Following a flurry of visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to build a coalition of traditional Western and Middle Eastern allies to combat the Islamic State (ISIS), France hosted a conference on Sept. 15 to determine what each of those allies will bring to the table and the battlefield.
The United States must thread the needle of leading the coalition without creating the appearance that the war against ISIS is yet another U.S. military venture in the Middle East.
While there is growing consensus among the countries of the Middle East that ISIS is a regional threat, many must shed the burden of having either directly supported the rise of ISIS—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Syria—or created the conditions that spawned it—Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The coalition’s focus will be on degrading, containing and defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, yet all players know and fear that ISIS can and will expand the battlefield by reaching into any country that stands against it using acts of terror. While the countries of the region are most at risk, the West also fears the reach of ISIS on its own soil.
Add to this witch’s brew the fact that the immediate battlefield against ISIS encompasses Iraq and Syria—the latter embroiled in a bloody, sectarian civil war with regional and global state sponsors, the former riven and made dysfunctional by a three-way sectarian divide that keeps it on the cusp of disintegration and civil war.
Overarching everything, is the millennium-old schism within Islam between Sunni and Shiite, manifested in regional power struggles with Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states each supporting proxies throughout the region.
If all this were not sufficiently complex, the United States finds itself de facto aligned with Iran and Russia in defeating ISIS in Iraq but opposed to Iran and Russia’s overt support of the Assad regime in Syria, which will be strengthened by the war on ISIS.
There is no question that ISIS is a clear and present danger to both our longstanding allies and our allies of circumstance in the region. There is also no question that each state will act in its own interest; and no question that ISIS, if not a clear and present danger to the West now, will become one if unchecked.
The notion that we would be in a different, better situation if only the Obama administration had supported the “moderate” Syrian opposition early on is nonsense. ISIS rose because of a convergence of geography, ungoverned spaces, religious zeal—however perverse—predatory governance, audacious tactics and luck.
Geography, thanks to Messieurs Sykes and Picot, provided no natural border between Syria and Iraq, enabling ISIS to first move freely across frontiers only tenuously controlled by either state, and then to establish its own degree of control in the largely ungoverned spaces along the Euphrates in both Syria and Iraq.
What governance did exist in these Sunni areas was perceived by the inhabitants as predatory and alien. In Syria, ISIS mastered early on the tactic of partnering with opposition groups against the regime, before turning on them to acquire sole control of territory. It used the same tactic in Iraq, partnering with Sunni tribes it had fought in 2007 and ex-Baathist officers.
Mostly, ISIS has been lucky in the ineptitude or weakness of its enemies, exhibited by the inability of the Iraqi Army to prevent the ISIS advance in June, from Mosul to the gates of Baghdad, and the early gains of ISIS against an under-equipped and weakened Kurdish Pesh Merga. ISIS has been audacious in seizing and holding territory in predominately Sunni areas, in striking fear with the brutality of its tactics, particularly against non-Sunnis, and in its social media appeals to would-be jihadists.
But these tactics and geography are also its Achilles heel. First, its singular devotion to imposing its medieval interpretation of Islam and Sharia on conquered territory breeds discontent, particularly among Sunni tribes. Second, the brutality and rapidity of its tactical assaults have alienated and alerted every state in the region and beyond, planting the seeds of strategic defeat. Third, the geography that enabled its rapid offensive gains down the Euphrates and Tigris valleys work against ISIS when it comes to defense.
The oft-phrased press accounts of the “great swath of territory the size of Belgium” ISIS controls is a misnomer. It “controls” primarily a paucity of roads passing through uninhabited desert connecting isolated villages and a few urban centers.
ISIS must use those few, highly exposed roads to defend its territorial gains, making it very vulnerable to air interdiction. A cursory look at Google Earth, from ISIS’s Ar Raqqa stronghold in northeast Syria, down the Euphrates to Ramadi, Iraq is illustrative of the ease with which ISIS gained territory and its exposure in defending it.
Unfortunately, the military dimension of defeating ISIS may be the least opaque. The Obama administration is right in its determination to build a broad coalition of Arab states supported by western military, diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. But the regional dynamics demand that any ground forces—and there must be ground forces—be primarily Sunni, whether a coalition of Arab forces, Iraqi and Syrian tribes or both. But who will fight?
It is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar or the UAE will commit ground forces to the fight against ISIS. Some may promise air support, and some may commit special forces to work with U.S. Special Forces, but each state has very good domestic reasons not to commit forces to an effort that will ultimately benefit the Shiite government in Iraq and the Alawite government of Bashar Assad.
All want something done about ISIS—just done by someone else. While they understand the peril of having it done by U.S. forces, and the inevitable backlash, they would gladly hold their coats while the U.S. fights the battle.
This brings us to Iran. Already heavily committed to propping up Assad with arms and fighters, Iran is providing frontline military advisers to the predominantly Shiite Iraqi Army and Shiite militias battling ISIS, so far with modest success except when supported by U.S. air power.
In time, a better-trained and reequipped Iraqi force might be able to make gains against ISIS, but that force will be perceived by Sunnis in the ISIS-controlled areas as an intruder. The Kurds will protect their autonomous region and territory they occupied after the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the north, but it is doubtful they will enthusiastically support expelling ISIS from Arab Al Anbar.
This brings us back to the Sunni tribes in Iraq and eastern Syria. There is a maxim that would-be liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan have painfully learned in the past 13 years: “You can’t want it more than they do, and you can’t do it for them.” The Sunni tribes have the capability and the numbers to not only degrade ISIS but to defeat it.
But do they have the incentive? Iraq is broken and cannot be reconstructed without granting—as permitted by its constitution—a great deal of autonomy, similar to that of the Kurdish Regional Government, to the Sunnis of western and northern Iraq. Without that incentive, it is doubtful the Sunni tribes will universally turn on ISIS. But such a course will take time and the kind of political commitment and compromise the Iraqi government has hitherto lacked.
ISIS is an international problem that cannot be left to metastasize while waiting for an elusive political resolution in Iraq, much less Syria. Airstrikes and special forces raids may contain and degrade ISIS until Syrian and Iraqi solutions evolve, but it will be a long and frustrating process with little joy.