Lowy Institute


Kurdish Peshmerga advance towards Kobani, Syria. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.)

ISIS is a transitory organisation whose aspiration to lead an Islamic reconquista is doomed to fail. It will eventually be degraded and splinter, some of its members joining the myriad other groups within the jihadist milieu while others fight over what is left of ISIS. One thing of enduring interest about the ISIS experience, however, is the way it has understood the Western (and local) media cycle and exploited it. 

Grotesque images of beheadings and of Western jihadis spewing forth their intolerant bile are without doubt sickening, but they serve a purpose. One of the enduring principles of war is the maintenance of momentum. Once lost, it is difficult to recover. ISIS has certainly lost its battlefield momentum and is unlikely to recover it. That's why it is trying to maintain momentum through the media.

Like all good PR practitioners, ISIS's PR jihadis understand that in order to give the impression of dominance even when you don't possess it, it is necessary to replace bad news with something that suits your purposes. Hence each video release has coincided with images that ISIS would prefer did not get much airplay.

Note that the latest video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig and Syrian military personnel was released a day or two after the fall of the town of Bayji to Iraqi government forces.

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The release of the video of the 17 year-old Australian Abdullah Elmir ranting to camera surrounded by his Lord of the Flies fan group followed a day after spectacular photos of US bombing raids against ISIS targets around Kobane hit our screens. Guess what dominated the media — images of thousands of pounds of high explosive blasting ISIS positions in Syria in the meat grinder of Kobane or a 17 year-old with a rifle blathering on about not much? The latter, of course.

This is part of a broader pattern. A day after the Turkish parliament authorised military action against ISIS (not good news for ISIS), video of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was released. And if we hark back to the recapture of Mosul Dam by Kurdish forces backed by US air support in mid-August, the beheading of US journalist James Foley followed shortly after. 

None of these actions are designed to dissuade Western military intervention in Iraq or Syria, or even to goad the West into becoming decisively committed on the ground, because ISIS understands this is unlikely to occur. Rather, it has a much more short-term aim: to get ISIS's military and political setbacks out of the media cycle and replace them with bloody imagery that demonstrates ISIS is still a force. We should not, however, confuse media momentum with battlefield momentum. ISIS may have the former, but it has lost the latter.

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While Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have all felt the heavy burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian civil war refugees on their soil, Lebanon has felt the largest impact on its security from the fighting.

Lebanon's complex patchwork of religious communities each has their own external supporters. Add to this mix Hizbullah's participation in the fighting in Syria and a porous border, and the spillover effects from Syria are of huge concern to Beirut. And as always, it is the Lebanese security forces that bind the country together as political leaders continuously put self-interest and communal concerns above the national interest.

Lebanese soldiers, Beirut, 2005 (Flickr/Charles Roffey)

I have a soft spot for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). For all its faults, it is arguably the one truly national institution in the country. And that is no mean feat in a place where one's national identity must compete for loyalty against the much stronger pull of familial, regional, sectarian and in some cases tribal identity. It is also no mean feat when you have to share the security space with Hizbullah, whose training, equipment and discipline match if not exceed that of the LAF.

The main criticism of the LAF is that when Hizbullah wants to act, the LAF either stands aside or on occasion coordinates with it. The LAF's counter-argument is that taking on Hizbullah would not only be difficult militarily, but more importantly would also threaten the unity of the LAF itself.  A very senior LAF officer once told me that his primary focus was on maintaining the unity of the LAF because it was the only national institution.

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The LAF's size and equipment make it incapable of repelling foreign invasions, and it will never confront Hizbullah, yet the LAF has had plenty of experience in fighting security threats inside the country, and it is good at it. I remember the national pride on display in 2007 as the LAF defeated Fatah al-Islam fighters holed up in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp, an action which involved some extremely bloody fighting. Now however, the fighting is becoming more constant as militants feel the pressure in Iraq and Syria. The LAF was called upon to fight against Islamist fighters in the border town of Arsal in August and in Tripoli in October, and there is no indication that this will be the last of it.

But there is a more immediate problem. There are still over 20 LAF and other security force personnel being held captive by Islamist militants who were captured during the fighting in Arsal. While little is heard of it in the West, two have been beheaded and it remains a significant political issue in Lebanon. There is a tent protest in downtown Beirut that causes ongoing traffic problems in an already gridlocked city. There is also the tricky issue of the three soldiers who have allegedly defected to ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, although media reports in Lebanon claimed that one had subsequently turned himself in to the LAF.

