A very fragile coalition of the willing, that is already struggling to provide results in its fight with the enigma that is ISIS, will soon be faced with the prospects of placing troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The task at hand will involve finding a way to beat back not 30,000 troops, as was previously thought, but go against a force numbering 200,000 ISIS soldiers.
In an exclusive report from the Independent UK, The Islamic State army, according to a senior Kurdish leader, has swelled to 200,000 troops controlling a territory the size of Britain.
The Islamic State (Isis) has recruited an army hundreds of thousands strong, far larger than previous estimates by the CIA, according to a senior Kurdish leader. He said the ability of Isis to attack on many widely separated fronts in Iraq and Syria at the same time shows that the number of militant fighters is at least 200,000, seven or eight times bigger than foreign in intelligence estimates of up to 31,500 men.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilise Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”
He estimates that Isis rules a third of Iraq and a third of Syria with a population of between 10 and 12 million living in an area of 250,000 square kilometres, the same size as Great Britain. This gives the jihadis a large pool of potential recruits.
Proof that Isis has created a large field army at great speed is that it has been launching attacks against the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Iraqi army close to Baghdad at the same time as it is fighting in Syria. “They are fighting in Kobani,” said Mr Hussein. “In Kurdistan last month they were attacking in seven different places as well as in Ramadi [capital of Anbar province west of Baghdad] and Jalawla [an Arab-Kurdish town close to Iranian border]. It is impossible to talk of 20,000 men or so.”
The high figure for Isis’s combat strength is important because it underlines how difficult it will be eliminate Isis even with US air strikes. In September, the CIA produced an estimate of Isis numbers which calculated that the movement had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. The underestimate of the size of the force that Isis can deploy may explain why the US and other foreign governments have been repeatedly caught by surprise over the past five months as IS inflicted successive defeats on the Iraqi army, Syrian army, Syrian rebels and Kurdish peshmerga.
The US and its allies are beginning to take on board the obstacles to fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to degrade and destroy Isis. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Baghdad on Friday in a surprise visit. He said he wanted “to get a sense from our side about how our contribution is going”. Earlier in the week, he told Congress that to defeat Isis an efficient army of 80,000 men would be necessary. Few in Iraq believe that the regular army is up to the task, despite winning a success last week by retaking the refinery town of Baiji and lifting the siege of the refinery, the largest in Iraq.
The million dollar question that remains is not if, but when the US and UK commit troops on the ground to the Middle East yet again, will they march South towards Baghdad in an effort to secure Iraq and defeat ISIS, or will boots on the ground march West towards Damascus in a final push to overthrow Assad and complete yet another regime change, this one 3 years in the making.