Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Running Out of Time

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 21, 2015 --  

An attack on Americans would derail efforts to keep American ground troops out of the war against the Islamic State.

The murder of 38 Europeans at a Tunisian beach resort last month is just the latest attack on the West by agents claimed by the Islamic State.1 A similar attack on Western tourists at Tunisia's premier museum in March left 23 dead.2 While no Americans were killed in either attack, it is probably only a matter of time before citizens of the most powerful military power on earth fall victim. How will America respond?

While America currently leads a coalition of nations attacking the Islamic State by air, the Obama administration has pledged not to use American ground troops on a large scale.3 Without a doubt, shifts in public opinion can quickly force Obama to abandon this pledge. If the Islamic State claims responsibility for a future attack on American citizens, Americans will call for revenge. But it will leave America's president in a tough spot, given that he was elected on a platform to bring the unpopular Iraq war to an end.

The alternatives for defeating the Islamic State without American ground troops are currently limited. The radical Islamist group controls a large swath of territory in eastern Syria and Western Iraq, as well as smaller and more tenuous enclaves in Libya and Yemen. All of the major military powers in the region are either sympathetic to the Islamic State, or are unable to challenge it directly without sparking a wider war:

  • Iran has sent a small number of ground troops to support its Shia allies in the Iraqi government against the Islamic State, but cannot intervene on a massive scale without sparking a war with Saudi Arabia, with whom it is locked in a Cold War-like competition for dominance in the region.
  • Saudi Arabia is internally divided between those who support the Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian expansion in Iraq, and those who see it as a threat to the country's status as the leader of the Sunni Islamic community. While Saudi Arabia has participated in a very limited degree in air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, it refuses to do the same in Iraq where it is worried about assisting an Iranian-backed government. Meanwhile, it is distracted by fighting a war on its southern frontier with Yemen against Iranian-backed Shia militants.
  • Turkey is unwilling to take action against the Islamic State because it sees the militant group as an ally against its enemies that control the Syrian government -- a country that it once ruled as a province during Ottoman times.
  • Israel is far more worried about Iran's nuclear program than the Islamic State, and to some extent sees the militants as a useful distraction for its enemies in Tehran.
  • Syria, which has one of the most potent military in the region, is already battling the Islamic State on the ground for control of of territory within its borders. But it has proven unable to defeat the movement, especially given military challenges from other rebel groups in its ongoing civil war.

Only Jordan, which had a pilot brutally killed by the Islamic State has shown unwavering opposition to the group. While it has pledged the use of ground forces to defeat the Islamic State4, its military is simply not powerful enough to tip the balance of power.

That leaves American military planners in a similar position as in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, where they were forced to combine American air power with a number of local forces to serve as its ground troops. But the same strategy has not worked after over a year of trying. While Kurdish militias have nipped at Islamic State territory from the north, Iraqi forces have had as many losses as gains on the western front. Meanwhile, the main forces battling the Islamic State on the eastern front, are those of the Syrian government -- a nation against which America has long been hostile.

Islamic State attacks on Western targets show that this strategy is running out of time. If a weak coalition cannot soon dislodge the Islamic State from controlling large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, a major attack may eventually force the American president's hand.

Related Web Columns:

Welcoming Kurdistan, June 17, 2014


1. BBC News, Tunisia Attack: Did Islamic State Direct Sousse Assault?, June 27, 2015

2. Guardian, Tunisia Gunman Trained in Libya at Same Time as Bardo Museum Attackers, June 30, 2015

3. Fox News, Obama Opens Door to 'Limited' Ground Combat Operations Against ISIS, February 11, 2015

4. Al Arabiya, Iraq Says Jordan Offers All Military Means in ISIS Fight, February 12, 2015