The LAF operates in a tough neighbourhood. There are few militaries which have to deal with a significant and ongoing internal security problem while trying to negotiate the release of its soldiers from the same people it is fighting. And the LAF receives little political support. After all, Hizbullah, one of the country's main political parties, operates a battle hardened militia supported by an external power, whose actions in support of the Assad regime in Syria is one of the causes of the problems the LAF has to address. On top of that, LAF commanders need to avoid placing personnel in a position where soldiers' sectarian loyalties collide with their loyalty to the LAF.

The fact that the LAF still turns up to the fight despite all of this is one reason I continue to have a soft spot for it. 

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Having just spent a few days doing research in Kuwait, it was interesting to see how relatively relaxed Kuwaitis appeared to be about events in neighbouring Iraq.

Kuwait would quite naturally be concerned about the possibility of the conflict spreading further south, as well as the impact it may have on Kuwait's own sectarian relations. Yet on both counts Kuwaitis appear relatively sanguine, and with good reason. They don't see ISIS as any type of existential threat, largely because Iraq's Shi'a-dominated south acts as a protective buffer.

Kuwaiti soldiers during rehearsals for the 50/20 celebration parade, 2011.

Nor do they see the sectarian tensions being imported into Kuwait. Kuwait has always stood out as a rather unusual example of the inter-sectarian compact.

It does have a small but vocal Salafist trend amongst its Sunni community, and several hundred Kuwaitis are believed to have fought or are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Yet its Shi'a community (about a third of the population) is integrated to a much greater degree than anywhere else in the Gulf.

There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the fact that many of the richest merchant families in Kuwait are Shi'a (many of Persian origin) and they have been staunch supporters of the Emir for decades. This was particularly welcome during the period of Arab nationalism (a largely Sunni construct) during the 1950s and 60s. While the Iranian Revolution and some terrorist attacks perpetrated by (mainly foreign) Shi'a in Kuwait caused tension, the role of Kuwaiti Shi'a in opposing the Iraqi occupation of 1991 allowed the Shi'a to regain any ground they may have lost. 

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What this means is that, when dealing with regional security issues, Kuwait must steer a careful course as close to the middle as it can, lest it exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Kuwait rather diplomatically sent a naval vessel in support of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) intervention in Bahrain in 2011, ensuring it ticked the Gulf solidarity box without upsetting its own Shi'a constituency. For the same reason, Kuwait has joined the Coalition against ISIS but has not contributed aircraft like the other GCC members (with the exception of Oman). But it has provided timely financial assistance and basing support.

Article 68 of the Kuwaiti constitution forbids offensive war and requires the Amir to decree a defensive war, which provides legal justification for the lack of Kuwaiti aircraft in the Coalition. But the understanding that the jihadists in Iraq in particular have some sympathy among Kuwait's Salafist and tribal minorities would also be a major consideration in Kuwait's approach.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

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When you are an observer and student of a place like the Middle East, it is easy to mix several interests. Does religion, history and politics push your buttons? You won't find a better region for it. Are you a security analyst? There is a surfeit of riches here. A gastronome perhaps? Come on in.

But for a sports nut, it's not so easy. You really have to work to find a fulfilling sporting experience in this part of the world.

I have worked hard to combine my regional interests and sporting loves, and it has been difficult but not impossible. In the mid-1990s I remember playing cricket every Friday afternoon in a cavernous soccer stadium in Damascus. As the melodious tones of the azzan filled the air, we were watched by bemused Damascenes who wondered what the hell these people were playing and hoping that we could bugger off so they could get on with their soccer game.

In 2005, I am proud to say I was part of the revival of Saudi rugby, which had been stopped due to security concerns. The Jeddah team's visit to Riyadh signaled that there was still life in the union and I am happy to report that the Najdis sent the Hijazis back to the coast with their tails between their legs. (Self) selection in the Saudi team followed shortly after (I have the jersey to prove it), and because the security situation did not allow teams to travel to Saudi Arabia, we went to the safety of Bahrain to announce that Saudi rugby was well and truly back.

This love of sport and the Middle East partially explains my presence in Beirut this past weekend. I came here for research, of course, but also to run in yesterday's Beirut Marathon.

