The State of the War against ISIS/ Israel’s primaries

Jan 16, 2015

The State of the War against ISIS/ Israel's primaries

Update from AIJAC

January 16, 2015
Number 01/15 #04

This Update begins with two good analyses of the state of the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It also features a look at the latest developments in the Israeli election campaign – with primaries having taken place in the three major parties, setting up the March 17 contest.

We begin with a military analysis of the US-led air campaign against ISIS by Scott Vickery, a military expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Lt. Col. in the US Air Force. Vickery sees some notable successes for the campaign, in Iraq to a greater extent than in Syria, despite its low intensity compared to previous air campaigns, and suggests that the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga will slowly retake much of the Sunni rural area of northern Iraq, but will struggle to dislodge ISIS from urban areas. He suggests that further steps cannot rely on air power alone and that there must be a number of measures to weaken the factors that allowed for ISIS to rise, especially “increased efforts to support local tribes against ISIS, sending the message that it is possible to resist the group”. For this assessment from a genuine military expert of an under-reported campaign, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a provocative and original discussion of the state of ISIS from a counter-terrorism expert who is himself a former Islamist extremist, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. His contention is that ISIS is successfully concealing its lack of military success and degraded position through clever use of social media – including through gaming of the system in Twitter and other platforms. He goes on to argue that we shouldn’t be complacent or dismissive about the group’s social media success – it will inspire both other groups and lone wolves to ever greater levels of atrocity to emulate it. For this interesting perspective on the ISIS threat, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner looks at the results of the primaries last week in three leading Israeli parties – Likud, Labor and Jewish Home. He notes that all three primaries came out more or less as predicted – Likud, with a lot of experienced faces, but the removal of some of the more fire-breathing elements; Labor, dominated by young and often female social issues activists; and Jewish Home, more inclusive and less religious than in past lists. Rosner also looks at some of the other parties which do not have a primary process for choosing their electoral lists and suggests that Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which did so well last time, may surprise pundits who have predicted a major decline, and repeat its considerable electoral success in this poll. For all of his analysis, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had some earlier comments specifically on the Labor primary. A different perspective on the prospects of Yesh Atid and other centrist parties comes from American writer Jonathan Tobin.

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Operation Inherent Resolve: An Interim Assessment

Scott A. Vickery

PolicyWatch 2354, January 13, 2015

Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have had clear benefits, but a broader campaign involving more intelligence and targeting assistance on the ground is required to reap the full strategic benefits of turning back ISIS.

Since President Obama ordered U.S. forces to begin operations against the “Islamic State”/ISIS on August 7, the coalition has flown over 5,000 strike sorties employing some 4,000 weapons, as well as 1,700 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties, over 22,000 air refueling sorties, and over 1,300 airlift sorties delivering some 6,000 tons of humanitarian and military aid. These numbers are small compared to past air campaigns and could convey an impression of tactical ineffectiveness; for instance, coalition aircraft flew an average of 800-1,000 strike sorties daily during Operation Desert Storm. Yet when viewed at the operational and strategic levels, the campaign has clearly achieved some notable successes.


The ISIS offensive in Iraq has culminated. Whereas the group previously conducted rapid advances covering great distances to surprise and rout Iraqi army units, its forces there are now dispersed in a largely defensive posture, conducting only localized offensive operations. Although this is not exclusively the result of the coalition’s campaign, airstrikes destroyed or damaged over 300 vehicles, 15 mortars and artillery pieces, and nine command-and-control nodes in the critical first two-and-a-half months of the operation when the group was still actively on the offensive, in addition to killing or wounding an unknown number of ISIS fighters.

These strikes also bought time for Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to rally, prevented ISIS from massing for further attacks, and provided critical fire and logistics support in key operations, including the effort to retake the Mosul and Haditha Dams, the counteroffensive around Mount Sinjar, and Iraqi army efforts to blunt a major ISIS offensive toward Baghdad in October. Moreover, the humanitarian emergency involving Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar was quickly defused, saving lives and putting a humanitarian face on the intervention. The latter effort played well in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, increasing public support for the operation and buying time for it to succeed.


Coalition airstrikes in Syria began a month-and-a-half later than in Iraq but have increased in intensity as ISIS shifts away from the stagnant Iraqi front toward what it perceives as easier targets in Syria. To date, airpower has helped halt and reverse the group’s offensive against the Kurdish enclave in Kobane, with over 470 strikes causing heavy casualties among ISIS forces and the loss of many hard-to-replace heavy weapons and vehicles. The defeat in Kobane was perhaps the most high-profile setback for the group in the past year and may further remove its luster of invincibility.

