Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kobani Siege Ends; What's Next for ISIS

The Kurds and Americans have successfully pushed ISIS out of Kobani.
YPG Replaces ISIS Flag With Its Own. via European Pressphoto Agency

We can all take a minute and breathe a quick sigh of relief.

Then let's talk quickly about what happened, why it matters, and what's next.

Before we go on, a huge shout-out to the venerable Haghal Jagul for absolutely brilliant and tireless work in keeping these excellent maps updated with rich detail in the Wikipedia Commons.

What Happened

4 months ago, after grinding itself against the Kurds and making modest-at-best progress, ISIS decided to turn its attention towards closing off its northern front, eliminating a Kurdish force of about 2,000 in Kobani, and securing supply lines for a Western advance towards Aleppo (note the giant lake--the roads go north).

Armed with about 40 tanks (against 0 for the Kurds) and somewhere on the order of 5,000 fighters, ISIS hoped to knock this fight off pretty quickly, and in the span of about a month almost did so.

The "siege," which was less about starving the Kurds out and more about pounding them into submission with artillery, was followed by a final push on Kobani that almost captured the city until US-led airstrikes started in earnest (as well as US airdrops of supplies and armaments).

The airstrikes hit ISIS positions a few times per day and the Kurds slowly gained ground. The details of the fighting are, as usual, pretty detailed in Wikipedia. But in short, through some effective coordination (Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said: "I think the air strikes helped a lot. It helped when we had ... a reliable partner on the ground in there who could help us fine-tune those strikes."), the US used airstrikes to lift the pressure from ISIS shelling (the tanks couldn't be out in the open) and prep the ground for Kurdish advances through the city by pinning or just totally blasting ISIS positions. Of the 1200-1500 ISIS killed in the fighting, airstrikes may have delivered about 600 of those.

Kurdish reinforcements from Iraq also crossed through Turkey to bolster the defenses, which were (now famously) made up largely by untrained civilians including young women (rumor has it that ISIS militants believe they won't go to heaven if killed by a woman).

(Photo from worldpolicy.org)

Once driven out of the city, the now-exposed ISIS fighters started moving back to cover in nearby villages. Apparently Kurdish fighters have taken back a few of those (though dozens remain in ISIS control). Personally, I don't think there's going to be a rapid expansion of Kurdish territory, but if US airstrikes can keep up, strategically-located villages can get picked back up until ISIS supply lines are eventually cut.

The other, often-forgotten outcome, is that Kobani is mostly destroyed.

Why It Matters

US Retired General John Allen (anti-ISIS coalition coordinator) said that ISIS "has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani."

That's unfortunately wildly optimistic--ISIS is far from crippled. But the victory for the coalition means a few things right off the bat:
  • Political support for more airstrikes will remain high: they were very clearly the turning point in helping a beleaguered and vastly outnumbered & outgunned Kurdish force hold the town and repel ISIS. Its effectiveness means the administration will be bullish about employing it more, probably looking pretty fiercely towards the coming Iraqi offensive. This is going to be a significant shift--in October, nobody was shy about saying that the airstrikes were a total strategic failure.
  • Generally, the casualty numbers by ISIS far outstrip those of the Kurds when they go head-to-head (the Kurds claim the headcount is about 7,000 to 1,000, but this is likely inflated), which means that ISIS is getting "ground down" in its fighting with the Kurds.
  • It's a "symbolic" defeat for a force that is superstitious and driven by religious fervor. Recent recruiting has been successful due in part to a sense of inevitability and irresistibly. It will be harder to recruit if ISIS starts looking like a loser.
Why did Kobani matter so much, in all the fronts against ISIS? It's a tiny town and a bit out of the way.

Part of it was the size of the ISIS commitment: 5,000 fighters and 40 tanks is a huge force. The US wanted to defeat it to show that it could be done, even when outnumbered. Part of this is probably a lesson to the Iraqis for the upcoming counter-offensive in the north. 