Now, I would like to tell you that the Beirut Marathon is a metaphor for some aspect of Middle East life, but it isn't. In fact, in some ways it provides a great counter-narrative, because it featured many things the region lacks. It was well organised and it was meritocratic. The fastest runners did best, rather than the most politically connected runners, or runners of a particular religious persuasion.

The Beirut Marathon was an interesting distraction from the normal fare of a Middle East researcher, but it was only a distraction because no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to escape the region's many fault lines. That's why tomorrow it's back to looking at the the place of the Shi'a in Lebanon.

Photo is the author after running the Beirut Marathon.

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If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the ABC even claimed that a hill near the town was 'strategic'. Tactically important perhaps, but strategic ? I don't think so.

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS's main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

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While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organisation and it realises that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defence. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, who appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ogbodo Solution.

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The question of defining a 'moderate' rebel in Syria's civil war bedevils the US as it works to fulfill its plan, announced by President Obama on 10 September, to arm and train anti-ISIS groups in Syria.

The term 'moderate' is thrown around with gay abandon without anyone defining exactly what they mean by it.  And with good reason. It is first and foremost a relative and not an absolute term. Notice how often we write 'moderate' in inverted commas when using the term? Someone Riyadh considers a moderate could well be a raging Salafist to a Western audience, while someone considered a moderate by the West would likely be not sufficiently Islamic to placate many in the Gulf. This interview from April is a good example of the complexity of the Syrian battlespace and why the term 'moderate' should be considered extremely subjective.

But Western politicians of all persuasions would have you believe that a moderate rebel is 'someone that we can do business with', which is a rather vacuous idea, since you can only ever measure how moderate a person is when they are actually in a position to wield power. On the path to success, people and groups (particularly in the Middle East) are likely to say whatever it takes to get external support.

The proposition that Washington can find (or create) a group of 'moderate' rebels to back as part of its plan to degrade and defeat ISIS while not sowing the seeds of a future disaster is full of holes. A couple of issues spring to mind:

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First, the countries that have been mooted as possible training locations for the 'moderates' have their own agendas regarding Syria and are hardly liberal democracies, so it is reasonable to assume that they will seek to advance their own interests  and agendas (including the place of religion in society) while saying the right things about the need for an inclusive, moderate armed opposition. That paragon of moderation, Saudi Arabia, has agreed to host training for the neo-secular moderate opposition, and discussions appear to be ongoing regarding Turkey's role. President Erdogan's AKP is a modern Islamist party, and the President himself has been complicit (either by commission or omission) in the mess that is Syria by concentrating simply on felling Assad without giving any consideration to what to do when he didn't fall. 

Second, the US will have no effective control over the actions and equipment of these 'moderate' forces once they cross the border back into Syria. Why would any right thinking moderate commander do Washington's bidding when he knows that today's US liaison team will be rotated out long before the war is ever concluded? You can try to sub-contract the oversight to 'friendly' regional nations but the problem remains. You can't insulate the weapons, training and logistics support in such a manner that they only provide an advantage to the moderates and not the Islamists, who inhabit the battlefield in greater numbers. As this piece argues, so-called vetted groups' weapons and operations are already directly supporting al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Salafist groups under the Islamic front umbrella.

Even after the ISIS threat is addressed, there is still the question of what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and myriad other Islamist groups inhabiting the Syrian battlefield. None of them have fixed personnel rosters, and individuals can and do travel between them depending on battlefield success, resource availability, leadership disagreement or doctrinal differences. Some will undoubtedly find their way into the 'moderate' groups currently being 'vetted' for training in 'liberal' regional countries.

Trying to find enough 'moderates' to form a critical mass and then training them in countries whose governments have contributed to creating the Islamist morass in Syria in the first place will be near impossible, and will ultimately create the conditions for further instability. Only this time the West will have contributed directly to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.

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Questions abound over what to do about ISIS and whether it should be pursued into Syria (the US has now started hitting ISIS targets in Syria). Concentrating simply on ISIS though, risks misunderstanding the regional nature of the problem and the fact that ISIS is just the strongest of numerous Islamist groups threatening to upset the regional balance and trying to establish its own version of Islamic rule. Others might not be as publicly aspirational (or provocatively foolhardy) as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS and his claim to have established a caliphate, but liberal democrats they ain't.

To concentrate solely on ISIS as the media (and hence the public) tends to do can lead us into thinking that if we degrade ISIS then we have fixed the problem.

