Small Wars Journal

Assessment of the Politico-Military Campaign to Counter ISIL and Options for Adaptation

Fri, 04/22/2016 - 9:51am

Assessment of the Politico-Military Campaign to Counter ISIL and Options for Adaptation by Linda Robinson, RAND Corporation

This report assesses the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL), focusing on the military and political lines of effort. The capabilities and motivations of the various counter-ISIL forces on the battlefield are assessed, as well as the U.S.-led efforts to provide training, equipment, advice, and assistance, including air support. While the campaign has degraded ISIL by targeting leadership and retaking a portion of territory, achieving lasting defeat of ISIL will be elusive without local forces capable of holding territory. Successful conclusion of the campaign will require significantly increased effort on two fronts. First, more-comprehensive training, advising, and assisting will be required to create more-capable, coordinated indigenous forces of appropriate composition and enable them to regain and hold territory. Second, political agreements must be forged to resolve key drivers of conflict among Iraqis and Syrians. Without these elements, resurgent extremist violence is likely. Many factors complicate the prospects for success, including sectarian divisions in Iraq, Iranian support for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian civil war, and Russian intervention to support the besieged regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, the Syrian regime also lacks sufficient competent local forces and is heavily reliant on external militia support. The government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has pledged decentralization efforts to address Sunni concerns, but lacks sufficient Shia support to enact them. This report offers recommendations for a more comprehensive advisory approach, emphasizing the political line of effort, and achieving synergy between the military and political efforts.

Key Findings

U.S. Efforts to Bolster Counter-ISIL Forces Have Achieved Limited Results

  • The advisory effort was circumscribed by location, unit, and function. Lack of advisers at the operational level in Iraq and lack of support to Syrian opposition fighters limited effectiveness of indigenous forces.
  • The training effort was also limited: Some 20,000 Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces were trained in 18 months, including 2,000 Iraqi special operations personnel. Efforts to arm and train Sunni tribes were halting.

Anti-ISIL Forces Suffer from Capability Gaps and Lack of Coordination Among Disparate Forces

  • Iraqi's military crumbled after the 2014 ISIL offensive due to cumulative weaknesses.
  • Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service carried the brunt of the fighting, suffering extensive casualties and materiel losses.
  • Shia militias, some of them advised and supported by Iran, were not integrated with the overall military effort. Effective command and control of the overall effort was lacking.
  • In Syria, most territory was retaken by the Syrian Kurdish militia, and other efforts such as the New Syrian Forces were inadequate in numbers and capability. Coordination was also lacking among Syrian forces.

Detailed Political Strategies to Resolve Underlying Conflicts Were Not Developed and Not Synchronized with the Military Effort for Maximum Effect

  • The Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi articulated proposals to address Sunni concerns, but insufficient Shia support was provided to implement them. U.S. senior-level engagement with Abadi was also limited.
  • No overarching Syria strategy was developed. Relying on Syrian Kurds has escalated tensions with Turkey dramatically and created concern among Syrian Arabs.


  • More comprehensive advisory support from senior echelons through the brigade level to increase coordination of forces, morale, and leadership.
  • A long-term training and equipping effort will be required to create capable indigenous security forces that incorporate sufficient Sunnis.
  • The successful support to Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service provides a replicable model.
  • An unconventional warfare approach may regain Mosul and Raqqa from ISIL with less material damage by leveraging internal discontent and underground forces.
  • Syria's counter-ISIL effort cannot succeed in seizing and holding key terrain without Syrian Arabs; their support may require unified effort with the counter-Assad campaign.
  • Increased materiel aid to anti-Assad forces including tube-launched, optically tracked, wireless guided weapon systems and surface-to-air missiles may preserve the moderate opposition and create leverage in negotiating a transition under the Geneva terms.
  • The Abadi government and Shia parties should craft proposals with international support to resolve the political drivers of conflict in Iraq. Visible, high-level U.S. support to such detailed political proposals may include linkage with military support.
  • The United States should elevate its focus on advisory support to indigenous forces, not just eliminating ISIL leadership and resources. It should, above all, prioritize the political line of effort, backed by military measures. Syrian opposition fighters may become increasingly radicalized in the absence of greater U.S. commitment and coordination. U.S. allies have backed disparate opposition groups, increasing the fragmentation and ineffectiveness of the Syrian opposition.

Read the entire report.


Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/23/2016 - 8:43am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Would have rather seen RAND actually analyze the failures of the Obama WH in the fight against IS...would have been far more enlightening.....and how those failures have multiplied the failures in Syria by Obama..

Perfect example....would you if you are the Syrian anti Assad opposition who are fighting the US proxy Kurdish group YPG, the Assad SAA, all Iranian supplied Shia mercenaries, Hezbollah and the Iranian IRGC/regular army troops AND Putin's RuAF and Spetsnaz......

Would you "trust" the US on anything they said and or did......?

According to Riyadh Hijab HNC, John Kerry personally guaranteed that food convoys will enter to Daraya. It never did.

In a press conference after Geneva 1 the DoS Kerry spokesperson so aid convoys would occur.....not a single one went anywhere.....

REMEMBER Kerry has publicly stated twice that Iranian troops were being pulled out of Syria....never did happen as he stated it would....

THIS is RAND should start reviewing but will never will...Obama's IS/Syrian strategy".

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/23/2016 - 8:13am

This is simply another great example of the type of products produced by think tanks tied to the funding streams of the US taxpayer that in the end produce nothing IT security company with a bunch of engineers using Google could have produced this article for 10% of the total cost to the US taxpayer.

This is what RAND should be answering.......the ground reality on why IS is still in the fight and surviving actually quite well.

Short summary of "fighting ISIS" north of Aleppo:
Assad: Doesn't
Putin: Won't
Obama: A smoke and mirrors maybe
FSA: Can't
Intl. Coalition: Not really willing
EU: Never
Turkey: Minimum
SDF/YPG: *laugh*
Iraq: Can't
Iran: Supporting IS against KSA
GCC: Trying but held back by Obama
KSA: Wants to but held back by Obama

Turkish artillery can and does hit YPG near Afrin, Turkish war planes can and do hit PKK in N Iraq.
But they can't hit ISIS, 5 km from its border until yesterday after being shelled for the third day?

RAND should be explaining this mess above and then one might understand why the fight against IS is overall largely a failure.

With reality staring us in the face daily we do not need RAND to tell us that..............

BLUF.......the Obama WH talks a great game but that is about it.