Are We Winning The War Against ISIS?

Date: 3rd February 2016

SPEAKER: Linda Robinson, Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation

Chair: Dr Julian Lewis MP

Julian Lewis:

Well, good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, the stand-in MP welcoming you this evening, my name is Julian Lewis and I am the chairman of the Defence Committee. It is my great pleasure and privilege to introduce Linda Robinson, who is a Senior International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation, but it is when you look lower down her biography, that you just see such casual mentions as she has also published several hundred articles, monographs and chapters in collective volumes: including the Future Special Operations Forces; Strategy and Counterinsurgency; Iraq End Game; America’s Security Role in the Changing World; you get the general idea.

Now the title of Linda’s Presentation this evening is quite challenging. It is: is the campaign against ISIS, or as we have now officially sanctioned to call it in the UK, Daesh, succeeding? So without further ado Linda, would you please make your opening remarks, maybe for about the first 20/25 minutes, if that’s ok? And then we’ll have a question and answer session.

Linda Robinson:

Thank-you very much Mr Lewis and thank-you very much for that kind introduction and it’s really an honour to be here and I hope you can all hear me, please wave your hand if I need to speak more loudly. I, thank-you. I have been involved in research and writing about Iraq since 2003. I published a book in 2008 called ‘Tell Me How This Ends’, and, of course, that question for a title still remains to be answered so I’ll give you my updated views this evening. I also presented testimony to Congress, US Congress, during, after a trip I made to Iraq last year and that testimony, should you be interested, is available on the RAND website. And for those of you not familiar with RAND, it is a non-partisan and non-profit research institution. I spent a good bit of time in Iraq last year, surveying the different training and advising efforts going on. I also visited Kuwait and Jordan. I did not visit Syria but obviously this is a very critical part of the story and I’ll be covering that as well. I just want to give you very briefly the background of the recent research that I have done. What I would like to do with the time that I have here, and I assume that by your interests in turning out, there’s a certain base-line knowledge about the group and I’ll say a word about the name of the group.

The US Government is still using ISIL so you will hear me fall into ISIL simply because that is the term that they use. Our US Media has kind of gravitated towards ISIS. There are commanders out there, in the field, using Daesh, for reasons that I believe your government has now adopted. So we can’t sort of make up our minds on what to call it but we know it is big and bad. So, what I would like to do is highlight a few of the most salient characteristics of the group, talk to you briefly about the counter-ISIL strategy, just to base-line our discussion here and provide an overview of my analysis and findings of both the ground-forces and the political factors that I think are very critical to the direction this is going. Now, and with, my summary recommendations and my evaluation of changes that have just been occurring since last fall, under the acceleration of the campaign. So that’s a lot to cover in a short time but I would be most happy to comeback to these points to discuss them further.

So the ISIL characteristics that I think are very important to keep in mind is that it’s really a blend of both Iraqi-led group with Iraqi-led objectives and an extremist Jihadist movement that has world-wide ambitions. So those two features must be kept in mind, as these key leaders of the group are primarily Iraqis. Now, this group came up out of the ashes of predecessor groups in Iraq and their experience is one element that has made this such a formidable challenge. Their military intelligence and counter intelligence capabilities have a great deal to do with why this has been such a formidable challenge. This organization, also, is not just a recreation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is a more competent group in terms of being able to control and dominate the population in the areas that it has seized. It’s also demonstrated a great deal of tactical and operational agility and adaptability. They have really refined some new uses of manufactured bombs. They are making use of communications technology, exploiting vulnerabilities in how we can target the groups. One element that has come up, FBI Director Coney, has highlighted, is the use of encrypted apps and that is very hard because the private sector, of course, does not want to give up the sanctity of encrypted communications but they are being exploited by this group. And, finally, they have demonstrated great resilience to replace their manpower, continued to provide logistics resupply for their elements, and, to some degree replaced leadership although there has not been much attrition of the leadership to date.

