Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tikrit Falls to Iraqi Forces; US Solidifies Role as Leader Against ISIS

Tikrit has fallen.

Mop-up operations are underway, but the Iraqi national flag now flies over the city, and ISIS is broken.

Iraqi forces should be moving quickly north to secure the Baji road and oil refinery before securing, regrouping, and supporting Ramadi to make sure the ISIS advance there is halted. And then, of course, there will be a few-months' ramp-up to take Mosul.

Key Takeaways:

The advance into Tikrit was halted around March 6th as the army/Shiite militias faced heavy sniper fire and dug-in pockets of resistance.

US airstrikes started up just under a week ago after the Iraqi government requested the support to break ISIS resistance. Those airstrikes prompted most of the 20,000 Shiite militiamen--who generally don't like the US and see themselves as more closely aligned with Iranian interests--to boycott the siege and go home, leaving about 3,000 Iraqi Army troops, 1,000 Sunni fighters, and about 2,000 Shiite fighters. It left a lot of glaring holes in the siege.

But the airstrikes proved decisive.

After softening ISIS targets (which had probably thought themselves unlikely to have to face such airstrikes), the US suspended its operations and the Shiite militias quickly came back to launch the final assault.

The city fell one day after the air campaign, after 3 weeks of no progress.

The US is gloating a bit, and with good reason. US officials are taking the opportunity to show that Iran can't alone support the Iraqi advance. This is a precedent-setting kind of event: the US was "snubbed" last month when Iraq's government moved into Tikrit with Shiite militias and Iranian ground support, without informing the US or requesting support.

Giving in to request the support was a sign the Iraqis had realized they need it. The fact that the city was taken so quickly after the strikes cements the US' future role.

This means one of two things: either the US and Iran will work more closely together, or the Iranians will have a much-reduced role in the Iraqi offensives in the future.

This cementing also means that the US is going to be leading the assault on Mosul, which is about 20x larger than Tikrit and has many more ISIS fighters dug in. It's clear that the Mosul operation is a non-starter without that air support.

Shiite militias will make a lot of noise about not needing the US, but I do believe that Tikrit will be weighing heavily on their minds when they are planning the Mosul advance, and that despite the high tensions, the militias will begrudgingly go in with US air support.

It's worth noting: Tikrit probably had far more than the 2,000 ISIS fighters initially estimated--the Iraqi government cites about 13,000, but this is probably inflated. The good news is that this means the Iraqis have shown that they can win with about 2:1 odds, rather than the 10:1 or 15:1 previously thought. Mosul also has about 12,000 ISIS fighters, so the fight will not be an order-of-magnitude difference (though will obviously take much longer and be more complicated due to Mosul being about 20x larger in land mass).

But ongoing US airstrikes are making it hard for ISIS to dig in as deeply as it would like, and the ISIS governor ("Prince of Mosul") and Mosul's top ISIS military commander have both been killed by airstrikes.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Middle East War Update: Libyan Civil War Back On; Saudis Attack Yemen

The key bit of news for Libya is that as of March 20th, the Libyan civil war is back on in full swing, and Tobruk government forces are quickly moving to surround Tripoli. They seem to have caught Libya Dawn—who has been focused on fighting ISIS—off guard.

A Quick Reminder of the Players:
·         Tobruk Government: the newly-elected parliament (House of Representatives) and Presidential Council. Backed by the army. Generally considered the legitimate government due to having won the most recent elections.
·         Libya Dawn: the greater Islamist umbrella siding with the “New General National Council,” which was the General National Council until they were defeated in elections and refused to step down. Also called just the “Islamist Government” due to being an alliance of Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to Ansar al-Sharia (and the electorally-defeated New GNC is highly Islamist).

Quick 2015 Timeline:
·         January 16th:  Libya Dawn and Tobruk Government ceasefire. Unity Government talks launched.
Jan 21 Map Post-Ceasefire. From Wikipedia. Red = Tobruk Gov't; Green = Libya Dawn; Grey/Black = ISIS.

