Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Before We Send Our Sons and Daughters to Bleed and Die...

It now seems inevitable that US ground troops will enter combat in Iraq and Syria.  President Obama has asked for Congressional authorization for the limited use of ground troops in the war on ISIL.  Congress is ready to approve the measure, with the only complaints from his opponents being that the President's request was too limited in scope and would not authorize enough troops.

Before our nation sends our sons and daughters to bleed and die in Iraq and Syria, we owe it to them to closely examine what our leaders are sending them to do.  Jesus said that we should "count the cost" before making such important decisions.  So let us examine the progress of this ongoing conflict involving ISIL (AKA ISIS, Islamic State), and what an expanded US role might look like. Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't we consider the cost?

First, we should ask, who is funding ISIL?  The nasty truth is that our US allies among the Sunni nations are funding ISIL. In addition to black market oil sales in Turkey, ISIL is also funded by the sale of illegal antiquities through Turkish black markets. Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't our allies stop funding ISIL?

Second, we should ask, where will this war be fought?  ISIL controls territory in Iraq and Syria.  The US will begin the war by clearing ISIL out of Iraq.  Then, when ISIL attacks continue across the border, we will have to invade Syria to stop them.  But then there are also ISIL in Yemen, where forces have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. ISIL is active now in Libya, where they are fighting the Egyptian government after beheading 21 Egyptian Christians. As Bahrain enters the war against ISIL, they face a Shia uprising at home because of extreme sectarianism. Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't we know where the war will be fought?

Third, for whom will we be fighting?  When the US enters the war in Iraq, they will be fighting alongside the Shia government against the Sunni elements of ISIL.  When the US invades Syria, we will be supporting Sunni rebel allies who are also fighting the Shia (Alawite) Syrian government. In a rare moment of candor, Vice President Joe Biden said what people close to the situation in Syria have known all along.  There are no moderate Muslim allied armies to back. The myth that we can go in and help the "good guys" to win is a false one.  There is no side in this fight worthy of our support.  Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't there be something worth bleeding and dying for?

Fourth, who is training and equipping our enemies?  We are.  The US is training and equipping the very people that our soldiers will be fighting when they reach Syria and Iraq.  We armed ISIL through weapons given to the Iraqi Army. Lots of weapons.  Heavy Weapons. We armed ISIL through weapons given to militias. We continue to arm and train ISIL fighters by arming and training "moderates" who then defect to ISIL and use their US training and weapons for the cause of the Islamic State.  Now the US will partner with Turkey, one of the greatest supporters of the Islamic State, to train "moderate" rebels.  Thousands of rebels will get US training and equipment, which they will take back to Syria and use against our sons and daughters when they come to bleed and die.
When our troops go into Syria, they will sooner or later fight troops of the Assad regime, and we are also arming and equipping them as well.  Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't we stop arming and training the people who will kill them?

Fifth, why is this our war?  I do not want my son, nor any American, to bleed and die in a Sunni-Shia religious war.  This is a religious war, the two sides are aligned against one another in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon -Sunni Muslim vs. Shia Muslim.  What is the place of the US in such a religious regional war? What is our compelling national interest?  Oil?  Gas prices in the US are hovering around $2 per gallon at the time of this writing.  Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't we have a good reason to send them to bleed and die?

Is it too late to stop this insanity?  I pray not.  If we don't send our children to die in a Muslim religious war, then what is the proper response?  Let them fight their civil war; it is theirs to fight.  Let the Sunni nations deal with the consequences of their support for radicalism.  Let them consider the cost of blood.  We can help -food, blankets, medicines, humanitarian aid -no radical faction will be attacking us with the bandages we supplied in five years, nor will they blow up our airplanes with bread a decade from now.  There is a wise approach if we are brave enough to take it.  Email the White House.  Send them the link to this blog post.  Before we send our sons and daughters to bleed and die, shouldn't we consider a better path?

US position in the Sunni-Shia War

As the US enters the ongoing Sunni-Shia war, it does so with the full understanding that our forces will be fighting on both sides of that war. In their rush to declare that this is not a war on Islam, our leaders seem to fail to understand that it is very much a religious war. This is why it will probably be a long war, and there seems to be no resolution which does not eventually require US troops on the ground in Syria.