Part of it is simply that the Kurds are some of the best hope to be had in defeating ISIS, and this was the first major victory that ISIS almost had over them. The US is willing to put a lot of resources into these guys because they have shown the skill and will to win, where Iraqi forces have buckled easily (the Kurds have retaken and are holding critical non-Kurd territory like Kirkuk--a political problem for another day) and Syrian forces are too busy fighting each other to be dedicated.

Once the US put its chips on defending Kobani, it had to "double-down" to win when it was losing, or else the political will to support the Kurds with airstrikes would have totally evaporated. I suspect the significant media attention to Kobani was fairly strongly encouraged by YPG and US political outlets in order to raise the symbolic importance of victory. Now the US has it.

ISIS' Progress In Other Areas

Over the past year, ISIS has generally advanced significantly in Syria and been slowly pushed back in Iraq; the progress here has generally given me hope for Iraq and pretty dark pessimism for Syria.

Progress in Syria

In August 2014, things were already pretty ugly in Syria. ISIS had ar-Raqqah, had cut off the northern Kurds, and held much of the oil-rich east.

By January 2015, ISIS has consolidated its holdings in the east, nearly annihilated the Kurds in the north, pushed far towards Homs/Hama, and even popped up down south. Those guys in white in the northwest are also Islamists. Again: the government and rebel forces are so busy fighting each other that ISIS is able to play to where each of them is weak. It's really, truly bad news.

There is a little  glimmer of hope. See the green circle in the lower-left? That's a slow-but-steady amount of progress by the southern rebels, pushing towards Damascus. They're getting most of the outside help and are seen as the most likely part of the rebellion to succeed. Taking Damascus would be incredibly difficult and wouldn't end the war, but it if happened and Assad was ousted, a Sunni-Alawite peace could probably be forged.

Progress in Iraq

In August 2014, things were looking really ugly in Iraq. The lightning-offensive had just occurred and ISIS forces were pushing into Western Baghdad... and working on just plain surrounding it. They'd also managed to push into some Kurdish territory (much of it not pictured).

 Despite the general weakness of the Iraqi army, they're well-armed and have significant US support. In the past few months, they've pushed back the most existentially-threatening parts of the ISIS advance and taken back a few of the lost cities. The Kurdish front seems secure and the idea that Baghdad might fall has passed. Fallujah is going to be this big grey spot for a very long time--even after Mosul falls (if it does). But slow, conservative progress is being made to establish a secure front around Iraq and hopefully surround (and then besiege) Fallujah, which would set the Iraqis up to focus on pushing north.

Not pretty, but it gives me optimism.

What's Next

Kobani might come to be seen as a mini-Benghazi. Kobani now has a lot of seasoned, well-supplied, and pissed off fighters without much of a home left. They're in effective coordination with the US and they're ready to push out. 

Immediately: if I had to guess, the US and Kurds will want to push out to take the two nearby border crossings (Jarabulus and Tall Abyad), both to "secure the area" generally and to bring Kurdish fighters, civilians, and supplies back to this area to support a further offensive. Expect action towards these areas soon.

After that, I see two goals:
  • Recapture Manbij and the Tishrin bridge to totally cut off western ISIS forces. Eventually the Kurds may try to link back up with more secure Kurdish forces in the northwest.
  • Link up with Kurds from the east moving west. The border town of Ras al-Ayn was retaken by the Kurds in mid-2013 and they've been slowly slogging their way west (fighting with Syrian government forces has been a distraction in the east, which continues to frustrate the heck out of anyone following all this)
It's going to be slow-going and I still see absolutely no hope for Syria beating ISIS in any serious way until the government-rebel civil war ends somehow. 

Iraq, on the other hand, should see a lot of relief here if ar-Raqqah is under pressure from the Kurds, which will make the probably-spring counter-offensive a lot easier.

