“Things are looking positive and the wind is with us,” Major General Craig Orme, commander of Australian forces in the latest war in the Middle East, told AAP on October 11.
If the US-led military coalition has a strategy against its latest enemy, the terrorist gang that calls itself the “Islamic State” (IS), Orme was not revealing it.
“If they want to stay in one spot, we are very happy for them to do that,” he said. “We will just bomb them. When they do mass we will smack them and smack them hard.”
However, IS forces in northern Iraq, where Australian aircraft have been deployed, have preferred to stay mobile and hide among the civilian population.
The US-led coalition is officially entirely airborne. Continued denials by Western leaders that ground combat soldiers will be needed reflect the fact that new Middle East imperial ventures remain unpopular in most Western countries. Ground forces against IS will apparently be drawn from local allies.
In Iraq, this is officially the national armed forces and the peshmerga militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, US ground soldiers are being increasingly deployed as “advisers” to these forces.
Both forces are dominated by government party-aligned militias with violent religious and ethnic communalist agendas ― despite Western rhetoric about creating a united and inclusive Iraqi state.
IS control more territory in Syria than Iraq. However, while the Iraqi regime was installed by a previous US-led occupation, the regime in Syria is an official enemy. Some coalition partners, including Australia, have so far restricted their air strikes to Iraq.
The US has also attacked targets in Syria. This has been welcomed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which controls less than half the country. IS is only one of several forces the regime has been fighting in a civil war that has killed almost 250,000 people since 2011.
However, the US and its Western and regional allies recognise opposition-aligned exile politicians as the legitimate Syrian government and Obama has ruled out cooperation with Assad.
As well as bombing some IS targets, and killing civilians in the process, the US bombed positions of another Islamist group, the Nusra Front. Despite being affiliated with al-Qaeda, finding itself pressed between the Assad forces and IS, earlier this year the Nusra Front had allied itself with other opposition groups.
They sought Western acceptance as a legitimate part of the Syrian opposition. But since being bombed, they have negotiated an alliance with IS.
Other anti-Assad groups have also been alienated by the attacks on the Nusra Front, and by civilian casualties, and have opposed US intervention.
The forces with most military success against IS are the Peoples Defence Units/Women’s Defence Units (YPG/YPJ), the armed forces of the liberated areas of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojova).
Since mid-2012, they have held much of Rojava despite attacks from Assad forces, the Nusra Front and other opposition groups, and IS.
In August, together with allies from the Turkish Kurdistan-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the YPG/YPJ entered Iraq to rescue Yazidi Kurdish civilians from IS in Sinjar and defend the KRG capital of Irbil.
Since the US-led war began in August, IS has been concentrating its forces around the YPG/YPJ-held Kurdish town of Kobane, on the Turkish-Syrian border.
On October 10, as IS fighters closed in on the centre of Kobane, United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura predicted the town’s fall would lead to a massacre of thousands of civilians, and invoked the memory of the 1995 Srebrenic massacre.
Despite Orme’s advice, the coalition’s air strikes have not “smacked” IS forces massing around Kobane. Local YPG/YPJ commanders reported seeing no air strikes before October 7.
Meysa Ebdo, a YPG/YPJ commander in Kobane, told the October 9 Ozgur Gundem: “We can say that the coalition forces were late in deciding to strike ISIS. They took these decisions very late. They were not very active strikes with results.”
She said the strikes had some impact in the previous two days, but had not been co-ordinated. The US has refused to communicate with the YPG/YPJ.
Ebdo stressed that what the YPG/YPJ needed was weapons more than air strikes. “The coalition also needs to give us support with weapons and ammunition,” she said. “Because we have been surrounded on all sides and we have no heavy weapons. We have not allowed ISIS to pass until now using our Kalashnikovs.
“Let no one get the wrong idea, even under existing circumstances, we will fight with ISIS for years, but the coalition needs to support us with weapons.”
However, Western nations oppose arming the YPG/YPJ. The PKK is also listed as a banned terrorist group in the US, the European Union and Australia, making giving material support to their allies possibly illegal.
Turkey, meanwhile, has been in conflict with the PKK since 1984. It is more threatened by the example of the Kurdish liberated areas in Rojava than by IS.
On October 2, the Turkish parliament voted to authorise Turkish soldiers joining the US-led coalition. At the same time, Turkey has allowed recruits and military hardware to pass through its borders to IS, while closing its border with Kobane and blocking supplies and volunteers from Turkey joining the defence of the town.
Refugees have only been able to cross from Kobane into Turkey after long delays. On October 10, the Irish Independent said refugees from Kobane detained by the Turkish military had gone on hunger strike.
Despite the 265 detainees including nine children, they are being detained as suspected YPG/YPJ fighters. Meanwhile, injured IS fighters are treated in Turkish hospitals before returning to the battlefield.
In the negotiations with the US about entering the coalition, Turkey is pushing for its forces to occupy a buffer zone inside the Syrian border on the pretext of protecting refugees, the October 9 New York Times said.
On October 5, IS forces entered Lebanon but were evicted by Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance group viewed defeated an Israeli offensive in 2006. It also listed as a terrorist group under US, EU and Australian anti-terrorist laws.
If the US-led coalition seems confused about the objectives of its military intervention, that is partially because just having a military intervention was itself an important objective.
Since the official end of the US occupation of Iraq in 2011 and the withdrawal of most of its soldiers, the US has been looking for opportunities to intervene again. Its global political and economic power relies heavily on controlling the oil-rich Middle East.
But the failure of the Bush administration’s wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the exposure of the lies they were justified with, made military intervention in the Middle East politically difficult for Western governments.
This was made clear in September last year. Credible evidence emerged that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, crossing a much-hyped red line set by Obama.
But after the British parliament and US congress opposed a war, plans for military action were abandoned.
But IS has provided the West with a pretext. Its violence is an efficient propaganda tool for it to advertise itself. It filmed mass executions of Iraqi army prisoners in June and gave higher body counts for its own massacres than human rights groups.
IS terrorises populations it controls through spectacular public violence, such as crucifixions and decapitations.
IS propaganda directed at the West, such as beheading Western journalists and aid workers, seems deliberately designed to encourage a Western intervention. Also, the group’s claims to be the leader of global Muslim “caliphate”, as well as their extremely intolerant theology, have put them in conflict with every power in the region, minimising regional opposition to US-led intervention.
IS originated in the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Local resistance groups were joined by Islamist veterans of conflicts in other countries. US policy promoted religious communalism, to divide and rule the population.
Exploiting civil war
IS began as the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq. After a decline in its fortunes in Iraq, the group moved into Syria when civil war broke out in 2011, becoming known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Syrian civil war began when Assad sought to violently crush a political uprising. A secular dictatorship, the Assad regime portrayed the opposition as Sunni Islamist terrorists. It sought to make this a reality, freeing some jailed terrorists. Relatively small and selective covert Western assistance also favoured Sunni Islamist groups.
In both Iraq and Syria, IS violence has been far from unique. As the Syrian conflict became increasingly violent and communal, IS’s uncompromising embrace of violence and opposition to religious diversity helped them rise to prominence. The Assad regime's body count remains higher, however.
When IS swept back into Iraq in June, it received some support from Sunni Arab communities that had suffered from government-aligned Shia militias. However, its intolerance and tyranny means that any popular support is contingent on people needing protection from a more dangerous enemy.
At some point the US-led “War on ISIS” will involve serious action against IS. However, both have many other enemies and rivals in the region but both need war with each other as a pretext for their agendas.