The most important element of any strategy to defeat the Islamic State is keeping American “boots on the ground” to a minimum. That might change if ISIS, which still has the strategic initiative, does something so hideous that a full-blown Western military campaign becomes politically feasible, using the reduced military capability available to us. But for the time being, there’s no way Barack Obama is going to launch a major ground action in Iraq, and frankly not much appetite among Americans or any other Western electorate for such an operation.
General Jack Keane, formerly the Army vice chief of staff, appeared on Fox News Sunday to offer a detailed containment strategy, in which American air power would weaken the Islamic State enough for a potluck assortment of its other enemies – the Iraqi military, the Kurds, Iranian-backed Shiite forces, and even the “moderate” Syrian rebels – to knock it down. Said Keane:
The air campaign would be designed to deny ISIS freedom of movement and take away their initiative to attack at will throughout Iraq, and also to destroy their support infrastructure, most of which frankly is in Syria. So, the strike targets would be in Syria, in Iraq, and it would be against staging bases with troops and equipments, supply bases, training areas for the foreign fighters that are streaming into Syria. Also, command and control and front line troop positions.
The ground campaign would be Free Syrian Army in the lead in Syria. They need to be robustly armed and equipped. What we’re doing right now is inadequate.
Second, in Iraq, the Iraqi army would be in the lead, coordinating with Peshmerga, Sunni tribes, and Shia militia. That campaign on the ground would be to defend what we have, but also to conduct a counteroffensive to retake lost territory.
The map there shows the two biblical rivers that make their way through Iraq. The one in the west, the Euphrates River Valley, that would be an effort to retake Fallujah dam, Fallujah, and the towns that surround it. In the north, the Tigris River Valley, to retake oil fields, Baji Refinery, Tikrit and eventually Mosul.
That counteroffensive would have to be supported by air support. We call that close air support. We would need air ground controllers to facilitate the use of air power while those attacks are going on. And also, Chris, we need special operators on the ground to go after and target ISIS leadership and high value targets, critical infrastructure and the same. That’s what an air and ground campaign would look like.
When Fox host Chris Wallace asked Keane how long this strategy would take to play out, it started looking less like a “strategy” and more like a long-shot gamble that could take a while to pay off, although he said better international coordination with all the players should be a top priority:
OK. First of all, we have been dribbling in trainers and advisers that we have all been observing. And we’ve got hundreds there. I think this is thousands of trainers and advisers. Some of the Iraqi army, as we know, has to be reconstituted.
So, the fact of the matter is that our forces on the ground, not in a combat role, except for the special operators, they would I think number in the thousands. That’s realistic. In terms of the time, Chris, to be honest, no one knows. And why is that? Because we do not know how effective those ground units are going to be against ISIS.
We have — we’ve seen the Peshmerga have recent success. The Iraqi army are holding their own by the Haditha dam. But that’s not a counteroffensive campaign. We’ll have to find that out. That will drive how long this takes.
I can’t help thinking the task of arming the Free Syrian Army without giving ISIS a chance to slam them up against the lockers and steal their lunch money will be difficult, especially if they’re simultaneously trying to fight the Assad regime. Although it looks increasingly like Assad will end up being one of those “coalition partners” General Keane mentioned – quite a turnaround from last year, when he was a gas-spewing monster Obama wanted to bomb into oblivion. The Assad regime is just about guaranteed to endure at this point; if it winds up being an American ally against ISIS, the victory for Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy against Barack Obama will be complete.
Another problem with the “airstrikes to help other people defeat ISIS for us” plan is that the people who would have to shoulder the brunt of the vicious front-line fighting, against an enemy with a penchant for perpetrating unspeakable war crimes upon its defeated enemies, are not exactly brimming with confidence in American leadership at the moment. The Daily Beast has a few discouraging remarks from those Free Syrian Army chaps Keane is counting on:
For the Free Syrian Army, the Obama administration???s recent bluster about possibly using U.S. military force to strike ISIS inside Syria is too little, too late. On the one hand, moderate rebels say they can???t prepare for U.S. military intervention in Syria because they don???t have confidence President Obama will make good on his threat. On the other hand, if Obama does expand the U.S. air war against ISIS into Syria without a real plan to combat it on the ground, the American intervention will do more harm than good.
???Airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria will not be helpful. Airstrikes will not get rid of ISIS. Airstrikes are like just tickling ISIS,??? Hussam Al Marie, the spokesman for the FSA in northern Syria, told The Daily Beast. ???ISIS is not a real state that you can attack and destroy; they are thugs who are spread all over the east of Syria in the desert. And when they are in the cities, they are using civilian buildings. So airstrikes will not be enough to get rid of these terrorists and at the same time, they might hit civilians. That???s the problem.???
Several leaders and representatives of the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Military Council, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition told The Daily Beast in a series of interviews that the Western powers??? support for the fight against ISIS has been ad hoc, disjointed, and unenthusiastic ever since the FSA and ISIS began fighting in earnest at the beginning of this year. As a result, ISIS got stronger and the FSA was left weak and fractured.
The FSA isn’t terribly impressed with the Golfer-in-Chief’s alleged fury over the murder of journalist James Foley:
???The ISIS killing of James Foley and the threatening of the other American journalists reflects that America didn???t pay much attention to the threat and growth of ISIS inside Syria,??? said Iyad Shamsi, the commander of the FSA Eastern Front, in an interview. ???We were very clear that we wanted to cooperate with the Americans. They didn???t listen. They paid a price.???
Shamsi led the FSA brigade in the Syrian city of Der al Zour, the largest city on the Syria-Iraq border. ISIS took over the city in July, after months of desperate warnings from the FSA to Western countries went unanswered. Now Shamsi and other FSA leaders are warning their Western contacts not to repeat that mistake in Aleppo, the biggest front against ISIS now.
???Since a week ago, now we are getting a lot of communication from Western powers saying, ???What can we do to help you against ISIS???? They ask us go to fight ISIS and say ???We will support you,?????? he said. ???From our experience we can see that when ISIS gets near the Turkish border, they are very serious. Whenever the fighting moves eastward toward the Iraqi border, they are not serious at all.???
“Moderate” Syrian rebels aren’t doing so well against Assad, so why would they divert much of their strength into a pitched battle against the Islamic State? Instead of allying with the United States against ISIS, Assad might effectively work with ISIS to finish off his rebels. Maybe he’ll overtly throw in with the U.S. while covertly supporting ISIS against his domestic enemies in Syria. That wouldn’t be strangest turn of events in the Middle East this year, or possibly even this month.
For example, as General Keane noted on Fox News, a good deal of ISIS’ financial support has been coming from out good buddies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Keane wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he expanded on his call to convene a regional summit that would force the leaders of the Middle East to “resolve grievances and develop a regional strategy to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ideological brethren.”
Only the United States has the clout to convene such a summit. Only the U.S. can demand real change, and only the U.S can offer security reassurances to turn the political tide in the Middle East.
In particular, the time has come to confront the government of Qatar, which funds and arms ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas. The tiny Gulf potentate has never had to choose between membership in the civilized world or continuing its sponsorship of regional killers. The U.S. has the most leverage. We have alternatives to our Combined Air and Operations Center in Doha, the al Udeid air base, other bases and prepositioned materiel. We should tell Qatar to end its support for terrorism or we leave.
He also wants a program of aggressive financial warfare against the Islamic State’s economy, currently bulging with cash from captured territories, ransomed hostages, and those generous Qatari and Saudi donors. Keane even goes as far as calling for U.S. special operations teams to assassinate ISIS leaders. His “no boots on the ground” strategy actually ends up with several thousand pairs of American boots hitting the ground, by his own reckoning, but it’s still far short of the full-blown ground war that is currently a political impossibility.
