Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?

As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn’t have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn’t being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore’s contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the “right thing” when it matters.

There’s a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.

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