The Rules of the Game

This game of three-dimensional chess is making me dizzy. There are a number of contrasting, conflicting, and even mutually contradictory opinions about what’s going on with Al Qaeda and DAESH these days.

One view is that we are achieving our objective of containing both. Since that is not our objective, at least as stated by President Obama, and the only evidence of such containment are the reduction in DAESH’s momentum in Iraq and the Kurds’ re-taking of small amounts of territory (the role that U. S. bombing may have played in the Kurds’ accomplishments is unclear), that opinion does not seem to be rooted in fact.

Another view is that we are achieving our objective of degrading and destroying DAESH and that Al Qaeda is “on the run”. To my eye this view is even harder to support than the above. Further, it engages in a very bad habit of ours, using the wrong and, frequently, most favorable metric, e.g. sorties, fighters killed, as the gauge of victory. If that approach were a sound one, we won in Viet Nam.

The view that I’ve outlined previously is that we can reduce DAESH’s progress as long as we’re willing to maintain our air campaign. DAESH’s progrss in Syria brings that view into question. Even if this view is true I don’t see it as either a tactical or strategic victory. I see it as a tactical draw and a strategic defeat.

There’s another view emerging now, that there is a “New Year’s offensive” being launched. Some of the facts and interpretations that are being presented in support of this view are:

  • The assassination of a Saudi general.
  • The Charlie Hebdo murders
  • The threats of further terror cell activity in Western Europe.
  • The KSA’s oil offensive.
  • The significant amount of territory in Syria that DAESH has gained.

This view is outlined in this opinion piece in Newsweek and analyzed in more detail by John Robb.

According to this view all of the activities that have drawn the attention of the United States and Western Europe, including the Charlie Hebdo murders, the threats, and even the protracted engagements in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan are distrations, intended to divert U. S. and European attention away from the actual objective: Saudi Arabia. Saudis’ lowering the price of oil is a move that has the multiple effects of a) currying favor with U. S. consumers, b) reducing the threat from U. S. shale producers, c) reducing Iran’s revenues, and d) reducing the revenues of DAESH oil smugglers.

It’s hard for me to see how an attack on the KSA could be effected by DAESH outside of either fomenting terror cell activity in the kingdom or via Yemen. I’ll see if I can solicit Col. Lang’s opinion of that latter alternative. That DAESH is fomenting terror cell activity in the KSA is a matter of record. Can it really be extensive enough to bring the kingdom down?

An organized, determined attack against the KSA would certainly place us in a pickle. Would we rise to the Saudis’ defense, knowing that we could potentially be bombing Muslim holy sites? If the Saudi oil fields were placed under attack, the Arab Shi’ite population of the area would almost certainly appeal for and receive Iranian support. For more analysis of Saudi “human geography” see here. It would certainly be a mess.

I won’t pretend to know what’s actually going on. I’m just trying to bring the range of opinion to your attention and solicit additional views.

19 comments… add one
  • Modulo Myself

    Interesting take. I would think that if there was any real possibility that DAESH could invade Saudi Arabia and defeat/subvert a numerically-superior force, the US would be freaking out. At the same time, if DAESH had the capacity to be able to take Mecca, I wonder if they would do it. If they are realistic about bringing about another caliphate, they would not take the enormous risk. They would need an Iranian-style revolution to hold onto power. And they don’t seem to be operating along those lines. When the Shah was overthrown, everybody was on the street–Marxists, liberals, and Islamists. Unlike the Ayatollah, DAESH was born in sectarian violence and they don’t seem to be made for anything other than that.

    Anyway, an overrun Saudi Arabia is probably one of those things that according to United States policy is technically impossible, like a square circle or something, so quite confident that Saudi Arabia will not be invaded.

  • Andy

    You’ve probably seen this already, but I like Joshua Landis’ predictions for what to expect in 2015.

  • ...

    I had to stop reading the NewsWeek piece when it called for the USA to lend its technology & know-how for border defense to various Arab “allies”. Seriously, when did the USA acquire this expertise in border defense?

  • ...

    I’m seeing reports that our “allies” in Yemen are collapsing today, as are some “moderate” rebel groups in Syria, as well as claims that many of those rebels are joining ISIS along the Lebanese border. Things keep looking better!

  • As outlined in Josh Landis’s piece linked by Andy above, what there was of moderate rebel groups in Syria collapsed in 2014.

  • TastyBits

    @Modulo Myself

    Interesting take. I would think that if there was any real possibility that DAESH could invade Saudi Arabia and defeat/subvert a numerically-superior force, …

    Numerically superior numbers are only effective in the movies. Superior tactics win battles, and superior logistics win wars. ISIS possesses US M1A1 Tanks, and they have ex-Baathist military officers schooled in Soviet offensive tactics to plan the battles. The tanks are probably manned by Sunni ex-Iraqi Army tankers who were trained by the US to operate and maintain the tanks. Ditto for any artillery they picked up from the cowardly Iraqis.

    The biggest problem would be spare parts, but by chopping off a few heads, Sen. McCain will gladly arrange for a resupply through the cowardly Iraqis. Since the Saudi army will fold faster than the Iraqis, ISIS will be able to resupply with US hardware that the cowardly Saudi army leaves behind.

    The only question would be the air force, and they might fight. ISIS probably has US anti-air weapons, but they will eliminate the air problem by setting a few wells on fire. In a burning oil field, you cannot see sh*t. Trust me, I know.

