The Islamic state is a country bigger than Great Britain, straddling Syria and Iraq, it is rich with over a $billion in the bank and over a $million rolling in each day. It is very well equipped with large amounts of all the munitions it needs, which it has stolen from the Syrian and Iraqi armies and from the FSA. Whilst it has captured airfields and aircraft it has not used them. Current estimates has it at about 80,000 men. It is still growing in size, conquering towns and villages every day. It is 100% Sunni Muslim and ethnically cleanses everyone else.
I have already written a few articles which might be useful background reading.
We have total air superiority over them yet it is impossible to defeat IS from the air. All we can do is to very expensively nibble away at them. Whilst they win every day with extra recruitment. We have learned from previous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that it takes boots on the ground to take territory. And then those boots on the ground must stay there for ever. The West cannot possibly do this job. In fact it is exactly what the Islamic State want, to bog down the West in another incredibly expensive Vietnam/Afghanistan situation.
So what can we, the West, do? The first thing is to win the hearts and minds of the enemies of the Islamic State, form political alliances. Next we need to help these people with equipment and training. Then we need to help them on the battlefield with military advisers, special forces and close air support (CAS) air power. This will be a very long slog. And it is one we should have started two years ago. We have allowed this situation to happen through ignorance and apathy.
The Islamic State is surrounded by enemies that we can help. Let’s look at who they are.
YPG or People’s Protection Units. These are the armed forces of the Kurds in Syria and they are excellent fighters, who gave IS a good thumping last year. They have around 50,000 lightly armed irregular fighters and right now they are taking a massive battering. They are being attacked by a large force of heavily armed IS, who are winning. The YPG desperately need CAS right now and I am sure that Turkish based USA Apache helicopters will provide it.
Peshmerga. These are the fighters of Kurdish Iraq. They have a long history going back to 1890 and have now been in semi continuous action since 2003. They are proud fighters and can call on huge reserves of up to 200,000 men and women. But they are extremely under resourced. Just recently they were nearly over run by very heavily armed IS fighters. The USA responded with equipment, CAS, military advisers and special forces. This rapidly turned the tide and should act as a template for further Western action.
Free Syrian Army (FSA). These are from the beginning of the Syrian revolution, formed as a conglomeration of local militias, many of whom are only interested in defending their own town. They are secular, mainly being Sunni, but also including Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmen (but no Westerners). These are the people the West talks to and we want them to win. However we let them down very badly last year when Ed Miliband led a revolt in the UK Parliament against supporting them, leading to Obama doing likewise. The FSA suffered badly from this, fragmenting and losing many fighters. Recently they have been given an ample supply of TOW ATGMs which has helped them a huge amount and which proves how help can work. It is difficult to know their current strength because of their partly local nature, the fragmentation last year and the recent strengthening. But 50,00 battle hardened fighters might be in the ball park.
Syrian Revolutionaries Front or Syrian Rebel Front (SRF). This comprises 14 FSA brigades who broke away last year. They have about 15,000 fighters to a similar standard to the FSA.
Islamic Front (IF). A merger of seven rebel groups last year. About 50,000 strong. Despite their name their principles state: “8. The Syrian revolution is a revolution based on morals and values whose objective is to obtain freedom, justice, and security for all sectors of Syrian society, with its diverse multi-ethnic and multi-sect social fabric.”
Other Syrian groups. Army of Mujahedeen, maybe 10,000 fighters, supported by USA. Hazzm Movement, about 5,000 fighters, moderate, recent recipients of TOW ATGMs. And there are many other small groups and factions.
Iraqi Army. 270,000 men, over 500,00 reserves. Nearly 800,000 total. Armed with high quality USA weaponry. On paper a formidable force. But the government of Nouri al-Maliki neutered it with a combination of corruption, political meddling, deliberate weakening and religious bigotry. So in the North of Iraq they have preferred running to fighting, even against far weaker IS forces. Deserting Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, they left behind huge quantities of USA supplied military equipment which IS are now happily putting to use. With proper leadership the Iraqi Army could very easily destroy IS. But they don’t have this and are unlikely to in the near future. This is a huge political problem that USA are trying to fix.
Shiite Militias. The Mahdi Army is 50,000 fighters. Badr Organisation possibly 20,000 fighters. And there are more groups. These tend to be supported by Iran, are often beyond the control of the Iraq government and are responsible for many anti Sunni atrocities. They are a big part of the problem. Why Iraq has split. But they are very happy to fight IS.
Iraqi tribes. There are about 150 large tribes and they often carry big political and military power. Some are Sunni, some Shia. They have a reputation for changing sides. The big al-Qaeda insurgency during the USA occupation was largely beaten by winning over the Sunni tribes. The Islamic State grew so massively when it invaded Iraq because of the tribes joining them, having been alienated by the Maliki government. Once again this is a political problem, but if the Sunni tribes turned against IS it would be very significant.
As you can see IS are outnumbered very many times over by their enemies. But remember that very many fighters are part timers, also holding down full time jobs, whilst IS has enough money to pay for full time fighters. And IS will continue to win until its enemies are far better organised and equipped.
This whole situation has been created by the West. You can be sure that we will apply gung ho, ham fisted solutions that appeal to the popular media and which make things far worse. Just listen to the utter rubbish Tony Blair is spouting right now. He seems to be utterly ignorant of the facts on the ground, despite being Middle East Envoy.