ISIS Gains Strategic Ground in Iraq and Syria

Reese Erlich, author of Inside Syria, says that ISIS showcased its tactical and military savviness in Ramadi. The problem for the US is that it still has no reliable allies that can fight on the ground.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On Tuesday the Syrian air force struck more than 160 ISIL targets in an attempt to regain control of the border city of Palmyra. What is alarming is the sheer numbers of those fighting for the jihad. UN Security Council puts the estimate at 25,000. Joining us now from Oakland, California to discuss all of this is Reese Erlich. Reese is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of the book Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World can Expect.

Reese, thank you so much for joining us.

REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Always a pleasure.

PERIES: Reese, give us a take on how successful the U.S.’s effort on fighting back ISIS in the region has been.

ERLICH: Not very. I was there in August of last year when the U.S. began bombing in Iraq, and we were told the U.S. air power was so great it would roll back the gains by Islamic State, or ISIL or ISIS depending on what you want to call them, and that the U.S. allies on the ground would retake territory seized by ISIS.

And none of that has happened. In fact, the opposite is true. The Islamic State has gained new territory, and it turns out the U.S. has no reliable allies on the ground in Syria at all, and no reliable allies in Iraq other than the Kurdish forces in the North.

PERIES: Now, describe for us–and we’ll put a map up here, the Iraq government forces and the Syrian forces both lost very important ground in the region last week. Tell us a little bit more about what that means strategically.

ERLICH: Well, the loss of Ramadi is quite significant. It’s a major city in Anbar province, which is predominantly Sunni. It’s an area where the U.S. claimed it was going to roll back the gains by the IS, but in fact the opposite happened. And it was a tactically quite effective move by the Islamic State. They showed a lot of military savvy, indicating the likelihood that some of the former [bathis] military officers are now fighting with IS. And a huge–basically the Iraqi army abandoned their posts, and massive amounts of weapons and ammunition and other supplies fell into the hands of the Islamic State.

In the city of Palmyra in Syria, which I have visited before the war break out, is a famous battlefield and ruins area from the Roman era. And the capture of that was quite significant, because it’s the furthest the Islamic State has gotten in that part of Syria. The Syrians now say they’re bombing that area by air, but it’s likely to have about the same effect as the U.S. bombing by air. You have to win the ground on the war, not by air strikes.

PERIES: So in terms of what this means, in terms of the success of the whole effort in fighting back the ISIS in the region, as well as sort of this strategic rules that the U.S., Iran, and now the Saudis are actually playing out in the region, explain that a little bit and your take on it.

ERLICH: Well, the war in both countries can’t be won without having troops on the ground, whether it’s the Iraqi army or rebel groups in Syria. And so far no significant groups have chosen to ally with the U.S., that’s the core of the problem. It’s not because Obama has been weak-kneed, or vacillating, or something like that. The problem is, and I’ve done many interviews and written about it in my book Inside Syria, that people in the region saw what bringing democracy meant in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and they don’t want any part of it. So the U.S. politically is having a hard time convincing people that it wants to stop the Islamic state while bringing some kind of fair, just government to the country, let alone democracy.

So that’s at the core of the problem. The extremist groups have taken advantage of both the weakness of the U.S. and in the case of Iraq, the Iraqi army, or the Assad army in Syria, and made some gains. So far, Iran, ironically–the great evil, remember, the axis of evil which included Iran some years back, now is in a stronger position as the direct result of U.S. military action in the region. And their allied militias, the popular mobilization forces in Iraq are the only ones who seem to be able to fight effectively on the ground, and they’re now mobilizing to try and retake Ramadi.

Meanwhile on the other side, the Saudis and the Qataris are backing extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda fighting on the ground in Syria, because they see them as the only viable force for winning the war against the Assad forces. So any way you cut it, the U.S. military actions are making the situation much, much worse, and strengthening extremist forces.

PERIES: There’s been some recent reports about the role of Turkey and the Turkey and rebel forces in Syria collaborating to fight the Syrian government. What does this mean?

ERLICH: Well, that’s been going on for a while. The U.S. sees the main enemy as the Islamic State. The Turks, the Qataris, and the Saudis see the main enemy as Assad. And that difference has a huge impact on who you fight, how you fight, and who you make your alliances with.

So in the case of Turkey, they’re backing these extremists. They were the main creators and backers of the Free Syrian Army back a couple years ago when it first began. But that group has basically no support inside Syria anymore. So they’ve shifted to support for the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, as have the Saudis and the Qataris, because they’re an effective fighting force. The fact that they would impose an al-Qaeda-style dictatorship on Syria apparently doesn’t enter into the equation as far as I can tell, because these folks know what they’re doing, and they see at all costs, you have to get rid of Assad.

PERIES: Now, in terms of the ground that Assad has lost in Syria, there’s been some discussion, Larry Wilkerson in particular in an interview earlier this week, said he might be more likely to agree to a political solution in Syria given the ground he has lost. Do you think that’s–what does that mean, a political solution, and you think he will come forward to its negotiations?

ERLICH: I don’t agree with that assessment. I think Assad is going to have to lose quite a few more battles before he is willing to have a political solution. I mean, of course he says he wants a political solution. And there’ve been conferences, peace conferences in Russia with various forces, but they haven’t included the main rebel groups. So that doesn’t do a whole lot of good.

The problem is all of the rebel groups, from the civil society activists through the extremist groups, do not want to see Assad continue in power. And that’s the red line for Assad, because of course he has to stay in power, as far as he’s concerned. So at some point militarily the Assad government is going to lose enough battles that there will be a coup or an uprising within the army, or some other sector of Assad’s forces. Assad will be forced out. Then we could see a political settlement that would bring together, under the best circumstances would bring together civil society activists, non-extremist rebels, and elements from the old Assad government who could put together an effective regime.

I’m not calling it democracy or anything like that, but at least it could bring a ceasefire and stability to the country. That’s the best scenario.

PERIES: Finally, Reese, there’s also been some reports and articles making reference to that Assad might have to resort to dividing Syria and settling for ruling half of it rather than all of Syria. What do you make of that?

ERLICH: Well, I think that’s not likely. I’ve interviewed Assad twice, back before the civil war began. And he sees himself as the president of the entire country, and he would not willingly divide up the country.

Now, de facto division of Syria, it already is de facto split. There’s whole sections of the north and the west and the east of the country that the Assad government does not control. They’re controlled by various rebel groups, and the south close to the Jordanian border is outside of Assad’s control. So if you want to talk about a de factor separation of the country, that’s happening now. But in terms of a formal agreement that the rebels get this part and Assad gets that part, I don’t think Assad would go for that.

PERIES: And just one more. Who’s largely in control of the areas that Assad has lost?

ERLICH: Well, you have different groups. Of course the Islamic State controls Raqqah, [and down to] the Palmyra area. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front controls parts of the cities of Aleppo and along the eastern part of the country. And to the extent that the less extreme groups and the Free Syrian Army have any power, it’s in the south of the country near the Jordanian border. [Kurdish rebels control parts of the north of Syria.]

So you have a variety of rebel groups with alliances constantly shifting controlling a majority of the square footage of the country, anyway, although somewhere slightly over a majority of the population.

PERIES: Reese Erlich, thank you so much for joining us today.

ERLICH: I’m always glad to talk with you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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