Strikes elsewhere in the country have focused on attriting the group’s senior leadership, reducing its illicit revenues from oil smuggling, and degrading its training and logistics facilities. Operations in Syria have also provided a useful opportunity to conduct counterterror strikes against the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaeda network embedded within Jabhat al-Nusra.


The manner in which the campaign has been conducted has also been important. Coalition air operations have been carried out with an extremely high degree of precision and restraint. Thus far, reliable claims of civilian casualties — approximately fifty each in Iraq and Syria — are very low considering the number of weapons delivered. Although it is difficult to verify such figures due to the lack of coalition presence or independent journalists on the ground in ISIS-controlled territory, significant effort has clearly been expended to ensure collateral damage is limited. This restraint has likely decreased the damage inflicted on ISIS, but it has also paid huge dividends in assembling a broad coalition, with eight Western and six Arab states conducting strikes and dozens more providing humanitarian aid, training, or military aid.


The campaign has not been without challenges. Airpower has been constrained by U.S. political and military leaders enacting policies that limit the number of targets struck each day. First, the decision to avoid putting U.S. boots on the ground removed the proven technique of partnering Special Forces with indigenous troops to identify enemy targets for airstrikes. To offset this limitation, U.S. advisors have been embedded in various Iraqi headquarters in an effort to identify requirements for air support and pass them to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar, which is overseeing the air campaign. Unfortunately, Iraqi command-and-control appears too lethargic to pass targets to the CAOC in a consistently timely manner.

Second, U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon are treating the campaign against ISIS as an economy-of-force effort secondary to operations elsewhere in the region. This is particularly true with regard to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance forces, which remain overwhelmingly focused on supporting retrograde operations in Afghanistan. Throughout the anti-ISIS campaign, CENTCOM has used six to ten times as much ISR in Afghanistan as in Iraq/Syria. Without ground units, the responsibility for finding and fixing ISIS targets falls almost exclusively on ISR, but the dearth of such capabilities in Iraq and Syria routinely leaves the CAOC with far fewer targets to strike than aircraft/weapons to strike them. The problem is especially keen when ISIS conducts simultaneous offensive operations in two or more locations, stretching coalition ISR too thin to support all of the most critical requirements.


In Iraq, army and Peshmerga forces will likely continue to retake key terrain around the edges of ISIS-held territory in the coming months, eventually extending government control to much of rural western Iraq. Yet the Iraqi army’s past track record suggests that it is unlikely to fully secure those rural areas or, more important, drive ISIS from Sunni urban centers. Over time, this could lead to strategic stalemate characterized by a chain of ISIS-controlled urban islands surrounded by a sea of contested desert and river-valley lines of communication.

In Syria, ISIS is keeping with its modus operandi of avoiding enemy strength and instead probing for and exploiting areas of weakness. With its Iraq offensive halted and its efforts to destroy the Kobane enclave thwarted, the group is shifting its efforts in two directions: toward Aleppo in order to eliminate the more moderate Syrian opposition, and into southern Syria where it previously had little or no presence. This will likely result in more situations like Kobane, where isolated pockets of resistance struggle to hold on against heavy ISIS attacks. It will also decrease the number of moderate rebel groups as various brigades join ISIS, whether to survive or to ensure they are on the winning side.


ISIS owes its survival to two factors. First, a power vacuum caused by the Assad regime’s retreat from large portions of eastern Syria and the subsequent collapse of Iraqi security forces in the Sunni west of Iraq enabled ISIS to morph from a small, urban terrorist group to a de facto state. Second, the toleration of Sunni populations hostile to government forces allowed ISIS to hold large swaths of territory in both countries with relatively few fighters. These are issues that airpower cannot solve alone.

As for reconstituting and reprofessionalizing Iraqi and Kurdish forces and select Syrian rebel forces, the prospects for success are mixed. U.S. efforts along those lines might eventually pay off in Iraq, but only to a limited degree. And such efforts are unlikely to bear significant fruit in Syria anytime soon, at least in part because the number of forces being trained is too small to decisively change the dynamic on the ground.

Additional progress will require patience and the more creative use of airpower. Increasing the number of bombs dropped without increasing ISR and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) would only increase civilian casualties, risking unnecessary strain on the coalition and driving local Sunnis further into the ISIS orbit. Consequently, the first step is to increase ISR on the ground and/or team more JTACs with Iraqi forces.