Just keep in mind that a defeat in Kobani for ISIS is even worse than it would have been for the US, which means a second offensive is possible. The good news is that if tanks come back into the picture, the US is better-equipped to hit them as they move through the desert (again, much like as Libyan tanks approached Benghazi).

Speaking of Libya: did you know Libya has been in full-scale civil war for the last 8 months? We'll get to that one soon.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

No, the Ruble Falling Doesn't Mean Russia is Hosed

A friend recently shared an article with me about the ruble dropping (partly in response to sanctions) and asked me what I thought about it.

Go read it first, it's quick. I'm not going to summarize.

Read it yet? No, really, go do it.

Alright, good. Below is a modification of my original response, which I just wanted to share with everyone.

First, I think "2 guys got arrested" --> "Russia's economy is eating itself" is a grossly over-inflated and completely un-supported assertion here. Putin is on top because he does a great job specifically pitting his oligarchs against each other and reminding them that he can snap his fingers and crush them at any time... while keeping them rich. So the government still doing that is not surprising.

The oligarchs aren't in charge of the justice system (Putin wouldn't trust that) so I don't see how the arrests relate at all to oligarchical bickering. 

The ruble dropping isn't great, but it does mean that you can buy more bread (domestically made) for each barrel of oil you sell, so Russia's gas/oil imports will be buffeted here against the drop in the general price of oil/gas. 

Dropping one's currency is also a way to pivot an economy towards internal manufacturing, which may also be a deliberate move by Putin's administration to become less foreign-dependent, and it may be a sign of an economic strategy rather than just a political one. 

So yes, Russia is "digging in," and no doubt, it's getting ready to survive long-haul sanctions. But that doesn't mean the Russian economy is going to collapse. Putin is a smart guy. If he's planning to lose trade with the West, the first thing one wants to do is create as much domestic manufacturing as possible, and the ruble dropping is step one to doing that (because imports get expensive, exports get profitable, so local manufacturing is stimulated). The pain of the ruble dropping will pass as entrepreneurs seize on the opportunity to build new industries that take advantage of new domestic cost advantages. Russia's got the metal to make a lot of what it imports, excepting the luxuries that wealthy Russians love so much (but we don't need to worry about them). 

They'll be fine. The only way to really choke off the Russians is to cut oil/gas imports dramatically, and the Europeans aren't ready to feel the sting of that, themselves.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Was So Damn Wrong About ISIS--Or Was I?

So I was pretty optimistic about Iraq's ability to go get ISIS after they slowed down in their march towards Baghdad.


ISIL owns the Red and claims the Pink. Looks pretty bleak. (Wikipedia)

ISIS has held onto much of the territory it gained back then, and then started totally ripping up northern Syria. I'm sure you've all heard about Kobani, where the Kurds are about to lose their last major stronghold in the north.

A not-too-dramatized depiction of Kobani's current situation. 

It's gotten bad enough that young(ish) girls are taking up arms against ISIS. The good news about this is that ISIS superstition states that being killed by a woman means no virgins in heaven, so they're actually a little squeamish about fighting women and are apparently not quite as effective.
Kurdish women defending Kobani. (NYT)

So it looks pretty bad, and certainly the Iraqis and Syrians haven't been able to just clean up this problem like it's no big deal. I had been wondering, "how the heck did I get this so wrong? Where did ISIS' magical power come from?"
So I did some digging around, and it turns out I'm not as wrong as I thought. Let's look at things big picture, then piece-by-piece.

The Messy Situation in Iraq & Syria. Grey is ISIS, Yellow is Kurd, Purple is Iraqi gov't, Red is Syrian Gov't, Green is Syrian Opposition. Big version here.