But take this week as a snapshot of how complex a problem we are really facing. On Israel's long-dormant border with Syria, the UN and Syrian military have now left the field of battle to the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that continues to pledge loyalty to al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And in Lebanon, Jabhat al-Nusra has just executed the second Lebanese police officer of 22 soldiers and police officers they hold. Islamic State supporters have beheaded two of the soldiers. These are just the latest deaths of Lebanese security personnel in an ongoing battle with Islamists that saw Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliates briefly take over the Lebanese town of Arsal in early August.

In Syria, Islamist groups wanting to implement their version of Islamic government also battle away, for the most part cooperating with, but not part of, Jabhat al-Nusra. The umbrella group Islamic Front, however, suffered a setback recently with the death of the leader of Ahrar al-Sham and other senior figures in a mysterious attack in northern Syria. The transnational nature of the Islamist problem was illustrated by the fact that even the Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate sent its very public condolences. The US sees a group of vetted rebels as a possible solution but as this and this show, while the idea of vetted secular Syrian rebels sounds attractive, the devil is in the detail.

None of this is to say we are wrong to focus on ISIS in Iraq. ISIS threatens a government that is internationally recognised and which owes its existence ultimately to the 2003 invasion, of which Australia was a part. The Iraqi Government should be encouraged to take the ground fight to ISIS while supported by air strikes, and while regional governments help to degrade ISIS through squeezing its revenue base, sealing off its borders (in the case of Turkey) and persuading ISIS's non-Islamist allies to leave it to its own devices or even take up arms against it.

When leaders are asked about airstrikes in Syria though, the question that needs to be asked is not simply whether we are going to target ISIS but what we are going to do about other Islamist groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of which threaten Lebanon. None of these groups fundamentally differ about their desired societal endstate; its simply who should lead that is their point of difference.

The problem with this regional Gordian knot is that it cannot be cut simply by a sword, as Alexander did. It is a problem of breathtaking complexity, of which the military solution is a small but necessary part. While Australia's contribution is small, Australians should be alerted to the complexity of the environment so that they don't expect a neat solution or 'victory'. The problem of course, is how to make such a complex issue simple enough for the public to digest.

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The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

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What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.

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It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

 

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The complexity of the task facing the Obama Administration in putting together a coalition to target radical Islamists in Iraq should not be underestimated. There are so many competing jealousies, so many personal, political and religious agendas, that the seemingly straightforward task of putting together a coalition of states against a murderous band of religious fanatics who recognise no international norms is anything but simple.

The actual plan for addressing the Islamic State (IS) threat will be outlined by President Obama soon, however it appears likely that the coalition will be in three parts:

1. The 'core' coalition: US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has already coined the term 'core' coalition (which in Australia at least brings back memories of 'core' and 'non-core' promises). Not all of these nations will necessarily take part in air strikes but the intimation is that they will be there for the long haul. The list is depressingly familiar: North America, the UK, Australia and some European states as well as Turkey as the only Muslim NATO member. Ankara has done too little to police its border with Syria, thus partly enabling the growth of IS and other noxious Islamist groups.

2. The 'non-core' coalition: Regional states for the most part who, while recognising the threat posed by Islamists, would rather not be seen to be too keen to bomb fellow Muslims, or to bomb them at all. This is partly due to their ingrained desire to buy their way out of trouble, and for some it is the fear that such action will be unpopular domestically and create internal instability. The Arab League has recently issued a strongly worded statement backing action against IS but the gap between the League's rhetoric and action is normally significant.

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Saudi Arabia has already used its financial clout to provide US$3 billion worth of French weapons for the Lebanese Army, ostensibly in support of its increasingly bloody conflict with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra elements, but also to bolster it against pro-Iranian Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia will also be crucial in trying to convince Iraqi Sunnis to distance themselves from IS and cooperate with a reformed Baghdad government.

3. The 'unmentionable' coalition: For all the talk of the threat to the West from IS, the one country (besides Iraq) which has been actively involved on the ground and which sees IS as a realistic existential threat is Iran. Iran is very much part of the international coalition, but nobody can afford to mention the fact in polite company.

This is a messy coalition and one in which there will be plenty of free-riders and others doing more than their fair share. Yet in some ways this coalition is simpler than those of the past. Obama has largely abandoned America's ideological obsession with democratising the region. As long as IS is dealt with, whether it is done with the help of theocrats, autocrats or democrats matters little in the short term. The challenge for the US is going to be whether the 'non-core' and 'unmentionable' parts of the coalition can reach a modus vivendi, or whether they will revert to type and view everything through a narrow and short-term lens.

