The predictable has happened. As the President prepares to go to Congress and request new war powers for the fight against ISIS, the debate about exactly what to do regarding the threat has boiled down to a binary choice. Either we continue doing what we are doing now, however ineffective, or we send in conventional ground troops and engage ISIS directly. Like everything else in American political discourse, whether it be vaccines, climate change, Common Core or Benghazi, all room for nuance or original thought has been removed.
You're for it or against it. Whatever it is.
I have an idea. Before we choose a course of action why don't we figure out what's going on and devise a strategy. Then instead of acting simply for the sake of saying we are doing something, we can take actions that are calculated to implement that strategy and achieve our objectives.
ISIS is a major threat not only to the security of the entire Middle East but also to the entire civilized world. This radical Islamic group is tearing away at the fabric of multiple nations and threatening to drag tens of millions of people back into a psychotic vision of the 6th Century. Left to grow, gather strength and extend their reach these madmen will bring torture, death and chaos wherever they can.
ISIS has not emerged in a vacuum however. It grows and prospers in the fissures and cracks produced by underlying stresses caused by ethnic and religious unrest. It may be the black flags and beheadings, which attract our attention, but it is these underlying factors on which we should focus.
ISIS did not come to power in the portion of Iraq it now controls, because of overwhelming military force or any particular tactical brilliance. It seized control of Western Iraq with the support or, at a minimum, tacit acquiescence, of the inhabitants of the area. These inhabitants, largely Sunni Arabs, were angered and alienated by a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, which treated them with contempt and increasingly appeared to be morphing into a client state of Tehran.
Similarly, ISIS seized control of vast areas in Syria by exploiting the same kind of resentment and anger. The civil war in Syria is, at its root, a fight against another hostile Shia regime, that of the Alawites and Assad. Most Syrians probably have no desire to live in the crazy alternate reality of the Islamic Caliphate. Just as assuredly, however, they have no intention of continuing to live under a brutal dictatorship.
If you want to defeat ISIS, you need to recognize these realities, and you need to devise a strategy, which takes them into account and exploits them. Sunni Arabs in Western Iraq will fight against ISIS, but they won't do so in order to earn the privilege of once again being abandoned by us to the tender mercies of a hostile Shia government in Baghdad and its Iranian backers. Sunni Arabs in Syria will fight against ISIS, but they won't do so if the end game involves our leaving them to fend for themselves in some sort of horrible cage match with the Assad regime.
You want them to help us kill this monster? Give them something to fight for. Devise a strategy, which takes into account the factors that have torn Iraq and Syria apart and allowed this pestilence, called ISIS, to grow and gather strength.
What's that strategy look like? Here are some suggestions.
The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As of 2015, these forces total about 545,000 active personnel (not including the Law Enforcement Force). All branches of armed forces fall under the command of General Headquarters of Armed Forces. The Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics is responsible for planning logistics and funding. | Photo: Archives |
- Promise the Sunni Arabs of Western Iraq a degree of autonomy on a par with that the Kurds enjoy in the north. This includes allowing them to have armed self-defense units to guarantee protection from a hostile central government. If Baghdad doesn't like the idea, make it non-negotiable. If the Iraqis want us to keep the wolves from the door, we ought to have the ability to dictate some terms.
- Kick the Iranians out of Iraq. We cannot seriously claim to be honest brokers and ask for the trust of Sunni Arabs while being perceived to be in bed with the archenemies of Sunni Islam.
- Put Special Forces personnel and intelligence officers on the ground inside Iraq to work directly with the Iraqi Army and Sunni Arab forces. This will ensure command and control and coordination with supporting air forces.
- Focus training and logistical support only on that, which is actually necessary to accomplish the immediate objective, the defeat of ISIS. We built the Iraqi Army once, at huge expense, and it melted away at its first test. We don't need to waste more billions on building units that won't fight.
- In Syria, make a clear declaration that Assad, as well as ISIS, must go, and that we are going to make that happen.
- Impose a no fly zone. Take away Assad's ability to use the air, bomb civilians and spread terror. Stop all air traffic in and out of Syria. Cut that supply line to his regime.
- Blockade Syrian ports. Shut down those supply lines as well.
- Put Special Forces personnel and intelligence officers on the ground inside Syria to work with moderate rebels in the same way they will work with allies in Iraq. Channel our support to those rebels with whom we are working directly and with whom we have liaison. Stop handing money and aid to people who we then simply trust to do the right thing with it.
If you follow the rough outline laid out above, a year from now Mosul and most of Western Iraq will be freed from ISIS control, Assad will be on the ropes, and the sucking vortex at the center of the Middle East that exists now will be on the road to elimination. Iran will no longer be extending its reach with our assistance. Hezbollah will be on its heels. The Middle East and the entire world will be safer for it.
The cost to us, in blood and treasure, will be a tiny fraction of what conventional intervention would entail. We can cut air and sea communication with Syria effectively at will. Special Forces and intelligence personnel working on the ground in Iraq and Syria wouldn't have to number all told more than a few thousand.
If we don't take this course, if we persist in choosing one of the two choices now presented, we face catastrophe. Air strikes alone will, at best, maintain the status quo and, in effect, preserve the existence of a radical Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. The introduction of conventional forces, without resolution of the sectarian factors that split Iraq in the first place, will put our men and women back in the middle of an Iraqi civil war and, ultimately, lead to disaster.
It's our choice. We can continue to entertain the fallacy that we only have two options, or we can think. I opt for thinking. I opt for starting with a strategy.