As long as Islamic militants fight the US-led alliance on Washington’s terms, they will lose but they are already reverting back to guerilla warfare which will prolong the conflict, writes David Axe.
THIS summer, Islamic State fighters swept into the expanse of desert straddling the Iraq-Syria border. Riding in pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, supported by skilled snipers and at least one tank, the Islamists captured the town of Rabia in Syria .
Kurdish militia fighters — known by its Kurdish acronym YGP — rushed to the neighbouring town of Al Yarubiyah, on the Iraqi side, in a desperate effort to contain the militants’ advance. What followed was a two-month stalemate, as both sides harassed each other with machine guns, mortars and snipers.
Then in late September, US-led airstrikes hit Islamic State forces in Rabia. The YPG troops timed their counterattack perfectly. Reeling from the combined aerial and ground assault, the militants fell back. Rabia was liberated.
is an important object lesson in the fast-expanding war on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As long as the militants fight like a traditional army, with infantry, heavy weapons, vehicles and fortified positions, the US and its allies can attack them as they would any traditional army – and beat them.
But Islamic State is already changing up its methods – a prospect that should deeply worry the rest of the world.
Combined with Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops, US warships and aircraft in the Middle East represent a far superior fighting force compared to Islamic State. As long as the militants insist on fighting the US-led alliance on Washington’s terms, they will lose. The allies’ victory might be slow. It might be painful. But it’s inevitable.
What the US and its allies should fear, however, is what comes next. The militants could return to blending into the civilian population and striking when and where their enemies least expect them.
Indeed, there’s evidence Islamic State is shifting toward those methods, hastening its evolution from a regular fighting force to an irregular one. Or rather, evolving back into an irregular force, just as the current Islamic State is an outgrowth of a hybrid terrorist and insurgent group that formed in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Islamic State coalesced in western Iraq around the same time the US military was withdrawing in 2011. The militant group, drawing many of its fighters, leaders, tactics and philosophy from the now-defunct al Qaeda in Iraq, began a series of bombings and killings.
When civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, Islamic State expanded there, fighting alongside Syrian rebels against the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fierce fighters, the Islamists attracted significant funding from Saudi and Qatari donors. The group attracted recruits from all over the world.
Islamic State soon gained ground, capturing tanks, artillery and even a handful of functional jet warplanes. To this arsenal, the militants added weaponry they bought on the black market, including Chinese-made antiaircraft missiles supplied by Sudan.
In early 2014, Islamic State returned in force to western Iraq, capturing the city of Fallujah. In June, the militants seized Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq. Demoralized and poorly led Iraqi troops fled — leaving behind US-manufactured trucks, tanks and artillery that Islamic State promptly added to its own arsenal.
By summer 2014, Islamic State was an army in all but name.
As Islamic State advanced across northwestern Iraq in early August, Washington finally intervened, launching warplanes, drones and attack helicopters. The Pentagon was soon leading an international coalition. The Pentagon extended air raids and cruise missile strikes into Syria in late September.
The air raids have helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces push back against the militants. “They have been effective at what they are trying to achieve,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, said last week.
The bombing was decisive in allowing Kurdish troops to end the militants’ siege of Sinjar Mountain in north Iraq, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Yazidi religious group were slowly dying of hunger and thirst.
US and allied air support also helped Kurdish and Iraqi troops recapture the strategic Mosul Dam, plus Rabia and other towns. When militants attacked toward Baghdad in early October, US Army Apache helicopters swooped in.
If the militants stick to their conventional tactics, they could find themselves suffering the same fate that the rebel group M23 did in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2013. After months of dithering, the UN deployed a strong force and launched an all-out military assault on M23 near Goma in eastern Congo.
M23 chose to fight man-to-man, tank-to-tank — and lost. By the end of 2013, M23 ceased to exist.
However, by late last month, the militants in Iraq and Syria had begun adapting to US and allied airstrikes, spreading out and hiding among civilians to present harder targets. “Yes, they’re blending in more,” Kirby said on September 30. “Yes, they’re dispersing, and yes they aren’t communicating quite as openly or as boldly as they once were.”
The logical next step for Islamic State is to return to its roots as a guerrilla and terror group – one that doesn’t try to match the US and its allies’ arsenals of vehicles, artillery and aircraft. Iraqi and Kurdish troops could, technically speaking, liberate every town and city Islamic State currently occupies — without coming close to defeating it as an organisation.
What followed would likely be a bloody, drawn-out campaign of bombings and nighttime killings by small groups of militants infiltrating communities across Syria and Iraq, and possibly even neighbouring countries.
As the long US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved, rooting out terrorists and insurgents can be bloody, expensive and frustrating. Even bloodier, more expensive and more frustrating than bombing their infantry and tank formations from the air.