A quick snapshot of the numbers, the current estimates and all the numbers I mention, you must be taken with a grain of salt because no-one has a very confident means of calculating exact numbers, whether of ISIL or the forces fighting them, but the official estimate now is that there are 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, about 14,000 in Syria and 16,000 in Iraq, and this number is very important to remember because the previous estimate a year and a half ago was 30,000. We have, there has been, an estimated enemy killed in action of 20,000 so that tells you very dramatically their ability to replace their ranks with both foreign fighters coming in as well as the resident populations providing support. One element that I will note, I will mostly talk to you about Iraq and Syria, the epicentre of this conflict, and what Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter has taken to calling the ‘Parent Tumour’, there in, what we call, ISIL territory, the metastasis of this group, and he also uses that medical term to describe the established affiliates abroad, the most important and potent one is in Libya now and you’ve probably seen some news about plans to focus more on that. One of the key leaders, Abu Nabil, has been killed but, they, the ISIL leadership deliberately founded that outpost, it wasn’t just an opportunistic affiliation as the Al Qaeda brand has gone down and the ISIL brand has gone up. Many of these groups have pledged allegiance to ISIL but this Libya outpost was a deliberate outpost created by core ISIL, sending leaders from Iraq and Syria over to Libya and we can come back to that issue but it is very important because it means you cannot just focus on the Syria/Iraq theatre. You have to look at what is going on and the bases they are setting up elsewhere. Very quickly, the US Strategy has nine lines. I am going to focus on, my research is focused on the first three of those. The political line is number one and I am actually going to come back to that at the end of my remarks because it is very important concerning the end-game in achieving the lasting defeat of the Islamic group. Lines 2 and 3 are deny ISIL safe haven and build partner capacity in Iraq and Syria. So those are the object of my military analysis. How have we been doing on that? And then lines 4 to 8 are really what I call inputs, intelligence collection, countering finances, countering ISIL messaging, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters and so forth. So we can come back to any of those other points but I want to briefly give you now the state of play on the ground and starting back with the dramatic events of 2014 and the overrunning of the massive amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria.

What has happened since then in the past year, year and a half, is that there has been progress made and primarily in Iraq, it was accomplished in the first instance through the Iraqi Kurds as you all may know from following these events, and they regained a fair bit of territory in the north of Iraq. There was, however, a very significant effort in which, the Shia militias, many of whom are backed by Iran, in seizing territory, in reclaiming territory from ISIL in central Iraq, and they have not just done the military option to seize the territory but they have remained there creating a delicate situation as it is largely a Sunni population there in Central Iraq. The other significant gain that has been made against ISIL has been in Syria, in northern Syria, again by the Syrian Kurds, and they have managed to reclaim a great deal of the Syrian – Turkey border from ISIL. There is still a remaining area that is providing a conduit for ISIL to get fighters in, oil out, revenues and material back and forth, so, so that is the picture, it’s a mixed picture and I should note that Ramadi was overrun in May and, as I mentioned, I was there right after that and that was really the Nadia, the low point of these events it was a huge psychological blow to the country, the already weakened Iraqi army dithered for months, the city was only retaken very recently as you know and while I would not call the retaking of Ramadi as a turning point it was a critical shot in the arm for the Iraqi army that it could move out and do a very complicated combined arms operation without relying on the Shia Militia. So we will come back to that in a minute but I would like to point out the critical gains that ISIL made in Syria, I would like to point out the war in Syria has primarily been a war of the ISIL war in the east and the anti-Assad war in the west. But what happened over the past year is that ISIL started moving west and that combined with gains that were being made primarily by the Al-Nuzra front putting the Assad regime under great pressure is what brought Russia in to this fight in the fall. So those gains being made by ISIL to the west have still not been countered so we will talk more about the Russian actions in a moment.

The air campaign while it has been heavily criticised, I just want to give you a few statistics, as of now roughly 10’000 strikes have occurred about two thirds in Iraq and one third in Syria. About 70’000 sorties in total and the reason for the limit to the fact has been primarily been in support of ground forces, they have lacked critical intelligence in order to target key nodes of both the leadership and commanding control structures. They have basically been flying around looking for tactical targets and supporting troops as they get into fights. That has now begun to change so I think our inflection point of this fall is very important and I will come back to that in a minute.

