Sunday, September 28, 2014

An ISIS Primer

The Oil Soaked, Religious, Arab Desert 
Politics of Revenge, Ambition and Betrayal
Wet dynamite packed in the trunk of a stalled Pinto parked in the rain
What could possibly go wrong?

Fairly reasonable estimates put the total number of "participants" in the ISIS rebellion at somewhere around 30,000 - 40,000. This isn't the number of "fingers on the trigger," but, instead, this represents the full collection of Islamists ranging from casually sympathetic to completely and feverishly dedicated. We can safely assume that a good number have "joined up" simply because conditions of life where they were had become so terrible that practically anything looked like an improvement.

Future caliphates don't have much to offer beyond promises, but they don't need much more.

The "WWII thing" would have been somewhat accurate a month or two ago. Events at that time were painting a new face on what we had seen of terrorism previously. The "militias" were taking and holding territory in Northwestern Syria and Eastern Iraq -- that was something quite different from the "fly by and blow it up" approach we had seen everywhere before.

Right away, however, we need to take a closer look at the "territory" which was being taken. Northwestern Syria was essentially a "freebie" given that most of Assad's ground forces were entangled with stubborn rebel fighters in the other end of the country. The Syrian dictator's air force was continuing to make "show the flag" sorties over the ISIS held regions, but these amounted to little more that "three times a week reminders" from Damascus that "We'll get around to you after we've finished in the South."

The plains of Eastern Iraq presented a slightly different situation, but, in the end, one destined to suffer the same outcome. The Baghdad government had remained paralyzed by the Shi'ite looters who had been installed at the end of the occupation. In hindsight, it is now quite clear that the Iraqi soldiers charged with facing the ISIS threat in combat were thoroughly convinced that, win or lose, they could expect nothing more than continuing exploitation from Baghdad.

We need to remember that those forming the Iraqi "democracy" were being counseled by Viscount Bremer, US Governor of Iraq, presenting the grotesque Bush W. version of the US democracy for a model.

Taking a Hard, Tactical Look at ISIS
Please remind everyone who'll listen that this ISN'T WWII.
Especially the war mongering geriatrics in Congress.

The surrender of Mosul and their retreat from the battle field may have appeared surreal to those of us accustomed to European armies, but when the "proposed combat" is a zero sum game, MeanMesa sees the frantic withdrawal of the Iraqi military as completely understandable and essentially inevitable. Interestingly, there was potentially an opportunity for a withdrawal which might have included also withdrawing the substantial equipment deployed with the Iraqis, but -- tellingly -- even this was abandoned. [Read more here: New York Times]

There was no lingering interest in "returning to the fight" in the minds of the Iraqi military running toward Baghdad after Mosul's fall. This is evidence of how deep and complete the demoralization inflicted by the Baghdad government had become in the Iraqi military.

The forces now being fielded by Baghdad are being energized by groups such as the Mahdi Shi'ite militias which the US occupation had so much trouble suppressing in places like Sadr City. It turns out that no matter how far along the military violence in the region may have progressed, there is always still time to transform it into sectarian warfare. The political version of this same divisive impulse in the Baghdad government delivered the intractable mess currently unfolding, so it's not surprising that the rise of the materially military form of the same thing is part of the result.

These are the wages of apartheid, Middle Eastern style. [Read more here: Foreign Affairs - Keven Russel]

Supplying Gasoline and Cash to the Caliphate
Even stolen trucks have thirsty gas tanks...

The "WWII thing" really begins to evaporate when we consider precisely what assets ISIS has within the new "caliphate."

For starters, the revenue generating ISIS "oil refineries" scattered around the Northern Syrian desert would be mistaken for junk yards everywhere else in the world, and, if they didn't look like junk yards before the first waves of bombing, they do now. Permanently junk or not, you can't hide them, you can't move them, and you probably can't build very many news ones from what's left.

Exactly this presents the first "supply challenge" faced by the "caliphate" -- gasoline or diesel. The "home refineries" produce, at best, slightly refined crude oil. The current "market" for this refinery product is, generally, in Turkey and Syria. It cannot be used to fuel gasoline powered engines and, although it might run a diesel engine, it would not be good for it. Black market trucks load up with this barely refined crude -- black market priced somewhere around $20/barrel -- and haul it to "full" refineries across the Turkish border to the north where it is further refined into gasoline or diesel.

Most of this refined black market gasoline or diesel is marketed in Turkey, but some of it is loaded back into the trucks that brought the crude and sent back to the fuel hungry ISIS vehicles in the "caliphate." The diplomatic branch of the coalition is pressuring Turkey to take steps needed to curtail this cross border flow -- both ways. The coalition is also quite interested in ferreting out refineries which might be supplying fuel to ISIS directly.

