Mosul, Raqqa and the failures of the US campaigns against ISIS

Story highlights

  • Daniel L. Davis: The challenges facing US-backed forces in Iraq and Syria are substantial
  • He says US pushes ahead with military operations while hoping problems work out

Daniel L. Davis is a retired US Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with the think tank Defense Priorities. 

(CNN)This month, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook detailed the US intent to drive ISIS from the Syrian city of Raqqa. He said the removal of the ISIS "cancer from the so-called capital of their so-called caliphate is the next step in our military campaign plan."

This step, a Pentagon press release noted, is "happening as Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are gaining ground as they advance toward Mosul." From a tactical, strategic and political point of view, however, this tough-sounding "campaign plan" is built on sand and has little chance of success. It takes surprisingly little analysis to expose the reasons why.
    Currently in Mosul, a cobbled-together military coalition is making slow but steady progress to retake the Iraqi city in the face of stiffening ISIS resistance.
    Thus far, the operation has centered on stripping away the smaller villages surrounding Mosul to isolate ISIS in the city proper and set the stage for the brutal city fighting yet to come.
    Yet before the difficult combat phase has begun in Mosul, US officials have already announced the initiation of the battle for Raqqa. Militarily speaking, expanding the fight to ISIS' Syrian stronghold before success in Mosul is unwise.
    The challenges facing US-backed forces in Iraq just to retake Mosul are substantial. It appears that ISIS will not go quietly and has decided to fight to the death.
    Meanwhile, there is already friction between the Iraqi security forces and Shia militias, Sunni militias and other smaller fighting forces; reports of summary executions on civilians liberated from ISIS control have already surfaced, threatening to pit Shia armed troops against Sunni and Kurdish troops.

    Turkey remains uninvited

    Compounding this problem, Turkey remains an uninvited -- and unwanted -- guest on Iraqi territory with armored units.
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    Ankara claims that it will engage with this force in Mosul if things don't go as it desires, irrespective of what Baghdad says. This makes life difficult for the United States, as most of our airstrikes on Syria originate from the Turkish air base at Incirlik.
    Regardless of how complicated these factors make the already difficult fight in Mosul, the challenges involved in the battle for Raqqa are even higher, especially when it comes to Turkey.
    State Department spokesman Mark Toner recently explained that the United States is coordinating with Turkey on how to keep the pressure on the common enemy -- ISIS.
    He said Washington had called on all sides in this conflict to focus on ISIS whether, "it's the YPG (People's Protection Units), whether it's other Syrian, Arab or Kurdish forces, and whether it's Turkey."
    Turkey, however, doesn't appear to be interested in close cooperation with other forces.
    In October, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim poured cold water on Washington's hope for unity when he announced Turkey's condition to join the Raqqa operation: "If the YPG will be there, we won't be." The YPG forms the backbone of the ground troops Washington is counting on to push ISIS out of Raqqa.
    Following a hastily arranged visit to Turkey to try and salvage the situation, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at first backpedaled on US hopes. Yet how the chairman proposed to bridge the gap between the expectations of the Kurds and the Turks in fighting in a unified, cooperative way was not addressed.

    US authorities seem to wish away problems

    It is troubling that American authorities frequently seem to wish away hard problems, pushing ahead with military operations while hoping troubles somehow work themselves out.
    This worrying proclivity was most recently exposed when Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve, explained that throughout the battle for Raqqa, the United States would "continually consult with allies and partners as we plan for the city's ultimate seizure and governance once ISIS is defeated."
    It is astounding that the general admitted that fighting was underway and yet there was still no agreement as to who would provide security and governance post-ISIS.

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    Without this most basic agreement, there is the potential that even after ISIS is defeated, the victors might then turn on each other in an attempt to control the city. Using unsubstantiated hope as a basis for conducting foreign policy is a dangerous and naïve plan.
    From a strategic perspective, it is an outright gamble, on both the diplomatic and military fronts for Washington to support operations in both Mosul and Raqqa simultaneously. The security situation in Syria and Iraq are in large measure in dire straits because of unsuitable tactical decisions taken by the United States and the West with little to no consideration of how or whether those actions would contribute to an attainable strategic objective.
    Until such focus is found, it is likely that those two war-torn areas will continue struggling in cycles of violence and the United States will continue to fail to accomplish critical national security objectives.