Syria air strikes: Can the West win this new kind of hybrid war against Isis?

Bringing democracy to the Middle East will not happen overnight, but could take generations

So, here we go again. In early 1991 a “Shock and Awe” air campaign preceded a major land operation: Desert Storm, which included a number of Middle Eastern states deployed alongside US, UK and French forces in the Saudi Arabian desert.

Kuwait was quickly liberated and the Iraqi forces fled back north. I was a serving colonel in the headquarters of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division, then part of the American 7th Corps operation outflanking the Iraqi military defensive positions, and vividly remember leaning on the bonnet of my Land Cruiser on the road from Kuwait City to Basra waiting to hear if we were going to crack on to Baghdad.

We did not; but 12 years later I found myself in Baghdad as a Major-General. This time an air campaign alongside an almost exclusively Western coalition land campaign quickly succeeded in securing Baghdad. A retired 3-star US Army General, Jay Garner, established the Office of Re-construction and Humanitarian Affairs in one of Saddam’s old palaces to run the administration; I was his deputy. In those heady days there was an all-too-brief moment when the future for Iraq looked potentially bright. It was not to be. And what is unfolding now is partly the result of mistakes made then.

What kind of campaign can we expect to see this time? As in 1991, there are a number of Arab allies, but what is missing are large numbers of Western combat forces – including so called “boots on the ground”. We have of course begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga, supporting them and Iraq with a very limited coalition air campaign, with the UK providing reconnaissance and intelligence support. But it hasn’t been enough.

The house is burning and the neighbours have, at long last, decided to get the fire hoses out – calling for and joining in with a more active air campaign to degrade and push back Isis. The immediate targets will include command and control centres, logistics and lines of communications as well as targets of opportunity – individual or groups of Isis vehicles. Alongside these will be oil and other economic infrastructure facilities to disrupt and limit their access to finances. The overall objective will be to ensure that Isis is incapable of concentrating in sufficient numbers to threaten further advances and to keep them away from Baghdad and the Kurdish region and squeeze their centre of gravity in Syria.
















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This will be an “asymmetric”, or “hybrid”, campaign. Alongside the air will be electronic warfare – intelligence gathering, tracking and hitting Isis commanders, disrupting their ability to communicate with their people and keeping them in constant fear for their lives – and psychological warfare; propaganda to convince their fighters that theirs is a lost cause and convince others not to join them.

This is reflected in the campaign so far. The first wave of air strikes was against Isis buildings and transport hubs, but then came the attacks on the oil fields, aimed at stopping the flow of millions of dollars that Isis is making from illicit oil sales. Work has also begun behind the scenes to track down the sources of funding for the Islamists, named individuals may face legal charges.

But this will inevitably be a precursor to a land campaign – which must be carried out by regional forces, albeit with training and other Western support. This is far easier said than done, pulling together an Iraqi army – including the Peshmerga – capable of defeating Isis in Iraq, while at the same time working out how to deal with Isis in Syria, is going to be a huge problem.

The air campaign will need to run for months while something is pulled together. And whatever solution emerges there will be unintended consequences. Even when the immediate fire is out the long-term differences remain; so do not expect these regional problems to go away. When asked when I think democracy will be “established” in the Middle East, my answer is that it will take about three generations.

Shia volunteers train for the fight against Isis in central Iraq (AFP/Getty Images)

This is a region made up of clans, tribes and factions that we in the West find it difficult – even impossible – to get our minds around. This came home to me over coffee with a raft of senior Iraqis – and indeed Qataris and other Arab officials. Many if not most of our opinion formers revel in their secular atheism and just don’t comprehend a Muslim world view.

The majority of responsible Muslims reject extremism. But a laudable desire to spread our liberal democracy is no basis for action against societies  who are not necessarily part of a global conspiracy, but simply retain different values and perspectives.

Furthermore, what is happening reflects a deep divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and we may be seeing the opening shots of the long awaited end the Battle of Karbala between Sunni and Shia in 680 AD. Whilst no other religion in recent times has shown such a propensity to violence as Islam, we should remember that it took a series of long and bloody wars in 17th- and 18th-century Europe to even begin to resolve the deep division between Catholic and Protestant Christians – continuing into this century. The latest troubles in Northern Ireland spanned the whole length of my military career – 37 years.

Maj-Gen Tim Cross is a retired British Army officer and a defence commentator