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More US Air Power Needed to Defeat IS, Defense Expert Says

Posted May 29th, 2015 at 5:54 pm (UTC-4)
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Since the fall of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) extremists two weeks ago, critics have been taking aim at the US strategy to combat IS in Syria and Iraq.

On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter blamed the Iraqi military for the IS victory in Ramadi, saying they “just showed no will to fight” despite vastly outnumbering opposing IS forces. Carter maintained that U.S.-led airstrikes are effective.

In an exclusive interview with VOA, Iraqi President Fuad Masum said Iraqi forces need time to be able to fight the kind of war IS is waging and will “fight until they are killed or we die.”

We spoke to Anthony Cordesman, an expert on U.S. defense strategy, about the battle against IS and what needs to happen to change the outcomes in Iraq and Syria.[/caption]

VOA: Is the Iraqi military capable of taking on this fight?

Cordesman: I think we have to be very careful because US advisers warned, basically in the summer of 2014, that it could take several years to restructure and recover the capabilities in the Iraqi army.

The problems that began in 2010 and that extended under Prime Minister Maliki, as essentially he tried to use the forces to secure his own political position as … he pushed the army and police into efforts to put down peaceful protests, particularly in western Iraq, all of these things essentially left a force that in many ways had been shattered long before the Islamic State attacked in Ramadi and Fallujah and went on to the Islamic State. And reviving a force once it has these problems with corruption and leadership and politicization is an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming task.

VOA: So what needs to change politically for fortunes to change militarily?

Cordesman: There is no way you can essentially secure the western part of Iraq if you don’t have an agreement between the central government, Iraq’s Sunnis and the Kurds. Even if you can push the Islamic State forces out of the cities in the west, the fact is that you don’t have unity if you have a hostile population.

And you will never be able to secure the area against infiltration coming in from Syria. You aren’t going to have unity in the north in Nineveh, which is the most critical and populated province, unless you can find an accommodation that works on a lasting basis between the Sunnis that dominate the area and the Kurds are on the edge … So we’re not simply talking about military operations. We’re talking about creating a secure and stable structure and turning tactical victories into some kind of strategic success.

Sunni tribal volunteers stand in formation during their ceremony in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Sunni tribal volunteers stand in formation during their ceremony in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

VOA: What can the United States do to increase its effectiveness?

Cordesman: I think that in many ways, several things are needed.

One is, people in the Pentagon are already considering strengthening the train and assist mission. It has been very limited. US advisers have not gone forward. It’s obvious, that in many cases, Iraqi combat leaders do need help, better air controllers, people who can help them, with combat tactics, people who can put pressure to ensure they get reinforcement and resupplied, because some kind of independent channel is needed to work around an Iraqi supply and command structure that simply doesn’t react effectively, as well as to use US and allied air power more effectively.

Now another key measure would be to increase the number of strikes and use air power more quickly, something that many Iraqis have complained about. But to do that, you have to have people on the ground you can trust, to target effectively and who will not, somehow, become involved in incidents which could create new problems between Sunnis and Shiites.

The issue with Syria is one where, a minimum, more needs to be done to attack the structure of ISIL, or the Islamic State, that many people call Daesh. There hasn’t been enough damage to basically ensure that if you do score military victories in western Iraq, you can convince the Islamic State not to simply keep attacking across the border and attempting to infiltrate back.

VOA: So what would you recommend for a US strategy in Syria that could eventually achieve the goal of defeating ISIS and al-Nusrah front as well?

Cordesman: The problem is not simply ISIS and the al-Nusrah front. It is the Assad regime and when you look at a strategy, you have to consider this is not a military operation alone.

Because, how do you put seven million people back in their homes inside Syria? And how do you deal with nearly four million outside refugees? When we talk about counterinsurgency, which is the closest parallel we have to intervening in these types of civil wars, the goal is never simply tactical, to win. It’s to find a way to secure the area and then to build some kind of unity.

The unfortunate reality at this point is there’s no clear Syrian faction to back. There are moderate groups outside Syria, but they have very little political power and almost no experience in governing. The Assad regime just goes from one abuse to another without really serving as an effective government or development tool, and when you talk about the al-Nusrah front and the Islamic State … these are only part of a deeply divided rebel movement, most of which today is Islamist extremist in character.

Putting Syria back together, finding a way to provide some kind of stability and security which isn’t either extremist or Assad, that is something that will take a long time, a lot of negotiation.

Anthony Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he served in many positions in the U.S. Department of Defense, including director of intelligence assessment, along with positions in the State Department, on the NATO International Staff and as national security assistant for Sen. John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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