Crisis in Syria and Iraq: All-in or all-out?


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Josh Wineera is having a busy week…a successful engagement at the New Zealand Association for Training and Development Conference, followed by this op-ed for Fairfax. For me, a most refreshing change from the ‘usual suspect;’ domestic talking heads that are being trotted out to ‘comment’ on the developing situation in the Middle East. Read on…

To use the Texas Hold’em poker analogy, Islamic State (ISIS) is ‘all-in’ to seize the major cities on the Syrian-Turkish border as well as swathes of regional areas in western and central Iraq. The actions are clinical, calculated and surprisingly conventional. The approach is one of simple arithmetic and follows an important principle of war – mass, or more plainly ISIS has the numbers. Unlike poker however, the stakes are not casino chips but rather millions of innocent victims caught up in yet another cycle of Middle Eastern violence.

While the much-vaunted precision-guided munitions continue to be dropped by U.S.-led coalition aircraft, the unrelenting nature of ISIS ‘boots on the ground’ is the decisive factor. Attrition of its fighters is not a concern. Thousands are ready and better positioned to be ordered into the fray. To coin the phrase, ISIS is currently the side that is the fastest with the mostest and many battles throughout history have been won this way.

So, if the tactic is to seize and hold the likes of Kobani or Anbar province on the other front in Iraq, how then might this contribute to the ISIS strategy? First and foremost a narrative is likely being developed to expose the limits and ultimate failure of the ‘West’ to effectively support the likes of the Kurds and even the Government of Iraq. This is certainly being helped along with media commentators such as Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn asserting the ‘U.S. strategy is in tatters as ISIS marches on’.

Second, and more chilling, is the perception that there is no safe place in the region to escape the onslaught. While some fight, the vast majority living under threat of mortal danger are not soldiers nor capable of putting up meaningful resistance. Capitulation and being resigned to the fate that awaits them under a barbarous regime appears inevitable.

But even with air power and small contingents of international land forces can anything really be done to roll back ISIS? At one end of the spectrum there are those that still believe this is not a fight for the West. Continued intervention is not the answer they decry.

Taken further, supporters of Edward Luttwak’s ‘Give War a Chance’ proposition argue that sitting on the sidelines and waiting until all belligerents become exhausted is a better plan. Standing by while foes battle each other is one thing, however giving a free hand for systematic cruelty and genocide is quite a different argument.

On this issue, if widespread butchery and carnage is the trigger for international reaction then according to Canadian journalist Neil MacDonald intervention in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo is more warranted.”ISIS’s acolytes are just apprentices at atrocity compared to some in the Congo”.

The other end of the spectrum leads to an all-in approach by countries that have the tenacity and dedication to endure what would be another long and frustrating campaign. The 2014 all-in version should include the familiar political, economic and military assistance. The time frame for favourable conditions would need to be measured in years not months. So how will these be different, have better outcomes, than the 2003-2011 version applied in Iraq? Politically, positive change has already occurred with Haider al-Abadi confirmed as Iraq’s Prime Minister. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed al-Abadi’s formation of a new inclusive Government in Iraq.

Oversight of political reform is paramount to ensure balance and avoid marginalising the Sunni population in particular. Economically the impact of change will be less disruptive as Iraq’s southern oil fields maintain productivity and buttress the financial markets. Inter-Governmental Organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are not expected to have to significantly intervene.

Which leaves the lingering question of military assistance. Right now the prime means of international intervention is air strikes and combat advisors. At best these immediate efforts will help the Kurds and the Iraqi Government stem the ISIS advances. Wishful thinking might even result in a stalemate. There is no quick fix. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby has said “people need to understand we need a little strategic patience here…it is going to take a bit of time”.

While western governments continue to debate the merits and risks of deploying ground troops, a ready-made force is already being brought into action. A U.S. Government contract issued in August called for interested vendors to provide security assistance mentors and advisors. The private security community is naturally abuzz with new possibilities.

Eric Prince, founder of controversial security contractor Blackwater, has waded into the conversation. Calling the Iraqi Army inept after billions spent on training and equipping them, Prince suggests, “if the old Blackwater team were together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade size unit of veteran American contractors or multinational force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be the necessary ground combat team”. He goes on stating, “a competent professional force of volunteers would serve as the pointy end of the spear and would strengthen friendly but skittish indigenous forces”.

There is much irony in calling for private security companies to fill the void of trainers and mentors to the Iraqi security forces. A number still stand accused of delivering poor training last decade.

Whatever arrangements are put in place by international military forces or private security companies, the processes and methods of training Iraqi’s and even the Kurds must be transformed. Doing the same thing and expecting different results cannot be allowed to prevail. While a focus on technical skills is expected, installing a sense of duty and ingraining societal values to repulse the long-term intentions of ISIS will be essential.
What is clear is this is a poker hand that nobody except ISIS wants to play. Folding and forfeiting interest in the situation does not appear to be an option for those governments already committed. It’s time to ante up or move on. In the meantime millions across the region continue to bleed and live in fear.


Josh Wineera is a member of the New Zealand National Forum for the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific. He is also a PhD candidate with the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. His doctoral research is on training foreign security forces.

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