To better understand the background of the discussion, read this earlier blog post.

The two sides of the Sunni-Shia war do have one thing in common, they both want to get rid of ISIL. The Shia have fought them since the beginning, and now that the Sunni rulers see them as a political threat, they are stepping up also to fight them. Tepidly, of course.

The major problem with our current strategy is that we want to fight this war against ISIL more than the surrounding Sunni Muslim countries want to fight it. Right now the US is leading the air strikes with token Sunni assistance. Air strikes alone cannot defeat ISIL, because they will quickly learn how to dig bunkers. Someone on the ground will have to go in and flush out the rats.

As you can see on the above map, the network of ratholes will be very extensive.

In Iraq the US is counting on Kurdish and Shiite forces, who can control the ground in their own ethnic areas, but will meet stiff resistance in the Sunni areas now controlled by ISIL. This will in fact be a recruiting boon for ISIL, who can shout to the Muslim world that the Sunnis are being oppressed by the Zionist-loving Americans and their Shiite lackeys. In order to push ISIL out of Iraq, Sunni troops are needed on the ground.

 Turkey could easily provide them, but has not, nor have the other Sunni nations pledged ground troops.  Why?  They have a love/hate relationship with ISIL and are not determined to be rid of them.  The same Sunni states that we need to defeat ISIL have had some hand in funding them.

Another problem is mission creep on bombing ISIL in Syria. On the opening day, the US began bombing non-ISIL targets. Sure they were bad guys, but not the ones we were supposed to bomb. There are lots and lots of bad guys in Syria and lots and lots of reasons to bomb them. The Assad regime is wicked and brutal, Hezbollah is fighting alongside them, and Al-Qaeida is still in Syria.

We supposedly have the needed Sunni troops on the ground in Syria (FSA) but we will have to train and equip them first. They are already talking about how this US help will allow them to overthrow the Assad regime. How long will it take until the US is bombing all sides in that part of the war?  The need to destroy ISIL will morph into the need to topple the Assad regime so that we can finish off ISIL once and for all.  This is how US troops will be sucked into Syria.

President Obama has called the US-led bombings a “coalition of the willing” composed of European allies and a few Sunni states.  "Willing" is not enough. ISIL is determined.  The US should not enter this war until the Sunnis form a “coalition of the determined” and commit ground troops. Otherwise, it will be Americans on the ground. Again.  This time in Syria as well.

Where might ISIL strike next?

ISIL has already occupied a lot of the "friendly territory" available to it, which was the source of early rapid expansion. Lebanon is not a place where many will welcome them, as they have already discovered.  Hezbollah would prevent any serious ISIL incursion.  There is another area where they'd be welcomed by many, and that is Jordan. 

The fall of Jordan, if such happened, would be worse that the loss of Iraq. It would almost force Israel to take action, since there would now be a border with the Islamic State. It would also open up a new road for expansion into the Hijaz, which might well be one of the stronger areas of support for ISIL (among the people, not the rulers).

Jordan is fairly stable and well defended, so this is not a likely outcome, but it is a possibility. I don't think anyone foresaw how quickly the Iraqis would crumble.

Sunni-Shia War Primer

The first and most important thing to understand about the ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq is that it is not two wars in two nations. It is one war between two religious groups. From Tehran to Beirut there is an ongoing war between the Sunni and Shia Muslims -a war which dates back to the very founding of Islam. It is not a fight that will be solved by western military intervention.

The current conflict arose when peaceful demonstrations against the Assad regime in Syria were met with brutal suppression by government forces. As the bloodshed of the mostly Sunni protestors grew unbearable, Sunni troops, units, and leaders of the Syrian Army defected and formed the Free Syrian Army. Early success led them to capture a number of Army and Air Force bases which supplied them with weaponry to fight effectively against the government forces.

Who is ISIL?

