ISIL: What -- if Anything -- Is to Be Done?

06/01/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

ISIL poses an unprecedented danger to Middle East political stability, existing regimes, the population of all confessions and various American security interests as presently defined. It may eventually threaten acts of terrorism in the United States, although it does not as of now. The scope and magnitude of its disruptive potential outstrips that of the old al-Qaeda. Yet, the Obama administration gives no sign of having a coherent, credible strategy for addressing this multi-pronged danger. Indeed, much of what it is doing in the Middle East is having counter-productive consequences.

The essential first step toward improving the odds on dealing with ISIL is to face the dilemma squarely. The sort of happy talk that has marked official public appraisals of the situation serves no helpful purpose; moreover, it seems to express a considerable degree of self-deception at the highest policy levels. We have made crucial errors going back to the monumental blunder of invading and occupying Iraq.

Wisdom begins with the recognition that ISIL is a sophisticated, multifaceted movement led by able people as clever as they are ruthless. That leadership includes ex-Ba'athists in addition to Salafists. We have underestimated them from the first as evinced by President Obama's puerile remark just a year ago that they were al-Qaeda's "junior varsity." In truth, they have a refined reading of currents in the Arab world, of sensibilities and of evocative themes. America can't match it.

Here are some guidelines for reconstituting a viable and credible Middle East strategy.

1. Establish a clear hierarchy of priorities and act accordingly. Containing and degrading ISIL should be at the top of the agenda. The present subordination of the campaign against ISIL (and against al-Qaeda in Yemen and in Iraq/Syria) to palliating the Saudis and the Gulfies is illogical and untenable. For the KSA, the sectarian cum power rivalry with Iran is the paramount concern. By any objective measure, it should not be so for the United States. Yet, the Obama administration has allowed itself to become an accessory to the Saudi led Sunni cause -- by its rhetoric, by its tangible backing for the intervention in Yemen, and by its misguided refusal to confront the new Riyadh leadership, and its Gulf allies, with the reality of the Janus-faced game they are playing re: al-Nusra in Syria.

2. It is imperative that the United States avoid being entangled in other peoples' ideological passions. A clear line must be drawn and observed between partnerships based on convergent interests and the crude sectarian agendas that shape the aims and objectives of our Sunni "allies." The Sunni/Shi'ite divide that exacerbates our dealings throughout the Middle East is an obstacle to resisting ISIL's advances and menaces the kind of stable governments (e.g. Iraq) and stable regional security arrangements (in the Gulf) that best serve our interests in the long-run.

3. Pragmatism and candor are two distinctive American traits that can be assets in the current situation. While cultural sensitivity and awareness of local political conditions are essential, they become liabilities when they impede the transmission of essential messages. The current distortions resulting from Washington's excessive deference to Riyadh (and to Jerusalem) are crippling American diplomacy in the region.

4. Pragmatism applies to military operations, too. In Iraq, there is no way to counter ISIL advances without some manner of coordination with the Shi'ite militias. They are the only fighting force with the discipline and elan to take on ISIL outside of Kurdistan. The White House and Central Command have been playing a game of make-believe whereby they assert that the Iraqi National Army can do the job while insisting that American air support will be contingent on the militias (along with their Iranian advisers) removing themselves from the battlefield. This was our position around Tikrit and around Ramadi. It continues to be the operative norm.

That attitude is logically absurd and juvenile in its emotionalism. This is not serious strategy; it is policy born of catch-words and a timidity about doing anything that could irritate the Saudis, the Israelis, and the president's congressional enemies. Intimidated by those willful parties, Obama exaggerates greatly the importance of their approbation while underestimating their dependence on the United States. In any estimation, the cost of resisting the demands from Riyadh and Jerusalem are far outweighed by the endangerment of American national interests from bending to pressure from sometime-partners. Rule by political convenience is a sure-fire formula for failure.

