Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

A week is not only a long time in politics.

Seven days ago the US officer in charge of the military campaign against Islamic State, Brigadier General Weidley, insisted the group had been forced onto the defensive in Syria and Iraq.

Now his words are ringing hollow with IS taking the strategic city of Ramadi less than 100 miles from Baghdad and capturing the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from government troops – it is estimated Islamic State now controls half of Syria.

The optimism that followed the defeat of IS forces at the Syrian border town of Kobane at the end of January and the Iraqi city of Tikrit two months ago seems to have dissipated with both the Iraqi and Syrian armies unable to withstand new ISIS offensives.

So what now?

Both those IS defeats were eventually achieved by a combination of ground forces and intense air strikes – at Kobane Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the ground were supported by more than 700 air strikes while at Tikrit Iraqi forces and Shia militias only turned the tide when the US – and Iran – joined in from the air.

From the beginning of the US-led intervention last summer many analysts have been arguing that to defeat IS, air strikes alone are not enough and ground forces are essential if the organisation’s territorial gains are to be rolled back.

The size of the challenge this presents is made stark by the fact that contrary to what President Obama boasted to Congress in his State of the Union speech in January, since the campaign against IS began last August, the Islamist fighters have expanded the territory they control, especially in eastern Syria.

IS has also succeeded in gained allies beyond Syria and Iraq. Islamists in Egypt and Libya who have affiliated themselves to Islamic State have carried out large-scale attacks. The group is also reported to have established links with the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. And in Nigeria, the Islamist militants of Boko Haram have also pledged allegiance to the State but there is little evidence this has moved beyond rhetoric.

Following the taking of Kobane, the US-led coalition, which includes the air forces of several western and Arab states, as well as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, said it was turning its sights on Mosul.

It was the fall of Mosul almost a year ago that galvanised Washington to intervene again in the region following the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

If the city could be recaptured, it would represent a much bigger blow to IS than Tikrit or Kobane. But Mosul is a much tougher proposition and since the fall of Kobane talk of an assault on Mosel has faded.

IS has consolidated its control of the city – Iraq’s second largest – and the remaining population is largely Sunni Arab, many of whom may prefer the rule, however harsh, of IS to the return of rule by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

It is also doubtful the Iraqi army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive last summer, is yet in a fit state to launch a large-scale ground offensive against Mosul – as the apparently chaotic retreat from Ramadi shows all too clearly.

The Americans and other western countries have been training and rearming Iraqi forces, but the corruption that is blamed for their cave-in to IS will take time to root out, if indeed it can be.

The lack of an ally with powerful enough ground forces is even more acute in Syria. Since the uprising against President Assad began four years ago, IS and the al Qaeda-associated al Nusra Front, have come to dominate the rebel forces.

American efforts to train rebel bands fighting with the Free Syrian Army, which the US regard as moderate, have been beset with difficulties.

Many rebel commanders have been deemed unreliable by the CIA and have reportedly had their training terminated. Some rebels have returned to Syria only to defect to the Islamist forces which are better financed and armed.

The most powerful potential ally in Syria is of course the government of President Assad and some prominent voices, including Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have long called on Washington to re-engage with Damascus.

In Iraq, the US is tacitly allied with its long time enemy Iran, which has also sent arms, trainers and special forces and launched air strikes to support the fight against IS. But working openly with the Syrian armed forces would be much more fraught with political difficulty.

The US, its western and Arab allies, have long been saying Mr Assad must stand down, so they would have to eat a lot of very public humble pie if they were to work openly with him now.

The Syrian armed forces have also been accused by western states and human rights organisations of committing war crimes, including the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and the continued use of chemical weapons.

There has been speculation that there is a tacit alliance in Syria between President Assad’s forces and the anti-IS coalition.

But just to show how complex the situation is, there have also been allegations, especially in Sunni Arab capitals, that Mr Assad has concentrated his forces against so- called moderate rebels, rather than his Islamist opponents, in order to allow the latter to appear more of threat so he can present himself to the world as a bulwark against extremism.

Mr Obama’s critics say the reliance on air strikes and refusal to send American combat troops into action shows the president is half-hearted.

The air campaign, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, has now lasted longer than the operation to topple the Taliban in Kabul following the September 11th attacks and the air strikes against Serbia in 1999 that forced its withdrawal from Kosovo.

But there is another example from the Balkan wars of the 1990s supporters of the current campaign could point to as evidence that a strategy of air strikes plus training and arming allies to fight a ground war can work – even if it takes time.

That is the successful Croatian army campaign in 1995 which destroyed the Croatian Serb statelet of Krajina, drove on into Bosnia and, in combination with NATO air strikes, brought the Serbs to the negotiating table at Dayton and ended the Bosnian war.

In the year before the Croatian offensive, its armed forces were re-organised and trained by former American military personnel working for a private security subcontractor. It is thought a proxy was used to get round a UN arms embargo on the former Yugoslav states that was still in effect. When that embargo was lifted in late 1994, US support for Zagreb became more open and arms supplies flowed in.

In Iraq and Syria, the search for such allies has yielded mixed results so far. At Kobane, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds showed they could succeed on Kurdish territory, but to roll IS back, the most eligible ground ally, the Iraqi army, will need to be reformed and reorganised, a task which could well take many more months, if not years.

And even military success will not guarantee a return to stability in either Iraq or Syria – that will require a long-term political solution and progress on that remains as elusive as ever.

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