Proposals for “upping our game” against ISIS are flying wildly from all quarters. There is unanimity on the need to apply greater military force. From Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, on the Left, to Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, on the Right, U.S. leaders agree on the need for expanded air strikes. Vladimir Putin and now Francois Hollande are not waiting for the Obama Administration to lead. The Russian Air Force and Navy are conducting strikes under a policy that can only be described as scorched earth. Many politicians and experts want to add a no-fly zone.
After that, there is little clarity and no agreement on how to proceed. Syrian and Iraqi forces, even with Russian and Iranian support, will not be able to retake the broad swathe of Sunni territory that is the ISIS heartland. There is no reason to believe that adding more U.S. trainers, advisors and air controllers will be a sufficient force multiplier to leverage the expanded air war into victory on the ground.
The reality is that airpower alone, no matter how intensely applied, will not defeat ISIS. It is not even clear whether ISIS is being significantly damaged by the intensified air campaign. History teaches that after the initial shock effect of aerial bombardment the targeted party learns to cope. In addition, the U.S. approach to employing airpower for the past year has provided ISIS with the time and relative safety needed in order to disperse assets, develop new tactics and even disguise critical infrastructure. It would be stunning if the command centers, ammunition storage sites and training centers hit over the past several months were actually occupied.
More importantly, airpower does not win wars, although it does set the conditions which allow a joint force to be victorious. The Syrian regime has always had air dominance and it was losing. The U.S. imposed no fly zones on Saddam Hussein for more than a decade without changing the Iraqi regime’s strategy. From Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam to, recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, the sides pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy, for all practical purposes, owned the air. To no avail. Without a winning ground game, no counterinsurgency strategy can be successful.
ISIS has been successful because it fought better on the ground, not because it had a superior air force. From the beginning, the real problem with the war on ISIS has been the inadequacy of the Iraqi and, secondarily, the Syrian and Kurdish ground forces. Iraqi infantry divisions guarding Mosul and Ramadi collapsed at ISIS’s advance despite the U.S. providing absolute air dominance. The main reason that anti-ISIS forces have been so slow at recovering lost territory is the time it is taking to create an effective ground offensive capability.
The war on ISIS will have to be won on the ground. And not only in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has metastasized to Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria (Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS), Yemen and Afghanistan. What is required is a series of campaigns across much of North Africa and the Middle East.
And that’s the problem. There is no regional coalition and only one country that can deploy sufficient forces on the ground to defeat ISIS even in Syria and Iraq. The only country that can do the job, either alone or as the core of a coalition, is the United States. Russia can prevent the Assad regime from falling but will never be able to pull together a coalition to defeat ISIS. Iran can protect the Shia mini-state in Iraq but that is all. The European Union cannot put together a major expeditionary operation and NATO won’t unless the U.S. leads from the front. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey either lack the military capacity or are too fragile politically to undertake a protracted counterinsurgency campaign beyond their own borders. When it comes to the other countries where ISIS currently operates, the situation is even bleaker.
The U.S. lost the opportunity to end the ISIS threat quickly and at minimum cost two years ago. Bluntly put, our credibility is shot. Despite a series of escalating terrorist attacks, both Washington and the West still appear to lack the stomach to deploy sufficient forces on the ground and conduct the kind of operations required to defeat ISIS. This means that there is no chance that regional allies will be convinced to pony up sufficient ground forces to form a regional army to liberate ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq.
But even if ISIS were driven from Syria and Iraq, this is not the end of the problem but the beginning. The lesson of the past four years, to paraphrase Colin Powell, is that if you liberate it, you must own it. Otherwise, local power struggles and the perpetual Shia-Sunni split will simply produce the next version of ISIS. Clearly, no one has the stomach for a decades-long occupation of portions of North Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the world will not take the necessary steps to defeat ISIS.
So, the war with ISIS and its affiliates is likely to go on forever.
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