This is a short essay addressing the issue of how many “boots on the ground” are in the Middle East. President Barack Obama has announced there are about 35,000 American “boots on the ground” in the region. The area includes Egypt but not other countries in North Africa. It does include Afghanistan where there are around 12,000 US soldiers.
It is also important for readers to note that armed contract personnel are not included heOre. It is generally accepted that the number of armed contract personnel is equal to or perhaps greater than the number of soldiers. If one were to take President Obama’s figure of 35,000 “boots on the ground,” that would mean there are also 35,000, largely armed, contract personnel, although not all of them are American, working with the US armed forces in the Middle East. This brings the total of US soldiers and contract personnel up to about 70,000.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, current commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), stated recently there are an estimated “9,000 to 19,000 hard core Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] fighters” fighting against the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. If one takes the higher number, this means there are perhaps another 10,000 or so fighters under ISIL’s command. This makes for a total of 29,000. Of course there are many other groups and militias in the region that do not fight for ISIL; indeed most oppose it. Perhaps as many as 30,000 opposition fighters are fighting against the Syrian regime.
What should be interesting to those who are interested in developments in Iraq and Syria is the status of the armies of Arab countries, Iran and Turkey that are, or to some degree purport to be, in opposition to ISIL even if they are not actively engaged in armed combat.
First, let us take the number of forces in Iraq. It is currently stated that Iraq’s government forces stand at 270,000. This does not include the estimated 100,000 or so Shi’a militia that are aligned with the government. Kurdistan-Iraq also has some 180,000 soldiers (peshmerga) fighting against ISIL, but they are independent of Iraq’s army. Sunni tribes in Iraq, not aligned with Baghdad, can raise 20,000 for more fighters against ISIL if they decide to do so. This means there are around 450,000 available troops within Iraq to fight ISIL.
Iran has a standing army of 545,000, but only an estimated 5,000 or so are fighting against ISIL within Iraq. This should make it clear that if Tehran wanted, it could deploy many more troops within Iraq.
Saudi not interested in fighting Sunnis
Saudi Arabia has a standing army of 234,000 but it is reluctant to fight ISIL as they are fellow Sunnis. The Saudi monarchy rules a staunchly Sunni country with a 20 percent minority Shi’a population, and it is saving its fighting power for possible future challenges from Iran. It is not eager to waste its military efforts fighting fellow Sunnis even if its powerful US ally wants it to do so.
Much the same can be said for other Gulf Arab countries, including Oman, which is estimated to have an armed force amounting to around 285,000. But they, with the exception of Qatar, have been hesitant to join the coalition against ISIL for the same reasons as Saudi Arabia.
Jordan, a Sunni country, has a well-trained army of 120,000 and is threatened by ISIL but it is aligned and dependent on Gulf Arab countries. As a result, it too is reluctant to enter the war against ISIL unless it receives a green light from the Gulf Arabs. It has, however, agreed to host several hundred CIA operatives to train a purported 2,000 fighters to fight ISIL and to serve as a drone base for the US.
Lebanon has an army comprising about 130,000 soldiers, but it is a religiously and ethnically fragmented country that seeks to prevent ISIL as well as the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Hezbollah (Shi’a) ally from spreading Syria’s civil war into Lebanon.
Turkey has a standing army of around 623,000. It is a largely Sunni country. It too has been hesitant to enter the war against ISIL as it considers ISIL useful in fighting Syrian Kurdish forces who are demanding political autonomy within Syria. In addition, Syrian Kurds are aligned with Kurds in Turkey who are also demanding political autonomy within Turkey, which Turkey considers a threat to its national sovereignty. As a result, Turkey cooperates with ISIL forces in order to manage this potential Kurdish nationalist threat.
Americans, as well as others, may reasonably ask if the countries mentioned above, with estimated armies (and I did not include the 534,000 estimated armies of Egypt and Yemen) of around 3 million are reluctant, unwilling or incapable of marshaling forces sufficient to defeat 30,000 ISIL fighters and the immense contradictions these positions entail, why should America put “more boots on the ground”?
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper. Click here to got to the original.