Much like an American election, looking at the colors in terms of square miles really makes things look pretty lopsided. Let's look first at Iraq. See those little purple strands stretching out like fingers to the northwest? That's the Tirgis and Euphrates. Yeah, that cradle of civilization thing. Where all the people actually live because the rest is desert (see the blue dots? Those are towns). Months ago, ISIS had all that stuff. So in Iraq, most of that grey is... desert. ISIS holding Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah is bad news, but it's not existential if the tide is turning.

Now it's certainly not all peaches, especially just west of Baghdad. Those who have been wonking about Iraq for the past decade will immediately notice that this is Fallujah, the toughest enclave of anti-Shia/government sentiment and a perennial tough spot (to put it almost hilariously lightly) since 2003. That will be the last nut to crack in the ISIS counter-offensive. Tikrit, which is the town-of-size just north of Baghdad, will probably be much sooner.

Baghdad is actually currently working (albeit slowly) on taking a few nearby towns, including Ramadi, Haditha, and Muqdadiyah. Iraq just took Baiji today. Now that Iraq is starting to win some fights, the chances of its troops dropping their guns and fleeing at the first sight of enemy forces has dropped (at the very least, Iraq is starting to figure out which troops are relatively reliable).

So it's pretty good news in Iraq... at least by comparison (I don't want to underplay that this whole mess is a little terrifying and also an incredible human tragedy). "But why not more?" I hear you ask!

In short, the Iraqis are taking their time and making sure they're darn well prepared for a major assault. The Americans are doing a bunch of training and will likely lead the planning (and of course provide coordinated intel and air support, which will actually be a pretty big deal) in order to make the counter-assault something that's swift... when they get around do it. That's coming in 2015. For now, if you live in Mosul, "sorry."

CNN has a pretty long article that, while irritatingly unwilling to take a stand on anything, is quite informative, called "Has ISIS Peaked?" It talks about some of the other gains that Iraq is making, including interrupting supply lines, counter-siegeing, and being able to predict ISIS movements (and then call American airstrikes) that prevent them from being able to quickly take territory anymore. The blitzkreig is definitely done, and wasn't enough to break Iraq's back.

So we'll keep an eye on this but get excited for early 2015, when the Iraqi army launches its counter-offensive. We can be optimistic largely because ISIS is not like the Taliban: where the Taliban is largely an insurgent army that controls its territory by having a relatively strong support base and Kabul's capacity to assert itself is weak in its areas, ISIS is a small and hated organization that happens to have gotten its hands on a lot of money and tanks. Where the Taliban can melt away and come back, ISIS will have to hold its ground in its urban controllings and fight a conventional war, as attempting to flee will mean the loss of its hardware (either by leaving it behind or having it bombed) and money. If they come back, they'll no longer have the element of surprise and, hopefully, the Iraqi army will be trained just enough to fire a few shots back before retreating, which should be enough given the army's vastly overwhelming numerical advantage (about 10:1, and the offensive can likely concentrate that further).

Unfortunately, Syria's prospects area not nearly so good.

In Syria, one literally has 4 groups all fighting each other: the Government, the Opposition, the Kurds, and ISIS. ISIS even recently signed an agreement with al-Qaeda there to stop fighting each other. It's bad news. The Kurds and the Opposition teamed up for a while in Aleppo, but they're now too broken apart to help each other.

As much as Assad is a bad guy, the fact that the Government, Opposition, and Kurds are all fighting each other means that ISIS will continually have opportunities to exploit wedges and move into weak points (as these groups move troops to fight each other). If, for example, the Government forces are being pressed at one side, the Opposition won't back off in order to help the Government repel ISIS--they'll take advantage of the weakness themselves and move in. It means that nobody (except maybe the Kurds, who are so cornered that they're out of the Gov/Opp civil war) can fight ISIS without worrying about being stabbed in the back.

To deal with Syria, the anti-ISIS "coalition" (really, the US) needs to play a game of containment until Iraq is handled. The Kurds have the best chance at actually seriously fighting ISIS at the moment (they seem to be taking Kobani back), and they're getting help from Iraqi and Turkish Kurds as reinforcements. The Westphalian implications of this multinational joint Kurdish effort will not be lost upon the keen student of political science, but I'll avoid digressing.

