Arab Leaders Slam Lack of Anti-ISIS Strategy as US Says Strikes Successful

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Published Monday, February 9, 2015

Arab leaders bemoaned what they called a lack of strategy and weapons in the fight against jihadists like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group at a security conference attended by Western leaders in Munich on Sunday.

ISIS, which has declared a Salafi "caliphate" in territories in seized in Syria and Iraq, has killed thousands of citizens and soldiers in both countries. It has particularly targeted ethnic and religious minorities, as well as foreign hostages, some of them in highly-choreographed videotaped sequences in which the victims are beheaded.

The US-led, anti-ISIS coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states has been bombing Iraq and Syria since August and September respectively, but has so far failed to fully stop the advance of militants.

"I don't see that there is a clear strategy how to deal with ISIS," Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said. "How to face it, how to contain it, control it, defeat it and eliminate it. I don't see it... Unless the airstrikes is a strategy. That's not a strategy."

Last month, the head of NATO said airstrikes alone would not be enough to defeat ISIS and greater Western help in building up Iraqi security forces could also play a role.

Qatar also criticized current efforts against ISIS, especially in Iraq, where the group has executed scores in the Anbar province.

"If we want Sunnis to fight for themselves, to clean Iraq from any terrorists, we have to not only issue a program but to implement this program tangibly," Qatar's Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said in Munich.

"We still need to have a strategy in Iraq from our allies. There is no strategy, I'll be very frank on this."

ISIS, known as Daesh in Arabic, is using heavy US-made weapons the group captured after driving Iraq's army — the recipient of $25 billion in US training and funding since the 2003 invasion — to collapse.

A study published in September 2014 by the London-based small-arms research organization Conflict Armament Research revealed that ISIS jihadists appear to be using US military-issued arms and weapons supplied to the “moderate” rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia.

The report said the jihadists disposed of "significant quantities" of US-made small arms including M-16 assault rifles and included photos showing the markings "Property of US Govt."

The steady expansion of jihadist groups in Iraq, especially in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, raises questions about the effectiveness of the US anti-terrorism campaign since 2001.

Anbar was the main battleground between US Marines and al-Qaeda during the "surge" campaign in 2006-2007.

Saudi Arabia and Jordan have taken part in airstrikes against ISIS.

Jordan is a major US-ally in the fight against ISIS and is home to hundreds of US military trainers bolstering defenses in the Syrian and Iraqi borders.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, Jordan, and Turkey played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering the armed opposition groups in Syria, and also allowing insurgents to freely infiltrate into the country.

Meanwhile, other countries like Egypt say the international community is not helping enough in their fight against other jihadist groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai peninsula, bordering the Gaza Strip.

"We need more weapons, the quality, the sophistication of the weapons, the technology so that we can track and be able to infiltrate these organizations," Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Reuters on the sidelines of the Munich conference.

Echoing Egypt's calls for a more comprehensive strategy, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged leaders in Munich to act on militants operating from his country, adding that this threat should not be treated in isolation from ISIS and other groups.

Ground offensive

The US coordinator for the international coalition against the jihadists said Sunday that Iraqi troops will begin a ground offensive "in the weeks ahead" to take back swathes of the country seized by ISIS.

"There will be a major counter offensive on the ground in Iraq," top US envoy John Allen said in an interview with Jordan's official Petra news agency.

"In the weeks ahead, when the Iraqi forces begin the ground campaign to take back Iraq, the coalition will provide major firepower associated with that," he added, stressing that the Iraqis would lead the offensive.

Allen dismissed accusations that there has been a delay in the supply of US weapons and training to Iraqi troops on the frontline of the conflict, telling Petra: "The United States is doing all it can to deliver its support as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the aerial campaign was beginning to win back territory and deprive the jihadists of key funds.

There have been 2,000 airstrikes on ISIS since the coalition's formation in August, Kerry told a security conference in the German city of Munich.

The air war has allegedly helped to retake some 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory, or "one-fifth of the area they had in their control," he said.

Kerry did not specify how much of the regained territory was in Iraq or Syria.

Kerry added the coalition had "deprived the militants of the use of 200 oil and gas facilities... disrupted their command structure... squeezed its finance and dispersed its personnel."

