“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”, President Obama announced in September last year. Islamic State (IS) will not, however, be degraded beyond its current state, let alone destroyed, by the ‘comprehensive strategy’ that the US-led coalition is employing. It is a strategy that seeks to use military means to establish a political solution, when it ought to seek directly political outcomes.
The primary reason for this failure is that the coalition is using the wrong strategy. It is fighting a counter-terrorism operation based on the logic of the Afghanistan campaign, rather than recognising that IS is not a terrorist group, but a pseudo-state. Unlike Al-Qaeda, which recruited based on ideology, IS attracts fighters through the territorial prestige of the Caliphate, and the faux-Islamic legitimacy that it confers. Undermining this attraction requires the reclamation of IS territory, which air strikes alone cannot deliver.
The air campaign, which will soon be a year old, has neither halted the advance of IS nor dealt it critical damage. Only days ago, IS captured Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and has continued to menace Syria, recently reaching Palmyra. This is partly because the air campaign has been desultory, especially relative to recent conflicts: in the 75 days following October 7th, 2001, the USA alone dropped 17,500 munitions on 6,500 combat sorties in Afghanistan; over the 76 days since August 8th, 2014, the coalition made only 632 strikes, using only 1,700 munitions, in both Iraq and Syria.
The coalition has pointed to the neutralisation of high-profile targets such as Abu-Sayyaf, the alleged leader of Islamic State’s oil business, as effective leadership decapitation, but this is not the case. Unlike Al-Qaeda, IS has a deep leadership structure packed with former members of Saddam’s armed forces. As individuals that the US presents as ‘top officials’ are killed, others will step up to replace them.
The Islamic State will be defeated by political and ideological operations in which the military play a part, not the other way around. The problem must be approached at its political source: in Iraq, the driver of support for IS is the widespread marginalisation of Sunnis, and in Syria it is the political vacuum left by the Assad regime. The problem should similarly be approached at its geographical source: their Syrian heartland and Raqqa, the Caliphate’s self-proclaimed ‘capital’.
A political resolution starts with the deposition of Bashar Al-Assad. Removing Assad need not require explicit coalition involvement. Rather, the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria would aid opposition forces, finally allowing them, with the benefit of coalition training and weapons, to defeat Assad. Deposing Assad would achieve dual aims. First, it would undermine Sunni fears that the coalition is secretly in favour of maintaining Assad, serving to reduce Syrian Sunni support for IS. Secondly, demonstrable commitment to deposing Assad would end Turkey’s excuse for inactivity, strengthening the coalition. As Turkey joins the coalition and the United States asserts the force of its will, the incentive for Gulf States to increase their contribution will grow and Arab leaders will be seen to take the lead, legitimising the coalition. With Turkey and the Gulf States on side, the influx of foreign fighters and transit of saleable antiquities through Turkey would be reduced, as would donations to IS from Gulf individuals.
Assad’s removal would reduce tensions between the coalition and the troops that it is training. The coalition seeks to use its trainees effectively as mercenaries against IS, whereas in most cases their primary aim is the deposition of Assad. Once he is gone and a new government has been established in Syria, attention may be directed at IS. However, the formation of a new government requires coalition strategy to operate at a geopolitical level.
It is unthinkable that the post-Assad settlement should involve the installation of a new government followed by a return to the status quo ante bellum. Syria will not maintain its geopolitical integrity, and coalition strategy should reflect this reality in order to focus as soon as possible on defeating IS. The idea of two independent Kurdish states should be considered rather than ignored. This geopolitical strategy should similarly be employed in Iraq. Sunni support for IS stems from perceived abuse by the Shia-majority. The replacement of the evidently abusive Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi has failed to redress this perception, and so the coalition should compel the Iraqi government to go further and grant Sunni dominated regions such as Anbar federal autonomy after the Kurdish model that is already employed. Greater state homogeneity will increase coalition willingness and ability to train Iraqi forces, while reducing support for IS.
This strategy is clearly a long-term one. It will be years before a stable government can take root in place of Assad and training of a new army can begin. Similarly, it will be a long time before the Iraqi army or the moderate Syrian opposition are sufficiently trained and equipped to defeat IS. The process should not be rushed. The Iraqi army, especially, should not be pushed into taking the fight to IS before it can be confident of victory: after its morale-crushing defeat at Mosul, it desperately needs a victory to increase confidence in the military and in the government. In the mean time, a coalition comprised of Gulf and Western powers has a significant role to play that will involve land deployments.
To disrupt IS’ operations until Iraqi and Syrian forces are able to defeat them in conventional warfare, coalition forces should make extensive use of special forces as well as embedded forward air controllers and combat advisors. Simultaneously, the broader audience should be considered: the coalition should militarise media so as to convey a counter-narrative to that of IS. Currently, the Islamic State is able to make use of its high mobility to maintain the illusion of territorial acquisition: when it makes a loss in one place, it launches a highly publicised assault in another. Local conventional media and the Internet may be harnessed in order to disrupt this narrative, reducing the appeal of IS to foreign fighters.
The Islamic State cannot be seen as an independent issue in the Middle East. It is a problem intimately linked to a huge range of other geopolitical issues. It is complicated by the conflicting interests of the Gulf states and Iran, the tension between Turkey and the Gulf states, and by sectarian conflict, violent or otherwise, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. More evidently, the on-going Syrian civil war and the uncertainty that it generates complicate any response to IS, as does the collapse of the region’s geopolitical boundaries.
There is no simple policy prescription that will now resolve the problem of the Islamic State, and no plan made now will last to its ultimate destruction. However, a plan is better than no plan, and the coalition currently has no plan. Continuing airstrikes and training a trifling number of Iraqi and Syrian troops is not a plan, but an appeasement of domestic calls that something should be done. If it is to defeat the Islamic State, the coalition must have a strategy. The strategy that I outline will be painful to execute, but ultimately less painful than defeat.