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It’s amazing what can happen in 2 weeks when you’re on vacation. Ongoing conflict in the Levant (a fancy word for Syria, Lebanon Israel and Jordan), what looks like the beginning of a Third Iraq War, failing states in the Middle East, war between Russia and Ukraine, the usual tensions in East Asia, and an Ebola epidemic that just puts this all over the top. I’m probably missing some things, but you get the idea. Not exactly a good year for geopolitical stability. I suppose it could have been worse.
But then the week I get back, and American photojournalist James Foley gets beheaded by ISIS barbarians and the video is posted on YouTube for the world to see. I never knew him, but like me, I know that James was a History major from Marquette, a Jesuit University in the Midwest. He was a teacher who wanted to tell the world’s most difficult stories and make a difference, much like the Jesuits that educated him and myself. His grizzly murder, however, cannot be separated from the seriousness of the threat that radical Islam (the Salafi jihad movement in particular) poses to the world, and the Iraq crisis we are reading about on the cover of every major newspaper.
Which brings us to the Islamic State (also known as the ISIS/ISIL). Dealing with the Iraq crisis and the ISIS threat is a rough subject. There are a ton of folks that got the ISIS wrong, possibly even President Obama. The President’s take on this jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and many have argued that his reaction over time to the rise of the ISIS does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. In many ways, I understand it. President Obama sees other foreign policy objectives as more important in the long-run, and the Middle East crises are just one big distraction. The big one, of course, is the “pivot/re-balance to the Asia-Pacific.” In the wake of James Foley’s beheading by the ISIS, General Dempsey started his part of last week’s DOD press conference, not by speaking about the ISIS, but by discussing his recent trip to Vietnam, the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman in decades. The administration has faced setbacks to their Asia policy, but this, when paired with things you probably haven’t read about like this, this and this, is a sign that this “pivot” which pundits have criticized as “hollow” is more than just words. It’s for real and it’s strategic priority #1 for the Administration. We’re doing it the Chinese way: slowly, patiently and subtlety. And Obama wants people to understand that.
You can find a lot online about the Executive Branch’s remarks about the ISIS. For one, the President has called them a “cancer” that must be rooted out; Secretary Kerry tweeted that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed,” and Secretary Hagel remarked that ISIS is a threat unlike anything we’ve seen before. So what must be done?
In the long run, President Obama’s remarks about the ISIS hold some truth; this group, and the wave of Salafi jihadism will burn itself out, that “People like this fail…because the future is always won by those who build, not destroy.” But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon. It is possible that the ISIS can be crushed in what time remains of President Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is far more ambitious. But refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight the ISIS will not only give them time to grow, it would also be irresponsible.
Paul Pillar’s piece this week rightly points out that the keys to the ISIS’s destruction lie within its own unique methods and objectives. For example, one thing that distinguishes the ISIS from other organizations is this “caliphate” they established, their conquered territory, which spans from Syria to Northwestern Iraq. It is essential to keep in mind that this “caliphate” exists in a desert region which offers few places to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing. What will be challenging is when they wise up and take refuge among regional towns and cities.
Airpower is only useful when forces move through open terrain. Bombing more populated areas is fine and everything, but it just so happens to be frowned up by 21st Century standards. Kurdish militias like the Peshmerga and a few battle-hardened Shia militia and Iraqi Military brigades have been able to fight back with some help from U.S. airstrikes, but their ability to seek out and defeat the group is still a big unknown.
Success against the Islamic State is going to require renewed help from the people of Iraq and Syria a la 2003 to provide human, local, on the ground, intelligence; this is known as HUMINT, or “human intelligence.” HUMINT can’t be gathered from a drone (that’s IMINT and in some cases SIGINT), nor can it be gathered from the business end of a cruise missile (that’s BOOMINT. Just kidding I made that one up). You get the point; the lynchpin for any measurable success against a group like the ISIS requires firing up our old intelligence networks in Iraq or building new ones. It is going to require these guys, and there are rumors circulating that the band is getting back together again. If that’s true, the ISIS had better watch out.