I would like to dwell just a minute on the composition of the groups fighting. In Iraq as I mentioned there is the Iraqi army, the sheer militia groups and this if you just bear with me for a little bit of detail it is very important to understand, there are two types of Shia militia groups. After ISIL overran a great deal of the country, the Shia Itola called for Iraqis to come out and defend their country. He need not just call for Shia’s he called for all Iraqis to come out and defend their country so a lot of young men came forward and joined these adhoc groups so that is one component. The other component are long standing groups heavily tied to Iran, funded and advised by Iran. Those three groups present a very difficult problem because they have actually been leading a good bit of the operations, they are giving a political attaché to their leaders, some of them who are now in the Iraqi parliament and this is a problem that if left unaddressed will destabilise Iraq permanently there will have to be a means of mechanism for integrating these militias and destabilising some of them. The Kurdish forces are worth a few points here because they have been highly touted for their role in reclaiming a great deal of territory in Northern Iraq and they have a terrific public image, terrific public relations apparatus but they have their own Kurdish interest and my analysis is that they have primarily they have achieved their primary objectives, they have reclaimed the Kurdish territory and they have oil areas of the North, they eventually hope to become and independent state and whilst they may help with Mosel they are not going to lead it. In general, the same applies with the Syrian Kurds they are not going to be able to retake the Sunni areas, the Arab areas of Syria. So while the Kurds have played a great role thus far, they are not the silver bullet and they are not the saviours of this fight.

I would like to mention one other thing about the Syrian forces because we have in the East lightly populated areas, Iraq of course is the declared capital of the Iraq caliphate they have declared it. In the West there is a very mixed bag of groups and in my view in part because there has been a lack of support for the moderate opposition which was founded under the umbrella of the free Syria army, the extremist groups there that are opposing Assad have gained increasing power and they have syphoned fighters from all these other groups, so the question now is whether that dynamic can be reversed or not because this is what has created the knot of the Syrian dilemma because if you got rid of Assad today the strongest forces are the Islamic extremist forces, and with Russia having entered into this fight they are clearly striking those opposition forces to create facts on the ground that will outrace any diplomatic initiative. As you know, Secretary Kerry has been engaged these days in trying to restart the Geneva initiative but my view is without more push back on the ground the diplomatic negotiating position of the US and the West will simply not be strong enough. However, Russia and Iran I believe both have a certain limitation, they are not willing to put massive amounts of ground forces into Syria and that is the critical fact on which a deal can ultimately be reached. They will want to limit their investment into the Syrian mess because Assad has no sufficient military capability of his own. He is primarily reliant at this point on the NDF which is the Iranian created and advised Syrian militia on Iraqi militias and Lebanese Hezbollah. His own Syrian military is much degraded and I do not see that Russia will be interested in courting another version of its long inaudible like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan because that is easily what this could turn out to be. They are using massive air power, they are trying to achieve facts on the ground for Assad’s regime but I believe there is a red line there which beyond Russia will not go. The same with Iran, they have pumped a lot of money, a lot of advisors in there, a lot of equipment but you don’t see a large number of Iranians in there on the ground. I believe they have a higher priority on ensuring that Iraq does not fall and perhaps other parts of the world.

