Defeating the Islamic State

During the quieter months of the year-long aerial campaign waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it might have been possible to forget of its existence, or at least to push the subject to the rear of the developed world’s many priorities. That cannot be said now. With a refugee crisis which largely stemmed from the affected areas sparking a summer of tragically perilous sea journeys and arbitrary border closures, followed at all times by the implied threat of a populist, nationalistic backlash, forgetting was not an entirely easy process. And now – as ISIS launches more ambitious examples of its terrorist activity overseas, including the likely downing of a Russian plane in Egypt and the savage bloodbath which has terrorised the city of Paris last week – it seems that a reaction of sorts is not only appropriate but vital.

ISIS had never gone away, of course, and though the breathless coverage of its every atrocity did subside, this gave way to a situation in which every major news story seemed suffused – or at the very least underwritten – by the menace and threat ISIS could be counted upon to inspire. And now, much like last year, when ISIS fighters committed a spate of entirely barbaric beheadings, murders which shocked the world and seemingly galvanised statesmen and politicians into action, the question is again being asked: what exactly should we do about all of this?

Then, as now, it seemed as if there was momentum behind action of some kind. When it was agreed that a coalition of nations would launch an air war against ISIS, at the request of the Iraqi government, I and (I think) many others were mollified. We thought that something would finally be done – which was, rather pitifully, enough to allay our immediate concerns – and there was the general sense that though this may be a partial measure, it was still something, and that it would likely lead to the taking of necessary decisions to ensure the successful completion of the objective at hand.

In short, we were fooled, tricked into believing a diplomatic cliché (that ISIS must be defeated and its influence eradicated) instead of advocating for a more effective and ultimately successful policy. In reality, the bombing campaign constituted not an intervention but a holding action, a delaying tactic designed to look decisive. One year into this apparently aimless intervention it is clear that the status quo is untenable. ISIS is not being worn down rapidly enough; and with other considerations informing the ever-fluid situation on the ground – not least the involvement of Russia and Iran and ISIS’ newly-demonstrated capacity to execute complex and horrific attacks on the European mainland – it seems clear that a change of strategy is of the utmost necessity.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue – at least for the time being – to stand by their original plan, with all of its contradictions, inherent weaknesses and scope for imprecision. It is right that questions are asked of those who suggest that an alternate strategy is needed; it is right that these alternative visions for how to deal with ISIS (and Assad) are enunciated and assessed rationally.

As I write in my recent piece, we already have ‘boots on the ground’ in two significant senses. The first is the presence of not insubstantial numbers of special forces soldiers from Britain, the United States of America and France, who have been training local fighters, calling in airstrikes, and acting to distribute arms and ammunition to local forces – when the two have been provided. The second instance is that the above countries have good relationships and close ties with certain regional actors – namely, the Kurdish Peshmerga and certain Syrian rebel groups. (Though some schemes to train the latter, such as the farcical ‘Train and Equip’ programme, have fallen through due to a lack of care, attention, and tactical sense; it must be remembered that Syrian Sunnis would rather defeat Assad – the prime mover of the terror and horror afflicting their country – than ISIS, and that training them to do the opposite can never capture the popular support of the other option. In addition, it cannot escape notice that giving orders to US assets which is contrary to that general feeling is effectively putting them in danger; as Michael Weiss says, it is effectively ‘painting a target on the back of their heads’.)

I suggest in the piece, and believe it to be true, that we need to strengthen our allies – some of whom are effectively Western assets – in order to allow them to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime successfully. This strategy, especially if it is broad and contains the Sunni Arabs who are needed urgently to defeat ISIS, could achieve many of the desired results – and, like in the Awakening campaign in Iraq less than a decade ago, there is no suggestion that Sunnis throwing Salafis out of conquered territory would act as a kind of ‘recruiting sergeant’ for ISIS and its ilk.

Kyle Orton makes interesting and necessary observations about the tactical difficulty of supporting Kurdish forces solely in the region.

Supporting the PYD per se is not defensible, but the situation in Syria has descended so far that supporting the PYD to protect the Kurdish areas and to fight ISIS is. Supporting the PYD, however, should be done without illusion as a trade-off and should be accompanied by efforts to build institutions in the Syrian Kurdish areas that can operate independently of the party.

He is right in that some Kurdish actors are less spotless than we may like them to be – and less spotless than many might believe – but I think his position is correct in both moral and strategic terms. It is right and correct that Kurdish successes are welcomed and encouraged, but only within the limits of Kurdish territory and its environs. Making the mistake to assume that Kurdish forces could (or would be happy to) capture Raqqa is a trap of wishful thinking which has ensnared many an observer. As Orton continues, we must be sensible:

Supporting the PYD should not be seen as a solution to the ISIS problem in Arab areas, i.e. should not be done instead of support to the Syrian rebellion. Supporting the PYD splits the anti-ISIS coalition inside Syria and internationally, but this can be mitigated by not solely supporting the PYD inside Syria.

This statement is an important one, and so is the one which follows it, in which Orton states the culmination of over four years of American inaction and folly.

In short, we are where we have always been: local Sunni Arabs need to be given the ability to take control of their areas from ISIS to sustainably defeat the “caliphate”. The reliance so far on Kurdish and Shi’ite forces in countering ISIS is more than futile: it’s actively counterproductive.

Defeating ISIS is the ultimate goal of nearly ever thinking being. But successfully orchestrating this defeat is something which has eluded diplomats, strategists and politicians for nearly two years. One thing is certain, however: if ISIS is to be defeated, it will not meet its end through the action of the international community acting from outside Syria, and nor will it be defeated by the ragtag coalition of despotisms found in the axis of Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the Assad regime. If ISIS is to be defeated, this can only happen at the hands of Syria’s Sunnis.

The question of whether it is right to talk of deploying Western troops directly in Syria or Iraq – which I believe to be highly unlikely (at least in any significant quantity) while President Obama persists in office – is a more difficult one. I would argue that the mere presence of these soldiers, especially if they are working in tandem with local and regional actors (the aforementioned) will have none of the ill-effects often described. In other words, this would not be an evil and unconscionable occupation. Let us remember that one of the vital reasons why the Awakening succeeded in Iraq was the presence of American troops and the projection of American air power. These gave a real sense that those tribal elements which rejected and fought against the jihadis would be supported, and that they were not alone in their fight.

Though the time for solidarity has largely passed – if we truly cared about Syrians and Iraqis, we would have removed both Assad and Saddam Hussein earlier, after all – such a gesture has the potential to turn a horrific suggestion, which contains a dire regional prognosis, into a tolerable one. And with the backdrop of President Obama’s failings – not only in Syria but in the entire Middle East – so apparent to many Sunnis, a bit of hope – be it in troop deployments or regional support for our partners – would not be taken lightly, and should not be dismissed flippantly. The horror of the past five years can never be removed from history; that much, sadly, is beyond even the most adept diplomats and skilled statesman. But the future is still to be written. An abrupt change in policy could still save Syria from the dual terrors of Assad and ISIS. But it will take collective determination, an internationalist feeling too often absent in British and American discourse, and the effective banishment of the partisan and the parochial and the provincial from our politics. And this must be done quickly, for the sake of Syria and the world.