5. Accept the sober truth that the religious and social forces that ISIL embodies likely are destined to be a powerful influence in the Middle East for the indefinite future -- particularly in Iraq and Syria. Eradicating them through military action is an impossibility, even were the means available. America has scant ability to counter their appeal by other means as well. The kind of silly project announced by the White House to COUNTER RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM (CRE) is an exercise in futility. It is the Arabs and the Islamic world in general that will have to contend with the ISIL message and the conditions that have created a sympathetic audience for it. What the United States, and the West, can do to mute that message is to refrain from those actions which lend credibility to the insinuations of the violent jihadis and which motivate Muslims to join their cause. Those actions include:

• Servile backing for Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians and its campaign to weaken all possible regional rivals;

• Unqualified backing for the House of Saudi Arabia in its suppression of political reformers and minorities domestically, its war against "Iranian-led" forces of Shi'ism and its unbridled attack on Yemen;

• Unqualified backing for the repression of Shia in Bahrain;

• Refusing to consider a normalization of relations of Iran, thereby precluding the possibility of pragmatic cooperation on issues where there are common interests;

• Acting with too little discrimination in the use of military force, including drones, throughout the Greater Middle East;

• Masking inescapable trade-offs between native American idealism and the dictates of realism. It serves no positive purpose to propagate make-believe narratives as the United States strikes unsavory deals with regimes like those in Egypt, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. That simply perpetuates illusion at home and evokes charges of hypocrisy abroad;

• Accepting blindly the premise of the Global War on Terror that sees potential threats in unlikely places, groups and local circumstances. Zero tolerance for even the most remote threats in the pursuit of absolute security cannot be the basis for a sound foreign policy. Indeed, it can be counter-productive, as evinced in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan -- and now Yemen. The United States has enough real enemies without conjuring up ones where they don't exist. If the White House feels an irresistible need for a new devil, it can revive that ghostly entity the "Khorasan Group" -- the Yeti of Islamic terrorism.

Brass Tacks

This broad perspective should inform the design of specific policies. That is a daunting challenge, for the United States finds itself in a position of having no good choices; indeed, it is not certain that there is very much within its power that can be done to secure its interests. That, of course, represents the ultimate failure of American strategy in the region.

In order to get a fix on what may be feasible courses of action, let's follow a process of elimination. Number one on the list is the outright military defeat of ISIL, i.e. to "destroy" it, as the president and his officials keep pledging. That theoretical option is to be excluded for the most elementary of reasons: there is no one available to do the job. The United States Army will not be redeployed in Iraq (or Syria) because it has become politically impossible to do so. Other Western powers lack the will or means of substituting.

The Arab states that have joined the so-called coalition show no desire to take on ISIL. For Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulfies it is a step or two too far. They fear a popular backlash at home where ISIL, al-Nusra, et al enjoy a good measure of sympathy; the cost in casualties would be excessively high; Saudi ground forces are not up to the task; and -- more fundamentally -- for the KAS and the Gulfies, ISIL is seen as less of an enemy than is Iran along with its allies (e.g. the Assad regime). As noted, Riyadh has gone so far as to provide tangible support for al-Nusra and earlier had ties to ISIL -- official or unofficial.

In the light of unpalatable alternatives, it is understandable that the Obama administration should bury its head in the sand. There is no indication that it is undertaking a comprehensive rethink of the United States' unenviable position. Instead, it looks ready to continue a set of disconnected and ineffectual policies deserving the name "strategy" only by courtesy of nomenclature.

Time for the worry beads, indeed.

A Minimalist Strategy

Our objective should be first to break ISIL's momentum -- military, political and psychological. At the military level, there are two spheres of action: Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the necessary if not sufficient preconditions are (1) agreeing on terms of collaboration with the Shi'ite militias (and the IRI); and (2) employing air power to greater effect than we have done to date. Why the Air Force has had relatively little success in interdicting troop movements across open terrain or victory parades in downtown Ramadi is a question that has yet to be answered. Now reports are appearing that the air campaign is being micro-managed under White House guidance with resulting long delays of an hour or more between target acquisition and approval to strike. That is enough time for all of ISIL to parade through downtown Ramadi in serenity. Concentrated use of air power is essential to a stalemate strategy. Realistically, as noted above, countervailing forces should not be expected to achieve much more than a deadlock with some modest advances -- for the time-being.