This explains the almost obsessive ISIS interest in capturing Kirkuk, the site of established "full" oil refineries. With control of this area ISIS would move significantly closer to enjoying a self-sustaining gasoline or diesel supply along with a major increase in revenue from refined product sales. [Read more: Reuters]

Kirkuk Refinery [image Kirkuk-Now]
Many oil refineries processes include an on-site crude oil topping unit scaled to provide gasoline for the vehicles servicing the plant. The small on site refinery at Kirkuk also produces fuel for the power grid. Should ISIS manage to capture one of these in tact, it could then be up scaled to more or less permanently solve the ISIS fuel problems.

The back yard refineries have been generating ISIS revenue at a respectable rate but an incredible inefficiency. Neutralizing this revenue stream was clearly one of the objectives of the coalition air strikes in Syria. Some of the "big money" revenue for ISIS is generated by sales of crude oil from the refineries they have captured and held, and another substantial part is from direct donations originating in primarily Gulf states. [Read more here: Fortune (July 2014)]

ISIS: Where Can We Store All This Stuff?
We need to keep it handy across a 500 mile wide caliphate.

Additionally, what we might first imagine as something similar to a US National Guard armory full of supplies or a military transportation center full of trucks would be a far departure from what ISIS was using for these purposes. This issue unavoidably "bleeds" into the further question of "Who's actually in charge?"

Also, we have all seen plenty of video of ISIS fighters packed into fairly new pick up trucks bristling with guns roaring across the desert. Every once in a while these scenes also include a few tanks, low-boy trailers carrying anti-aircraft missiles and a collection of field artillery that looks suspiciously similar to old US issue 105 mm. Howitzers.

The Spider Web Caliphate [image source]
The "ISIS colored" area on the map [right] would greatly under represent the "secured caliphate" in the eyes of ISIS, but this discrepancy would reflect more on the uncertainty of exactly what an "ISIS controlled area" actually means. MeanMesa suspects that all that is required is that a field commander can order ISIS fighters into such a place without expecting resistance.

[The link for image credit on the picture to the right offers an extended source of current information about ISIS.]

A more conventional army would have a command infrastructure in place to, for example, decide which "teams" of fighters would have trucks. However, at this time the amount of military equipment seized by ISIS during its rushing advance through Iraq can be considered "the curse of plenty." There are probably very few disgruntled ISIS fighters anywhere in the "caliphate" frustrated because the "high command" didn't give them a truck.

Heavier weapon equipment is, apparently, not nearly as "over stocked." ISIS has, however, allocated what heavy weapons it has fairly effectively -- most recently when confronting Kurdish troops --  but generally when there are any valuable "hard targets" to be taken. For example, the Kurds have the misfortune of frequently standing between ISIS and refineries.

So, without armories, mechanic shops or big warehouses manned by inventory officers and file keepers ISIS is, at least in the tactical military sense, nomadic to a fault. So far this has been a vulnerability because it leaves ISIS equipment in the open. The predictable asymmetric response habitually chosen by terrorists and rebels is to rapidly insinuate all of this into civilian populations to counter the advantage promised by air superiority.

Still, if you happen to be an ISIS commander trying to focus the force carried by all this spread out, rag tag, camouflaged army, the dispersion nightmare only becomes worse. To mount an offensive somewhere the equipment must be called from where it is hidden, moved to an attack position, and then gathered in plain sight before an aggressive advance can be initiated.

This is the material advantage of coalition air superiority -- even when capitalizing on it means trying to coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces. For ISIS any plan to continually resupply such an active advance once in progress will carry a very, very high price.

Think of it as almost the exact opposite of the Indians in General Custer's India Wars.

Bullets, Boots, Bandages, Food and Spare Parts
There are, undoubtedly, already crippling shortages.

There are, for certain, "supply lines" flowing into the ISIS controlled region shown on the map. [above] Yes, the area is "blessed" with international borders, but these seem to offer very little impedance to the massive re-supply effort necessary to sustain 30,000 combatants in an active military theater. [Read more here: Public Radio International]

Further, while ISIS has, unquestionably, begun to warehouse these supplies in the best tactical dispersal possible for the existing conditions, the problems began immediately for them and continue to grow worse. The black market suppliers are, very likely, failing to provide the "complete list" of the thousands of specific things necessary for operations and maintenance.