Writing at National Review, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton argues that containment strategies based on a mixture of American air power and proxy ground forces are not sufficient:
America???s basic objective is clear: We must seek to destroy the Islamic State. It is simply not enough to block the group???s threat to the Kurds or other vulnerable minorities in the region. The risks of even a relatively small ???state??? (or ???caliphate,??? as they proclaim it) are chilling. Leaving the Islamic State in place and in control only of its current turf in Iraq and Syria (including northern-Iraqi hydrocarbon deposits and associated infrastructure) would make it viable economically and a fearsome refuge for terrorists of all sorts. Just as Afghanistan???s Taliban gave al-Qaeda a base of operations to launch terrorist attacks culminating in 9/11, a similar result could follow if the Islamic State successfully erased and then redrew existing boundaries.
Add that to the list of reasons ISIS might find it desirable to pull off terror operations in Europe or the United States: they’ll want to prove to potential allies and recruits that they’re not contained by any containment strategy.
Bolton seems to agree with Keane that a coalition of Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrian rebels can defeat the Islamic State with American support, although one gets the impression Bolton has a more serious commitment of U.S. energy and manpower in mind. Then he predicts we’ll get to watch Iraq split into at least three distinct entities, and he’s got some ideas for redrawing the borders that probably won’t sit well with Tehran or Bashar Assad:
While we must prevent the Islamic State from forming a new, independent terrorist state composed of Sunni Arabs, there is an acceptable alternative. In broad strokes, a transborder state carved out of Iraq???s and Syria???s current territory is far from undesirable, and is in any event increasingly likely. If rightly established and led by Sunnis acceptable to the United States and our regional allies, a new Sunni state is entirely realistic.
It would mean partitioning Syria, an outcome some have predicted, and leaving Assad with essentially an Alawite enclave in Syria???s western and coastal regions. A stable, ???moderate??? Sunni state with control over oil assets in northern Iraq equitably divided with the Kurds would also serve to protect Jordan???s eastern border. Northern areas with significant Kurdish populations could join Iraqi Kurds in their new state, and Sunni Arabs would have the rest.
Concededly, this is easier said than done, and drawing new boundaries will be arduous and perhaps ultimately futile. Moreover, creating a new Sunni state will not solve the problem of Iran???s continuing to dominate the regimes governing the rump portions of Syria and Iraq. These projections of Tehran???s power would still threaten those states??? neighbors and provide Iran much-needed allies. Unfortunately, however, Syria???s Assad dictatorship and Iraq???s successor to Maliki will remain relatively secure until the ayatollahs lose power in Tehran.
Regarding Syria, many who advocated aiding the anti-Assad opposition will now contend that, once the Islamic State is on the run, we should seize the moment to topple the dictatorship. The hard reality, however, is that for over three years the Syria conflict has been a strategic sideshow in the larger struggle against Iran. If a moderate, transborder Sunni state emerged, fighting an Assad regime confined to an Alawite enclave would not be worth the risks of Obama???s stumbling around simultaneously confronting Russia and Iran, which both back Assad. If Iran???s ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guards were to fall and be replaced by anything like a sensible government, Assad (not to mention Hezbollah and Hamas) would lose his biggest source of financial and military support. To be sure, Russia would still see Assad as an ally, but without Iran, even Moscow might recalibrate its stakes in Syria. And until Iran flips, as long as Assad retains Russian support, Obama cannot be trusted to face off competently against Moscow.
Bolton’s thoughts on post-ISIS Iraq underscore the importance of thinking a few moves ahead. The goal is not merely to eliminate the Islamic State, as tall an order as that already seems. We’ve got to be ready for what comes next, and there are numerous ways Iraq could end up looking as bad, or worse, as it does with that ugly caliphate boil on its neck. Bolton suggests the Syrian conflict has been a distraction from the more serious geopolitical struggle against Iran. History could end up judging ISIS as another distraction from Iran, depending on what Iraq looks like after they’re gone.
All of which emphasizes the extreme importance of preventing the Islamic State from taking over a big chunk of Iraq to begin with, but alas, that ship has long since sailed. All the choices from here on out will be hard.