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How to defeat ISIS (and why it probably won’t happen)

Bruce Newsome, Lecturer in International Relations | March 2, 2015

Air strikes won’t defeat ISIS. A Western ground invasion would, but the West is far short of that commitment, to its increasing peril.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham; more transliterately known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL; most derogatively known by its Arabic acronym “Da’ish”) is an effective state and must be defeated as a state, before its other risks (civil war, terrorism, insurgency, genocide) can be contained.

Although many officials are unwilling to admit ISIS’ self-declared transition to an “Islamic State,” we should – for strategic purposes – admit its effective statehood, even though we should continue to deny its legitimacy. In fact, we should realize the advantages of fighting a state, but not with current strategy.

ISIS has declared a worldwide caliphate (Islamic government). This ambition is materially beyond al-Qaida’s: al-Qa’ida wanted to stimulate a cosmic war between its restrictive religious adherents and the infidel, but never led material aggrandizement on earth, except perhaps in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

ISIS’s reach

For now, ISIS does not govern the world, but it governs most of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq, while groups from Egypt (Ansar Bait al-Maqdis) through Libya (Barka Province) to Algeria (Jund al-Khilafah) have changed their names to match, and mature Jihadi groups have pledged allegiance or alliance as far away as Somalia (al-Shabab), Nigeria (Boko Haram), Pakistan (Jundallah), and Malaysia (Abu Sayyaf).

The Islamic State’s territorial control has included Iraq’s third largest city (Mosul) since June 2014, and the northern suburbs of Baghdad since October 2014.

The Islamic State has captured military stockpiles in Syria and Iraq that include main battle tanks and surface-to-air missiles of almost the latest Russian and U.S. models.

The Islamic State’s finances rival a wealthy state, including:

  • some proportion of around $200 million in under-accounted charitable aid to Syria in 2014 alone;
  • crude oil supplies worth from $1 million to $3 million per day;
  • around $20 million from ransoms paid directly in 2014
  • looted ancient archeology worth millions more;
  • perhaps $1.5 billion in cash captured from Syrian and Iraqi banks;
  • lucrative border crossings with Turkey, Syria, Kurdistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; and
  • taxes and tithes.

The Islamic State’s subjects include between 6 million and 8 million civilians – focused in the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni heartlands, more conformist with fundamentalist Sunni Jihadism than ever – by self-selection and genocide.

The declaration of caliphate implies an obligation on “Jihadis of the sword” everywhere to join in its defense and expansion. Volunteers from more than 80 countries have joined ISIS – about half of them have emigrated from the relatively wealthy and free West. Where al-Qa’ida urged Westerners to take the great risks of striking locally, usually without outside help and without probable success, ISIS offers the psycho-social appeal of physical camaraderie in an enduring campaign.

Material success reinforces the cosmic claims. If ISIS can establish a caliphate and survive, despite hostility from the rest of the world, then, so Jihadis claim, their divine superiority is proven. The persistence of the state is self-reinforcing.

Aerial bombing 

Ironically, an Islamic State is more exposed than the non-state actors from which ISIS was formed. ISIS is occupying and governing territory, within a largely flat, unobscured natural environment, without significant air or water transport, moving between cities on a few bold highways, sometimes with captured military trucks, tanks, and tank transporters, which are the easiest weapons to observe from the air.

The trouble with an air campaign is that aircraft alone cannot flush out ground forces. Jihadi insurgents normally travel in civilian vehicles, which are effectively indistinguishable from collateral traffic, unless ground intelligence has identified the particular vehicle in which a particular target person is travelling at a particular time. Jihadis have taught each other to hide these unobtrusive vehicles in buildings or under natural materials and to live among non-combatants.

An air campaign against terrorists/insurgents inevitably causes collateral harm to the persons and infrastructures within which terrorists/insurgents operate, thereby apparently proving the non-state side’s frequent claims that the state is the real terrorist.

If air campaigners want to avoid these collateral risks, then they must focus on large sedentary assets in barren areas, such as oil derricks in the desert. This is effectively the current counter-ISIS strategy. It cannot defeat ISIS.

A lot of nonsense has been written about current strategy, such as the claim that it is a counter-terrorist strategy. It is not; aerial bombing is a conventional modern counter-state strategy. It is the least efficient and least decisive strategy, even more so against the Islamic State in 2015 than against Germany in 1945. The Islamic State is not dependent on heavy industry or urban infrastructure; it does not mourn fatalities so much as glorify divine selection of the victims into heaven or hell; it presents collateral casualties as proof of the infidels’ moral illegitimacy; it uses air strikes as evidence of cowardly unwillingness to fight on land.

The air strategy has been chosen not for its effectiveness in defeating ISIS (indeed, US President Obama has carefully promised to “degrade” ISIS), but for its effectiveness in reducing the exposure of friendly personnel, while still offering spectacular images of destruction.

Democracies favor remote strike weapons, as launched from expensive platforms such as aircraft and ships, because they offer great destruction at the target without necessary ground involvement. Personnel on the ground could be captured, wounded, and killed by simple technologies that cannot harm aircraft or ships (as simple as pistols, knives, and automobiles, in most of the latest Jihadi terrorism in Europe, Israel, and China). Democratic governments fear political punishment for ground casualties more than for the great material expenses and ineffectiveness of remote strike campaigns, which are not as easily accounted as are human casualties.

