Douglas Cohn: ISIS group transferring its military attention to Syria

By Douglas Cohn

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — Attention should turn toward Syria where events there are about to spin out of control.

A general misunderstanding of the nature of warfare often leads politicians and the people they represent to assume that military operations move at a controlled pace, a pace that allows time to debate and formulate plans. In fact, warfare is far more fragile than politics. It is often akin to banging two eggs together until the shell of one of them cracks, and when it does it rapidly collapses.

It is a phenomenon we have seen over and over: Vietnam in 1975, Desert Storm in 1991, Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 when the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, the 2003 Gulf War, and, most recently, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) conquest of northwest Iraq. Of course, there are times when neither side cracks, such as the stalemated 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War.

The key to the difference between a stalemate and a sudden collapse is to anticipate a sudden breakthrough. And just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is changing the calculus there, the sudden and unexpected ISIS capture of Syria’s Tabqa Airbase, a major and important installation, is significant.

It appears that once the ISIS steamroller in Iraq was thwarted by U.S. airpower and Kurdish and Iraqi counterattacks, ISIS simply transferred its military center of gravity back to Syria. The strategy seems to call for a holding action in Iraq and a massing of forces in Syria, and several factors point to this scenario.

Iraq is a predominantly Shiite nation controlled by a Shiite-dominated government. ISIS, a strictly Sunni fundamentalist terrorist organization, banked on the support of the Sunni minority there as it stormed Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and proceeded toward Baghdad until U.S. airpower intervened. But Syria is a predominantly Sunni nation governed by Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect of Shiites, which makes that country fertile ground for ISIS.

The question this then poses is why ISIS placed its primary effort against Iraq instead of Syria. The answer is that the Syrian Army was more formidable than the disunited Iraqi Army, and success in Iraq would be rewarded with captured money, oil, and especially modern, military weapons and equipment that had been supplied to the Iraqi Army by the U.S.

Strategically, the ISIS move against Iraq could be carried to complete victory unless halted by U.S. intervention, in which case, ISIS could transfer a significant portion of the military and monetary windfall gained in Iraq to reinforce its ongoing campaign in Syria.

This appears to be the case with the taking of Tabqa Airbase. And if it is the case, it means the Syrian Army has cracked and ISIS is on the way to Damascus.