The problem of fighting ISIS with limited boots on the ground
Nearly everyone — from US military experts to Middle Eastern leaders and political commentators — believes that the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) will not be won by air strikes alone. There needs to be sufficient “boots on the ground” to dislodge ISIS from its control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and defeat it militarily.
But who will provide such boots continues to be a thorny political issue.
Recent polls suggest the American public, perhaps because of the brutality of ISIS against US citizens and foreign nationals, is supportive of US ground operations. Nonetheless, the Obama administration continues to rule out any ground combat mission.
Air strikes, primarily by the US military but also by some Arab coalition forces, have certainly caused ISIS to lose hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters in recent months. However, because of its appeal to radical elements in the region and beyond, ISIS probably has been able to make up for these losses with new recruits.
Moreover, while air strikes can degrade an enemy’s forces, they obviously cannot take and hold territory. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently told the Washington Post that “for the US military to carry out their mission [against ISIS], they need boots on the ground”.
On the Iraq side of the ISIS question, the “boots on the ground” question has been answered temporarily by Shia militiamen, under the command of an Iranian Quds Force commander, taking the offensive against ISIS forces in Tikrit. Although some regular Iraqi armed forces and Sunni tribesmen are also involved in this battle, the 20,000 Shia militiamen in this operation far outnumber these other forces, according to recent public testimony by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Army General Martin Dempsey.
He acknowledged that while such assistance from Iran “was a positive thing in military terms against [ISIS], we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating.”
In other words, there is a fear that the large number of Shia militiamen moving into Sunni areas could inflame an already volatile sectarian problem inside Iraq. Moreover, the prominent Iranian role in this operation has alarmed Sunni states in the region like Saudi Arabia.
On the Syrian side, no significant ground forces are taking the fight to ISIS except for some Kurdish forces in the north and these fighters have been largely geared to protecting some Kurdish-populated cities and towns like Kobane along and near the Turkish border.
The plan to create and train a moderate Syrian rebel force that would go on the offensive against ISIS has been plagued by logistical and political problems; the latter involving disputes over whether this new force would be able to take the fight to the Assad government as well, which the rebels want to do.
In any event, even if such a moderate rebel force comes into being, the numbers being touted — about 5,000 fighters — are likely to be insufficient in combating ISIS.
This situation leaves only two alternatives — an Arab force or an American force — to fight a ground operation against ISIS.
Although Sisi has called for a joint Arab force, there seems to be no serious movement in the region to create one, nor is it clear which Arab country would lead it. Even Jordan, whose citizens have turned decisively against ISIS in the aftermath of the brutal killing of one of its pilots, has only resorted to air strikes, not boots on the ground.
While the Obama administration continues to rule out a combat ground operation, and its new war authorisation legislation that was sent to Congress for consideration only mentions a potential role for US Special Forces, the American public seems more hawkish than the administration. The respected Quinnipiac University poll released in early March showed that 62% of American respondents said they favour sending US ground troops to fight ISIS.
Some potential Republican presidential candidates, such as former Texas Governor Rick Perry and US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), undoubtedly sensing this strong anti-ISIS sentiment among the American people, have called for US ground troops in this fight. But the Obama administration continues to believe that the public is war weary and will not countenance even a limited combat ground operation.
In the meantime, the anti-ISIS operation will continue to be more of the same: a largely militia-led offensive in Iraq with deep concerns about the campaign’s political ramifications and a slow and problematic training mission for moderate Syrian rebels outside the country, with air strikes, primarily conducted by the United States, overhead.
Until some country or a combination of countries commit to boots on the ground, the ISIS menace will likely remain for the foreseeable future.