    … the US would be freaking out. …

    There is nobody to freak out. President Obama does not intend to drag the country into a war, and he is not going to get worked up over it. The delusional hawks believe that ISIS is nothing more than a terrorist organization, and they are waiting for ISIS to sneak a tank onto an airplane. Terrorists do not use tanks.

    … At the same time, if DAESH had the capacity to be able to take Mecca, I wonder if they would do it. …

    I doubt they are ready for a push to Mecca. They need to consolidate their gains, and then, they would take the oil fields. Depending upon who was in charge would dictate how bloody the cleansing would be. The ex-Baathist officers are brutal but realistic. You do not kill all the population. You enslave them.

    Bin Laden’s stated goal was to overthrow the House of Saud, take Mecca, and evict the infidels. ISIS is on track for the last two, and the first is somewhat accomplished.


    President Obama’s instinct/intention is to keep the US out of any wars or additional military conflicts, but he keeps letting himself get pushed into conflicts by the Europeans or the delusional hawks. The delusional hawks do not have the will to do what it takes to accomplish the goals they advocate.

    President Obama would probably allow himself to get dragged into a Saudi invasion, and the next president almost certainly will no matter which party.

  • ...

    “Meanwhile the Syrian army is running out of fucks to give for what happens in Sunni areas of no economical value.” – From comments on Landis’s piece

    Are we seriously trying to raise, train and control our own Syrian army? Tell me this just isn’t so. This administration couldn’t build a fucking website with years of advance notice and virtually unlimited resources, and they want their own bespoke Syrian army?

  • ...

    TB, I think ISIS, Nusra & the rest are probably grinding to a halt. What’s going on now is ethnic cleansing of areas now held. De facto borders are forming & hardening, and I imagine we are seeing the limits of what ISIS & Nusra can accomplish organizationally. They don’t just have to conquer & slaughter any more, now they’ve got to govern. And at the moment it looks like they’ll be about as effective at that task as have various Congolese factions.

    I’ll still bet on the House of Saud surviving, though they’re clearly being pressured. They might not meet Western European or East Asian levels of competent governance, but they seem better than their professed enemies. And I imagine that ultimately Iran & Egypt will only tolerate a certain level of nonsense, then no more.

    The wild cards are Erdogan, the Israelis, and the interventionist American foreign policy establishment. Who knows what the fuck they’re going to do.

  • ...

    When I say I think Iran and Egypt will only tolerate a certain amount of nonsense, I don’t mean to imply they can impose order in “the Levant”, rather that they provide bulwarks to contain the stupid.

  • TastyBits


    I said they need to consolidate their gains, and as you say, they may not be able to do that. They probably do not have the military strength to push into Saudi and to defend their existing territory. They might be able to pick up defecting Saudi military. The Egyptian, Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah armies are the only ones worth a crap, but they would not have to worry about Egypt.

    I stopped following it since I have been mostly correct about these events: Egypt – no change but ruined relationship, Libya – terrorist Disneyland, Assad – still in power, Israel – still no Iran bombing, Iran – still on track to a nuke, Ukraine – rebels control eastern half. Putin – still has not backed down. I probably forgot some. And, the US still getting involved where it should stay the hell out.

    al-Qaeda was on a long time frame to achieve its goals. There is ISIS in the north, and there is AQAP in Yemen. They may be working together, or they may just inadvertently help each other. This will not be over any time soon.

  • The territory that they need to control is in the minds of, mostly, Sunni Arabs. Just about everything they do, whether invading the Yezidi area of Iraq (pagans) to murdering journalists in Paris (avenging blasphemy) to assassinating a Saudi general (demonstrating their power) is aimed at that objective. Whether they control a little more land here or there really doesn’t make that much difference.

  • 1) IS cannot defeat KSA in a direct assault, for the simple reason they lack air power. In desert warfare, air+ armor used decisively means victory ( as opposed to the half assed way Obama is having our military use it, just so it looks like he’s doing something). KSA has it. IS doesn’t.

    2) I doubt IS is interested at this time in attacking KSA. They want to consolidate their gains.

    3) As despicable as Assad is, he was essentially correct when he characterized his opposition as terrorists and jihadis, just as Khaddafi was correct in saying exactly the same thing.

    An open question worth asking is why this president is so sympathetic towards Islamists, and why someone whom ran as a non-interventionist ‘peace candidate’ has been so willing to intervene militarily and politically on the behalf of Islamists. It’s the one thread in common with his ME foreign policy whether we’re talking about Libya,The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas, Qatar and Turkey or the Obama Administration’s clandestine arming of Islamic State.

    4) As far as American interests are concerned, Syria is a sideshow, and Islamic State is not our main security threat in the region. Iran is. And by focusing on IS instead of Iran, , Obama is doing a replay of George W. Bush’s mistake in taking out Saddam Hussein…working to remove the main checkpoint to Iran and its ambition to put together a nuclear-armed Shi’ite empire in the ME.

    If you think what’s going on now is bad, wait until the Ayatollah or Rouhani announce the successful test of a nuclear weapon.

  • Pat Lang has suggested that DAESH could create a substantial insurgent movement within KSA by recruiting in the cities and towns of the western and southern parts of the peninsula. There are lots of disaffected young men there.

Leave a Comment