The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command have revamped the US war plans against the Islamic State, in the face of scandals, resignations and major personnel changes. The overhaul plan is being finalized and will be presented to the President and the National Security Council in the coming days.
Last week, Gen. John Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Iraq and Syria abruptly resigned, accusing the White House of failing to put adequate resources into the battle against ISIL. His departure came at the same time that Gen. Martin Dempsey was completing his term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as investigators for the Pentagon’s Inspector General were intensifying their investigation into the allegations by Centcom and DIA analysts, that they were pressured to alter their assessments to paint a more positive picture of progress against ISIL than the reality.
The Pentagon reassessment has concluded that the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq is stalled, as the result of a combination of factors. The Iraq Army has proven ineffective in combat operations against ISIL, and the American training program is moving ahead slower than anticipated. Iraqi Army field commanders are performing poorly, and are further stymied by micro-managing from Baghdad and from the actions of Shi’ite militias, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al Quds Brigade.
While the Pentagon reassessment is that the Iraqi Army will eventually improve, in the near-term, the JCS calls for American combat “advisors” to be assigned to key Iraqi Army units in the field, to improve their tactical operations.
Critics of the proposal to “embed” American combat officers into Iraqi fighting units argue that such advisory roles always evolve into actual combat. That argument was ultimately rejected in the Pentagon review.
The plan also calls for the US to deploy Apache helicopters into select combat situations, to provide critical close air support. This is a controversial recommendation, given the vulnerability of Apache helicopters to enemy anti-aircraft fire, including from RPGs.
The reassessment puts greater emphasis on the Syrian front, where some significant gains have been made in the north, primarily by Kurdish fighters. The proposal, soon to be under review at the White House, would have a number of US Special Operations Force (SOF) troops join with the Kurds and other select non-Salafist rebel units. In addition, the modified plan would increase the flow of light arms and trainers, particularly to the Kurdish units.
The shift of near-term focus to the Syrian front is tied to a windfall of intelligence, coming from US drone reconnaissance operations out of bases in Turkey. The intelligence has focused on cross-border logistical lines from Turkish territory into Raqqa and other ISIL strongholds in northern Syria, which have resulted in a significant cut back in the flow of new combat recruits to ISIL. The US goal is to greatly reduce the supply lines and black market smuggling routes between northern Syria and Turkey.
Under the revised Pentagon plan, the US aims to cut off Raqqa from the north.
The challenge for the Pentagon/Centcom planners is to resolve the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, which remains one of the crucial obstacles to success in the north of Syria. The Obama Administration will be urged by the Pentagon to put greater pressure on Turkey to fully cooperate in shutting down the ISIL pipeline from the north into Syria, and to allow US-Kurdish joint operations to increase.
Pentagon SOF fighters will be joining the CIA teams already on the ground with Kurdish fighting units, including YPK.
The Pentagon review and modified combat plans against the Islamic State do not ignore the expanded Russian military presence on the ground in Syria. While spokesmen for Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have denied that the US is or will engage in “deconfliction” talks with Russian counterpart, it is said at the Defense Department that there are already talks underway, and US and Russian surveillance drones are operating in the same theaters of operation, making it essential for the two militaries to engage. “The Russia-US military-to-military platform is up and running,” the source reported. “It will grow or stall, depending on how transparent the Russian are about their actual intentions.”
The mil-mil cooperation will be framed by the diplomatic talks between Washington and Moscow. If Russia is prepared to discuss the “post-Assad transition,” the door will be open for serious cooperation, even if Assad remains during a prescribed transitional period.
In the meantime, the revamped US plans for Iraq and Syria can accommodate to whatever the outcome of the new US-Russian negotiations. The JCS and Centcom will proceed with the plan, once approved by President Obama, with or without Russian collaboration.