·         Interregnum period: lots of fighting with ISIS.
·         Feburary 20th: Tobruk Government’s House of Representatives votes to cut off talks with Libya Dawn  / New GNC.
March 20th Map: Greatest Extent of ISIS Control

·         March 20th: Tobruk government re-launches hostilities against Libya Dawn to take Tripoli
·         March 23rd: Tripoli attacked under siege
March 22nd Map With Tobruk Gov’t Assault. Note ISIS Positions Contracting. Note white = Ansar al-Sharia.

The fact that Tobruk Government forces were so quick to make progress to surround Tripoli suggests they were able to conceal the size and position of their forces.

(This is often why military groups are wary of ceasefires, by the way: they give the other side breathing room to regroup, resupply, and reposition. It’s why Ukraine was so bloody upset after Minsk I.)

Despite being beaten back in the past 2 months, ISIS is likely to make a comeback as Libya Dawn and Tobruk focus on each other.

With Iran-backed Shiite Houthis pressing down on Aden (the last major stronghold of elected-government forces), on March 25th Saudi Arabia decided to (at the behest of Yemen’s President) launch a military operation to push the Houthis back and restore the government. They’re claiming currently that they have a 10-country Arab (probably all Sunni-controlled) coalition, and they have amassed heavy weapons and troops along the border, just north of the Houthi’s strongest presence.
The Saudis have launched airstrikes to get things started, likely as they organize for a ground assault with the rest of the coalition. Egypt is sending ships to the area right now for support.

What finally spurred the Saudi intervention was the very rapid advance of Houthi forces towards Aden over the past 4 days--if Aden falls and the President is captured, the government comes very close to being booted out of the war entirely:

 March 22nd. Red = Gov't forces. Green = Houthis. Yellow = South Yemen Separatists. Grey = ISIS/Al-Qaeda.

March 26th

Yemen is the hottest spot right now for the ongoing Sunni-Shiite regional war and the Iranian/Arab regional war, which have very high overlap. Syria’s civil war is the secondary battleground, though outside nations are not committed to invading directly and are wary enough of the strength of ISIS that they are taking a break of sorts. In Iraq, all parties seem so dedicated to beating ISIS that the hottest parts of the Sunni-Shiite fighting have been put aside almost entirely.

Iran will probably not respond militarily here other than to try to beef up Houthi forces; at this point neither the Gulf States nor Iran want all-out war--expect their conflict to continue as a series of proxy wars.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Afghanistan War Update, 2015: More Fighting, But Negotiations Coming

Afghanistan has been largely forgotten (including by me) as the rest of the middle east has erupted, in large part because Afghanistan is in a surprisingly "stable" stalemate--not that the country has stabilized, but that there isn't much movement one way or another.

I decided to finally get back to writing about Afghanistan after reading that the US is now planning to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016--right up until President Obama leaves office.

The decision seems to come in response to two things:

The good news, at least through 2013, is that the total Taliban deaths per year--as well as their percentage of total combat deaths--increased steadily...

...even as the NATO coalition pulled out and got less involved in operations (and thus its casualty rate has dropped precipitously). This means that, indeed, the Afghanistan National Army is getting comparatively stronger and more capable compared to the Taliban. Unlike the Iraqi army forces, there isn't much worry of the Afghans simply splitting and running.

The bad news is that corruption is still a major problem, and that opium production has gone through the roof since the British withdrawal--it's higher than it's ever been. This means lots of money for the Taliban and a sign of very little government control in southern Pashtun regions (Helmand/Kandahar).

In the end, I hold by my 2013 prediction (it's a bloody good article--go read it) that in 2015 the Taliban will attempt an offensive, fail to take over the country, and negotiate.

Those negotiations are coming, in large part due to Ghani's charm offensive to get Pakistan to pressure the Taliban into making the talks happen. I think this is the real reason Obama wants to keep some troops around--to apply pressure during the negotiations. I don't think it's because of just blind faith that Ghani is going to make the situation better before Obama is out of office--that would be naive in the face of recent history.

