Putting ISIS on Ice

An Annenberg Center/Wall Street Journal poll conducted after President Obama’s ISIS speech found that “although nearly two-thirds of Americans said they supported Obama’s strategy, 70% said they did not have confidence that it would succeed in degrading or eliminating the threat the group poses.” It appears like a contradictory position to hold but they’re right if this means they have no confidence in airstrikes and ground assaults and are relying instead on the non-military elements of the strategy to win the day. Such is the thinking of General Martin Dempsey, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee “Truly there is no military solution to ISIL,” and added “it could be defeated only with a more comprehensive approach that includes diplomacy.” If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the military approach as ultimately ineffective on its own, I wonder why the U.S. is going on the offensive. The role that the coalition’s armed forces should be taking is a primarily defensive one. ISIS only needs to be kept from expanding.

Containing ISIS has much to recommend it. The group has blended itself into the surrounding population and so ramped-up U.S. airstrikes would certainly result in civilian casualties and alienate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. The return of U.S. ground troops would get a less-than-welcome reception in Iraq and is a political non-starter for the American people. Hitting ISIS in Syria risks getting the U.S. embroiled in that country’s civil war. But all of these headaches can be avoided if the U.S. limits its involvement to using its air power to bomb ISIS whenever it attempts to attack. This might have been the approach Obama wanted to take from the start (remember his “manageable threat” quote?) and Micah Zenko supposes it still is. He is convinced that “mitigation and containment will drive the US counterterrorism strategy regarding ISIS as a reality,” even though “the Obama administration (and Congress and the media) will pretend that the strategic end state is to defeat and destroy them.”

So who will be the force best suited to do the work of actually rolling back ISIS? Why, those very Sunnis who defeated them before during the U.S. occupation. As much as the Iraqi Foreign Minister thinks his nation’s regular army should be responsible for the fighting, having Shi’ite troops retaking territory could ignite more sectarian strife. No, this task belongs to the ‘Awakening’ militias that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki planned to resurrect in order to stifle ISIS. Once ISIS loses the support of the Sunni community, they’re finished. So the Sunnis need to be peeled away and there are two ways to go about this. One is to declare that if the Sunnis overthrow ISIS, they will be recognized as an independent Sunni state. If that isn’t entirely appealing to them and they think they have a shot at reconciling with the Shi’ites, Washington can lean on Prime Minister Hayder Abadi to grant them the autonomous Sunni region (like Iraq’s Kurds already have) that they requested last month.

With the Sunnis on board and fighting either for autonomy or independence (if Iraq seems beyond salvaging) the Caliphate will collapse. But what about the goal of destroying ISIS? While ISIS can be degraded and weakened to the same point al-Qaeda is today, eliminating them requires combating their narrative. “The true battle against such an organization is ideological,” writes Adil Shamoo, adding “The ideological battle may require changing U.S. policies toward the region in order to address the grievances of the people toward their governments, foreign forces, or occupiers.” For as long as Washington keeps propping up and cosseting their autocratic SOBs in the Middle East, there will be jihadist movements arrayed in opposition to those regimes and America. Destroying ISIS means the U.S. has to cease intervening and leave the region to its own devices. But Washington will never willingly give up imperialism. “A very senior SOF officer” told Richard H. Shultz that “more than once he heard terrorist strikes characterized as ‘a small price to pay for being a superpower.’” That mentality guarantees ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc will continue to cling to life.

How the U.S. Played Midwife to ISIS

Commenting on President Obama’s ISIS speech, Senator Rand Paul told Sean Hannity “the reason we got here is because we took it upon ourselves to topple secular dictators who were the enemy of radical Islam.” Hannity then interjected with “What you’re saying is that we created this.” “We didn’t create it,” Paul replied “but we did allow a festering of chaos when we toppled the secular dictators.” Paul did not stress his point about the consequences of U.S. actions in the region providing a breeding ground for ISIS because he didn’t want to be accused of “blame America rhetoric” like he was a couple weeks back by Michael Czin, press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, when he penned an op-ed criticizing interventionists in both political parties for their stances on Syria. But the senator should have stuck to his guns because he is absolutely right. The Caliphate has been reborn and Washington’s imperialist foreign policy served as the midwife.

As Ben Reynolds writes, “Extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have been consistently aided by disastrous Western interventions in the Middle East and the influence of regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.” The first intervention was the near record-setting stupidity of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which ended up spawning ISIS’s earlier incarnation—al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although AQI was soundly trounced by the Iraqi Sunni Awakening fighters it wasn’t eradicated and found another opportunity to reconstitute itself in the second intervention. When Obama came down on the side of the rebels in the Syrian civil war by declaring that President Bashar al-Assad must go, it tilled the soil for ISIS’s flourishing. Washington and its Gulf allies propped up the rebels with weaponry and military training thus prolonging the civil war and the destabilization of Syria. This power vacuum was just the environment ISIS needed to bulk up.

Why did the U.S. pick a side in Syria? Why didn’t we pressure our Gulf allies from the beginning to stop arming the rebels lest a contagious Sunni-Shi’ite conflict break out? Here’s where the imperialist motive comes in: the U.S. wanted a drawn-out war in Syria in the hopes that it gets Iran caught up in a quagmire from having to squander lots of aid in shoring up its ally Assad. That’s how Daniel Drezner makes sense of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to supply the rebels with the heavy armaments needed to win despite tireless diplomatic support. It’s an “unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria,” writes Drezner, the goal of which “is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.” Thanassis Cambanis sees it this way as well and points out that this proxy war has benefits beyond bloodying Iran’s nose:

“The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.”

That influence indeed received a heavy blow after the disaster of Gulf War II so it was imperative for the regional hegemon to promote a distraction while it regained stature. But this Machiavellian policy couldn’t last and has reached its limits. “It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests,” Cambanis writes, and a career diplomat told him “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.” That was over a year ago and today there’s definitely an incentive staring us in the face. The priority has no doubt shifted to defeating ISIS. Obama is gearing up to conduct airstrikes on ISIS in Syria but those won’t amount to much unless there’s a ground force to coordinate with—and there are no such Syrian forces up to the job… yet.

So here’s what should to be done. We need to stop pussy-footing around and actually end the Syrian civil war. That’s the course the Arabs would prefer the West take. The UN Security Council could enact a ceasefire between the Assad regime and all rebel factions except ISIS. The rebels could then be given full amnesty. All the groups affiliated with al-Qaeda could be accepted by renouncing allegiance to Zawahari. Then we could work earnestly with Iran and Russia to bring about a transitional government that all Syrians would endorse. The resultant peace would serve to isolate and degrade ISIS as the chaos they thrive upon subsides. It would only be a matter of time before a newly reconciled Syrian army (Iraq’s too) begins to roll back ISIS. As for how to totally destroy ISIS’s ideology—another of the Obama administration’s stated goals—well, that’s for another post. But I can tell you I suspect Washington won’t like the answer.