ISIS: No Good Options

Embracing the responsibility of global leadership, Barack Obama has pledged U.S. leadership in the fight against ISIS. Thus far, President Obama has set clear guidelines that the United States would provide advisory and air support, but would not be sending in ground troops. This tactic minimizes domestic opposition to a policy that should effectively safeguard U.S. military personnel from suffering significant casualties. The road elected to eradicate ISIS will not be easy, and the United States has few good options.

Currently, it’s a race against time. ISIS is working to consolidate control over their newly established Caliphate, and ethnic violence as well as the fear of ISIS violence has begun to empty the region of dissidents amidst droves of refugees. ISIS exerts loose control over significant portions of territory, but the extent to which that control has been established remains . Either way, the longer the burgeoning Islamic State has to set root, the harder it will be to fully eliminate. Due to differences in levels of commitment, it may already be too late to erase ISIS from the equation.

ISIS has the ability to weather foreign military airstrikes. Their fighters are highly motivated fundamentalists, and ideologically-driven combatants are nearly impossible to destroy through brute force. Moreover, the inclement desert terrain, excellent ISIS tactical mobility, and considerable ISIS financial resources will further complicate any attempt at effective group disassembly.

Furthermore, the United States faces the challenge of finding a group both willing and capable of directly combating ISIS troops with ground forces. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are perhaps best situated to initiate such an attack, but have little incentive to do so. While the Kurds bear no love for ISIS, they are primarily interested in defending their own territory and consolidating their recent gains over the Kirkuk region. The Kurds can be counted on to repel ISIS assaults into Kurdistan, but they also also know that pushing out into ISIS-controlled territory presents tremendous costs for little gain– if the Kurds did manage to wrest away control of ISIS territory, the land would go back to Iraq and Syria, not to a future Kurdistan.

ISIS is already fighting both government and rebel factions in Syria as well as the Iraqi government and has held its own against all sides.

Despite the recent external air support, there is little hope of an answer coming from Syria. The rebel factions and the tenacious Assad regime are embroiled in their own conflict, and neither can afford to weaken themselves by dedicating more resources against ISIS than they already are.

While the Iraqi government forces may have the greatest incentive to attack ISIS, with the insurgent band occupying over a quarter of Iraqi sovereign territory. Moreover, Iraq can rely on Western air support. However, this is the same poorly-trained Iraqi forces that suffer from poor morale–it doesn’t help that these troops have been routed by ISIS fighters on several occasions. For the war-torn Iraqi people, the prospect of voluntarily undertaking what promises to be bitter and bloody fight against a experienced, proven foe looks remarkably unappetizing. And on the inside front, the Sunni tribal militias in the ISIS territory do not seem to be making an organized attempt to oppose ISIS territorial consolidation, and there is little reason to believe that this will change.

This is not to say that the Western airstrikes in Iraq have been ineffective (and at the time of this writing, the same seems to hold true for the coalition strikes in Syria). The airstrikes do seriously compromise ISIS operations and hinder group expansion.

However, this is a case of asymmetrical warfare, where both sides have very different offensive options at their disposal. While the foreign fighter planes can wreak destruction by striking ISIS positions, ISIS has the tools to wage a terrorist war of attrition that their foreign foes will be unlikely to stomach.

ISIS has already demonstrated their aptitude for manipulating mass media in order to generate awareness and convey tactical demands. The brutal beheadings of American journalists and a British aid worker highlight the electrifying leverage offered by coercive tactics. As the U.S.-led forces expand their air campaigns against ISIS targets, ISIS will attempt to compel the coalition of states by targeting the people’s psyche. In the few months, ISIS’s organizational focus has primarily been on securing territorial control. However, as the airstrikes continue to obstruct ISIS goals, ISIS’s organizational priority will pivot to a full-bodied strategy of deterrence–they will drastically expand their executions of innocent citizens–barring an end to the airstrikes.

The unfortunate reality is that there is little anyone can realistically do to prevent this tactic from succeeding. Citizens of coalition forces are spread throughout the world, and some are inevitably lying within the reach of ISIS operatives. However, not all partners will be given the same level of attention. While citizens of the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and Bahrain) are most easily acquired, the lack of democratic leverage makes these countries’ citizens less effective bargaining chips. Under this light, democratic Turkey’s hesitation to support coalition attacks in Syria make sense. Turkey, who has already deported over 500 people over suspected extremist affiliations, will be extremely vulnerable to ISIS retaliation.

As the leader of the coalition against ISIS, Americans will be a particularly high-priority target. Furthermore, European coalition citizens will also be priority targets, as Europe tends to have a pacifist reputation and a low tolerance for bloodshed. Westerners in less developed areas in Middle Eastern countries will be at the greatest risk, as porous borders and the presence of fundamentalists enhances ISIS capabilities.

In the weeks ahead, ISIS will likely relax its territorial expansionism in an effort to reposition themselves as a containable organization. Under this line of reasoning, they will be well-served to portray an image of a people who simply aspiring to freely practice their religion without of outside influence or obstruction. ISIS will try to convince the world that they do not inherently threaten the community of nations, but that the infringements upon their right to an Islamic society force them to protect their freedoms. As the airstrikes inevitably continue, ISIS will likely purport that the Western airstrikes are the source of the ensuing violence, and that an end to the airstrikes would result in regional stability. This argument, while initially unsavory, could become increasingly attractive if coalition costs for conducting airstrikes continue to rise.

In this vein, ISIS has tremendous incentives to increase the cost of foreign airstrikes. It is in their strategic interest to threaten Western states with terror attacks and attempt to carry out high-visibility strikes amongst Western societies. Given the level of support that ISIS enjoys among radicalized Western-born fundamentalists, some of these terror attack will inevitably succeed. There are signs that ISIS is already initiating this tactic, with calls for “murders on the streets of those Western countries taking part in the U.S.-led anti-Jihadist coalition.”

From a U.S. perspective, the United States faces a no-win scenario. They won’t be able to squash an ideologically-driven Islamic State with brute force unless they’re willing to forego targeted strikes and raze ISIS strongholds, sure to inflict both massive destruction as well as mass casualties. For military, political and moral reasons, the current administration is unlikely to consider a brute-force campaign to pose a credible option. At the same time, the U.S. also cannot back down without a significant loss of face.

As costs continue to compound, the U.S. administration’s decision will be partially subject to popular opinion: if IS can successfully portray themselves as containable, one can imagine some face-saving negotiated settlement that does not dismantle the Islamic state but gives the United States a token victory.

Otherwise, if the Islamic State is either unwilling or unable to portray themselves as a rational and containable actor, the United States will be forced to ramp up support for a vicious eradication of the state. At such a point, ISIS’s attempt at deterrence would have failed, and instead of scaring off intervention, the costs to the Islamic State would be absolute. Such a retaliatory coalition would be devastating, in terms of costs and human lives.

In short, the options for rooting out an entrenched Islamic State are grim. The best option is to hope that the airstrikes can successfully disrupt ISIS activities, and that the Islamic State has not reached a critical point of territorial control and governance.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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