ISIL stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The actual acronym name of the group in Arabic is DA'SH. You will see it rendered inaccurately in western media as ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The “SH” sound actually represents “Sham” -a reference to Greater Syria, which extends from southern Turkey to the Sinai. Their territorial ambitions are much larger than the inaccurate western name implies. The map below designates the areas covered by “Iraq and Sham”. This is the area that they envision as the nucleus for the re-establishment of the caliphate.

This group is a splinter of Al-Qaeida, originally being Al-Qaeida in Iraq. They fell under the influence of an Iraqi terrorist, Abu Bakr AlBaghdadi (real name Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarri), who was a protege of Osama bin Laden. After the death of bin Laden, he has refused to recognize the authority of the new Al-Qaeida leadership and has taken his own initiative in Iraq and Syria. The ISIL fighters are from all over the Muslim world. Many of them have engaged in the jihadi wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. ISIL was initially welcomed by Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime. Much of the original training was done in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and (ironically) Iran. They have fought in so many theatres with such a wide range of equipment that they are familiar with almost anything they find on the battlefield.

After ISIL entered Syria, there was an initial power struggle between Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL. Jabhat Al Nusra was the original AlQaeida group in Syria. ISIL tried to exert authority over them and bring them into ISIL but the leadership refused and AlQaeida ruled that they should fight alongside one another in cooperation. ISIL refused this ruling and began taking control of areas of Syria and independently governing them. They have captured an oil producing region of Syria, and the revenues from black market sales fund their continuing operations.

ISIL government has imposed a very harsh Sharia law upon the populations. Women are warned to stay at home. Hands will be chopped off from thieves. Any unIslamic business is forbidden. Extreme punishments including execution by sword are visited on any who oppose the ISIL government. Now large segments of Syria and Iraq are under these harsh laws.

The ISIL are so savage, and the populations under their control have cried out so loudly, that the other rebel factions have turned on them to expel them from Syria. You have to be ruthlessly savage to be kicked out of AlQaeida for being too extreme. Currently ISIL and the Assad regime do not fight one another. Both of them fight the rebels, who are caught between the government and even more extreme Islamists.

What is the Shia-Sunni war?

The Sunni Shia war dates back to the power struggle between the fourth caliph (leader of “all” Muslims), Ali (cousin of Mohammad), and the followers of a powerful Syrian leader named Muawiyah. Ali was ultimately assassinated by one of his former followers who belonged to the Kharijites, a group who broke away because Ali was not strong enough in asserting his authority as Caliph. Muawiyah became the fifth Caliph and the followers of Ali (thereafter called the Shia) refused to recognize him. The war ended in a bloody battle (Karbala) where Ali's son was killed and the Caliphate passed firmly into the hands of those called Sunni. This battle is remembered each year in their highest holiday of mourning by the Shia, who have not forgotten the killing of their leaders even after 1400 years.

This is key -the current Sunni-Shia war is being fought in these regions of Syria and Iraq just as it was 1400 years ago. The Caliphate passed back and forth from Sunni to Shia hands over the centuries, but the struggle to control Islam has not lessened. In modern times, Shia live mostly in Iraq and Iran, with smaller groups scattered in places like southern Lebanon and Syria (The Alawites).

Who are the parties other than ISIL?

Iran (Shia) is the largest factor in the current war. When the (Sunni) rebellion in Syria began to threaten the Assad regime (Alawite Shia) Iran stepped in to support the Assad regime. In addition to sending their own militants (Shia) to fight in Syria, the Iranians also hired unemployed Iraqis (Shia) as fighters to defend the Syrian government. More importantly, Iran mobilized the Hezbollah (Shia) forces in Lebanon to move into Syria and fight on the side of the government.

As the rebels were overwhelmed by the Shia groups, surrounding Sunni countries sent fighters to help the rebels. AlQaeida in Iraq (Sunni) sent Islamist fighters to start the Jabhat AlNusra, with some funding from Qatar. Saudi and Kuwaiti (all Sunni) money funded the Free Syrian Army. The US (supporting both Sunni and Shia) has committed itself to fund and support the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian Kurds have taken control of the northeastern region of Syria. They have avoided any clashes with government forces, claiming instead to be subject to the regime. Jabhat AlNusra had frequent clashes with the Kurds in the second year. Currently the Kurds are avoiding the conflict.

