Welcome to Rapid Fire, a weekly wrap of recent developments in international land warfare, to run alongside other regular ASPI updates like the long-running Cyber Wrap and the more recently added Sea State and The Beat. This week, we look at operations against Islamic State; Boko Haram and Chad; military aid to Lebanon; the ceasefire agreement in Ukraine; Ebola aid workers; and North Korean missiles.
Coalition support for the fight against Islamic State forces continues in Iraq where ground troops have received extensive training and supplies. Support for the Iraq army is intensifying around reports of a ground campaign planned ‘in the weeks ahead’ to reclaim major cities, specifically Mosul. A US official in Baghdad said of the plans: ‘To win this thing, we’re going to have to have Iraqi ground troops go into the places that are really being held by Daesh…You’re not going to win this just with airstrikes.’ If or when that occurs, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, General (rtd) John Allen, has promised that the coalition will provide ‘major firepower’.
The Obama administration continues to rule out sending US troops into combat in the Middle East, stressing that any offensive ground combat will be led by Iraq. Still, the specific terms of the authorisation that President Obama’s seeking from Congress for the limited use of US military forces in the fight against the Islamic State don’t rule out a short-term ground force in the future:
Section 2.C The President is authorized…to use the Armed Forces of the United States as …[determined] to be necessary and appropriate… [but] does not authorize the use of United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.
Last week also saw the delivery to Iraqi forces of an unspecified number of refurbished T-72 main battle tanks and BVP-1 infantry fighting vehicles from the Czech defence company Excalibur Army, another sign that the country is beefing up against Islamic State.
Reports still differ on the number of fighters supporting the group. In late 2014 the CIA estimated that number between 20,000 and 31,500. A report from a senior Kurdish leader has it closer to 200,000, which seems unlikely when considering airstrikes have reportedly taken out an estimated 6,000. Over at War on the Rocks, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues that Hisham al-Hashimi’s estimate of 100,000 seems far more plausible once the combined population of Syria and Iraq of at least 6 million is taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, the regional offensive against Boko Haram continues to develop. A unanimous vote in Niger’s parliament will see troops sent into Nigeria following escalating violence around the nation’s borders. The decision comes a week after Chadian troops entered Nigeria despite months of Nigerian authorities refusing international assistance. This coincides with the African Union’s decision to form a coalition and send in a preliminary 7,500 troops. There has also been chatter about possible US involvement. Friday the 13th saw the first attacks by Boko Haram occurring within Chad, making it the fourth nation to be targeted by the Islamic terrorist group.
Last Sunday saw the delivery of more than US$25 million worth of US military aid, including heavy artillery, into Lebanon to assist in the fight against jihadist groups along the Syrian border. The US Ambassador to Beirut, David Hale, observed: ‘We are fighting the same enemy, so our support for you has been swift and continuous.’ He went on to say that US military aid to Lebanon would continue ‘until the job is done’. Although Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, did explain that this kind of military aid isn’t sustainable in the long term and is simply a short-term fix for Lebanon.
In Europe, leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have brokered a ceasefire agreement (unofficial translation) for Ukraine after a marathon 16-hour negotiation in Minsk on 12 February. The meeting was given special significance by the recent escalated violence in eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russia separatists. The head of the OSCE monitoring mission, Ertugal Apakan, has said that the cease-fire is largely being respected with some isolated instances. Shelling did continue around the government held town of Debaltseve which Russian separatists have had surrounded for some weeks. This resulted in a conference call Sunday between peace talk leaders which extended the ceasefire to the hostile area.
It’s still unclear what role the peace talks will play in President Obama’s consideration of sending defensive arms to Ukraine. That idea has met with significant disagreement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. US Vice President Joe Biden postulated that, no matter what, ‘[The US] will continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance not to encourage war, but to allow Ukraine to defend itself.’
Turning back to Africa, US President Barack Obama announced that all but 100 US troops will be withdrawn from the Ebola zone in West Africa. Obama stressed that work will continue in order to combat the virus and that efforts are merely moving into ‘the next phase.’
Finally, recent missile tests by North Korea may suggest a significant technical upgrade in capability. Five short-range surface-to-surface missiles were fired off the coast where they flew 200kms before landing in the water. Senior researcher with the Korea Defence and Security Forum, Yang Uk, suggested that the missiles—though apparently ballistic—might be a copy of a Russian model which can change direction in flight. USFK’s Camp Pyeongtaek and Osan Air Base are plausibly now in North Korea’s inland shooting range. This revelation has sparked further debate about deploying an advanced US missile defence system known as THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence) to South Korea, an idea which has been met with considerable disapproval from China.
Sarah Hately is an intern at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user DVIDSHUB.