A complementary element to the military effort should be to curtail the flow of arms, materials, refined petroleum products, manpower from abroad and all other useful supplies to ISIL. The territory it occupies is poor in all of these things. Its main sources of supply are via routes that run through Turkey, and seizures from the Iraqi National Army. The imposition of discipline within the latter is a condition for having even a modicum of success. As for Turkey, it is time past to get in Erdogan's face. So far, we have made it easy for him to weasel his way between Washington and his local schemes. We should force him to choose which side he is on. Positing the choice starkly may not produce the response we desire, but it is better than a continuation of the present limp approach that leaves Erdogan free to do what he pleases at little if any price.
The same blunt message should be sent to the Israelis who have been playing footsie with al-Nusra around the Golan -- providing medical treatment to battlefield casualties and occasionally shelling Assad's forces.

A parallel tough-minded approach should be taken vis a vis Riyadh and the Gulfies -- as detailed above.

In Syria, there are even fewer assets to contain ISIL's military strength than in Iraq. Al-Nusra and associated groupings have the greatest potential. However, this Saudi-Israeli-Turkish inspired strategy has too big of a downside to pursue; and even were it successful militarily it would offer no guarantee that ISIL would not come out on top anyway. The Assad regime is the only other available alternative. The downside there is also formidable. Therefore, it is not unreasonable from a strategy vantage point to visualize a stalemate between Assad and the Salafists as the least bad near- to mid-term option. It could contain and wear down ISIL; it would frustrate the designs of our "friends" in Riyadh and Ankara; and it hopefully would keep attention and resources bottled up within a restricted political and geographic space.

A stalemate strategy, of course, also would mean prolonging the agony of the Syrian people and the country's physical destruction. The United States has put itself in a nasty spot. There, the only options are ugly ones. The inescapable price we will pay in prestige, status and moral authority must be added to the ledger of actions generated by obtuseness in high places.

At the political level, the overall aim should be to keep the Middle East from hurtling toward an all-out sectarian war. On a more positive note, the desirable goal is the fostering of a set of viable, voluntary security arrangements for the Gulf. That means bringing Iran in from the cold. It means pouring cold water on the fevered brows of the present Saudi leadership. It means removing ourselves from the position of belligerent in the Saudi effort to suppress Houthi influence in Yemen. It means continued cajoling of the Shi'ite leadership in Baghdad to accommodate the legitimate concerns and interests of Iraq's Sunnis. In addition, it means steering clear of stratagems to pick leaders and compose governments. We do a lousy job of that when we try to play master builder. Stable, legitimate governments depend almost entirely on the locals.

Our serial exercise in misbegotten king-making across the region reminds one of the punchline to an old Italian opera joke: she'll sing it 'til she learns it. Only, insofar as Middle East politics is concerned, the pain is felt by more than the eardrums of the afflicted audience.

At the psychological level, a decent respect for our own modest credentials and influence dictates that we abandon any thought of putting "Islam" on an enlightened course -- whatever that might be. There is no denying that much of ISIL's success owes to the disorientation now pervasive throughout Arab societies and culture. But there is little that we can do about that. We only can hope that a shift in momentum in the other spheres will progressively tarnish ISIL's image as a salvation movement and dull its appeal to those thirsty for place and meaning. Part of ISIL's attraction is that it is seen as a winner -- a heroic bearer of the Islamic banner for a civilization that has accumulated frustrations and grievances over centuries (for the Arabs) of being a subject people. That attraction can be expected to wane in the face of punctured dreams if not absolute defeat. Enthusiasm does not drain away suddenly, though; so this is a phenomenon that will unfold over time. Whatever ultimate fate awaits ISIL as an organization, the militants it has inspired and the passions that it has raised will remain to bedevil the Middle East in one way or another.

Stoicism is the order of the day -- albeit a very un-American philosophy