So we can return to the issue of Syria if you like. I want to now summarise what my analysis is on the policy options and in the course of my research the appropriate approach to me seemed to be to take a hard cold bloodied risk benefit analysis to the three basic options. There is containment which would attempt to degrade the enemy but ultimately air power cannot cease and hold territory. That leaves you with the next option which is reliance on partner ground forces and I will come back to that in a minute. Those indigenous forces are your ideal option because they are going to be there for the long term. The third option of course is an external invasion force, a US force or a coalition course. I believe that is not a politically viable option now but there are also very practical reasons why the cost benefit analysis does not favour that. The mere fact of putting another 100’000 boots on the ground will stimulate more ISIL recruits I think that would re-energise what is already a very potent recruitment operation. Also, it creates dependency and this is one that I have followed and wrote my previous book about the Iraq war and it is inevitable when you have US and Western troops on the ground, highly competent forces, these are type A individuals and with superior equipment and training they are naturally going to tend to take the lead and the whole trick here is how can we enable these local forces to be sufficiently competent on their own. We could easily go in there with the military force and create military effects but what is your end game, what’s your exit strategy if you don’t have someone to turn this over to you have expended a lot of bloodied treasure without what Secretary Carter is calling lasting defeat and I think from day one he has really emphasised that and I think brought this administration round to a longer term view of what commitment is needed there. However my analysis of ground forces gives a great caution to the difficulty of what we are attempting. The Iraqi forces have practically disintegrated as you know ISIL made its onslaught and offensive in that country. The Syrian forces again were just in the early phases of trying to recruit sufficient Arabs, Syrian Arabs to do that fight we cannot rely only on the Syrian Kurds. And they all have limitations in terms of military capability and in the case of the Shia militia of course they have interests which are very different in most respects, hard core Shia militia groups but they are not going away so they will have to be managed and an end game planned for them.

Am I pessimistic? Well I think when I saw this long battle for Baiji oil refinery right in the centre of Iraq finally tip over and the Iraqi special operations forces which are units I have covered and been out with since their founding in 2003, they are the model for what Iraq needs to do. They are a mixture of Shia, Sunni and Kurd, they have had intensive mentoring by the US and coalitions and special operation forces, they have been in every fight. They have demonstrated the will to fight, I met with their commander General Taliban when I was last there and he said our primary criteria for entry into this unit is are you an Iraqi first and there is that sense of Iraqi nationalism there.

Now what is my critique of what we have done to date? My critique is that the strategy is roughly right, again you need an indigenous force to hold that territory but we have been woefully inadequate of higher analysis in both the ways and means to achieve those ends. So what you have seen is a recognition on the part of the US administration that both the means need to be increased and more creative and to some degree expeditious ways have to be adopted. Just as an example of that I would say you’re probably all familiar with the dismal failure of the Syria train and equip experiment and the criteria for creating that force were really imposed on the general and he struggled to try to do this by himself, in essence the Achilles heel of that was requiring those Syrian recruits to literally pledge not to fight Assad they were only to fight ISIS. Everyone understands that the Syrian number one grievance is Assad and you are not going to be able to build a force if you require them to pledge not to fight Assad. So now there is a much more flexible policy in place, they are trying to combine groups, this is the other thing were we have had a very bifurcated approach and so my bottom line message is separately these groups cannot do it if they are not united and sufficiently supported by robust advisory and assistance programs. I think they can get there but it is going to take a while and we have also been morphing in how the advisory mission is taking place. When I got there the advisors were very constrained geographically to a few places and also at just a few echelons, the higher echelons and you do need to advise at the higher echelons but the operational headquarters and the brigade level is absolutely essential so that you can start to create coherent campaign plan, ensure it is executed and critically have the situational awareness of what units are performing, who is present for duty and how the enemy is moving in a given territory.

So all of these things are going to take a while to get fixed. The one thing I don’t see getting fixed is the US system for supplying material. We have a woefully slow system for supplying material it is not a war time system it’s a peace time system mostly of arms sales or finance sales to supply large amounts of hardware to a government. The strains they have been through to try and provide go back to basic manufacturing issues so we unfortunately have a situation where we are not providing sufficient material to gain us sufficient political clout in Baghdad to compete with the influence of Iran and provide these willing fighters with what they need to win the fight on the ground. That is something which I don’t think has received a great deal of attention we have a very basic hardware problem, hence they are going to Iran, hence they are going to Russia, the Prime Minister body, the government of Iraq I believe is the best government we are going to get, the most pro-western government and we would like very much for the US to provide more assistance and counter balance the influence of not only Iran but his Shia political competitors, and I will use the term, I will use it earlier today, he is hanging by a thread for that reasons because he hasn’t received enough support, because he is dead broke because of the oil prices going through the floor which supplies more than 90% of the government revenues and there is a protest movement to address corruption flaws in the government which date back to prime minister Malaki and an unbelievable theft of public resources there. So I don’t want to minimise the difficulties but I think with a support to the government, outreach to the Sunni population which he has pledges and he has the right political formula which is to decentralise the country and the Sunni’s are slowly moving in this direction rather than having dreams of reconquering the country and governing it as they did under Saddam Hussain but saying maybe we can have our own part of the country and have sufficient autonomy and local defense there so there is a political end game but there has not been nearly enough support for that. Similarly the political end game in Syria will probably be a confederation if not a series of micro-States but you can’t have successful diplomacy without the willingness to back it up with force and that’s what I call good state craft. I think I will end there and I will discuss anything you would like.