As described above, killing more ISIS fighters will not eliminate the factors that enabled the group’s rise in the first place. Thus, the coalition campaign should be expanded by stepping up efforts to debunk the group’s image of invincibility among local Sunni populations and exploit its self-defeating tendencies. The longer ISIS controls an area, the more its nihilistic ideology turns the local population against it, as demonstrated by recent tribal revolts in eastern Syria and western Iraq. A successful tribal uprising is the group’s greatest fear, so ISIS fighters tend to quickly crush any such resistance before it can achieve critical mass. If a tribal revolt were to succeed, even locally, it could create a powerful precedent with ripple effects across other ISIS-controlled areas.

Creating such an opportunity requires increased air support to Sunnis who are fighting ISIS. In Iraq, this should take the form of increased efforts to support local tribes against ISIS, sending the message that it is possible to resist the group. This would force ISIS to divert critical resources from operations elsewhere, relieving pressure on U.S.-supported Syrian rebels struggling to hold on to Aleppo and other portions of northern Syria. It would also discredit the narrative that coalition strikes seek to weaken the Sunnis rather than defeat ISIS, perhaps encouraging broader resistance against the group.

Providing direct air support in Syria is more complicated. Most of the coalition seeks the Assad regime’s removal, so there is no government force with which to partner. And the various opposition factions are either ideologically unpalatable to Western states or so poorly organized and equipped that they will be unable to undertake offensive operations against ISIS for the foreseeable future. Consequently, the air campaign should focus on two lines of effort: (1) degrading critical ISIS capabilities such as logistics, training, and command-and-control, and (2) preserving moderate rebel capabilities by providing certain factions with air support when they are under attack by ISIS. This would further attrite the group’s combat power, undermine its image, and preserve a base of operations for training moderate rebels.


In the short term, the strategy outlined above may require coalition intelligence and Special Forces to engage with Iraqi tribesmen, increasing the risk of U.S. casualties. Additionally, creating a Sunni armed force outside Iraq’s security establishment risks perpetuating the country’s sectarian conflicts after ISIS is defeated. Yet if Baghdad recognizes these units in a manner similar to the Peshmerga, they could eventually become the core around which a Sunni National Guard is built, speeding efforts to achieve long-term security in the Sunni areas west of Baghdad.

Lt. Col. Scott Vickery (USAF) is a visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute and former deputy ISR chief at the 609th Air Operations Center in Qatar. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author; they do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, or Air University.

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Isis has conquered the media. It’s not doing as well on the ground

The Islamic State’s real social media skill makes commentators too willing to believe its shaky territorial claims

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

The Spectator, 10 January 2015

At this point in the war between the jihadist group known as the Islamic State and a US-led international coalition, many observers are wondering how Isis keeps winning. ISIS is up against western air power and powerful regional opponents, and yet has apparently seized a territory larger than the United Kingdom, and is expanding into Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, and elsewhere. It seems incredible.

But the truth is that it’s difficult to say Isis is winning by any objective measure. In Iraq, the group has been put on the defensive in the provinces of Nineveh, Salahaddin, and Diyala, and may soon face a major offensive on its stronghold of Mosul. It’s true, unfortunately, that Isis is on the offensive in Anbar province, and could potentially capture new territory there. In eastern Syria, too, Isis is well-established, having brutally suppressed a tribal uprising in Dayr al-Zawr, and it faces no significant resistance in its holdings in Raqqa and Hasaka. Isis can’t be said to be losing, exactly, but it has lost its momentum — having failed to take and hold major new territory since capturing the Iraqi city of Hit in October — and its position in northern Iraq looks increasingly shaky.

More to the point, Isis’s international expansion seems more of a success in press reports than it is in fact. The question observers should be asking is not why Isis is winning; rather, how it has managed to convince us of its growing power while actually treading water.

Part of the answer lies in the Islamic State’s marketing genius, and another part in our own willingness to believe its propaganda — and the inability, or unwillingness, of western governments to counter this. A good example of Isis’s flair for PR could be glimpsed on 10 November, when it received public oaths of allegiance from groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. Though these simultaneous oaths had clearly been coordinated, seeing groups in various countries express loyalty at the same time created the perception that Isis was winning support and assuming leadership over the global jihadist movement.

In Egypt, the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, formerly considered a close ally of al-Qa’eda, declared itself allied to Isis. Superficially, this seemed like a triumph, but look closer and it is less impressive. ABM has been hit hard of late: Egyptian security forces killed many of its leaders last year, including several who hewed to al-Qa’eda rather than Isis. Moreover, ABM’s pledge has probably weakened rather than strengthened jihadism in Egypt, since it has deepened rifts between the group’s al-Qa’eda loyalists and those who wanted to join the new caliphate. Though it’s somewhat of an oversimplification to divide these factions geographically, intelligence sources have suggested that the ABM affiliates most opposed to Isis are based in the Nile Valley, while the pro-Isis faction is concentrated in the Sinai. The Nile Valley faction fears that Isis’s viciousness will put off potential sympathisers. They remember what happened after the militant group Gama’a al-Islamiyya killed 62 people, mainly foreign tourists, in Luxor in 1997. Gama’a probably expected to devastate Egypt’s tourism industry; instead it turned out to have rallied the citizenry behind the government’s counterterrorism measures.

