A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 15, 2014

In the Rush to Confront ISIS, Let's also Listen to the Doubters

I came of age (and of draft age) in the Vietnam era. Like many of that generation I tend to be cautious about military operations which have vaguely defined objectives, self-imposed limitations on meeting those objectives, an open-ended timeline and little exit strategy.

And a war the adversary welcomes. It's clear that the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker were meant to bait us deeper into the conflict. They want us to fight them, and to do it on their choice of battlefield. It would be wise to reflect on why.

Don't get me wrong: ISIS is an appalling and barbaric mutation that cannot be negotiated with. Delenda est ISIS. But how to destroy them is a valid question.

The emerging strategy consists of a coalition whose exact members are undefined as yet, but include European allies and some Arab states who will join in airstrikes, but no one (least of all the US) is going to supply the ground forces. Those will come from the Iraqi Army, which already collapsed once in the face of ISIS, the Peshmerga, and the various radical Shi‘ite militias and their Iranian Guards Corps advisers, who lifted the siege of Amerli with the help of American airstrikes even though we aren't cooperating with them in any way.

But with proper support and our continued ability to overlook the IRGC officers in Iraq, the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga might eventually overcome ISIS in Iraq, though it would be, to quote Wellington, "a near-run thing."

But who would provide the ground forces in Syria? The US will not work with the Asad regime (nor would I), not even in the look-the-other-way manner we may pretend not to notice the Iranian participation in Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra is anathema due to its allegiance to al-Qa‘ida. The more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army are not currently a cohesive fighting force.With a lot of training, money, arms, discipline, embedded advisers, special operations forces, more money, more arms, and Cinderella's fairy godmother, they could be turned into a fighting force, maybe. But it would be a long haul.

The deus ex machina many would like to see is the Turkish Army. A strong, well-armed and trained military force (and a NATO ally) in exactly the right place across northern Syria and Iraq, it's everyone's choice for the ideal savior.

Everyone's except Turkey's. If the Turkish Army were still calling the shots, it might happen. But the AKP government has long since brought he generals into line. The official reason for reluctance is the fate of the Turkish diplomats from the Mosul consulate, being held hostage by ISIS, but the West is also bothered by Turkey's links to al-Nusra. Turkey is about as likely right now to be the cavalry to the rescue as they are to be riding unicorns.

So we are embarking on an open-ended campaign of air power supported by ... somebody to be named later in Syria, and our present partners in Iraq.

What could possibly go wrong?

I'm also seeing doubts from a range of ideologically diverse but informed critics. Their rationales differ but we would be well-advised to listen to them. A selection:

Juan Cole, "Top 5 Contradictions in Obama’s Emerging ISIL Strategy."

Joshua Landis, "Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign."

Rami G. Khouri, "Why Obama Has Picked the Worst Allies for His War on ISIS."

Retired Col. Pat Lang, "Summoned to the Battle." 

Thomas Lippman, "A Coalition of Uncertainty."

And though he wasn't even addressing this century,  hear a caution from the Prussian Kriegsakademie's Carl von Clausewitz:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
— Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579
And finally, from earlier this summer:

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