Earlier in February, US President Barack Obama requested $8.8 billion to fund the fight against ISIS, with a total of $5.3 billion would go to the Pentagon to Finance Operation Inherent Resolve.

In late October, the Pentagon revised its estimate of the cost of the US air war in Iraq and Syria, saying the price tag for the campaign against ISIS came to about $8.3 million a day. The Defense Department had previously put the average daily cost of the military operation at more than $7 million a day.

The State Department, which has been leading efforts to build a multinational coalition against ISIS, has requested a further $3.5 billion.

Deputy Secretary of State for Management Heather Higginbottom said another $1.1 billion had been requested by the State Department to fund diplomatic efforts in Iraq.

The effect of the open-ended US-led air campaign remains the subject of debate, with the White House saying the militants have been damaged by the strikes and critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

The Pentagon announced on January 23 that ISIS has lost only a tiny fraction of captured territory in Iraq after five months of US-led airstrikes.

That amounted to roughly one percent of ISIS-held territory changing hands since the US launched air raids in Iraq on August 8.

Since then, Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces have reclaimed some territories in Iraq from ISIS, as well as the symbolic town of Kobane in Syria.

It is worth noting that the US House of Representatives adopted a $584.2 billion annual defense spending bill on December 4, which included emergency funding for military operations against ISIS and training and equipping so-called moderate Syrian rebels.

However, it didn’t include providing any humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, who amount to more than 3.8 million hosted in five main countries within the region — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — as opposed to wealthy nations that have only taken in a "pitiful" number, according to Amnesty International.

Described as the world's wealthiest "terror" group, ISIS no longer relies on wealthy donors from Gulf states and has become financially self-sustainable in both Iraq and Syria, earning $1 million a day from black market oil sales alone.

The returns of oil trade contribute to the expansion of recruitment of these extremist groups.

Jordan and ISIS

Jordan announced it has carried out dozens of airstrikes against ISIS, as a top US envoy said Iraqi troops would begin a major ground offensive against the jihadists in the weeks ahead.

Jordanian air force chief Major General Mansour al-Jobour said Sunday the kingdom had launched 56 air raids since Thursday.

Jordan has vowed an "earth-shattering" response after the Salafi extremists captured one of its air force pilots, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, and released a video purportedly showing him being burned alive.

"On the first day of the campaign to avenge our airman Moaz al-Kassasbeh, 19 targets were destroyed, including training camps and equipment," Jobour told reporters.

Jobour claimed more than 7,000 ISIS militants had been killed since Jordan began participating in coalition airstrikes.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told ABC television that while the bombing campaign had "degraded" ISIS capability, the group was still in control of "vast territory.”

Estimates on the number of ISIS fighters vary widely, although many pin the number between 20,000 and 35,000, casting doubts on Jordanian claims that such a large proportion of jihadists have been killed given the big swathes of territory still under ISIS control.

Interior Minister Hussein Majali said in remarks published on Saturday that Kassasbeh's gruesome murder by ISIS was a "turning point" in the kingdom's fight against extremism.

As Jordan escalated its assault, ISIS claimed on Friday that an American aid worker it had taken hostage — 26-year-old Kayla Jean Mueller — had been buried alive under rubble by a coalition strike on its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria.

Mueller's parents said they were hopeful their daughter was still alive and appealed to ISIS to contact them in order to ensure her safe return.

On Sunday, US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Washington was seeking clarification on Mueller's fate.

"We're learning as much as we can as quickly as we can about Ms. Mueller's situation," he told CNN. "Our thoughts, our prayers are with her family right now."

Jordanian state media, meanwhile, reported that a squadron of United Arab Emirates F-16 fighter jets arrived in Jordan on Sunday, escorted by pilots and technicians.

The UAE had withdrawn from the coalition's strike missions after the Jordanian pilot's capture over fears for the safety of its own airmen.

But the US had said on Friday that UAE flights were likely to resume "in a couple of days.”

C-17 transporters and refueling planes were part of the UAE squadron sent on the orders of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the Petra news agency said.

Casualty tolls in areas controlled by ISIS are difficult to verify independently, as both the jihadist group and the international coalition fighting have provided vastly differing accounts of the fighting.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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