Update: The Kurds entered the conflict i the summer of 2014 after being attacked by ISIL and losing territory to them.  With US air support the Kurds have made significant advances against ISIL.

Who is fighting whom? (Shia vs. Sunni)

In both Syria and Iraq the fight is a religious one. In Syria the (Shia Alawite) Assad regime has the weakened Syrian Army, and a powerful Air Force that is in the hands of Alawite officers and crews. They are joined by Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, all of whom are Shia.

The rebels are fragmented groups. The Free Syrian Army is Sunni, and relatively moderate, though there are strong Islamist tendencies. There is a collection of smaller Sunni militias allied with the FSA. Jabhat AlNusra is a group of Salafist Sunni fighters from around the Muslim world that was sent to Syria by AlQaeida. These groups form a liberation front together. When ISIL first entered Syria, they were allied with this group.

The FSA/rebel groups are now fighting ISIL, whom they consider too extreme. ISIL is not currently fighting the Assad regime. The Kurds are currently not fighting any group. The Assad regime and Shia allies are fighting the FSA/rebel groups.

What about Iraq?

The same ISIL group that sent Jabhat Nusra and ISIL into Syria are leading the fight against the Iraqi government. They number only a few thousand, but like the Pied Piper, they are collecting other anti-government groups on their march toward Baghdad. These groups are not loyal to ISIL, but will fight beside them against the government.

The Kurds have used this opportunity to move in to protect Kirkuk, which they consider their historic Capital. They will not leave Kirkuk without a fight, so the government may engage them at some point. The Kurdish Peshmerga may be the best soldiers in Iraq at this point.

The Shia Iraqi government has called home Shia troops from Syria. They are mobilizing Shia militias to protect Baghdad. Iran is sending troops to defend the Shia holy sites in Iraq.

Can ISIL take Baghdad?

That is possible, but not probable. We have not seen the Iraqi Army fight yet, so there is no sure answer. The Shia are very strong in that region. So far, ISIL has been in “friendly territory.” There is also the likelihood that the Iraqi Air Force would be supplemented by air strikes from the US carrier group moving into the region. A siege of Baghdad is likely at this point, with some Sunni neighborhoods going to the rebels and the government holding important areas. Beirut was divided by sectarian violence for over a decade (and really still is today), and fighting in Damascus, though not heavy, has followed the same pattern.

What does this mean for the US?

If the US intervenes in Iraq, it will mean the commitment of Air and Special (ground) forces to strengthen the Iraqi government. We will be allies of Iran in this fight. We will be aiding a government that is allied with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. We will be on the Shia side of the fight.

In Syria, the US is already committed to supporting the other side of this same fight. We will be supporting the FSA against the government, Iranian, Lebanese, and Iraqi Shia foes. We will be on the Sunni side of the fight.

Imagine if you will, an Iraqi Shia militia that has enjoyed US support, training, and air support. They cross the border into Syria and now engage a Sunni FSA unit that has enjoyed US support, weapons, and training. We are now on both sides of the same fight.

This is a Sunni-Shia religious war. This war is over 1400 years old, and is being fought by the same sides and in the same region that it was 1400 years ago. The party of Caliph Ali (Shia) is opposing the caliphate of the Sunni on the same battlefields where they fought so long ago.

What about Lebanon?

For now Lebanon is safe. The government has taken precautionary steps of rounding up and arresting suspected ISIL sympathizers. We are fairly distant from the current events. The ISIL is the group who set off the series of car bombs in Lebanon earlier this year, so there is a possibility of renewed violence. If Baghdad should fall, which is unlikely, then the situation becomes much more grave.

Update:  A small ISIL force moved into the Arsal region of Lebanon in the summer of 2014 in a surprise incursion but was repelled by the Lebanese Army.  They are currently surrounded and living in caves in the border region, where they still hold perhaps 2 dozen soldiers and policeman captured in their surprise attack.

A final map of the intertwined and complex relationships involved:

An update of the situation can be found in this blog entry.