clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The US is bombing Syria to destroy ISIS. Here's why that won't work.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late Monday night, American warplanes began bombing about 20 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets. It's a key part of President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS: weaken ISIS in Syria before more moderate Syrian rebels try to retake the territory it holds on the ground.

There's just one little problem with this strategy: it's not likely to work. The above video explains why, in about two minutes. There are two main points.

1. America has no reliable allies in Syria

ISIS-held cities and towns

ISIS, as you can see from that map, has a lot of strongholds in cities and towns. Airpower alone can't dislodge the group from territory it firmly controls, because there's no way to keep ISIS from just hiding and coming back when the bombs start dropping. So Obama's strategy depends on local allies to hold on to the territory ISIS controls.

Since the US can't trust either murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad or Syria's al-Qaeda branch, its plan is to rely on moderate, anti-Assad Syrian rebels. The problem is that these groups haven't shown an ability to defeat ISIS on the battlefield reliably, and the US can't train and arm enough of them to make up for ISIS's strength. Nor is it clear that the moderate rebels are moderate or cohesive enough to form a real anti-ISIS force.

2. The US can't solve Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq

Shia/Sunni population

ISIS isn't just in Syria: they also hold big chunks of northern and western Iraq. ISIS, a Sunni Islamist organization, draws a level of popular support and recruits from Sunni discontent with the Shia majority's way of running the Iraqi state. Especially since the Shia government brutally repressed a Sunni protest movement in 2013, ISIS and other Iraqi rebel groups have gained ground among Sunnis.

Sunni lack of confidence

So long as Sunnis hate the Iraqi government more than they mistrust ISIS, the US will have trouble driving ISIS from its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds. Sunni popular support means that ISIS will be able to hide amongst the populace, which will make it very hard for the Iraqi government to find and root out ISIS troops even with US air support. And if ISIS is strong in Iraq, it will be hard to root it out in Syria — and vice versa.

Oh, and one more thing: since 9/11, the US has failed to destroy a major jihadist group like ISIS. And ISIS is one of the strongest such groups the world has ever seen.

Produced by Joe Posner, Joss Fong & Alex Hawley
Photos courtesy Getty Images

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.