Think about how many items are in the catalogs used by a supply officer for a US military unit. Think about the tedious process of requisitions, approvals, acquisition, delivery, warehousing and ultimate distribution required to actually put those supplies where needed to sustain a US or European military unit -- even when not engaged in active warfare. Remember that all this is done in Europe and the US with procurement contractors eager for the business in territory not dominated by hostile fighter bombers.

Here, we're not referring to the right flavor of toothpaste or replacement pillows for the barracks. ISIS procurement is focused on items such as breech block lubricants, brake pads.

The point here is that the surviving ISIS supply warehouses are -- or soon will be -- running out of everything. In many cases the necessary re-supply will not be exclusively a matter of cash, but also one seriously complicated by problems of logistics. The coalition's diplomatic strategy will be doing everything possible to make those logistic problems even worse than they are currently.

Command and Control for an Uncontrollable Army
Gee whiz, there certainly seems to be a lot of 
different agendas and priorities in this outfit.

Make no mistake. The "top end" and the "bottom end" of the ISIS army are perched in shockingly disparate, fundamentally alienated roles with respect to both dreams and temperament. We won't find many ISIS fighters who perceive "Supreme Caliphate Commander al Baghdadi" as something even remotely similar to General Patton's famous title as "the soldier's General."

This is not to say that there are not remarkably cohesive "local militia units" in place around the "caliphate." Also, there are, indeed, orders or some sort floating down from Supreme Commander -- orders which are largely, more or less, often obeyed -- at least roughly. There is a general staff of old Baathist Generals who have survived like "cock roaches with stars" from the Sadam Hussein regime in Iraq who are charged with breathing some very dilute form of military discipline into the hordes. [Read more here: New York Times]

At the local militia level ISIS fighters have a wide -- and understandable  -- collection of personal priorities and motivation. Perhaps the largest block of the influences would be comprised mainly of the "three R's:"  revenge, respect and revelation. Many of these fighters are motivated by the opportunity for personal vendettas offered along with service to ISIS. In general populations in  the region sustain more than a little resentment at the 500,000 to 1,000,000 dead resulting from the US invasion. [Read more here: WIKI]

We can also assume that there is, probably, even a smaller force of ISIS soldiers which can be considered "relocatable," that is, who are stable enough to be transferred from one of the militia units to another effectively in response to active combat developments. We see a consequential disadvantage when we size up the "technically competent" units who, for example, might be dependably capable of launching surface to air missiles or even manning Howitzers.

However, for the vast majority of the "caliphate's army," ISIS has "breathed new meaning" into the old phrase: "cannon fodder."

Caliphs, dictators, kings and most other versions of autocrats have found religion an awkward but essential foundation for their authority -- especially when it comes to managing an unruly fighting force. By "unruly" we mean one with a robust variety of available "reasons" to suddenly turn on absolutely anyone. When such an army is, actually, "cannon fodder," the religion becomes even more useful and necessary -- particularly if you happen to be the one who might be unexpectedly attacked.

This is nothing new. It was already this way when Pope Urban II declared holy war and the Crusades on the Ottoman Empire in 1095 AD, and history has continued this trend since then.

The higher leadership of ISIS is comprised of the "borrowed and re-soled" Generals, largely self-established militia leaders and a sprinkling of the ISIS equivalent of "field marshals" empowered to issue assignments to the militia groups under their command. The man at the very top is [at least reported to be] al Baghdadi.

Biographical accounts of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi have suffered the predictable insults to their accuracy, but none of the propaganda seems inclined to downgrade the Iraqi Sunni's dynamic capacity to command ISIS effectively. [Read more here: Washington Post.] Iraqi propaganda is reporting his death during one of the air strikes, but this account has very low credibility. [Read more here: Iraqi News]

While ISIS has demonstrated a respectable savvy with the use of video cameras for their decapitations and the social media for soliciting recruits and terrifying everyone else, MeanMesa presumes that command level communication throughout the ISIS military structure is woefully amateur at such techniques as effective encryption, code writing and even the routine discipline regarding what's to be said and not said in cell phone calls between the military leadership.

All these weaknesses coupled with the rather strangely limited coalition air strikes targeting "available" ISIS targets in Iraq lead MeanMesa to assume that the intelligence build up is significant. The likely outcome of this is an intense, rapidly executed program of air strikes against every identifiable ISIS target in the field when the order is finally given. [Read more here: MeanMesa: ISIS and the Politics of Congress]

In the meantime ISIS is suffering losses only in instances of "wide open" exposure to coalition air power. Strategically, this is probably because ground forces cannot yet capitalize on the results of a more aggressive air campaign. There is little reason to simply "liberate" territory only to leave it available for "re-occupation" by ISIS forces a few days later when some of them are sent there.

