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“Fighting” The Islamic State

Reuel Marc Gerecht
7th December 2015 - Hoover Institution

Can the United States stop the Syrian refugee crisis and destroy the Islamic State without sending tens of thousands of soldiers into Syria and Iraq? Hillary Clinton and the Republican presidential candidates—with the notable exception of Senator Lindsey Graham—have so far studiously avoided describing how their battle plans would seriously differ from Barack Obama's. Mrs. Clinton and Republican candidates have talked about creating a safe haven, but have been vague about how such a refuge in Syria would be created, protected, and purged (creating a haven for the Nusra Front, a Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate, wouldn't be helpful).  It appears Mrs. Clinton and the non-isolationist Republican candidates would use more American air power combined with someone else's soldiers to destroy the Islamic State. And even Mr. Graham's bolder suggestion—the reinsertion of 10,000 American soldiers into Iraq, which would spearhead an anti-Islamic State coalition, presumably of both Muslim and European powers—is still predicated on the assumption that others will supply most of the manpower, in both Mesopotamia and the Levant. 

But how exactly can this work? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly declined to send ground troops abroad, even to establish a thin safe haven along the Turkish-Syrian border, let alone a larger secured zone where the Sunni Arab civilian population is densest, which would extend the protected area to the outskirts of Aleppo, which is 24 miles from Turkey. Although no longer decisive politically, the Turkish Army remains strongly opposed to any intervention requiring the long-term deployment of Turkish troops. The Turkish secular opposition, which accounts for around 50 percent of the popular vote, is unified on few issues more strongly than the ‘Ataturkist’ principle that the country's armed forces should not become involved in Middle Eastern wars.  

And Arab armies that could conceivably be used—Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, and Emirati—are not expeditionary forces.  The autocrats of these lands simply aren't stupid enough to send abroad their soldiers in numbers: these troops have the preeminent mission of protecting the status quo at home. The Arab air campaign against the Islamic State has already waned, and it didn't decline just because the Saudis and Emiratis are deeply involved in the Yemen war. Fighting against Sunnis, even radical Sunnis who burned a Jordanian pilot alive, when Shiite enemies abound is just unsettling for Wahhabis, even for the polite version ruling in the UAE. With Egypt, Washington has the opposite problem: confronted by violent Egyptian Islamists after the 2013 coup against a Muslim Brotherhood government, President Abd al-Fattah al-Sissi has revealed some sympathy for Mr. Assad's travails with Sunni militants.

And there are not enough Kurds, even if Syrian and Iraqi Kurds wanted to undertake a relentless mission against the Islamic State, to conquer, let alone hold, big slices of Islamic State territory. Any American effort to use the Kurds—to bribe them with promises of long-term U.S. support and heavy weaponry—runs the serious risk of damaging the Kurdish balancing act, of trying to maintain de facto, if not de jure, independence from Arab rule while alienating as few Arabs as possible, especially not Shiite and Sunni Arabs simultaneously.    

And the Europeans aren't any bolder.  The French have already made it clear that they aren't sending soldiers into Syria—certainly not without the Americans going in first with far greater numbers. The Foreign Legion, which numbers around 8,000 men, is already heavily deployed in Africa, particularly in Mali, where the French were instrumental in saving the central government from an Islamist insurgency.  France has no other expeditionary force that could be conceivably (or perhaps even legally) deployed in the Levant.   

And the British Armed Forces are in a serious state of decline, as became painfully obvious in the Iraq and Afghan wars. It's doubtful the British could deploy the Royal Marines, which also number around 8,000 men, for protracted periods of time without substantial American logistical support.   And there is no political will in London to send British forces again into the Middle East—even (especially) if the Americans go first.     