So in short, Western airpower and Special Forces which empowers and aids locals, can set the stage for the strategic defeat of the ISIS. But a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. And not just the government in Baghdad and regional leaders in Iraq; putting pressure on regional partners and allies to help is equally crucial. Many radicalized westerners have been attending SCIS (Summer Camp In Syria) via Turkey to join the ISIS.
We must find ways to compel the Turkish government to make good on their NATO membership and secure their border. The Gulf States are also a key set of regional partners that must understand that their lackluster attitude towards money-laundering schemes and terrorist funding is unacceptable, and the ISIS, and groups like them, are awash in cash because of it; they must crack down on their citizens funneling money through Kuwait that support Salafi jihad.
Bomb ISIS, Help Assad
Another key factor to decisively defeating the ISIS is defeating them in Syria. General Dempsey, Chairman of the JCS admits this, and earlier this week, President Obama reportedly ordered surveillance flights over eastern Syria this week to give the U.S. some better sense of what’s happening on the ground. These could lay the groundwork for airstrikes in Syria similar to what American planes have dropped on Iraq. The timing of all this couldn’t be more ironic: Exactly a year ago this week we were waiting to see if the U.S. would bomb Syria (Assad), but this week in August 2014 we’re waiting to see if the U.S. will bomb Syria (ISIS).
If we bomb Syria, who are our allies on the ground that would fill the void and retake the territory? The moderate groups in Free Syrian Army? I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what that actually means. Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate? Or is it Assad? If we attack the ISIS in Syria it looks like that means we’d be helping Assad. And if we’re helping Assad, what kind of message does that send, when our administration repeatedly calls for regime change? That if you’re a homicidal autocrat and you yell “terrorist!” loud enough, the U.S. won’t just work with you, it’ll work for you. Are we prepared to step back from our policy of “Assad must go“?
We have to try and also think not just about who we’d be fighting against, in this case the ISIS, but also about who we’d be fighting for as a consequence, in this case Assad. We have to tread carefully. Any notion that we’d be working with Assad, a Shia dictator, would be a propaganda goldmine for Sunnis worldwide. We would also indirectly be empowering Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group and Iranian proxy. Moreover, there are reports circulating that Assad’s strategy from the get-go was detente with the ISIS; he leaves them alone while they kill off the other rebel groups fighting against him. In short, it looks like Assad has allowed these radicals to thrive in order to demonstrate his own value to the U.S. Not bad for an ophthalmologist who never wanted to be president of Syria in the first place.
Aside from the above-mentioned concerns, I think an analogy can be made here. Consider FDR’s allying with the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, a homicidal maniac, was used to defeat what was perceived as a mutual, shared threat. There was an implicit understanding that we wouldn’t be buddy buddies after the war, but eliminating Nazi Germany was in both of our national interests. We did business with Joseph Stalin, but we never trusted Joseph Stalin. Which brings me to my next analogy. Observe below. Skip to 01:55 and stop it at 02:23
Michael Corleone: C’mon Frankie… my father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth.
Frank Pentangeli: Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never *trusted* Hyman Roth!
Point is, we’ve played this game before. A lot. If an understanding is made with Assad, it doesn’t have to be advertised. In fact, the White House repeatedly denies that it will work with Assad in rooting out the ISIS in Syria. We don’t have to trust them, but we may have to work with them. Or work alongside them, however the Obama Administration wants to phrase it.
The other elephant in the room is Iran. We cannot talk about dealing with the ISIS without Iran in the equation. In fact, there is a slow, gradual process of detente between the U.S. and Iran that some analysts see as inevitable. They can help, but what will it cost? Here’s what I think they want in return: no more sanctions and a wink and nod to stop hampering their nuclear programme. It may sound ridiculous, but even if we end up not budging on those things, the thought exercise lends itself to an important lesson: no situation being dealt with can be handled in a vacuum. Things you perceive as unrelated could be the deal breaker for the other guy. We have to be careful when we compartmentalize issues. This not only applies internationally but domestically too.
To an outside observer like myself, the bright idea factory looks like it’s putting out a lot of smoke, but no one is offering policy and strategy options. Let’s ease back on the rhetoric and think this one through, even if it means not talking about the ISIS for a while. These guys couldn’t imagine, nor afford, the western media PR campaign that is currently covering them. They aren’t the world’s first militant organization, and they certainly won’t be the last.