Julian Lewis

I am going to start it off unusually with myself and I am going to ask you to compare the two situations that you have been describing in Iraq you said that there is a movement towards the situation which I have previously heard described were there would be a Kurdish area, a Sunni area and a Shia area all in the confederation and that is something which one can see, using the title of your own book ‘An End Game.’ I am not so sure what the end game is your envisage for Syria because on the one hand you said if you get rid of Assad today the forces that would take over would be mainly Islamist. You also said that you are not going to be able to get forces to fight ISIL if you try to say to them that they should be primarily concerned with fighting ISIL Daesh rather than fighting Assad. So you are saying that in Syria, we want to be supporting forces that we are going to allow to be primarily concerned with fighting Assad even though if Assad goes the result is primarily going to be Islamist and to cap it all you now have the Russians who are determined that either Assad himself will not go or even if he himself as an individual went what remained would be Assad mark two. So I don’t really see the end state, the ideal end state that you are looking for in Syria in the same way as I do see the end state that you are looking for in Iraq and perhaps you can enlighten us a bit more. 

Linda Robinson

Thank you yes and it is a very complicated alternative to a dismal outcome that I am proposing and it’s not easy, I mean Iraq is complicated enough and Syria is another order of magnitude more difficult but my essential argument is that we have to create military facts on the ground to counter the military facts on the ground that Russia is in the process of creating which is really liquidating the anti-Assad opposition in the West and particularly the remnants of the modern opposition that were collected under the free Syria army, some of those operations are cooperated with the Syrian Kurds but I believe with greater support to those elements you could reverse the dynamic. Now that of course is a guess and I will be the first one to acknowledge that, first of all you have to understand the picture in Syria, most of this opposition is hyper-localised there are thousands of little militias and they have gravitated through the lack of support from the West, they have gravitated into the extremist umbrella groups. It is not necessarily that they have adopted the Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda ideology but that is where they are getting pay for their fighters, weapons to fight and as that engine gets going of course it has attracted more and more. So that is what I am proposing be reversed but not to achieve a military victory that is to go into a serious negotiation which has the ability to accomplish the Geneva objectives and that is really what Secretary Kerry is about right now, trying to restart the Geneva process but without what I call the correlation of favourable voices on the ground and that formula requires Russia and Iran as I said I believe their interests in what they are willing to put into this failing state and an Assad led state are limited and if you can leverage that and get to the Geneva formula, that is a transitional government first and foremost. The knot can be cut by what I believe is in agreement that Assad will step aside and an transitional government will be formed to hold elections and then the future map of Syria will have to be sorted out as the third step and as I have said it could be a confederation but I think that Syria is so broken now that is it quite possible that it will wind up with small micro states. In Iraq, I do believe the Kurds there will eventually achieve independence but I think it is critically important for the West no to facilitate and promote that near term objective because it will alienate Baghdad, it will increase the clout of Iran and I think it is far more important for us right now to support Baghdad and use that leverage to ensure they make the payments due to Kurdistan that they are not making so they can get paid and then work out this problem about the oil the Kurds have ceased and are selling illegally in order to finance their operation. So it is a very complex mix and political and this is why the line of effort number one has been underpowered from day one on this strategy and we need a top diplomat on this 24/7 if it is going to get worked out.

Julian Lewis 

Thank you very much, now who would like to carry on, the gentleman here and then the gentleman there.

Question 1 

The name ISIS and the name Daesh – could you explain the rise in the name Daesh, is it Arab individuals who use this phrase specifically?