And the Germans, the only other Europeans who matter, remain materially and spiritually incapable of projecting much force abroad. The Luftwaffe has limited range and punch, and the Bundeswehr has no real equivalent of the French Foreign Legion or the Royal Marines.  A substantial portion of the German intellectual and political elites is ready to veer off towards an embrace of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, even though most probably realize this axis—not the Islamic State—is primarily driving the refugee crisis that has severely wounded the European Union and could,  if it isn't stopped, radicalize European politics. Russia and Iran have developed a politically influential business constituency within Germany; Russian and Iranian propaganda—they are holding the line against the Islamic State—has traction in the German media.  Even France's President François Hollande, who has been blunt in describing the Assad regime's culpability for the Syrian disaster, has moved toward seeing Russia as a potential ally against the Islamic State.     It's not at all unlikely that we will see a new wave of anti-Americanism among the Germans, and other Europeans, because in their eyes Washington started the Iraq war, the shock wave that began the tumultuous Arab Spring, yet failed to halt the Syrian conflict early on. America as Venus may be opprobriated as much as America as Mars. To do something new after the attacks in Paris, President Obama has increased the tempo of the American air campaign.  Other more aggressive American measures are in the offing.  Mr. Obama has already reportedly increased the use of Special Forces and the paramilitary outfit of the Central Intelligence Agency in Syria.  And the next president will undoubtedly follow Mr. Obama's footsteps since it offers the hope that something can be done at minimal cost.  This strategy, however, won't probably succeed.  It would take thousands of Americans over a protracted period of time to organize tens of thousands of Syrians. The use of Special Forces and the CIA is usually a sign that an American president wants to avoid hard decisions.

And ignoring all of the logistical and security nightmares attached to this safe haven-lite Special Forces–CIA scenario, why would Syrian Sunnis want to join an American effort aimed at the Islamic State?  It's the Assad regime and its allies that have done the lion's share of the killing in the country. However brutal the Islamic State has been to Syrian Sunnis, its sins pale in comparison to the Alawites.  

Building a new Syrian Sunni army to destroy the Assad regime makes strategic and tactical sense.  The Islamic State and the Assad regime are two sides of the same coin—for the former to die, the latter must perish. But to do so would require a substantial American commitment of troops within the country, a deployment that would likely increase after the fall of the Alawite regime since maintaining order in a post-Assad Syria—just along the Turkish border and the Mediterranean coast and in Damascus, where the Alawites and pro-regime Christians could be slaughtered—will be demanding. A lesson from the Balkans that Mr. Obama ignored in Iraq:  once in, Americans must plan on staying.  And it's by no means clear that the Pentagon, after the drastic reductions in defense spending that Mr. Obama sought and Republicans accepted, actually could deploy to Syria and Iraq 75,000 troops—a plausible necessary number—without severely stressing the diminished capacity of the US Army and Marines. 

All of this will obviously be too much for Washington and the Europeans to take on unless the Islamic State continues its attacks within Europe. And even if such terrorism repeats itself, it's by no means clear that the United States would be willing to intervene in Syria to save European lives. If the Islamic State strikes inside America, causing massive casualties, then it's conceivable that Washington would contemplate an invasion of Syria and the reoccupation of western Iraq.  

Barring that ugly eventuality, the West will surely continue to fight defensively:  European borders will tighten, visa-less travel to the United States for Europeans may be curtailed,  European internal-security services and communication surveillance will grow substantially, and European and American planes, and small units of American and European commandoes, will further harass the Islamic State. We will pray that we get lucky, that key jihadist leaders will perish (yet so far the Islamic State, like al-Qa'ida, appears highly resistant to decapitation), Sunni Syrian and Iraqi resistance to the Islamic State will grow, and the fissiparous tendencies of militants will rip the jihadists' bonds and creed apart. Our air and small-scale paramilitary campaigns, however, will increase the Islamic State's appetite for terrorist operations against the West and the growing sentiment among Sunni Arabs that the West has joined a Shiite-Russian alliance against Sunni Islam.  

In 1981 the Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami described the Arabs as being in a hellish, intractable predicament. That predicament has become ours.  

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Tags

assad, europe, iraq, islamic-state, syria