Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Bad Plan

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, December 22, 2015 --  

The Western bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria is short on purpose and even shorter on allies.

The shifting alliance in the war against the Islamic state is an exercise in action for the sake of action itself.  Just days after Islamic State bombers and gunmen slaughtered Parisians, French government warplanes were bombing IS targets. In solidarity, the UK quickly followed suit.  It passed a law authorizing force in parliament and just hours later, warplanes took off from bases on Cyprus to bomb Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq.

But what, exactly, were they bombing?  Islamic state fighters are typically equipped with old pickups, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and other small arms.  While they infamously captured a trove of American Humvees and other more sophisticated equipment from the deserting Iraqi Army during the Islamic State takeover of Western Iraq last year, much of that has been destroyed by the past year of bombing.  Remaining targets probably have less value than the bombs themselves.

The point, it seems, is less to inflict damage on the Islamic State, but to appear to be doing something.  Anything.

But not too much.  Western countries are understandably reluctant to get involved in a quagmire by sending in ground troops. Air strikes risk few casualties and are therefore a much easier public sell, no matter how ineffective.  In some countries, even this political sell is too hard.  Earlier this year, Canada's new Liberal government withdrew its county's warplanes from the anti-Islamic State alliance, placating its anti-war constituency.  The government has announced plans to step up training of local fighters in the battle.  It can therefore claim to still be doing something despite doing even less than it was before.

Of course, air strikes are not entirely without value.  When combined with advancing ground forces (e.g. proxy forces like Iraqi militia or Kurdish fighters) they can give a decisive advantage to advancing boots on the ground.  This strategy was used in Afghanistan in 2001 and more recently to help Kurdish forces retake territory from the Islamic State in northern Iraq and around Mt. Sinjar.  A similar effort is happening now in Ramadi using Iraqi Sunni militiamen to battle Islamic State fighters.

But this strategy has worked only slowly and haltingly in the battle against the Islamic State.  While Kurdish militias have served as good ground proxies, they have little interest in fighting battles outside areas inhabited by Kurds.  In Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, the Western alliance has had a difficult time recruiting ground proxies, as Shiite government forces are not motivated to liberate Sunni areas and Sunni fighters have largely been absorbed by the Islamic State.

And the Iraq side of the border is where proxies are easiest to recruit. In Eastern Syria, which accounts for about half of Islamic State territory, there are no options for ground proxies outside the thin strip of Kurdish populated areas on the northern border. In the desert, the only alternatives to the Islamic States are other Sunni rebel groups which are just as extreme. Would the al Qaeda-aligned al Nursa Front work as Western proxies? Nope. The more likely alternative would be the Syrian government. But most Western countries have long since cut ties with the Assad regime and supported the secular opposition groups. Unfortunately, those secular opposition groups have no presence in the part of Syria where the Islamic State holds sway.

Clearly, Russias intervention in Syria to support the Assad government against the Islamic State is cynical and disingenuous. Most Russian airstrikes have been against rebel groups other than the Islamic State. But at least its stated efforts have a plausible strategy -- if they actually were to weaken the Islamic State, their Syrian government allies would be there to fill the vacuum. The same cannot be said for the Western strategy, which appears to essentially be no strategy at all.

If Western governments really want to defeat the Islamic State, they need to get a new plan. Its not enough to be against the Islamic State. They need to find somebody they want to be in charge once their enemy is gone.

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