Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What are we doing in Syria? US backed rebels give ISIS troops safe passage out of the recently liberated Manbij.

A man walks among ruins of Manbij. AFP.

US backed rebels give ISIS fighters and vehicles safe passage out of the city of Manbij. USA Today. ISIS fighters were allowed to surrender during the siege of the city. The US backed rebels, in the first such agreement with ISIS, allowed them to leave. ISIS was using human shields and the agreement was made to save those civilians. A convoy of 100 to 200 ISIS fighters were allowed to leave. A US drone followed them out of the city. US commanders agreed to not destroy the convoy. The surrender is unusual for ISIS. Most of the time they fight to the death, and this surrender may damage their reputation. On the other hand, they are desperate to preserve their numbers and most definitely needed to keep those experienced fighters alive.

My Comment:
This was an odd descion to say the least. Though I would have a problem with going back on the deal and striking these fighters after they left the city, it makes little sense to me to let these fighters live. We probably shouldn't have made this deal with the rebels. ISIS is desperate for fighters right now and losing 100 to 200 more fighters would be crucial. Letting them go seems like a very bad choice.

Once again, I think people are bit too worried about civilian casualties. Though it would have been bad press to destroy ISIS along with their hostages, it would probably be the best thing. Not only would this kill the ISIS fighters, it would discourage ISIS from using the human shield tactic. What's the point of taking hostages if they don't stop attacks? 

Of course, that probably won't ever happen. People really hate when civilians are killed in war, even if it is inevitable. Imagine the outrage if the United States had bombed the ISIS fighters along with the civilians? All the usual suspects would be up in arms. So even though destroying ISIS is probably the correct move strategically, it's politically impossible. 

Still, there were probably other options. We didn't have to let these fighters go. There is a spectrum between this solution and destroying ISIS along with the hostages. We could have starved them out or ground out an offensive. There would still have been civilian casualties but not nearly as many as the full destruction option and it would have killed these fighters. 

An even more obvious solution would be to take these fighters prisoner. Though I doubt the Kurds have major prisons available, they should at least have the capability to take 100 or so fighters. That is what would usually happen when an enemy unit surrenders, they are taken as prisoners as war. The POW laws might not apply because ISIS isn't really a traditional army, but that's not an argument against taking them as prisoners. Just letting them go is crazy because they will just return to the battlefield. 

My worry is that ISIS will be encouraged to use the hostage/human shield tactic in the future. They know that the United States is squeamish about causing civilian casualties. And they also learned some lessons from Fallujah. In that battle they lost many of their fighters in the fighting. When they finally decided to retreat their massive convoy of troops and vehicles was utterly annihilated by US airstrikes.   

ISIS would probably like to avoid the kind of defeat they had in Fallujah. Losing the city was bad enough but the casualties they took there are not sustainable. They will need fighters to survive and losing as many man as they did in Fallujah will result in ISIS falling. Using hostages will allow them to retreat in peace and preserve some of their fighters. They can also use human shields as ways to keep airstrikes away from their convoys. I always thought that ISIS should keep their leaders and most important positions staffed with large numbers of hostages. They fact that they haven't done so outside of Manbij is shocking to me.

It's kind of amazing to me that ISIS hasn't tried this until now. While they have used human shields in the past, they haven't used them to force terms when they are surrendering. If they had done so in the past, they may have minimized the losses they suffered in both Iraq and Syria. They would be in a much better position if they had done this in previous battles. They would probably still be losing, but they would have a lot more fighters. 

I also have to say that ISIS would have never allowed their enemies to surrender like this. Though ISIS has occasionally released prisoners, most of the time they were civilians they couldn't care for. When it came to troops that ISIS captured, they showed no mercy. In many cases they executed people in horrible and creative ways. Though I don't want a wholesale slaughter of ISIS fighters, it does anger me that they are getting a free pass when they have done much worse to the people they capture. 

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