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In this fast-paced world of media grabs, it is easy for selective quoting to misrepresent what leaders say. In his 28 August press conference for instance, when President Obama was asked whether he needed Congressional approval to go into Syria and attack Islamic State, he said 'I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.' President Obama was excoriated for not having a Syria strategy years after the crisis began, when he was actually commenting on the military approach to IS in Syria.  Clumsy language perhaps, but he wasn't evincing a complete absence of US strategy towards Syria.

More disturbing was a comment a little further into his press conference. In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

Now, one could be kind and say Obama has to talk this way because Washington is trying desperately to build a coalition of apparently reluctant regional Sunni states to take military action against Sunni jihadists operating in a Shi'a Arab majority country. But part of the problem with the region is the way in which Sunni-majority states (and some Shi'a majority states, it must be said) see religious identity is a precondition for political leadership, thereby marginalising the rest.

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Obama's use of religious identity in discussing the region's politics also exposes him to accusations of double standards. What about Bahrain, for instance, where the Sunni minority actively discriminate against the Shi'a majority with no effort being made to work towards a substantive power-sharing arrangement? But the Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and if Obama's rather strange words are to be taken at face value, political discrimination is only practiced against Sunnis.

I'll write more in the future about the strange bedfellows that a regional and Western anti-IS coalition is going to throw up, and the double standards that are likely to abound when they take military action. But a president trying to put such a group together would do well to steer clear of any reference to religion. Religious identity is part of the problem in the region, and including it in his speeches and statements will just leave Obama open to the religious intolerance practiced by both Sunni and Shia.

Photo by Flickr user James Gordon.

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As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

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Libya

Days of unverified reports of an aerial bombing by Egyptian and Emirati aircraft on a Libyan weapons storage area and Tripoli's international airport have now been verified by American officials (the officials claim they were not informed of the strikes beforehand, which is not to say they did not know about them beforehand). If true, the strike says much about UAE and Egyptian concerns regarding the need to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, as well as to stymie Qatari efforts in Libya to do the opposite. It is also further evidence that the UAE is adopting a more muscular and independent approach to regional security issues.

Gaza

Up until two weeks ago, the Israeli air force had already conducted 4900 sorties against Gaza since the most recent conflict began. And yet, just as was the case in the 2006 Lebanon war, even the Israeli air force admits it cannot completely extinguish the threat of indirect-fire weapons from Gaza. 

Iraq

As politicians mull the possibility of air strikes against Islamic State, and the US increases surveillance of possible targets in preparation for future strikes, it is interesting to note that America has already flown 1500 sorties since 8 August (about 600 of these were combat sorties, which included 96 attacks against Islamic State targets). This shows again just how resource-intensive even a 'low intensity' air campaign can be, and why regional states will need plenty of enabling support if they are to take on Islamic State.

Iran

In the east, Iran triumphantly announced the destruction of an Israeli drone spying on its Natanz nuclear facility. The truth is that the drone was more likely flown from Azerbaijan, as this detailed report outlines. Secular Shi'a Azerbaijan and religiously Shi'a Iran have a rather testy relationship and Baku's cosiness with Israel has been an irritant to Tehran for years. Whether the drone was actually shot down near the nuclear facility or somewhere much closer to the Azeri border is perhaps something we'll never know, but it reinforces the type of surveillance technology available to a wide range of states.  

Syria

To all of this we could also add the fall of Tabqa airbase, the last military base held by the Syrian Government in Raqqa province, now under the complete control of Islamic State. Syrian Government efforts at targeting the militants from the air ultimately proved futile, again showing that effective aerial campaigns against ground forces require a concentration of effort and duration that few states can manage. 

Over the next few weeks it is increasingly likely that air power will be on display in the region in a significant way. For students of air power, the Middle East is certainly the place to watch. 

Photo by Flickr user Garry Wilmore.

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The horrific images surrounding the gruesome execution of the US journalist Jim Foley are dominating the headlines. The Islamist group had several reasons for doing what they did, and when they did it.

It reinforces the Islamic State's reputation as the baddest Islamists of them all, a useful tool when you're looking to knock off your Islamist competitors in Syria. It also shows the US that there are costs associated with its air campaign, and the warning that there is another hostage at their mercy reinforces that warning; the English language audio track was designed for the target audience.