Already ABM has seen an al-Qa’eda loyalist wing, the al-Ribat al-Jihadiyya Brigade, break away. Al-Qa’eda-orientated groups are a strong presence in the Sinai and elsewhere in north Africa, so ABM’s defection to Isis reduces its ability to cooperate with other militant organisations there and diminishes its capacity to bring in arms and supplies from Libya.

Of course, press reports from Libya suggest otherwise. More than one high-profile publication has reported that an Isis-aligned group called the Islamic Youth Shura Council controls the northern Libyan city of Derna. The group has released videos of its members parading through the city, and of Isis flags flying from government buildings. But these images are misleading. In fact, the Islamic Youth Shura Council isn’t the dominant faction in Derna, which is home to about two dozen militias. With so little law and order, pro-jihad parades are less of a challenge to hold than they might be, and the sight of an Isis flag on a government building is not so remarkable.
So why has the group been described as controlling the city? The answer is that social media doesn’t reach as deeply into Libya as it does into Syria, so a few posts by the Islamic Youth Shura Council can create a perception out of step with facts on the ground. Isis’s embrace of social media doesn’t make it unique among jihadist groups, but its skills in this arena are considerably ahead of the pack.

The author and analyst J.M. Berger has documented a variety of ways that Isis has ‘gamed’ Twitter. At one point it created an Arabic-language app, Dawn of Glad Tidings, that would automatically post Isis-created tweets from anyone who installed it. These tweets were carefully ‘spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms’. Isis has also been adept at helping its topics reach Twitter’s ‘trending’ panel: as Berger writes, its media operations enlist ‘hundreds and sometimes thousands of activists to repetitively tweet hashtags at certain times of day’.

On social media, Isis is competent as well as sneaky. The group pushes out propaganda with a kind of faux granularity that allows it to become accepted as fact, and has attracted younger jihadists who are at home in the medium. Within its horde of Twitter supporters, one can find wit and snark sitting comfortably alongside applause for beheadings.

Yet this proficiency with social media allows ISIS and its affiliates to mask their underlying weaknesses. Algeria’s Jund al-Khalifa, for instance, wasn’t particularly large even at its peak. Since September, when it murdered a French hostage, Hervé Gourdel, security forces have killed its emir, Abdelmalek Gouri, and arrested dozens of members. Given the group’s small size, this is likely to have a disproportionate impact. As for the oath of allegiance from Yemen, not only has Isis’s Yemeni affiliate done nothing since it was first declared, but the announcement has provoked a backlash from the more established Al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even Mamun Hatim, one of the most prominent AQAP-affiliated figures to speak well about Isis, has repeatedly distanced himself from the caliphate since it announced its move on to Yemeni turf.

What Isis does have is an uncanny knack for scaring the audience it wants to scare: us. And we, addicted as many of us are to horror and violence in popular culture, seem perversely eager to be frightened. A stunt such as a grisly beheading, or the forcing of the hostage John Cantlie to serve as a propagandist, takes on a media significance that distorts our sense of Isis’s power. In turn, we become more willing to accept their territorial claims, even ones that don’t stand up to serious analysis. That’s why it is incumbent on western governments to communicate the limitations of Isis’s position. Better strategic communications on the part of Isis’s foes — helping journalists decipher truth from spin — would make a difference.

The difficult question for Isis is whether its slick, shocking PR can bring it a sustainable advantage. After all, back in 2005 many observers believed that Isis’s predecessor, al-Qa’eda in Iraq, and its emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had eclipsed al-Qa’eda and Osama bin Laden as the leaders of global jihadism. AQI and Zarqawi make for a striking analogy to the Islamic State today: Zarqawi, like Isis, was extraordinarily popular with young jihadists and revelled in brutality, becoming infamous for slaughtering Shia Muslims and for videos of beheadings. Although Zarqawi appeared ascendent for some time, the weaknesses in his strategy soon became apparent, and they ultimately wrecked his organisation. AQI’s excesses provoked a tribal uprising against it.

