Will Anyone Call ISIS’ Bluff?

Any doubt on whether the Islamic State poses a grave threat to global security vanished in recent weeks as ISIS demonstrated an impressive capability to organize large-scale terror attacks very far from home. It was behind the downing of the Russian plane over the Sinai that killed all 224 passengers onboard; the double suicide bombing in a Shia neighborhood of Beirut that claimed at least 43 lives and injured more than 200; and, of course, the gruesome attack in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more. ISIS is bluffing that global powers would not respond in force. 

There is now growing recognition that the nascent outlaw state must be destroyed. Half the world’s air forces already crowd the skies over its territory. The United States, Russia, France, Britain, Turkey, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Jordan, Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have all bombed ISIS; although the Arabs seem to have given up on the project in the past few months. The air campaign has been a predictable disappointment. The Islamic State had largely reached the ethnic limits of its expansion before the air war began; so that even the halt in ISIS’ territorial expansion cannot be honestly credited to the airstrikes.

That the Islamic State cannot be dispatched without landing ground forces is now manifest; as the Policy Tensor predicted more than a year ago. This page argued that Obama’s strategy was based on the Afghan-model of warfare. It was assumed that precision airstrikes directed by US scouts on the ground would allow even untrained allies to rapidly retake territory from ISIS. But on the modern battlefield, air power and ground-force skill are not fungible but rather complementary; so that, as Biddle argued, the viability of the Afghan-model depends on the balance-of-skill on the ground. Once it was clear that there were no competent ground forces available to do the job, the failure of the administration’s war strategy was the baseline scenario. 

Now that any lingering hope that the Islamic State could be destroyed from the air has been dashed, the question is this: How long will it take for global powers to come around to landing an army? And just who will do this dirty work? The existing ground forces of Britain, France, and Germany are simply insufficient to the task at hand. The Russians are more interested in defending Assad than taking on the Islamic State. The Turks care more about preventing the Kurds from establishing a statelet in northern Syria than defeating ISIS. The Kurds neither have the mass nor the motivation to protect anyone other than themselves. The Saudis and other gulf monarchies are too busy containing Iranian influence in the region and imposing themselves on Yemen. The Iranians on their part would love to dispatch ISIS but are deterred by the idea of trying to pacify Sunnistan. Which brings us to the only actor capable and potentially willing to do the job. 

President Obama has again ruled out sending ground forces. But US opinion is shifting rapidly. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been gunning for it. Jeb Bush has come out in support. Even Roger Cohen has come around. Expect more and more people to join the chorus as reality sinks in. Sooner or later, the United States will be leading the conquest of the Islamic State.

The caution of global powers reflects the complexity of the challenge posed by the Islamic State. For the Islamic State is the superposition of three distinct developments. First, ISIS contains the ghost of Saddam Hussein: The Islamic State’s military prowess comes from the reconstitution of the core of Saddam’s army. Second, it is the most virulent manifestation so far (and the clear flag-bearer) of the Salafist-Jihadist movement powered by gulf money; feeding on the disaffection of Arab youth, both in the Middle East (as a consequence of the societal crises of the Arab states) and in the West (a result of their exclusion from national culture). Third, ISIS is riding arguably a much more enduring ethno-political development, the rise of Sunni-Arab nationalism in Iraq and Syria. To put it bluntly, Iraq and Syria are history. Humpty-Dumpty cannot be put back together because the Sunni-Arabs will never again submit to Damascus or Baghdad; not unless they dominate them.

The first development (the reconstitution of Saddam’s army) means that dispatching ISIS requires landing a superior concentration of ground forces. The second means that ISIS will continue to espouse unlimited aims; that it cannot be contained like a regular outlaw state; and indeed must be crushed out of existence. But the third development means that whosoever conquers the Islamic State would be taking up the unenviable task of pacifying Sunnistan. There are only two options here for a global power committed to conquering the Islamic State. Either it can try to reconstitute the Sykes-Picot states or it can forge a brand-new Sunni-Arab state; recognized by the United Nations and ratified by a UN-mandated referendum to boot. One of these leads back to square one; the other to a permanent resolution of the challenge posed by the Islamic State.

An effective US response to the challenge posed by the Islamic State must begin with a reversal of policy in Syria. The United States must drop its counter-productive insistence of Assad’s premature ouster. That will open the way to a great power settlement in Syria. The second step would be to lead a broad international coalition of ground forces to conquer the Islamic State and impose the peace in Sunnistan. A UN supervised referendum would then follow. If a nascent Sunni-Arab state does emerge from this process in Sunnistan, it would remain a ward of international society until it is ready to shoulder the burden of imposing the peace.

The strategy outlined above will be costly in terms of both blood and treasure. But with the Europeans eager for a solution to the coupled refugee and security crises, and the Russians eager to have a seat at the table, the United States can share these costs with other global powers.

It is surely time to call ISIS’ bluff. Or does anyone seriously think that it is a good idea to dilly-dally until the message is brought home in an even more brutal manner?  

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