Can ISIS be defeated militarily?
The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) is an impressive array of US military and technological prowess dedicated to one mission: defeating the Islamic State (ISIS). However, the group’s resiliency and continued capacity to hold ground in Syria and Iraq speak to major deficiencies in the US strategy.
Publicly Western military officials and politicians have expressed renewed determination to roll back ISIS gains in Iraq and Syria but the reality on the ground is much more sobering. ISIS has taken a pounding, losing strategic terrain along the Syrian- Turkish border, but the group is far from being, to paraphrase US President Barack Obama, degraded and ultimately destroyed.
US officials doubled down on their rhetoric that ISIS can be militarily defeated, with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently stressing that he remained “confident” that ISIS could be defeated and that the US military would seek to “accelerate that process.” US Vice-President Joe Biden, on the sidelines of meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, expressed a level of determination that a military solution could be found to “taking out” ISIS.
Perhaps in response to a growing chorus among military analysts and naysayers in Congress, the White House seems to be eager to counter criticism that the anti-ISIS campaign seems to be all tactics with little thought put into a sustainable solution.
CJTF-OIR frequently publishes statistics of air strikes and Hellfire missiles fired by US and British drones destroying ISIS fighting positions or oil and fuel refineries. Under the hashtag #defeatDaesh these efforts underlie a sophisticated information operations acumen but fail to address the fundamental reality that air strikes and drones cannot occupy territory on the ground.
A little history here is useful. The Defense Department during president George W. Bush’s administration would provide glossy and impressive presentations and statistics of the number of Islamic State of Iraq fighters killed on any given week. Remnants of the Islamic State survived an unrelenting onslaught of US special forces raids, drone strikes, air strikes and Sunni tribal and insurgent forces that fought them. This was mainly due to the safe havens afforded to ISIS members in the Syrian provinces of Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor under the watchful eye of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s security services.
Similarly, US, Arab, French and Turkish combined airpower and special forces raids can only go so far. With the Russian integrated air defence system active in northern Syria, vast reaches of airspace are off-limits to CJTF-OIR and its military assets. US Special Operations Forces, on the ground now in narrow parts of northern Syria, have a very limited mandate that does not allow them to sufficiently enable the Arab and Kurdish fighters on the front lines against ISIS in Hasakah, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.
Washington would do well to partake in policy introspection. The Obama administration’s long-standing stated policy of “containing” the conflict in Syria precisely contributed to the proliferation of ISIS exponentially from Syria into Iraq.
The anti-ISIS coalition led by CJTF-OIR military objectives are straightforward: liberate Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS. Yet the coalition does not seem to have a solution to empowering Sunni fighters in Syria and Iraq who were left with little support as they battled ISIS for three years prior to the initiation of the Operation Inherent Resolve campaign.
Sober and frank assessment is needed more than ever: neither training Iraqi security forces in marksmanship nor training exercises in the Jordanian desert nor targeting ISIS oil wells will prove sufficient to complete the task.
The limited success that has been achieved against ISIS has been due to a straightforward formula: tightly coordinated close air support between the coalition and local ground forces. The newly minted Syrian Democratic Forces enjoy an operational liaison with US forces inside a joint operations centre — Sunni rebels fighting ISIS on the west bank of the Euphrates, however, do not.
The Syrian peace talks hosted by the United Nations will not offer a united front between rebels and regime to fight a common enemy. This is mainly due to the fact that ISIS is expending significant effort to assassinate Sunni rebel leaders. The Assad regime’s track record of recapturing territory from ISIS is wholly inadequate.
In the final say, liberating Mosul and Raqqa cannot be achieved unless the United States makes bold and difficult policy decisions that will not be politically palpable to many.
First, the Russian de facto denial of airspace over large parts of Syria must be readily ignored and challenged. Second, expanding weapon support to Sunni rebels fighting multipronged fronts against ISIS and Assad must be enabled without complicated litigious restrictions on whether supplied weapons will be used on one over the other.
Neither policy decisions are likely to be enacted by an Obama administration in its last year in office. A winning plan to defeat ISIS requires a paradigm shift and ultimately a shift in leadership in the White House.