But as we wait for karma to catch up with Isis, we shouldn’t be complacent about the group’s propaganda. Isis’s sheer brutality and the publicity it achieves have inspired other jihadist groups to ever more appalling acts. The Islamic State has also been able to mobilise an unusual number of ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks in multiple countries. And the one cost that has received less attention is that Isis’s excesses make al-Qa’eda appear mild by comparison, giving the more established terror network the opportunity to detoxify its tarnished brand — something that Osama bin Laden hoped to do before he met his end, as the documents recovered from his compound in Abbottabad reveal. The danger then is that Isis’s eventual loss will be al-Qa’eda’s gain.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University.

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Things that we already know about Israel’s next Knesset

by Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Journal, Jan. 15, 2015

The three parties that are leading the polls – Likud, Labor, the Jewish Home – have all completed their primary process and presented their lists of candidates. The Likud Party was the first one to do it, and its voters decided to go with a relatively conservative selection. The Likud has few new faces, few women, few surprises, and a lot of experienced candidates that can easily fill the many offices of the next government. The most notable event of the Likud primary was the elimination of MK Moshe Feiglin – a revolutionary that attempted to change the party from within. Feiglin was a symbol of the potential ascension of right-wing kookiness in the Likud. Prime Minister Netanyahu was more than happy to get rid of him and portray the results of the election as a return to a more moderate Likud.

The Labor Party has a list that is young, female, inexperienced (you can’t acquire much experience in the opposition), and highly ideological. It is a list that highlights a left-leaning social-economic agenda and makes most other issues secondary. If Labor becomes a ruling party – not a very likely outcome of the election but a possible one – its head, Yitzhak Herzog, is going to have to make compromises with his list and appoint senior ministers that are not necessarily at the top of the Labor’s list. Those on the top are too young, too inexperienced, and often too radical to get the keys to Israel’s policies.   

Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home Party, has a new list that is manly (but not as manly as religious parties used to be), settler-friendly (as usual), and – this is the big change – not very religious. The MK that came on top in yesterday’s election, Ayelet Shaked, is a secular female. I Repeat: the voters of the Zionist-religious party elected a secular woman from Tel Aviv as their favorite. The head of the party, Naftali Bennett, keeps telling his constituency that for the party to be a leader it needs to become less sectarian and more inclusive of Israelis who generally support the party’s ideology. Shaked is proof that Bennett was successful in making this case, and that the appetite of the Jewish Home voters to be a leader – not a party of the “sector” – is growing.

These three parties – close to half the MK’s of the next Knesset – had an interesting selection process. All three parties, eventually, did exactly what was expected of them. The Likud Party, in electing a list that is a little less ideologically “threatening” to centrist Israelis; The Labor Party, in putting front and center its new generation of young “social justice” activists (the fruit of Israel’s so called summer of protest of 2011); and Habayit Hayehudi, in its ability to keep under one roof the not-always-easy alliance of religious hawks (the so called Hardalim – Haredi Zionists), more relaxed religious-Zionists (such as Bennett himself), and even the secular (they all generally agree on the politics of Israel-Palestine. But there are great differences within the party on matters related to state and religion issues).

Other parties, most of which don’t have a democratic process to select their candidates, are going to join these three shortly, and present their final lists. But some things are clear even before a final selection is made by all:

Representation of women is becoming an issue: the Likud Party is criticized for not having enough, the Labor praised for having many, the Jewish Home has more than in the past, Kulanu, the party of Moshe Kahlon vowed to have 50% women representation. If women representation matters to the voters we do not know. An attempt to make it significant should be expected, as it is an obvious advantage that the left has over the right, and advantage with which it could try to lure young women voters away from the right.

The secular-religious political divide keeps being blurred, except in Israel’s left. The Jewish Home is not as religious as it used to be, the Likud Party, as usual, has many religious members, Kahlon and Lapid, the centrists, are also going to have religious candidates. Only the Labor Party works against this trend and has produced an arch-secular list – that is, if you discount the somewhat traditional Herzog (grandson to rabbi Herzog, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi). 

There’s some shortage in new political stars. The next Knesset is not going to be as exciting as the last one. The Likud is having difficulties finding the proper candidate for number 13 on the list – reserved for a candidate selected by the Prime Minister. Netanyahu wants to add a woman to the list, a worthy cause, but is having trouble finding a candidate that is both willing, fit for the Likud, and attractive to voters. Bennett also has some trouble with a list that did not add much glitz to his previous list. Kahlon promised to have an attractive list, but his list is somewhat gray. Lapid is the star of his own campaign – and proves again that having a star at the top might not be good for governing but works well during campaign season. He threatens to yet again be the surprise of the next election, a political Phoenix. That is because of his great skill at campaigning, and because of the weakness of his centrist competitors, Kahlon (fails to impress) and Lieberman (busy with police investigations).

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