DEGRADING AND ULTIMATELY DESTROYING ISIS
Will the current strategy accomplish that?
If so, at what cost? And is it worth it?
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, captured world headlines as it declared the goal of creating a “Caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria and embarked on a very impressive military campaign that has culminated in the capture of large swaths of territory, including major urban areas. ISIS has employed extremely ruthless tactics against the civilian populations in areas it has seized, including ethnic cleansing of Shiite, Christian and Kurdish communities. It has committed mass murders not only of ethnic and religious minorities, but even fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to repent and declare their adherence to ISIL’s extreme view of Islam.
ISIS has conducted mass enslavements of women and children, likely over 3,000 to date, from the northern Iraqi towns and regions of Sinjar, Tel Afar, the Nineveh Plains and Shirkan. Women and children who refused to convert to this extreme Sunni religious brand were allotted to ISIS fighters or were trafficked in markets in Mosul and Raqqa (in Syria). Any males captured who refused to convert were usually executed.
Obama declares that ISIS must be “Degraded and Ultimately Defeated”
The Islamic State has also spread fear far beyond the region by the public beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers. The sheer ruthlessness of ISIS coupled with its striking military success has generated deep concern not just in the Mideast, but in Europe and the United States. However, there remains serious questions regarding the extent to which the Islamic State represents a threat to America, and what is the appropriate response to counter that threat.
There has been no shortage of criticism of President Obama’s assessment of the challenge and the response the administration has devised to counter ISIS. Some charge that the current strategy of relying on U.S. air strikes, assisted in part by modest support from regional and European air forces, and without consideration of placing combat forces on the ground, has little chance of succeeding in destroying let alone degrading the Islamic State. Those critics are right on target.
The steps he has outlined do not form a cohesive strategy that would destroy ISIS. There is precious little multilateral let alone regional participation. The actions taken to date have little chance of defeating the Islamic State.
Others charge that while ISIS is reprehensible and acting in a manner inimical to our interests, it does not represent a direct threat to our vital interests. In addition, these critics warn that American involvement in conflicts in the Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, has led to large loss of life and limb and the wasted expenditure of billions of dollars. They add that in the end our interventions have managed to create or left behind weak regimes incapable of governing in a manner that unites the populace, and only created deep resentment against the United States. These critics are also right.
So then what is the extent of the threat from ISIS and what should be a rational and effective American response?
The Islamic State at present does not represent a direct threat to the U.S. Having said that, the radical Al Qaeda offshoot is now controlling vast swaths of land, as well as some urban centers, and has amassed a deep trove or riches—some seized and some, regrettably, from conservative Arab states that have funneled support to such jihadist groups for decades—and that includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar. ISIS is now threatening the Kurdish enclave of Korbani and is on the outskirts of Baghdad. If those centers fall the Islamic State would exercise control over much of the Arab heartland and significant oil reserves.
While not a current threat to America, defeating ISIS should be a national security objective given its potential influence and control of these key areas. As ISIS grows it will increasingly be a threat to Israel, Christian populations, Shia enclaves, the Kurds and other ethnic minorities.
Ideally the United States would be “leading from behind” here, assisting in providing logistics, intelligence and reconnaissance assets. Ideally, the conservative Arab states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Egypt would provide the ground forces necessary to dislodge and defeat ISIS. Others, ideally, would aid in the air campaign.
How has that “ideal” outcome worked out?
Not well, not well at all. The potential partners in this “alliance” seem reluctant to commit ground forces to the fray, even though by doing so they could field a force far more formidable than ISIS. Those countries also seem to be more focused on other near term concerns than defeating ISIS.
Turkey is a major problem, not part of the solution. The Turks are wary that any involvement by them might only encourage the restive Kurdish populace to demand more autonomy or even independence. Although relations between the Kurds and the Turkish government have improved over the past few years, the current crisis threatens to destroy that progress. Specifically, as ISIS moves on the Kurdish city of Kobani, the Turks—rather than bombing ISIS positions, have instead struck Kurdish positions from the rear! Some believe that President Erdogan fears the emergence of a Kurdish state more than ISIS!
