Over the past week in the Middle East, watching several key cities change hands from government forces to rebel groups and vice versa was like seeing a ping pong match. What this demonstrates is a military rule that has been ignored during the last few decades of technological advancements in aircraft, missiles, satellites and drones: Ultimately, battles are won by troops on the ground.
It’s true that air strikes can destroy supply lines, drones can target munitions depots, and satellites can identify terrorist training camps. But collateral damage is a huge concern in overcrowded cities—the very cities where the fighting is taking place. So before people declare “mission accomplished” because they took out a caravan of trucks carrying weapons to ISIS, they must understand the area and logistics. And air attacks alone simply won’t do the job.
In August 2014, a coalition of western countries along with Morocco joined the United States in launching air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. While ISIS' momentum was stopped in Iraq because of the overwhelming ground forces, the Iraqi Shiite government, the Shiite militias, the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes have mobilized, the situation in Syria is still favoring ISIS and increasingly favoring the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
Despite repeated calls to deploy some US ground forces in Syria, President Obama remains steadfast against deploying any US ground forces. Instead, a three year program to train, fund and arm 15,000 Syrian moderate rebels was approved—but has not yet been implemented—by the Obama administration.
The Syrian Islamist Sunni rebels, including al-Nusra Front captured the strategic provincial capital Idlib, northwestern Syria, near the borders with Turkey and the road between the capital Damascus in the south and the economical capital Aleppo in the north.
After four days of intense fighting, the Syrian Alawite government forces collapsed and retreated to the outskirts of the city while the rebels took control. This is the second provincial capital to fall to the Sunni rebels after al-Raqaa, which fell two years ago and has become the capital of ISIS.
Despite the advantage of the Syrian government air force and the indiscriminate bombing campaign using explosive barrel bombs, the rebels took the city. A recent alliance by al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups has taken the government forces by surprise. This is a serious blow not only to the Syrian government, but to the US effort to change the dynamic of the war in Syria. The US has removed some of the rebel groups who fought alongside al-Nusra Front from its list of supported moderate groups.
While the Saudi led air campaign continues for the second week against the Shiite Houthi rebels who seized power in Yemen over the last several months, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that includes the terror organization's branches in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has controlled the city of Mukalla, the provincial capital of Yemen's largest province.
Last Thursday, al-Qaeda militants stormed the city with their cars and small arms and captured the presidential palace, the central bank branch and other government agencies' buildings. They also freed about 200 inmates from the local prison there, including a top leader of the group and dozens of others who were sentenced to death. A day later, most of the Yemeni army units abandoned their posts in the province. Al-Qaeda took control of at least one of these camps and killed dozens of soldiers.
The fall of Mukalla is a significant advancement for al-Qaeda. Its branch in Yemen is the world most dangerous terror group with a record of attacks in the US and Europe. Mukalla is a port on the Indian Ocean and it is Yemen's fifth largest city with about 500,000 people.
The United States has launched drone attacks in Yemen against al-Qaeda for more than a decade. It also had a small Special Forces contingent stationed there as well as an embassy and a CIA station. All of that was recalled from Yemen recently. It was reported on Saturday that a tribal alliance was preparing to take the city back from al-Qaeda.
Even though Yemen’s legitimate Sunni government forces have air support from the Saudis, Mukalla fell to al-Qaeda.
Ten months after the fall of Tikrit to ISIS and several failed attempts to restore it, Iraqi government forces and its Shiite militia and Sunni tribal allies have retaken most of the city last Tuesday.
The last push to the city center was made after heavy US air bombarding of ISIS last positions there. When this operation started in early March, the US air force didn't provide support to the Iraqi government forces. The Americans claimed that the Iraqis didn't ask for that support. It was said then that the heavy participation of the Iranian backed Shiite militias was the real reason for the US non- involvement. At that time, the Iraqi government forces encircled the city with hundreds of ISIS fighters inside. It was said also that ISIS booby trapped every building and had trapped the government forces.
Then, a freeze of military operations took place for a few weeks. Iraqi army commanders said publicly that they needed the US Air Force to interfere. The Shiite militia protested. Finally, most of the Shiite militias left the battlefield and the US started bombing ISIS. The US military said that they conditioned their involvement with the withdrawal of the Shiite militias.
However, the facts on the ground proved otherwise. Several top commanders of the Shiite militia, including “Badr,” one of Iran's oldest allies in Iraq, were either killed or injured during that fight. It was said that the Shiite militia let ISIS think they had withdrawn from Tikrit while continuing to fight.
It is well known that the Shiite militia did not withdraw from Tikrit. The anecdotal evidence is the looting and burning of Sunni properties in Tikrit in addition to human rights abuses and violation of the international laws of war. The battle of Tikrit has proved that only overwhelming ground forces can finish a battle.
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