.

A confusing–even worrying–choice, therefore, and one that needs defending if it is to be appreciated.

Bring it.


Learning to Win, Not Defeat

In the continuing series of blog posts to spur professional military discussion, I offer a thought piece arguing for a reorientation of the conceptualization of warfare in the near to mid term — or at the very least in this piece of the spectrum of conflict. For a bit of summer fun, rather than prescriptive questions, in this case you are invited to discuss and challenge my interpretations. Enjoy the read and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


The new documentary “Kill Team” narrates the degeneration of one Army unit to a state in which criminal acts were validated and suggests that military training focussed upon killing is to blame. At the tactical level, I cannot agree. Sustaining any specific military training is the foundation in discipline and order. To wit, proficiency in killing does not mean that troops on the front lines are little more than automatons of death. Rather, events such as these rely far more significantly upon the command and leadership climate which shapes the attitudes and activities of the line units than upon the combat training of the soldiery. And so it is necessary to understand what influences and shapes that climate. Taking this approach, I would argue that the real source of the problem is that how warfare is conceptualized is too focussed upon the killing, upon destruction, upon defeat.

Understandably, given the overwhelming model of the 2oth Century’s two World Wars, American armed forces (and those of the West generally to varying degrees) have come to define their activities in two realms, often occurring in sequence from defeat the enemy to win the war. Further to that, the first objective was largely defined in terms of physical destruction. And so the standard template was to first fight and destroy the opposing forces, then to put society back together afterwards. Given the the mass armies of industries in those wars, that prioritization made sense because the enemy force was a real obstacle to the necessary terms of victory and peace. Along the way, however, this priority escaped the bounds of its own context and came to be viewed as an eternal truth – that victory necessarily equals defeat of the enemy force.

However, when one considers these values as the context which informs command and leadership it is questionable that they serve well the needs of contemporary warfare. Whether in the urban jungle or the boondocks, a reasonable model for the contemporary style of conflict is generally irregular and light forces using asymmetric tactics and reliant upon a general level of support from the local population. Unfortunately, in an environment where the defeat of the enemy must necessarily occur within the civilian population, the prevailing wisdom described above does not serve and may in fact harm current efforts because collateral damage becomes losses and casualties for those that cause it. The confluence of political consciousness, mass information and social media make this so. A reasonable interpretation of recent events is that this effect weighs heaviest upon the dominant or foreign actor in a conflict and is the source of strategic equivalence between weak and strong that has been on display in the recent asymmetric conflicts.

And so, the new calculus of collateral damage has allowed the insurgent/irregular forces to contend successfully against wealthier, militarily more proficient forces. (1)  This puts the armed forces on the horns of a dilemma: the focus upon defeating the enemy may be getting in the way of winning the war. In conflicts like OIF/OEF, so long as the physical destruction of the enemy remains the dominant objective of the armed forces, not only will more such sad events occur, but the translation of military activity to political benefit will continue elude the US and the West.



1. Israel you need to learn this lesson. Whatever the other issues, in the cold calculus of war, you own every Palestinian civilian you kill because you are the stronger of the two in the conflict with Hamas. If you were fighting Egypt or Iran, then this would not apply — see, it’s not about unfairly binding you, it’s about making you see the emergent strategic imperatives.