In the end, Afghanistan is a comparatively simple story of an ethnic (largely Pashtun) insurgency...

caused in large part by arbitrary colonial boundary-making (the infamous Durand Line).

This means, I think, that it'll end as most of these do: slowly, painfully, and with an awkward peace deal that'll have many hiccups down the line. The good news for the Afghan army is that even though fighting is intensifying (to be predicted as NATO troops withdraw and Taliban forces try to use the opportunity to beat up the ANA and win bargaining power), the Taliban are consistently losing in these fights 4:1 or 5:1. That continued losing means they are likely hurting and more eager for a deal.

The rest of the middle east may remain such a mess that the Taliban will be considered almost reasonable by comparison once they make a peace deal. I'm not kidding.

Some other interesting notes:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Foggofwar Says: Let's Make a Deal With Iran

The nuclear deal with Iran is entering the final stages of getting to "in principle" agreement--here's the general outline.

It's not clear whether the US and Iran will make a deal, but the political will is definitely there, and that's the most important part.

Though I have some reservations, I endorse the deal--I think we should make it, if what shows up in June sticks to the general outline that we know now.

In short, it cuts Iran down to a scope of production that would make "break-out" time--the time it takes to build a nuke if they got serious--one year, which is a pretty long time. Even assuming they can ramp up much faster, it gives the US time to do something about it. The door would need to be open to inspectors, which gives at least enough monitoring to know if Iran is sneaking around.

I'm going to tackle what I think are the objections, though let me know if I miss any:

  • "It's only 10 years." A lot changes in 10 years. The idea of permanently keeping a country from having a domestic, peaceful nuclear power program is something that's just not going to fly. The West is hoping that a good deal and thawed relations will bring out the moderates in Iran and make it a place we're not so worried about anymore.
  • "If we drop all sanctions, we lose bargaining power." If Iran holds up its end of the deal, the US doesn't really need further bargaining power on the nuclear issue. It and the rest of the West can always slap the sanctions right back on--that's easier and more immediate than trying to build a weapon or spooling up weapons facilities. Just as the agreement on Iran's capacity limitations expires after 10 years, so does the agreement to have no economic sanctions about the nuclear issue.
  • "What if they break their end of the deal?" If they really break it, the US can still use military force. The biggest concern I had about the deal was that I was worried the US wasn't willing to threaten military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuke. I started considering whether the President was trying to be clever about messaging, as he is doing in relation to ISIS. A Nobel Peace Prize winner does not lower himself by threatening war if he does not get what he wants. Luckily, his hand-picked Director of the CIA can do just that, and has. The President gets to keep focusing on the positive and being the carrot to the CIA's stick. But there is a subtlety even here: when Obama says that the window for a peaceful resolution is temporary, he means it: the Republican letter to Iran, however hamfisted, makes it clear that the winds may change in the US and that the next President might not be quite so accommodating--and might be more willing to throw missiles at the problem.

The best part about a reasonable deal is that it gives legitimacy and political will for military action if it's necessary. Military force is a last resort after diplomacy fails, and if Iran goes ahead and builds nukes under a treaty/agreement not to do so, it becomes easier for everyone to talk about employing military force.

All in all, I think the deal is a good one. And long-term, it could work to bring Iran further into the Western fold.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Israeli Election Update; And Corrections

First, some corrections:

I got lazy in deciding to not translate some Hebrew and mis-named Herzog's "Zionist Union" as "Labor," which is inexcusable, though we can think of them similarly.

Second, I also failed to take into account the non-linear seat allocations of the Israeli parliament, so my numbers were way off.

But let's move forward.

With 94% of votes in, Likud has a surprise lead with 29 seats to ZU's 24. This is actually so far off of exit polls showing them both closer to 27 or 28 that I suspect there will be a bit of a change as the last 6% get counted (otherwise the exit pollers put up a disappointing effort).