A Delightful, Final Conspiracy Theory
There may be some actual malice
 down among all the feathers and fury.

What could possibly be a better ending for this long post than proposing a so far unspoken conspiracy theory to stand in for the "icing on the cake?"

The "quiet" player with perhaps the greatest interest in what ultimately becomes of Syria is the Russian Federation. [Read more here: MeanMesa: Syria and Russia] Of course, it is sometimes frustrating -- if not out rightly perplexing -- to attempt to divide the state aspirations of the Russian Federation and the suspiciously personal ambitions of its President, Vladimir Putin, but the likely consequences of the success of either will play directly into the matter of ISIS.

It is no mystery that the stubborn Russian support of the Syrian Assad regime has weathered all manner of international criticism already, but it is also not a mystery that any likely prospects of a "good outcome" for the apparently intractable Syrian civil war remain tragically out of reach, too. Given these unarguably ugly possible choices, let's take a look at what may well be some "not so far fetched after all" suspicions MeanMesa is entertaining about the intentions of this "Russian wild card."

1. The Kremlin's "second choice" for Syria

Assad and his bloody regime are probably permanently finished whether the insurrection in Syria succeeds within the next few years or not. This leaves the Russians looking for a second choice. "If not more of Assad, then more of whom?"

All the insurgent armies in Syria have "troubling strings" extending to other powers in the region and the world. Most of those battling Assad are receiving substantial resources from Middle Eastern sources, Europe or the United States. If any one of these groups -- or any collection of them -- were to wrest control of Syria, Russian interests [especially the naval station] would take a serious hit.

If such a "hit" were constrained only by the necessity of satisfying the interests of the new owners, things might be manageable for the Federation, but if the interests of those who had patiently supplied millions or billions of dollars worth of aid for the long fight were added to the mix, the Federation could emerge the loser.

Facing this possibility, ISIS might actually appear at least slightly more workable as the new Syrian government to the Russians.

2. Russian supply lines and a Grateful ISIS

Among all the potential "state supporters" of the "caliphate," the Russians are absolutely in the top tier with respect to their ability to move military supplies into the battle zone. Given the Federation's already existing arrangements with the Assad regime in Damascus, this access to Syria -- currently intended to support the regime and supply the Russian naval assets at Tartus -- could be almost painlessly diverted to provide support for ISIS.

Don't cringe. The US has a sordid history of supporting both sides in wars for years.

With ISIS firmly in control of Syria that old "Moscow magic" could fairly easily begin purchasing the cooperation of important players in the new ISIS-Syrian government. Russian ambitions for access to the Mediterranean would be protected with only a few, painless policy accommodations for the Islamic State.

3. Diffusing Ukraine and Bothering NATO

An ISIS seizure of Syria would trump the current waves of criticism for the Federation's "meat handed" annexation of Crimea and rabble rousing in Eastern Ukraine. If the impact on the "news cycle" continued long enough, Vladimir might possibly use it as cover for an even more aggressive policy in Ukraine, perhaps including an out right invasion.

At least in the beginning a Russian sponsored ISIS success in Syria and Iraq would pose a far greater problem for the West than it would pose for the Russian Federation. If it were actually possible to embarrass the United States even more after the Bush W. catastrophe in Iraq, so much the better.

4. Exacting Revenge for the "Crimea Sanctions"

Although the Russians have played every possible card to depict the economic sanctions as ineffective and irrelevant, the wounded oligarchs surrounding Putin are remaining far from convinced. The sanctions were designed to be venous, painful and patient, and MeanMesa is suspects that they will have precisely that effect. Their impact will relentlessly increase as they continue over time.

Patience is the key. There remains a very real possibility that, in the end, it may turn out that Crimea is not as permanently Russian as reported and concluded.

Quite aside from the economic punch the sanctions inflicted, the "image damage" plays a close second in terms of being irritating if not persuasive. Russia acted badly, and flagrantly boasted that no one could do anything to change "the facts on the ground." The pitch was that the Russian Federation was so powerful that it could effortlessly withstand all calls to conscience, and that it could painlessly endure any retribution.

This may have been the original plan, but then the Federation was scolded and punished.

This is the garden where revenge is grown -- in any season.

A Post Posting Post Script

This post has not mentioned anything about what the right wing war mongers in the Congress have been bellowing about the handling of the issue with ISIS. We will get to this very, very soon. Watch this space.

[This was posted subsequently. If you would like to continue reading on this topic, please link to MeanMesa here:  ISIS and the Politics of Congress]

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