Linda Robinson 

Yes well Daesh has been adopted as it is an acronym and acronyms don’t actually exist in Arabic and I should say I know there are many Arabs within the United Kingdom and I am not one of them, so I cannot give you the exact terminology of the word but it has been adopted as a pejorative term to describe the group. Now they have proclaimed themselves as the Islamic State and of course many people have argued that this gives them undue credibility, however they are operating as a state they have controlled people, they control territory, they generate revenues and they carry out state like functions. Unfortunately like it or not we have probably the most formidable terrorist state that has ever been created in history so that is why I think to deal with your enemy you need to fully understand what it is and what it is capable of. I understand the use of the term Daesh and my feeling is I am trying to navigate between the US governments term, the US medias term, the Arabs in the region term and I think if we can understand that it is a difficult problem and we know what we are talking about then that is the most important thing.

Question 2

The US again send arms …. Inaudible… they need to make up their mind inaudible… do everything to destroy this terrorism …inaudible… if we do and we have to review our relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia has the Islamic ideology …inaudible… Al-Qaeda… inaudible… US Forces…inaudible.. rest of question inaudible 

Linda Robinson

Yes I would just say briefly and we did have a conversation about this I think it is critically important to look at that so called line of effort and what is creating so many recruits and certainly Saudi Arabia has been rightly criticised for not paying enough attention to its role in this and as you know their primary concern has been Iran. And I think despite the attacks of extremist jihadists in its own territory including its Interior Minister and other key figures there is still an awakening which needs to occur and I agree with you that’s a very difficult problem but I think we also have to do a lot more research and work to understand the effective means of preventing the recruitment and radicalisation of populations and I think many countries, I know Britain is concerned about this and is working on it, Australia, the US unfortunately we are going through our US State department what is known as the third retooling of its counter radicalisation effort and they do not have the formula yet. I think part of the thinking is, you can encourage the Sunni Muslim leadership of the world to denounce ISIL and say this is a perversion of Islam and they have nothing to do with the religion but who are the young men and young women now being attracted to this listening to? What are the sources of legitimacy and credibility within that critical cohort and population and I frankly don’t think we yet have that. Now some of my colleagues are doing a great deal of basic research in to and analysing the social media and trying to really understand the dynamics of the discourse and the attraction and I think we have to do much more homework on this.

Question 3

 Inaudible… just recently there was a successful attack by some drones inaudible… you can’t plan an inaudible… of stopping …inaudible…

 Linda Robinson

 Thank you very much this is one of the key inflections of the fall which I was talking about and it really traces back to a raid which killed Abu Saief who was a key oil and gas revenue facilitator of ISIL and not only was he killed, his wife was captured but the critical thing was a great deal of hard drives, thumb drives, computerised information was collected that was the motherlode of intelligence and quite frankly it has been an intelligence starved effort until that point. That has allowed them to do a lot of analysis and conduct as what I think we will see as an increasing in an intelligence driven campaign focussed at the internal revenue sources which isn’t just oil and gas and you are going to see much more of that. My criticism of year one was that there was very tactile use of air power and part of the problem of course is how do you get intelligence you can only get so much intelligence through technical means, you have to have the ability to go in and cease those troves of data. It is much more important for the intelligence to open more raids to do that and collect than for the people they would kill, although some amount of decapitation of this movement is essential. The formula which the US government has adopted is they are now permitting this type of raid to occur in Iraq in conjunction with the Iraqi special operation forces. In Syria, there is really no analogue of this sort they can go in and operate in conjunction with that degree of competence so there is a unilateral raid provision there and as we saw with the hostage rescue they reserve the right to do that in any case. I think this is what you are going to see as an increasingly intelligence driven campaign that is critical if you are not going to waste multi-million dollars’ worth of bombs on tactical targets which is not productive.