Once (if I'm right) Iraq is somewhat taken care of, the Iraqi Kurds are likely to form an offensive to help liberate northern Syria. To be fair, they're likely to stop after they liberate all of Kurdish territory, leaving the remnants of ISIS from the Kurd regions and from Iraq to focus what's left of their power on the rest of Syria.

US policy will focus on a dubious strategy of trying to arm the rebels and use airstrikes against ISIS to help the Opposition fight both ISIS and the Government at the same time. I don't think it's a fight that the Opposition can win. To achieve both a limit of bloodshed and a swifter, surer end to ISIS, the US may need to give up on the Opposition and make sure Syria is more united. But it won't happen.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Foggofwar Short: Arab (Mostly Sunni) Coalition Forming Against ISIS

US, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar all sent fighters, drones (US only) and cruise missiles (US only) to bomb ISIL/ISIS/IS/whatever-you-want-to-call-these-assholes targets in Syria. Really a show of political unity more than something particularly tactical, but holy smokes--it's actually a really big move for all of these countries to more-or-less violate the Westphalian notion of sovereignty in Syria.


Here are the really interesting/relevant points to take away:

  • Syria probably didn't give any explicit permission for the strikes--not clear if Assad agreed in private. If not, then there is a somewhat-dangerous precedent being set of US/its allies hitting countries whose current governments aren't on board (see: Pakistan). The Westphalian model of territorial sovereignty might be breaking down, and the long-term consequences for global stability are a bit disconcerting.
  • It's Sunni-majority or Sunni-led (Bahrain) countries, exclusively, carrying out these strikes. Not too surprising, but it's a sign that the more Western-style (Westphalian, really) governments that are in the Middle East are resisting the idea of a unified Sunni state in principle. Also not surprising: those in power want to stay in power, and that general inertia means there won't be a great Arab/Islamic unity movement (a la Nasser or the Ottoman empire) any time too soon unless it's grass-roots/revolutionary (this mirrors anti-Muslim Brotherhood behavior in most of these countries).
  • Airstrikes have had mixed results in the past. It's not clear whether they're working in Pakistan/Afghanistan, but in that Pashtun region, the Taliban has major local support. It's worked better in support of competent ground forces in places like Somalia, Libya, northern Afghanistan. ISIS doesn't have a whole lot of local support in most of these places--they're just too awful. 
  • The US risks a new "quagmire." 
  • Democrats are becoming much more hawkish.
  • Obama is effectively building an Arab coalition and leading it--rather than, for example, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, or someone else.
  • Egypt and Turkey are also notably absent from this coalition.
  • NATO is probably not going to join strikes against Syria, but will stay in Iraq. This needs to look like an Arab local policing thing, rather than "Western aggression."
  • The realllllllly complicated part if figuring out what ground forces will come through after these strikes and "take over." Iraq and Syria are a terrible mess and are fracturing into more localized, non-official government groups doing the local governance. The Kurds seem to have their act together more than pretty much anyone else, and may fill a lot of the void, but they really don't want to (and shouldn't) govern outside of Kurdish territory. 
  • The US will try to support the "moderate rebels" in Syria, but they're of course fighting a war on 2 fronts, which makes the whole thing a truly terrible mess, and it will be hard helping them focus when they're being pressed by Assad. Assad is definitely looking to take advantage of getting some relief from ISIS to go after the moderate rebels. This will undermine anti-ISIS efforts.
  • In Iraq, the new prime minister Al-Abadi has to bring "reconciliable" Sunnis (the "Sunni Awakening" types) back into the fold to go after ISIS in its western areas so the army can focus on Mosul. Taking back Fallujah would happen last--it's going to be the tough nut to crack.
  • This is all going to take a very long time. 

