A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon refuels after an airstrike on ISIS targets in Syria
It seems common practice nowadays to bash President Barack Obama’s airstrike-heavy effort to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East as being too soft. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer chastised Obama for sitting idly by when Russia decided to intervene in Syria. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized Obama for not having the vision to implement a “major U.S. initiative in terms of increased military presence.” As Gates himself pointed out, GOP candidates are even harsher in their attacks on Obama’s current anti-ISIS strategy. Every Republican debate question about foreign policy in the Middle East turns into a game of rhetoric about Obama’s fecklessness and the need to use such overwhelming military tactics as carpet bombing until it “makes the sand glow.”
While Gates is right to dismiss the absurdly hawkish views of the GOP candidates as those that would “embarrass a middle schooler,” his own criticism of Obama’s current strategy to fight ISIS overlooks one fact: it is working. If one uses the metric of battlefield victories and has a patient time horizon, then it is impossible to deny that current strategy is pushing back the Islamic State and draining their resources in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, the outlook for this strategy to eventually degrade ISIS as a terrorist organization is promising. However, Obama’s current anti-ISIS strategy does suffer from the same notorious flaw as previous U.S. Middle Eastern military strategies in that it neglects the social and economic circumstances conducive to producing jihadist terrorists in the first place. Airstrikes coupled with local forces may prove tactically effective at containing ISIS, but if not properly implemented, they are inimical to the long-term goal of neutralizing the threat of radical jihadist terrorism.
Victories from Above
Obama’s current strategy is defined by four pillars — attrition of manpower, assets, and resources through aerial bombing; disruption of jihadi networks through decapitation strikes on senior leadership and command and control nodes; relying on local ground troops with U.S. soldiers in advise and assist roles; and sending in special operations forces where local troops either cannot or will not complete an objective. The attacks of those who criticize this strategy as being too tepid fail to realize the gains it has made. For one, it stopped the Islamic State’s offensive and has started to roll back its territory in its economic heartland of Iraq and Syria. As Diplomacist writer Christopher Newton pointed out, the Islamic State’s “cult of the offensive” faltered when they failed to take the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobane back in October 2014. In April, Iraqi forces were able to retake Tikrit with the help of U.S. airpower. On the same weekend as the Paris attacks, Kurdish forces successfully retook the town of Sinjar, a key milestone in eventually retaking the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The capture of Sinjar was also crucial to cutting off the city of Ramadi from ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa. With a severely reduced ability to bring reinforcements and supplies into the city, Iraqi forces were able to retake it in late December. The same Iraqi army that fled in disgrace from ISIS soldiers in May has become an improved fighting force better able to defend against the insurgent group’s tactics. Originally trained to be a force which countered the guerilla-style tactics of al-Qaeda, the army is now training its troops to defend against a more conventional force that is interested in taking and holding large swaths of territory. The Iraqi army is learning tactics such as the “in-stride breach” which will make it more equipped to fight ISIS.
It takes time for a military force to acquire new skills, but the victory in Ramadi indicates some success in this new training program. This constitutes a positive step in the development of the Iraqi army as a national institution utilizing troops of all backgrounds. Yes, the battle for Ramadi relied on American airstrikes and elite counter-terror units to clear the city, so there is still a long way to go before the Iraqi military becomes a reliable organization. Nevertheless, the new tactics used in the recapture of Ramadi are a step in the right direction. If this development continues, the Iraqi army could start to take over roles assigned to sectarian Kurdish and Shi’a militias earlier in 2015, and this would undoubtedly benefit the fight against ISIS. It matters that Mosul is retaken, but it also matters that a non-sectarian army consisting of Sunni and Shi’a soldiers acting together goes in first and is responsible for keeping order in the city after the fighting is over. The Iraqi army, if it continues its reforms, would be such a force.
With all these positive developments, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s comments about having arrows pointed at Mosul and Raqqa no longer seem farfetched. This is a considerable achievement given how strong ISIS looked at the end of 2014. Thanks to Obama’s airstrike strategy, the past year has been tough sledding for the group, with coalition forces recapturing several cities and winning numerous battles. If 2014 was the year of blitzkrieg, 2015 was the year of retreat.
All that Glitters is not Gold: What Airstrikes Don’t Deliver
Unfortunately, none of this recent success will contribute much to the long-term political goal of neutralizing jihadi terrorism thanks to Washington’s inability to implement beyond military solutions to the problem. For example, the Obama administration is giving unconditional support to Kurdish forces without addressing their ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs. Amnesty International accused the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) of razing Arab villages which amounted to “crimes against humanity,” and few in Washington are saying a word about it. The U.S. is also bombing oil facilities controlled by ISIS with unsatisfactory consideration of the economic consequences of this strategy once peace returns to Syria and Iraq. What economic opportunities will Syrians and Iraqis go back home to if the oil industry is bombed out? The myopia of the United States’ current anti-ISIS strategy is squandering the coalition’s recent successes by condoning and performing actions which are inimical to the goal of keeping the world safe from political instability in the Middle East and Salafi-jihadism.