An air campaign does not expose friendly personnel on the ground until a pilot is shot down or crashes in enemy territory. This was the terrible fate of the Jordanian pilot (Moaz al-Kassasbeh) whom ISIS captured in December and burnt to death in February. In response to his capture, the United Arab Emirates had stopped air strikes pending some reassurance that the coalition’s capacity for rescuing downed pilots could be improved. In retaliation for his death, Jordan stepped up its air strikes in Iraq. UAE joined in. Egypt has stepped up its strikes in Libya, in response to ISIS beheading Egyptian nationals on the ground there, and has accepted inevitable criticism of the high collateral casualties.

Retaliation is not a new or an effective military strategy – it just offers domestic political advantages over doing nothing. The retaliatory motivations of the latest air strikes, and the counter-productive collateral harm, increase the net disadvantages.

Ground forces

Air strikes alone are indecisive without a ground campaign to flush the terrorists/insurgents out of their hiding places and to contain them for separation from ordinary civilians. In response, terrorists/insurgents must fight, pretend to be non-combatants, or flee. Fighting against enemies on the ground offers a much higher chance of harm, since ground troops (unlike air-delivered missiles) can sustain and adapt the fight at short ranges. Terrorists/insurgents who pretend to be non-combatants are exposed to their enemy’s policing and their co-conspirator’s betrayal. Those who break free of their urban shelters expose themselves to air attack, helped by the reliable intelligence that only a ground presence can provide.

The ground component could be provided by local ground forces, but they are self-interestedly focused on securing their own claims, not on defeating ISIS. For instance, Kurdish ground troops and Western air strikes helped to drive ISIS out of Kobani, on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, but that battle lasted from October to January, when ISIS gave up, leaving few dead behind. In February, Kurdish troops advanced back to their self-declared borders short of Mosul, but the situation is properly described as a stalemate.

Also in February, Turkish troops entered Syria to secure an Ottoman shrine, which they shortly evacuated to Turkey, again without any intent to defeat ISIS.

On 20 February, a careless spokesman at Central Command (the US military command responsible for the Middle East) gave background information to journalists about a plan for Iraqi ground troops to retake Mosul in April or May, supported by Western air strikes, but Mosul is under ISIS control because Iraqi troops largely abandoned their posts last year, and Iraq has not observably improved its military’s will since then, except to negotiate more US tanks and helicopters.

The Shia regime in Syria has been most engaged in fighting ISIS and its allies since they joined the rebellion there in 2011, while Iran has expanded its presence in Iraq since the US-led coalition defeated the Sunni regime in 2003, and supports proxies (such as Hezbollah) in Syria, but the US government has repeatedly ruled out military cooperation with either state.

Each of the Middle Eastern actors has naturally selfish interests in fighting ISIS. Even if one expected that any of these actors would develop both the capacity and the will to defeat ISIS, rather than just selfish containment or retaliation, they are split by sectarian religious disputes (largely between Shia majority governments in Syria, Iraq, and Iran and Sunni majority governments elsewhere), as well as ethnic divisions (most obviously between Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians).

To defeat the Islamic State and contain ISIS fighters, the ground campaign would need to be led by first-tier Western armies, would need to be of a scale equivalent to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and would need the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors, so that Iraq’s borders can be closed, otherwise ISIS fighters would escape to other failed states.

This cooperation would need to include not just Western “allies” Kurdistan and Turkey, but at least tacit cooperation from Western “enemies” Syria and Iran. The greater challenge would be to keep Syria and Iran from expanding their presence in Iraq, which is another reason for the West to lead and to commit sufficient capacity to defeat ISIS without dependency on any foreign state. The West could not even rely on Iraq, but would need to plan to reconstitute Iraq’s central government as the representative secular state that the previous coalition failed to leave behind in 2008.

Terrible threshold

Western intervention of the scale and scope required to defeat ISIS will not happen, given popular aversion to further ground commitments of the type that failed to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq already, and the elite’s political correctness and complacency about the true risks presented by a caliphate.

For the West to even consider the commitments necessary to defeat ISIS, it would need to be provoked by ISIS with some diabolical outrage many times more lethal or more proximate to Western homelands than any of its outrages so far. Almost certainly a terrorist outrage like that of 11 September 2001, in a Western homeland, would provoke Western invasion of the Islamic State. However, that is a terrible threshold for which to wait.

Politicians, even democratic politicians, have obligations to guide, as well as to follow, their citizenry’s popular will. This guidance should begin with honesty about both the ineffectiveness of the current strategy and the true risks of leaving an Islamic State to consolidate.

Without a Western-led invasion, ISIS will dominate its current territory indefinitely, in yet another lingering civil war, in yet another failed state, with yet more contagion to other states. Consolidating its territory over years if not decades (an average civil war lasts 7 years; some have lasted 30), it would certainly redirect its idle capacity to the homelands of its avowed but indecisive enemies, as Jihadis always promise.

Comments to “How to defeat ISIS (and why it probably won’t happen)

  1. Deploy the UN security forces to fight ISIL…. An allied UN security army have the only option to defeat the Islamic group……

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