Question 4 – Lord Quentin Davis

This is a war with Daesh which is an involuntary war from our point of view, these people want to kill us as we saw in Paris a couple of weeks ago. We have no choice unfortunately but to fight this war and win it. In the conclusion of your analysis we should put our hope and trust in the so called free Syrian army which is a group of soldiers that are anti-Assad and also supposedly anti-Daesh, perhaps often move towards Daesh, but as we know that hasn’t been a great success the Americans have withdrawn their training program, you referred to that. The other political arm of the strategy which you advocated is that we need to put our trust in the Geneva diplomatic process that has got precisely nowhere and I can see no sign that the Iranians or the Russians are prepared to lose their only friend in the Arab world. So the only alternative remains for us if they don’t work is to align ourselves with Assad and his regime, I would certainly not think of doing something like that unless with partner with the Americans who know how to advance on this but we have to look at a couple of things. One is that Assad does oppose Daesh which is not the case of the free Syrian army and the other is I think there is a pretty competent and effective regime, I went to Damascus myself in November and I was astonished by the normalcy of life, in Damascus the shops were doing good business, the cafes were all full. The regime was pretty competent and I thought they were very much a potential force in that part of the world. And we all know that if they were overthrown we would have another problem with the Sharia if they allowed it the country would be at risk of massacre so we would have a big problem that nobody is able to able to resolve as far as I know in the absence of the Assad regime. What is your comment on the alternative level thesis?

Linda Robinson

Yes well I certainly recognise the alternative thesis and the argument that you are making and appreciate you having been on the ground in Damascus to see what I would kind of call that island of normalcy in a country that has been absolutely destroyed and so many human rights atrocities committed by that regime that I cannot see it having a long term future as a government embraced by what remains of the population. But I want to recognise there are important voices, also in the US saying that we need to sort of accept reality, make bed with Assad and accept Russia as a partner, but as we see Russia’s form of counter terrorism is the Chechnya style scorched earth approach and I think that takes us down a very bad path. I do think as we have stood by with groups that we formally and somewhat aided in part through Saudi Arabia to Russia and the Assad regime is leading to their decimation. I think that creates a very severe credibility problem for the West and the US. I think that we will look back on this as a very sad and tragic chapter as you know there are important figures in the Obama administration who are no longer part of it have advocated very strongly that the Syria moderate opposition be supported at the time that the uprising began and we failed to do that. I realise I am making a controversial case and a difficult case to say it is not a lost cause and this is primarily because I believe that at the end of the day it is the Syrian people who have to hold and govern their own territory and I believe there is a limit. Probably the most critical difference between your view and mine is that I believe that Russia is not so much wedded to Assad as to retaining some king of posture and presence in Syria which could very well be accomplished through a figure, it would be very hard to find a comprise figure but there could be a transitional figure for something I think would be a very different form of Syrian government and Iran is also a hard case to make. We are in kind of a new and interesting period with Iran and I would for one like to put them to the test but as I have been arguing this evening, I do not think we can be credible negotiators without being willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Lord Quentin Davis

Can I just come back for thirty seconds? I think the West is very good at dreaming up the idea that some really nice, moderate, democratic opposition somewhere who are going to have no blood on their hands and it would be a wonderful solution to the problem. Unfortunately I don’t think in this part of the world that we deal with the realities that exist.

Julian Lewis 

Okay point noted and we have ten minutes before I have to wind up before we close so I am going to ask you now Linda, if you don’t mind, to restrain yourself and take notes, I am going to ask people for short questions and Linda will answer them all together. The shorter you keep it the more people I can ask.

Question 5

What is your feeling on ISIS’s future script?

Question 6


Question 7 – George Howarth MP 

The so called caliphate is more peripatetic than a nation state based and one of the worries is if we achieve a level game Syria and Iraq that the forces will be displaced into parts of Africa, particularly at the moment Libya and I have concerns about the Balkans being fairly unstable at the moment. Have you any feelings or observations on that?

Question 8

You mentioned the recruitment process which ISIS appears to have inaudible…. To what extent… inaudible… those troops within Iraq inaudible… what goal is this… inaudible… in combatting that group?

Question 9 

You mentioned at the beginning that one of the biggest problems was that no matter how many people you managed to kill inaudible… there is an attraction. Now I am assuming that you think this is part of a diplomacy issue and my question to you is where does the information come from inaudible… would be surprised… inaudible….