For example, support of the Kurds unconditional on how they control the territory they take over threatens to stoke the ethnic tensions that are one of the main causes of the Syrian conflict. The YPG scored big victories in Kobane, Hasakah, and Tal Abyad since October 2014, and the Peshmerga won a big victory in Sinjar last November. Because of these victories, the Kurds have become known as the “good guys” on the ground and “the most effective force” fighting ISIS. With the United States needing a strong ground combat force to take advantage of its airstrikes, the Kurds’ military effectiveness has made them America’s steadfast ally.
Unfortunately, the usefulness of Kurdish troops is causing the Obama administration to sweep their human rights violations under the rug. In the rush to conquer territory and resources for an independent Kurdish state, the YPG and Peshmerga forces are currently targeting and destroying Sunni Arab property with little security justification. In addition, Kurdish forces in Iraq discriminate against Arabs, often cordoning them off in restricted areas while Kurds move freely. American guns are again going towards antagonizing Sunni Arabs and stoking ethnic and political violence. If the United States does not put pressure on the Kurds to stop their discriminatory behavior against Arabs, the myriad ethnic tensions in the Middle East could produce yet another civil war.
Another example of American shortsightedness is the decision to bomb ISIS-controlled oil facilities in an attempt to drain their economic resources. However, revenue from oil constitutes only the third-largest source of income for the jihadi group. Their most important source of money is extortionist taxes gained off the people and territory they control. While it is important to target the group’s oil income, much more money can be taken away from the group through conquering territory. Destroying oil facilities in ISIS-controlled areas is draining Syria and Iraq of the money and resources they could use to rebuild their post-conflict societies. It makes little sense to impose this high cost on the local population for an objective that may not be critical to winning the overall fight and could be accomplished without military strikes. Jihadists recruit well in environments of poverty and lack of opportunity, which is precisely what the United States is creating by bombing oil infrastructure.
It is too early to tell how the rebuilding efforts in recaptured cities like Ramadi, Sinjar, and Tikrit are working to neutralize sectarian and ethnic feuds. However, the United States’ current military solutions to ISIS, while working to wrest territory and resources away from the jihadist group, are creating conditions conducive to ethnic tension and economic trouble after ISIS is defeated. As a result, the failure to pursue larger political goals for the Middle East with the same gusto as military objectives could render today’s battlefield successes meaningless. The current strategy is working to defeat ISIS while preserving the potency of Salafi-jihadist messages and regional ethnic tensions, a failure by anyone’s standards.
One thing the United States can do to create better economic conditions in a post-ISIS environment is to stop bombing oil facilities and instead implement a strategy geared toward cracking down on the group’s financial networks. Despite efforts to cut ISIS off from the international banking system, the group is still connected to the international financial system through informal networks which allow it to “move payments for smuggled oil and antiquities through the banking system.” Clearly, someone is buying ISIS’ stolen goods, and the United States and its partners fighting ISIS should monitor the financial trails of the group’s transactions. With better knowledge of ISIS’ networks of buyers and money-movers, the United States can disrupt those relationships and cut the group off from outside revenue from all of its stolen commodities, not just oil. Such an effort was conducted through the Iraq Threat Finance Cell during the war in Iraq from 2005-2010, and a similar agency should be set up for today’s fight against ISIS.
Another solution is to take some time between the victory in Ramadi and the inevitable contest for Mosul to develop mixed units of Sunni and Shi’a fighters which would be responsible for keeping order in the city and securing the surrounding region once ISIS is gone. Even though the fight for Mosul is a long way off, U.S. and Iraqi officials are currently laying the groundwork for an eventual assault. This includes making partnerships with “Sunni Arab notables” inside Mosul, but not enough effort is underway to combine Sunni and Shi’a forces from around the Iraqi army into integrated units. The United States and the Iraqi government should establish training programs to build such integrated forces and get them ready for combat. These integrated units should be responsible for keeping order and protecting the surrounding region from ISIS incursions once the city is taken. This multi-sect force would do a better job of preventing reprisals against Sunni residents. Plus, close sectarian cooperation in the fight would send the message that the fight against ISIS is a conflict against radical jihadism, not Sunni versus Shi’a. These two initiatives would not solve all of the region’s problems, but it would be a more positive development than what we are seeing now.
Tyler Bowen is a first-year Ph.D. student at Yale University, concentrating on International Security.