Let's assume this holds.

The Arab "Joint List" will absolutely not join with Likud, and nor will Yesh Atid--even though they were with Netanyahu's coalition last time, they've insisted that they'll only join a coalition "dedicated to peace," and in Israeli terms, that means the opposition.

Likud can count on Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beytenu, which means Netanyahu's current count is 57--short of the 61 needed.

Herzog's ZU can count on Yesh Atid, Meretz, and the Arab Joint List (due to its stern opposition to Lukid), putting Herzog's count at 53.

It's being said, fairly, that Kalanu (who did better than expected) is poised to play "kingmaker" by joining whatever coalition they please. They're centrist and have worked with Likud in the past, but have made it clear they're willing to go either way.

Netanyahu "has the ball" in being invited to form a coalition, but to some extent it doesn't matter: Herzog has every right to also be courting Kalanu.

Kalanu's moderating force might be very powerful when they make a deal. I'm still predicting Herzog will catch Kalanu and win, primarily because I think that Netanyahu burned too many centrist bridges by pledging to continue building settlements and avowing that Palestine would never become a state: I think it's just too extreme a position to attract Kalanu, but Netanyahu may be willing to back down: he's a shrewd politician and won't let last-minute campaigning declarations keep him out of power.

Russia, Israel, Iran, and the Dark Reality of Diplomacy

All zero-sum international negotiations are shaped by the size of the guns on the table. This is the dark reality of diplomacy: when one is trying to convince someone to give up a critical behavior (stop a nuclear weapons program, stop invading Ukraine), or start a new one (less common on the modern world order), the key unspoken factor underlying the negotiations is the potential use of force.

The United States and other Western powers are in negotiations that they are struggling with:

At this point, it's unlikely that the US is going to get what it wants in any of these negotiations, due to one simple fact: it lacks the will to exert its power, and therefore has no bargaining power.

In essence, when the US is trying to compel behavioral change, the other partner asks, "what are the consequences if I refuse?" Currently, the answer is "nothing," so there is no reason to agree unless the carrots are really, really big. And the US currently has no stick available, as it is unwilling to go to interstate war. And in this, it brings no guns to the table: they're all left at home.

In Iran, Professor Muravchik suggests that the Iranians are so ideological and bent on empire that sanctions have little impact, and lifting them (to bring material prosperity) just isn't important enough for the Iranians to not also require a "stick" to change the equation. But despite the blundering letter by 47 Republican congresspeople, the US is not willing to strike Iran's nuclear facilities with aircraft. In fact, the President might have said that he'd even shoot down Israeli planes doing the same. Because the US has no appetite for war, Iran can hold out indefinitely--it gets what it wants by doing nothing, and will only be moved if the US offers something somehow better than nuclear weapons--I just struggle to imagine what that would be.

In Russia, the game is similar. I won't speak at too much length here as we mention it in a recent post, but in summary: Putin enjoys over 80% approval (compared to Obama's 47% and US Congress' 8%) domestically despite the West's sanctions and the drop of the ruble. This won't change, even with more sanctions. Until and unless the US or NATO are able to credibly threaten a military response, Russia will continue to take advantage of the relative gap in resistance to establish its status quo rule over Georgia, Ukraine and probably the Baltics.

Despite the US' ongoing frustration with Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank and suspended peace talks with Fatah, threatening to withdraw the over-$3Billion/yr military aid to Israel is simply not on the table, probably due to concerns for Israel's immediate security. It's a different example than Russia and Iran, but another place where the US is unwilling to use a threat of risk to a nation's security in negotiation.

Until this changes, the US will have no bargaining power here or with China, North Korea, the Taliban, Syria's Assad, or any other frustrating group. Whether or not some of these issues are worth military intervention is a question that should be taken on a case-by-case basis. The point of this article is to simply drive home the fact that negotiations with powers like Iran will always end in failure if the military option is totally off the table; it is unwise to expect anything else.

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