Over the last two weeks, the U.S. has begun an air campaign in Iraq and Syria, bombing ISIS ammunition inventories, carrying out targeted killings of ISIS leaders, destroying military equipment that ISIS has captured from the Iraqi military, blowing up oil refineries – all in an effort to degrade the capability of ISIS or the Islamic State (IS). This tactic, seeming to have short-term success, carries substantial risk of unintended consequences that could pose a greater threat to U.S. security than that presented by the current Islamic State.
This is not the first intervention in the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East that has resulted in unintended consequences that have “come home to roost.” The most egregious example is the arming, financing and training of the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which eventually resulted in the 9/11 attacks. Another example is the U.S.-led overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi which empowered and strengthened al-Qaeda in North Africa, resulting in growing chaos and instability throughout the region.
Ever since his September 8 announcement of the U.S. plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, President Obama has done little to explain exactly what “degrade and destroy” means in terms of a strategic goal and the tactics that will be used to achieve it. The tactics that seem to be emerging are a combination of air strikes in Syria and Iraq, designed to harass ISIS forces, and an effort to train and equip the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga and so-called moderate rebel groups in Syria to bear the brunt of the ground combat necessary to dislodge ISIS from the territory that it has conquered in eastern Syria and Central Western Iraq. As Obama has pointed out, the program to train these regional fighters is a long-term project and, in my opinion, given the failure of the multi-year, multi-billion dollar effort to train the Iraqi Army following the invasion of Iraq, has dubious prospects for success.
However, the prospects for unintended consequences from the aerial harassment campaign are great:
The blowback from civilian collateral damage from the air strikes, which are based on limited intelligence, is certain to incentivize ISIS to attack the far enemy, the U.S., rather than concentrating its efforts on maintaining a grip on the conquered territory.
In early air strikes, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that eight civilians including three children have been killed. All of these have brothers, sisters, friends and fellow tribe members who are now very angry with the U.S. Some may actually live in the U.S. Already the Department of Homeland Security has warned of security threats originating in Syria.
Aleppo-based al-Monitor correspondent, Edward Dark, (a pseudonym) reports, “It would be foolish to believe that U.S. military action against IS is popular here or will go down well, especially when civilian casualties start to mount. On the contrary, it will most likely prove counterproductive, stoking anti-Western resentment among the population and increasing support for IS, driving even more recruits to its ranks. The terror group knows this well, which is why it is secretly overjoyed at the prospect of military action against it. In its calculations, the loss of fighters to strikes is more than outweighed by the outpouring of support it expects both locally and on the international jihadist scene.”
Because the harassment campaign will not dislodge ISIS from the territory that it controls, the nation states of Syria and Iraq as we have known them since shortly after World War I will disappear. While the final outcome of the campaign to degrade ISIS is unclear, the most likely result is the creation of rump states in western and southern Syria controlled by the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, a Shite-controlled Iraqi state in southern Iraq, a Kurdish-controlled rump state in northern Iraq and either a chaotic or ISIS-controlled state in eastern Syria and central/western Iraq.
Statements by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that, “Baghdad and the holy sites (in Karbala) are a red line for Iran” seem to indicate that Iran is okay with the breakup of Iraq as long as it doesn’t infringe on Iran and the Iraqi Shite population. An outcome that leaves ISIS in control, however tenuously, does not seem to be a recipe for stability.
Unless the Obama administration is able to find a way to put “boots on the ground” sufficient to restore the status quo ante – an unlikely prospect given its poor relations with the most powerful players, Iran, Turkey and Syria – the probable outcome is a drastically altered map of the Middle East. Since the U.S. cannot prevent the unintended consequences, the key to dealing with this situation is to recognize and deal with the down sides.