As the Western mainstream media has focused its breathless coverage on the brutal murders of hostages and captives by the Islamic State (IS), it has largely ignored the first green shoots of progress toward containing the IS threat in Iraq. While the world has been transfixed by the videos of beheadings of hostages such as Peter Kassig, the Iraqi army, augmented by Iranian advisers, Shiite militias, and U.S. air power has quietly reclaimed several Iraqi towns such as Juf al-Saker and Baiji from IS. These events, along with the ability of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to create a stalemate in the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobane, have managed to break the momentum of IS and to damage severely its aura of invincibility and inevitability.
Within the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by IS, the brutal tactics used by IS to enforce its 8th century version of Islamic Law have begun to alienate many tribesmen. Residents of Mosul and Aleppo, who originally welcomed IS as a force able to bring order out of chaos, have begun to turn against the brutal IS system of governance.
While it is unclear what the Obama administration’s strategic goals are in the campaign against IS and what “degrade and destroy” actually means, the tactic to harass from the air and hope for the best actually seems to be getting some traction. While this tactic has serious potential for unintended consequences of blowback from returning foreign jihadist fighters and families of those killed by U.S. air strikes, for now, it probably remains the least bad alternative. Containment of IS may be the best option.
If the U.S. goal of destroying IS means pushing it out of the territories that it has conquered in Iraq and Syria and restoring the colonial borders, significant ground forces will be required. The Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army will not be up to the task. The other alternatives are Turkey, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the United States. Turkey, concerned about the rise of Kurdish nationalism, supportive of its Sunni coreligionists in IS and seeing the Alawite Assad regime in Syria as illegitimate, has been reluctant to get involved. Iran, concerned about turning the conflict into a sectarian war, deeply mistrustful of U.S. objectives in Iraq and Syria, facing the imminent breakdown of nuclear negotiations and benefiting from a U.S. quagmire, is also reluctant to get directly engaged in support of the American effort. The U.S., unable to engage with the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, is left with few palatable options.
At this point the U.S. seems to be committed to training the “moderate elements” of Syrian opposition and gradually increasing the U.S. “boots on the ground.” Turning the Iraq campaign into another U.S. war in Iraq will play into the IS narrative of a Western war on Islam, eliminating any hope of wooing moderate and secular Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to the cause. All bets are off as to the outcome. Training five thousand “moderate rebels” in Syria is an equally hopeless effort. Five thousand outside recruits stand no chance of competing with thirty thousand plus hardened IS fighters.
Deploying U.S. forces into the middle of the current four-way Syrian civil war is a recipe for disaster. Such deployment would inevitably bring the forces into conflict with the Syrian military, either on the ground or with anti-aircraft missile sites. How Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would react is anybody’s guess. Given the current state of U.S.-Iran and U.S.-Russia relations, they are unlikely to react favorably. In the worst case, it could result in a region-wide conflict.
As the Obama administration, under pressure from war hawks and liberal interventionists, gradually escalates the U.S. involvement in solving the IS problem, the risks associated with this involvement also escalate. Better to realize that the solution to the IS problem is a Middle East regional political issue. The U.S. can help, but cannot solve the problem. There is no military solution to what, at its core, is a political problem.