I don't however necessarily agree that one of the aims is to goad the West into becoming more deeply involved in Iraq. The Islamic State is as aware as anyone that neither the President nor the American people are inclined to do it, and there are many more ways to skin the Islamist cat than simply put combat troops into Iraq.

But these are relatively minor aims given the shock value that the vision was intended to produce.

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People already know that the Islamic State is cruel and heartless, and they know the US isn't going to stop their air attacks just because Islamic State kills a hostage. Rather, I think the main point of the exercise was to do with the timing of the release. Islamic State had just suffered a couple of battleground reverses, having been rebuffed from Mount Sinjar and more importantly losing control over Mosul Dam, an important infrastructure prize for a putative caliphate. If you want people to stay with you, join you or submit to you, it's necessary to project an image of control and martial success. Images of destroyed Islamic State vehicles and equipment and triumphant Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers celebrating over ground you've just lost isn't good for business. In the space of a few hours though, this negative imagery was swept away by an execution video; people may have heard about Mosul Dam but they aren't reminded of it because those images are no longer displayed.

The Islamic State is very good at manipulating the social and news media space. And if it takes the beheading of someone to counter images of battlefield setbacks, then so be it. Such is the calculus of Islamic State's media department.  

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski.

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As events unfold in Baghdad, President Obama's decision to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Iraq in the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement appears vindicated. Prime Minister Maliki has exacerbated the sectarian nature of Iraq's politics, bringing the current crisis to a head. The White House must be thanking its lucky stars that it doesn't have troops working for a prime minister who is refusing all entreaties to leave.

Some commentators have opined that ISIS would not have had its successes in Iraq had there been a residual US troop presence. The reality is that ISIS has assiduously courted the Sunni tribes disenfranchised by Maliki's government, and the Iraqi military has become hollow and corrupt. A small residual US force would have been at best spectators to, and at worst complicit in, Maliki's mismanagement of the situation. Greg Sheridan's view in The Australian that 'a residual (US) force would have helped stabilise Iraqi politics and bolster the Iraqi military' is typical of the 'if only' brigade – it ignores the complex reality of Iraq's secular, religious and tribal dynamics.

That is why in some ways ISIS's decision to launch attacks against religious minorities and the Kurdish region has presented President Obama with a strategic gift which he has been quick to act upon. Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

For its part, ISIS is beginning to learn the difficulty of trying to fight a conventional military campaign using captured equipment when your enemy has air supremacy. As far as we know, US airstrikes have only destroyed an artillery piece, a mortar baseplate, some armoured vehicles and a vehicle convoy, but even the rabid ideologues of ISIS will start to sense that trying to manoeuvre in the open plains of northern Iraq is fraught with danger when US strike aircraft lurk overhead. Nor will the demonstration effect of a few 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles have been lost on the other protagonists. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are likely to fight more vigorously if they know air support is at hand. Moreover, should US air support be broadened in support of a more inclusive Iraqi government, Iraqi tribes now aligned with ISIS may decide that their interests are better served by opting out of the Islamist coalition.

These are all big ifs, and the situation in Baghdad is unfolding hour by hour. But it may well be that ISIS's decision to press ahead with attacks against minorities and the Kurds is a strategic, rather than just tactical, error.

Photo from Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.

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The limited use of military force announced by President Obama earlier today was likely prompted by concern at the success of ISIS's latest offensives across Syria and Iraq. The jihadist group has recently redoubled its efforts in Raqqa, Syria, in an effort to take the remaining pockets of Syrian Government-held territory in the province. At the same time, ISIS's performance against Kurdish forces would have raised concern in Washington and Baghdad, and led to a re-assessment of  some overly optimistic judgments about Kurdish capabilities.

The situation facing the Yazidis and the Christians is of grave humanitarian concern. The fact that the refugees are geographically concentrated would have made air support an attractive option for the president. Add to this the fact that the sovereign Iraqi Government invited the intervention, and the stage was set for a dual humanitarian/limited direct military intervention operation to which Obama could agree.

There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. 

Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation's sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

In his speech, Obama was careful to emphasise the need for an Iraqi political solution to the crisis engulfing the country. As long as Maliki remains prime minister, there will be little appetite for substantive US air support. The intriguing question is whether a more politically inclusive Iraqi prime minister might prompt a more robust US response in terms of air support and stand-off weapons.

Photo by Flickr user Marines.

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