To the extent that its goal is to export terror beyond the fluid borders of its nascent caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had a remarkably successful autumn. The terrorist militia executed deadly attacks in Baghdad and Beirut. They took down a Russian commercial airliner, the most successful attack on a civilian aircraft since 2004, in a plot executed out of Egypt. Two NATO capitals, Ankara and Paris, saw their streets run red with blood after coordinated ISIS strikes were carried out by operatives with links to a command structure in Syria. ISIS’s most remarkable victory, however, may be to have forced American policy makers to reveal the extent of their refusal to get serious about the challenges posed by this militant organization and the measures that would be necessary to defeat it.
On the Iraqi front, ISIS has transitioned from its initial blitz designed to take territory to holding onto its current possessions. Bereft of battlefield successes, the White House hopes to present this development to the American people as curious species of victory. The tactics ISIS is using to dig in should, however, be of some concern. The New York Times reported on Monday that ISIS fighters in liberated Sinjar burrowed a complex network of tunnels to avoid attacks from the air, a tactic they have likely repeated elsewhere. They are laying anti-personnel mines on the front and buttressing it with trenches, 10-foot tall walls, and hardened machinegun positions. In urban environments, gutted buildings have been rigged to explode while ISIS is said to have thoroughly infiltrated the remaining civilian population.
Since Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, fell to ISIS fighters in mid-May, the race has been on to lay the groundwork to liberate that city. That race began in July with an influx of 3,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and some 500 Sunni tribal fighters amassing around the city in preparation for an assault. They probed and prodded ISIS defenses, but were ultimately unable to liberate Ramadi – even with direct U.S. support. Five months later, and the siege of Ramadi continues. In July, only around 2,000 ISIS fighters were said to be occupying the city. Today, that number has dwindled to an estimated 300 to 400 fighters with “several hundred” support personnel in the rear. This is not an army; it is a militia. But the manpower needed to roll back ISIS in the Sunni provinces won’t come from Baghdad, nor will it come from Tehran.
Meanwhile, looming over the horizon is Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been occupied by ISIS for almost 18 months and is defended by an untold number of fighters. In January, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin told the Wall Street Journal that the offensive to retake the city of 600,000 people would begin in the late spring or summer. Now in the final weeks of 2015, it is unclear if the city will be retaken from ISIS before Barack Obama leaves office.
On the Syrian front, the situation is far bleaker. The West passed up an opportunity to intervene in the conflict when it could serve as the sole determiner of outcomes. Today, with great powers like Russia and Iran already engaged in conventional military intervention in the civil war to prop up the ailing Assad regime, that opportunity has been fully squandered. It will not return. That does not mean that the West and the United States can decline to intervene in Syria – they already are, and the mission is rapidly creeping. What began as a reluctant, multi-national air campaign has developed a ground component. Barack Obama revealed this month that his administration had ordered the deployment of 50 special operations troops to Syria. That number is set to balloon. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter informed Congress that he would authorize the deployment of a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to Syria. “He said the number in the expeditionary force will be ‘larger’ than 50 but would not be more specific and didn’t say exactly where they would be based,” the Associated Press reported. The pace of the soldiers’ deployment and their circumspect mission ensures that the Syrian crisis, too, will outlast Obama’s presidency.
Following the immediate shock of Paris and the implications associated with ISIS’s projection of force into the heart of Europe, some of America’s leaders were willing to level with the public about what will be necessary to win the fight against ISIS. “We should be honest that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a campaign address on November 19. Two weeks later and with the trauma of Paris having abated, Clinton is retreating to a less resolute position. “I cannot conceive of any circumstances where I would agree to do that,” Clinton said of a substantial ground operation to dislodge ISIS from the territory it holds. “[I]in terms of thousands of combat troops like some on the Republican side are recommending, I think that should be a non-starter, and it should be a non-starter.”
So far, the only Republican candidate who is even suggesting thousands of ground troops to liberate ISIS-held areas in Iraq and Syria, although he likely doesn’t know it, is Donald Trump. In a speech on Monday, the celebrity candidate who has blamed American interventionism for exacerbating overseas conflicts recommended the establishment of “safe zones” inside Syria to stanch the flow of refugees into Europe. This half-formed idea of a temporary solution to the Syrian crisis was one that some, including Hillary Clinton, flirted with as recently as October. Those who looked into it determined that it would be a daunting prospect that would require tens of thousands of troops from Western nations to secure and maintain those zones. That is an option that no American is prepared for, due in no small part to the fact that their political leaders are not preparing them for it.
Over on what we are told is the more sober side of the GOP ledger, the rhetoric is equally vacuous. The foreign policy voter’s favorite in the race, Marco Rubio, shares the belief that a “no-fly” zone over northern Syria – a prerequisite and likely prelude to the establishment of safe zones on the ground – would be necessary. He also, however, dismisses its risks, like the increased chance of conflict with Russia. “Russia says it’s there to fight against Isis,” he says. “Our no-fly zone would not have Isis fighters in it.” This isn’t an especially satisfactory answer for those concerned by increased contact between NATO and Russian assets, like the kind that resulted in the downing of a Russian combat jet by Turkish forces last month.
Rubio’s position has been demagogued to the point of absurdity by foreign policy naïfs like Senator Rand Paul. In a fevered post on his campaign website, Senator Paul called Rubio’s position “an invitation to war with Russia.” Lest you thought this a substantive critique, Paul’s site noted that any conflict in Syria represents “illegal, unending war.”
As our own Max Boot observed, Senator Ted Cruz deserves the most censure for seeking to invent a “third way” to combat ISIS that looks a lot more like Barack Obama’s way. Boot smartly eviscerated Cruz’s attempt to undermine the “neo-con” approach to fighting ISIS by recommending the United States simply support the now-deposed dictators that were repressing Islamist elements in their countries before the Arab Spring. “How does it keep America safe?” Cruz asked in an interview with Bloomberg. “If it’s keeping America safe, we should do it. If it’s making America more vulnerable, we shouldn’t do it.” How embarrassing. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler suggested that Cruz’s position sounds a lot like the administration’s policy, summed up gracelessly as “don’t do stupid s***.” One imagines these two policies, to the extent they can be called policies, would achieve similar results.
No one is serious about the work that needs to be done to fight ISIS on its home turf before it can export terrorism again because that work will be difficult and require sacrifices from Americans. These are the wages of Obama’s dithering, and the task will only get harder the longer its engagement is delayed. The first step toward beginning the process of truly combatting ISIS is to seriously discuss what that entails. For now, no one wants to level with the American public.