"The West should acknowledge that a ground deployment of sorts is, ultimately, the only way to quash IS"
A Rafale fighter jet: Targeting IS with air strikes will do nothing to weaken Assad’s regime (photo: Arnaud Gaillard CC-BY-SA-1.0)
With Royal Air Force Tornados and Typhoons finally taking to the Syrian skies alongside French Mirages and Rafales, and President Obama addressing the nation on America’s role in the fight against Islamic State, you might be misled into believing that the cavalry is finally coming. It is not. When it comes to the Levant, the West will continue to sit on the fence. There will be no dramatic reassessment of its Syria policy; there will be no acknowledgement that Iraq is no longer a state; and there will be no game-changing commitment to supply Kurdish forces in northern Iraq with a qualitative edge in their fight against IS.
Nothing, then, is changing on the ground to dramatically alter the picture in Syria and Iraq.
First, French and British aircraft targeting IS will do nothing to weaken Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The September offensive launched by Assad’s loyalist forces, with the fresh infusion of troops, weapons, and air cover provided by the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, and Russia’s deployment in the Latakia coastal region, has blunted the rebels’ offensive against the regime. Russia is busy pounding anti-Assad groups and, although the joint Russian-Syrian-Iranian advance on Aleppo has not been as smooth and fast as expected, the regime has regained ground and breathing space. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad’s systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Sunni heartland continues apace, with Russian steel now pairing up with the regime’s barrel bombing in the random targeting of civilians and the consequent exodus of refugees toward safer shores.
Second, no Western government intends to deploy troops against IS, save for a handful of special forces and military advisers whose role is not to engage in combat. Obama’s insistence on not returning American troops to Mesopotamia is an article of faith that undermines his rhetorical commitment to defeating IS. His vision is predicated on the mistaken belief that an air campaign will suffice to achieve the objective of defeating IS while avoiding Western casualties or, worse, stoking the flames of Islamic extremism. Belief in the effectiveness of air campaigns harks back to the 1991 Desert Storm operation to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and the 1999 Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. In Kuwait, the six-week-long pounding of Iraqi defences paved the way for a smooth 100-hour ground force operation that met little resistance. In Kosovo, the air campaign softened Serbian resistance even more, dispensing with the need for a military invasion.
Yet Obama, like France’s President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, should know from their countries’ intervention in Libya that air campaigns do not necessarily deliver decisive results, let alone the post-conflict order that such military operations aspire to achieve when they are launched. After all, IS has been the target of thousands of air strikes since it captured Mosul in June 2014. Yet there is no sign of IS folding; or of a loss of appeal to foreign recruits; or of its military being degraded; or of any difficulty in obtaining financial resources to sustain itself.
Air strikes have no doubt blunted its territorial gains. But what caused IS actually to lose territory was old-fashioned ground operations mounted against its positions. Territory is still conquered or lost with ground forces engaging in ground battles. That was the obvious response to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after September 11. It is mindboggling that IS terror outrages in Europe have not triggered the equivalent action.
That is why, third, if Western forces cannot be deployed due to combat fatigue after 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and above all for fear of casualties, then Western leaders should put aside their hesitation about arming the Kurds. With all the air strikes launched by coalition forces and the threat of Russian strikes, the only people who have dislodged IS forces from territory they conquered, both in Iraq and Syria, are the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military. Yet, by and large, they are still fighting with antiquated, Soviet-made equipment against an enemy that was able to seize massive quantities of American weaponry originally destined for the Iraqi army. The Kurds have no doubt benefited from the air strikes. That is exactly why they should be armed. They will fight IS to defend their homeland, no matter what. It would be preferable if they did so with Western help — for that is where their gratitude will eventually turn. Yet don’t count on help coming to the Kurds quickly; such a move might lead, ultimately, to Kurdish independence and the further splintering of Iraq.
The West should not only acknowledge that a ground deployment of sorts is, ultimately, the only way to quash IS once and for all, but also accept that the map of the Middle East cannot remain unaltered. Syria is no longer a state. Iraq was never a country. The price of Iraqi unity has been to let the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad empower Iranian-sponsored Shia militias whose brutality has contributed to pushing Iraqi Sunnis further into the arms of IS. Syrian unity is equally pointless to pursue as a political objective. That half-emptied and thoroughly devastated country will not come together again.
Yet the old map of the region remains an article of faith for Western chancelleries. Unless these templates are changed, the war will drag on and, with it, the danger that Islamic State’s trained jihadis will slip through the borders and reach Europe for more terror strikes.