The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creating a new state in the Middle East, one that shatters internationally recognized borders and has no qualms about providing a haven for terrorist groups and sending radicalized westerners back to their home countries to wreak havoc. If given the time to establish themselves, ISIS (also know as the Islamic State and ISIL) will become a greater risk to the West and much more difficult to uproot. The threat from ISIS is real.
On Wednesday, September 10, US President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for targeting and eliminating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Through coalition-building, coordinated airstrikes, and the training of local fighters, the US will avoid sending soldiers into Iraq and Syria while targeting ISIS at its source. Although the strategy builds on the experience of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan and tries to avoid long-term entanglement, combatting ISIS will be no easy task.
Iraqi unity has been set back by former prime minister al-Maliki’s sectarian designs, yet the infrastructure and resources for strengthening the armed forces still exists. The Iraqi government and military have experience cooperating with the US. The Kurdish militias in the north have established themselves as a competent fighting force with previous successes against ISIS. With US assistance, the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces represent a legitimate threat to ISIS’ control in Iraq. Defeating ISIS in Iraq is a first step, but it does not eliminate their base of power. Without taming ISIS in Syria, their forces in Iraq can retreat across the border, regroup, and continue fighting.
Targeting ISIS in Syria will be a greater challenge. Engaging in an ongoing civil war, between numerous factions, leaves few options. Any opposition to ISIS could inadvertently help Assad by tying up the resources of both ISIS and the opposition forces. The Obama administration’s strategy is to arm the moderate opposition. Yet the longer the Syrian conflict goes on, the less moderates there are and the more difficult it is to identify them. The potential of US weapons falling into the wrong hands was a major reason for not engaging previously. And this threat still exists.
Training and arming moderate opposition forces, though difficult, is a positive step in defeating Assad and ending the Syrian conflict, but that does not seem to be the goal of the Obama administration’s strategy. The Obama Administration is engaging in Syria to destroy the capabilities of ISIS. Using local fighters to do so is a sound method of keeping US troops out of the region, but the Syrian opposition’s goal is the overthrow of the government. They will have to be persuaded to go after ISIS, a secondary objective to toppling Assad. Perhaps the weapons and training that the US will provide can incentivize the Syrian opposition to target ISIS as well, but they will face a serious challenge in combatting both ISIS and Assad’s forces. The US will provide further assistance through airstrikes against ISIS, and expanding those strikes to target Assad’s forces could further free up opposition forces to fight ISIS.
As long as the conflict continues, it will be difficult to completely root out and eliminate ISIS. ISIS has found success by focusing on controlling territory and by not directly challenging Assad’s regime, who is said by some to be complicit in the rise of the terrorist group. The opposition forces and Assad continue to fight each other, allowing ISIS to grow unchecked. With the free flow of weapons and fighters, and no coordinated effort to target ISIS from the government or opposition, ISIS has grown without taking sides in the struggle.
The best strategy for undermining the capabilities and eliminating the threat of ISIS is for the US to commit to greater engagement in Syria. This means arming the moderate opposition and committing to airstrike within Syria. Those operations should be expanded beyond the current strategy, to include strikes on Assad’s forces. If the Obama Administration seeks the assistance of the moderate opposition in combating ISIS on the ground, then it is crucial to help degrade the capabilities of Assad’s forces, freeing up more of the opposition to fight ISIS. If ISIS has flourished in the chaotic environment of the Syrian conflict, then the key to eliminating it is to change the dynamics of the Syrian conflict itself.
US Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class H. Dwain Willis (Public Domain)