Julian Lewis

In your own order at your own pace we have about six minutes and then I will say some ending information.

Linda Robinson 

Thank you and I will try to do justice to all of your questions and in order. So the primary way of communicating with the West is through slick mechanisms called DE beak and they have put out several eleventh issues now but they of course envisage this catastrophic battle between the Jihadist army and the infidels and the forces of the West and this is another reason why playing into that strategy by sending massive numbers of combat troops from the West would be absolutely the wrong this because it would fulfil this garish dream that they have. I do think it is very important to understand that they have deliberately set up Libya as an outpost very intelligently chosen because there is I believe no chance on the horizon that there will be any kind of functioning Libyan government despite the efforts of some of my friends and many individuals trying to broker than broken country and bring it back into some sort of family of nations. So they have a very fertile ground throughout North Africa and this odd you know one wouldn’t think that Boko Harem would be a natural affiliate of an Arab movement but they are and of course we have the fishers of the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS grab and they really have a huge terrain there and a shortcut into Europe so that is very dangerous so if they can’t keep and do all that they want in Iraq and Syria, I think you will be increasingly seeing that as the centre of the movement so this thing has life. I do think though the engine of core or core ISIL is feeding is the Sunni grievance and unless you attack that political route of the problem, they will be able to maintain a foothold in Iraq and to the degree that in Syria they cannot get a mass result. They can use that much less populated area as well.

Now the contribution of the Gulf countries that is a very very important question. As you know there was an initial participation and then Saudi Arabia got quite side tracked by the Houthi overrunning of Yemen and of course because there is documented support by Iran, it is an indigenous movement it has its own basis and reasons through Yemeni history to be as powerful as it is so they have really devoted themselves to that and of course after the horrific burning of the Jordanian pilot that also caused some pullback with Jordan who has been a very valiant partner in this. The UAE has sort of gone back and forth in this, it hasn’t been a consistent partner and I think the overall problem is that Saudi Arabia finally opened its embassy in Iraq, they need to understand and there are long standing differences between Saudi Arabia and Iraq but it would behove Saudi Arabia to become more active as a diplomatic player. But these armies, I would much rather see the indigenous forces be supported and the air support provided by outsiders. I don’t think the scenario that some people have of having a Gulf ground led force in Iraq is a very good idea.

In terms of the outpost and I have sort of already mentioned the importance of Libya and I think of the eight accepted affiliates that are external to the Iraq/Syria territory that is the most important but they also have an important out post in South Asia and as were drawn down there, there are certainly ample opportunities for that to become more potent. So I wouldn’t shirk attention to those others but I think Libya needs to be the laser focus right now. Then there are some total of 34 groups who pledge some fidelity to IISL but a lot of that is opportunism and I think that is less important. It is a worldwide problem, I don’t want to minimise that at all by my focus on what Secretary Carter calls the parent tumour and you have to have an approach that details with the parent tumour. Of course the recruitment issue and I believe that if there is a political progress in Iraq to begin devolving powers to Sunni’s that will zap a large portion of the Iraqis that well the Iraqi Sunnis that have gone in and supported this movement. The hard-core leadership no they are not redeemable and nothing is going to turn them off the path that they are on but I think that would help dilute the fires burning there. I do think military success in Iraq and Syria will begin to tarnish the brand because they have been so successful, so formidable and so large that the engine just keeps burning. So I do think it is critical to have that focus. In terms of radicalisation you may have a better grasp on this frankly because I have been very focussed on the political military analysis of the areas there, but I do get the feed of the YouTube videos, the social media, there is the audacity of this group has a strange and potent pull on youths. It is alarming and deeply troubling and I think this bears a lot more focus and attention.

Julian Lewis 

It falls to me the pleasant task for thanking Linda for a complete mastery of her subject, she does not of course demand agreement on every aspect of every recommendation she makes. The amazingly articulate way and the charismatic way that you put forward your case tonight has been most impressive and I am sure that we are all deeply grateful to you and would like to show our appreciation in the normal way (applause).


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