Has anyone thought about what we’re going to have to do about the Islamic State—I mean, really thought about it?
It has become obvious that the group that calls itself ISIS or just the Islamic State is the most serious terrorist threat to the United States since 9/11, and allowing its formation is the biggest mistake of President Obama’s administration.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently called ISIS “a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before.” It is not just a terrorist group distinguished by its brutality and fanaticism. It is not just a group that has demonstrated its interest in killing Americans. Worst of all, this is a group filled with an unprecedented number of jihadists from Europe, and even a few from America—Western passport-holders who will almost certainly make their way back home. According to the group’s own threats, ISIS members or sympathizers are already here. Oh, and ISIS is inspiring copycat groups in places like Pakistan.
A lot of us warned that Obama’s inaction in Syria was allowing al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself in Syria; what we couldn’t have predicted is that the group that arose would be even more radical and brutal than al-Qaeda. So it cannot be allowed to exist, not without courting the risk of another 9/11.
But no one in the administration seems to have figured out what will be required to make that happen.
I don’t just mean the size of the effort, though that’s part of it. While it would be nice to rely on local proxies like the Kurds, it’s becoming clear that there is no one on the ground in Iraq and Syria who can defeat them. Eradicating ISIS—not just suppressing them or stopping their advance, which is all we’ve done so far—will require a much larger effort. I’m pretty certain it will require American boots on the ground.
I’m sorry if that makes you nervous or breaks a campaign pledge or means you have to turn your back on your dad’s anti-war rhetoric. Don’t want another 9/11? Then you’ve got to get serious about ISIS. Suck it up.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has been telling everyone, taking down ISIS will also require intervening in Syria. And that’s the real problem, the one issue that no one seems to have thought through. If all we do is go after ISIS, we are acting as shock troops for Bashar al-Assad. And that’s by design. That’s why Assad helped create ISIS in the first place.
An excellent, in-depth analysis by Nicholas Blanford makes this clear.
One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.
On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.
In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.
Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.
With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy—one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.
You don’t think Barack Obama would fall for that, do you? Forget I asked the question.
So if all we do is go after ISIS, we end up becoming de facto partners with one of the world’s bloodiest regimes. And since the Assad regime is a satellite of Iran, we end up serving the strategic objectives of our main enemy in the region. Which would be extremely foolish to do.
So the unavoidable conclusion is that if we move against ISIS, we also have to move against Assad.
While I grant that we have to move against ISIS first, since it poses the more direct and immediate threat to the United States, we can’t do it without also signaling our intent to bring down the regime in Damascus. Yes, taking down two enemies may be difficult, but it’s not some kind of “mission impossible.” We’ve done it before. It’s a matter of setting clear strategic goals and moving patiently and persistently over the long term to achieve them. Hussein Ibish suggests, for example, that moving against ISIS will aid in the fight against Assad. So the point isn’t the exact order in which we act. It’s about having the moral and strategic clarity to face up to the long-term requirement of our new war in Syria and Iraq.
Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said, about the war between Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, that “it’s a pity they can’t both lose.” But that names exactly what our goal has to be in Syria: we need to make sure that ISIS and Assad both lose.
If it seems like a disaster that we’re being drawn into a wider war in the Middle East, the irony is that this is a consequence of the Obama administration’s attempt to withdraw from region and leave it to its own devices. It turns out that we can’t do that. Aside from the strategic importance of the region’s oil, the Middle East is the center and homeland of Islamic jihadism, which sees us (correctly) as its antipode and seeks to do us harm. This is a threat that we can’t allow to grow, which is what 9/11 taught us. (It did teach us something, didn’t it?)
So we’ve discovered that attempting to withdraw from the region only ensures that the threats to us will spin out of control, requiring us to mount a much larger intervention later on. Dealing with the disaster in Syria is certainly going to be much harder than it would have been if we had acted three years ago. It’s going to be harder to knock down Assad, harder to root out the jihadists, and much, much harder to find “moderates” to support, especially now that the administration has zero credibility with the rebels. But it has to be done.
I offer this advice knowing that it will not be followed, not right away. It requires a war that is too complex and difficult to be planned from the back nine. And it is certainly far too delicate a task to be implemented by John Kerry and Joe Biden, who are the people President Obama has so far put in charge of our policy in Iraq, with the results we can see.
Yet it is important to set out these goals now, because the United State will ultimately be dragged unwillingly in this direction—if not now, then when our ineffective strategy in the region has led to some even greater disaster.