Erdogan has also made it clear that his primary objective is overthrowing the Al-Assad Alawite regime in Syria, not defeating ISIS. Removing Assad is also an American stated objective, but that has been placed on the back burner. Right now the U.S. needs Syria to be active in assisting in the defeat of the radical Sunni movement known as ISIS, but doesn’t want the repressive regime of Assad to be strengthened. There is no shortage of recriminations over these competing objectives as the confusing Syrian tactical situation is marked by divisions between the government, Al Qaeda affiliates (Al Nusra), a few “moderate” rebel forces, and the Islamic State.
The government of Iraq is also a disappointment. For years the Shia regime under PM Maliki has given scant attention and support to the majority Sunni, most living in the Western regions. As a consequence many disaffected Sunnis, including members of the old Baathist armed forces, have joined the ISIS camp. Further, in battle, the Iraqi Army has melted away in the face of ISIS militancy, and doubt remains if it can coalesce sufficiently to save Baghdad. To hold off ISIS, the dissolved elements of the old army would have to regroup and fight with conviction; political leaders will have to put aside sectarian differences and reach compromises; disenfranchised Sunni tribes will have to tolerate Shia militias and separate themselves from ISIS. A tall order with little chance of success.
Vice President Joe Biden was forced to apologize for his blunt criticism of Turkey’s unhelpful role, as well as that of the UAE (and implicitly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States). Biden recanted his criticism of Erdogan, explicitly for saying Erdogan’s policies “supported terrorism”, in the Veep’s words. Although this was diplomatically incorrect, Biden was right on the mark in his criticism.
American airstrikes also seem to have generated more criticism than battlefield success. ISIS initially remained deployed in force in open spaces, with its tanks and artillery unprotected. That has changed and the head of the militant forces, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has brought his troops and equipment into urban areas, melding them in with the populace. Attacking these deployments has led to vociferous condemnation of the U.S., with allegations of widespread civilian casualties.
Thus, rather than having forged an effective alliance against the Islamic State, the U.S. is faced with “a warring club of hesitant allies with dissimilar objectives and often opposing interests”, as one observer notes.
So where do we go from here?
The challenge to a successful securing of U.S. strategic and tactical objectives are manifold. To achieve the key objective of “Degrading and Ultimately Destroying ISIS” would require:
- A substantial commitment of American ground forces for an extended period in the war zone, augmented by troops from our European allies;
- A continuation of the air strikes that have been conducted to date, but with much greater precision in order to strike well camouflaged ISIS forces and equipment, often in urban areas;
- A major deployment of ground forces by impacted regional powers, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf states;
- Sending more advanced weaponry to the Kurds immediately; at the same time insuring that the weak Iraqi government can tolerate a militarily stronger Kurdish enclave;
- Cooperation temporarily with the Shia-leaning Assad government in Syria and the Iranian regime. Place the removal of Assad on the back burner; make cooperation with Iran a high priority. Bring Russia into the “alliance” by shelving current concerns over Ukraine; stress to Putin the danger of infection of his own rapidly growing Sunni Muslim populations;
- Prepare to allocate billions of dollars from the U.S. treasury, the European allies, and especially the oil-rich Gulf States.
And what are the prospects for accomplishing the above requirements?
Zero….on virtually every count. There is no prospect for substantial and meaningful commitments from our “friends” in the region; no chance that the American public will support “boots on the ground” or extensive funding; no chance of regional powers like Turkey dropping their near term concerns and joining the cause with significant military force.
Therefore, I would in the future recommend that the Obama administration focus on a strategy designed to assist regional powers in their struggle against the Islamic State. Emphasize it is their struggle to win; we can help them, not win the war for them.
This strategy is far from perfect—by no means is it guaranteed to succeed, and it will make the President vulnerable to charges of being weak in the face of a clear challenge. However, it is realistic and places the burden on those countries/regimes with the most to lose from further ISIS successes.
Am I wrong?