A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Few (I Hope Rational) Thoughts About Dealing with ISIS

I thought I'd weigh in with a few thoughts of my own about dealing with the Islamic State that will continue to be known as ISIS for now on this blog.

Since President Obama's remark the other day about not yet having a strategy has provoked a debate in the US, it may be worth keeping a few points in mind. I agree the strategy remark was ill-chosen, but any attempt to design a strategy for dealing with the Syrian side of ISIS needs to recognize a few realities often ignored in the heat of political debate.

1. A noble-sounding strategy that cannot be implemented tactically and operationally given the forces on the ground and the will of the participating governments is no strategy at all. It may be policy or empty theory, but there is no political will in the US for re-committing ground troops. That means a coalition, and coalitions take time. Remember it took six months after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to assemble the coalition that took it back in 1991.

2. The US airstrikes in Iraq are coordinated with allied ground forces. The successes against ISIS in Jabal Sinjar, Amerli, the Mosul Dam, and around Erbil all involve Iraqi Security Forces and KRG Peshmegas, albeit with some of their allies that we may not find to our liking (Shi‘ite militias, the PKK, Iranian "advisers"). All those elements, largely motivated by their own survival, are managing to cooperate.

3. Nothing comparable exists on the ground in Syria. The Asad regime, the Free Syrian Army and its allies, and Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, are all fighting ISIS but they are also all fighting each other. The US is unlikely to find a coordinated ground force to support with its airstrikes. We might tolerate a role for the regime forces if they were as discreet as Iran's forces in Iraq have been, but they won't be likely to play that game. The FSA is not yet well-enough armed or trained to turn the tide with US airstrikes alone, and if the US is already skittish about being on the same side as the IRGC, the Badr Army, the ‘Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, and the PKK, there is no way it could align with Jabhat al-Nusra (and vice versa) since the latter openly identifies with al-Qa‘ida.

4. US airstrikes without ground support would be of limited effect. In combination with special operations forces on the ground they might have some effect, but air power, alone, does not win wars without someone taking territory.

5. Everybody in the neighborhood is scared of ISIS.  Coalition-building is not impossible. Longtime enemies/rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are showing signs of rapprochement. While Turkey has plenty of quarrels with its neighbors, it has a strong army in exactly the right place. The UAE has shown the sophisticated reach of its modern air force by bombing Libya. And even Jordan has a highly competent special operations capability.

6. Don't underestimate ISIS, but don't overstate their capabilities either. ISIS has strategic and tactical skill, sophisticated captured equipment, financial resources, sophisticated propaganda and recruiting tools, and controls territory: no other jihadist movement has approached it in terms of threat level. All this is undeniable. It is also utterly ruthless in its murderousness. Its mass beheadings are horrific, its ethnic cleaning of minorities genocidal in scope. Comparison to Hitler or historical figures like Tamerlane or Vlad the Impaler are, for once, not excessive. But it still controls limited territory, and is still challenged in some of that. Many of the maps used are somewhat misleading, such as this one:

A moment's reflection and a look at a map ought to make the problem clear: much of this territory is empty desert. The tribes inhabiting it are mostly Sunni and may loosely support some of ISIS' goals, or may not. Much of the area outside the river valleys is very thinly settled.

A realistic map might be closer to this one from The Economist, showing the long and at times vulnerable (especially to air attack) logistical lines of ISIS' campaign.

ISIS is a threat to the region and the world, but it is vulnerable if the region and the world proceed carefully to build a coalition against it.

1 comment:

R Ailes said...

This is America, my friend.

Let's not let facts or reason get in the way of emotion.

But there is a difference between bold decisive leadership and craven liberal dithering.

If George Bush had been President, 9/11 never would have happened and Nick Johnson and Paul Berg never would have been beheaded!