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Brief on ISIS Advance in Iraq

It was pretty pathetic. ISIS took control of Mosul and Tikrit (which are pretty bloody far apart!) in 2 days with 3,000 troops. Iraq had a division of 30,000 that totally dissolved under the advance.

That's just terrifying.
They've got tanks now, too.
And a fat, fat stack of money ($430MM USD, looted from Mosul).

Now they've got control of... well, a whole lot. They have way more in Iraq than they even do in Syria, and the Syrian government has been busy fighting with rebels for over 2 years now.

Just look at how close they are to Baghdad.

There's a weird silver lining, in that their end game is a difficult one, so it may not be an existential threat. ISIS just can't take over the whole country--there are too many Kurdish and Shiite militias that would rip them apart.

So all they can really try to do is create a de-facto (and then maybe formal?) separate state in Sunni areas. This could go something like the Kurdish region, with similar headaches for neighboring countries. It wouldn't happen without a long stalemate.

So I don't think these 10,000 ISIS fighters are going to topple the Iraqi government. The Iraqis are mustering the parts of their army that aren't a humiliating mess, and making a counter-offensive (they took back Tikrit, for example). They're getting help (Iran helped with Tikrit and may help with more), and the US may help, although probably not until the most immediate crisis (Obama is putting political-reform strings on any help). They're going after Samarra next.

(By the way, I can only say "this might not be an existential threat" as of today. As of yesterday, ISIS had shot through half of Iraq unopposed and had taken over almost everything of note north of Baghdad, and Baghdad's forces were gathering to "make a stand" at an air base north of the city.)

So maybe Iran's help is absolutely critical to Iraq's survival.

Obviously the Iraqi army is going to be in need of a dire, dire shakeup. Lots of people joined the army just because it was a source of steady income. Many have strong sectarian feelings and if they're Sunni, they may not want to fire upon their Sunni brothers (same goes with Shiites). These guys just weren't hellbent on defending the Iraqi Republic. A smaller, more selective, better-trained army may end up making more sense. This will come in time.

There are a few weird silver linings here.

1) If the Iraqis are able to muster the ability and help to do a serious offensive in Anbar, it may cut off some vital shelters and supply/training depots for ISIS in Syria, and limit the likelihood that eastern Syria actually becomes a permanent terror state.

2) Iran and the US might start getting along. They both want so badly to keep a lid on this that we may see joint exercises and a general putting-aside of differences. The fact that Rouhani is willing to do this is a sign that he's a much more reasonable character, too. Iran/US cooperation would actually bring a whole lot of long-term stability to the general area.

We're not at all out of the woods yet. I'll keep you updated.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Eastern Ukraine in Full-Scale Civil War

Just a few snippets:

Literally hundreds of pro-Russian insurgents keep attacking bases and border posts:

Insurgents from Russia are using occupied border posts to pour through and reinforce eastern Ukrainians. Of course Russia is not really doing anything to prevent this:

Ukrainian troops are battling insurgents for control over dozens of locations, like border posts, government buildings, and a big airport:

The insurgents are well-armed: having taken some armories and (embarrassingly) APCs, they're doing more than your typical AK-47 wielding civilian. They were even able to shoot down a Ukrainian helicopter:

The military has the advantage in training and equipment, and killed 300 (probably) insurgents as they close in on Slaviansk. That's a crazy-big number for the kind of war this is:

Putin of course making matters worse by jacking up prices on Ukrainian gas and cutting off supplies from Crimea. Ukraine refuses to pay the extra fee (but is paying at the old rate), generally considering this extortion. Now, of course, Russia is planning to cut off supplies entirely:

NATO's response for the moment is to fund/train Ukrainian forces, increase exercises in Russia's regional waters (Black and Baltic seas), and step up spending on its own military (particularly in Poland, which is probably due for a war with Russia within the next 20 years):

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Copyright Erik Fogg 2006-2013.