CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-10-01 14:29:56 -0400
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You've probably heard it a million times: if only the United States stepped up its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria or did more to help moderate Syrian rebels, it could destroy ISIS. Indeed, the administration's big new escalation in Syria and Iraq, announced on September 10, is explicitly aimed at destroying ISIS.
The reality, however, is disappointing: There is no magic American bullet that could fix the ISIS problem. Even an intensive, decades-long American ground effort — something that is politically not on the table, anyways — might only make the problem worse. The reason is that ISIS's presence in Iraq and Syria is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one.
American aircraft are very good at hitting ISIS targets out in the open: on roads or in the desert, for example. That's why US air support was extremely effective in clearing a path for Kurdish and Iraqi forces to retake the Mosul dam in mid-August.
But American airpower is much less useful in dense urban combat, where it's also likely to cause unacceptable amounts of civilian casualties. In response to a stepped-up American bombing campaign, ISIS could hunker down in fortified city positions. That would force the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces to engage in bloody street-to-street combat. Historically, the Iraqi army has a bad track record in those fights. It spent a good chunk of early 2014 trying to dislodge ISIS from Fallujah, a city near Baghdad. It failed to permanently push them out, and killed a lot of Sunni civilians in the process.
What if the US also stepped up its campaign in Syria, arming the Syrian rebels and bombing ISIS positions? A pretty comprehensive review of research on arming rebels, by George Washington University's Marc Lynch, suggests that wouldn't have helped even back at the beginning of the civil war. The "moderate" Syrian rebels are too diffuse, and fighters shift in and out of alliances with ISIS and other radical Islamists.
The US plan to intervene in Syria against ISIS today short of a full invasion requires enlisting either Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who benefits from ISIS's existence, or the moderate Syrian rebels, who are disorganized and hard-pressed by Assad already, to coordinate a major offensive. That seems improbable, to say the least.
Even if the United States reinvaded Iraq to destroy ISIS — which there is no indication it would do — there's no guarantee that even this would succeed. The United States did defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq in the late-2000s, but it had lots of Iraqi help. The Bush administration's 2007 troop surge would have failed if the Sunni population wasn't already turning against al-Qaeda there.
"I take the somewhat modest position that the action of 6 million Iraqis may be more important than those of 30,000 American troops and one very talented general," Doug Ollivant, the National Security Adviser for Iraq from 2005 to 2009, told me. Without changing Sunni views of ISIS and the Iraqi government, a stepped-up US ground presence might only further infuriate the Sunni population.
The key structural causes of ISIS's rise, the multi-sided Syrian war and Iraqi sectarian tension, cannot be solved by American bombs alone. The US can block ISIS's advances in some places, as it is doing in Iraqi Kurdistan, but eliminating ISIS is outside its power.
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