Rethinking the ISIL Dilemma

03/02/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

It is time to reassess the ISIS problem. Seven months have passed since their seizure of Mosul and advances toward Baghdad ignited a sense of crisis. The reaction in Washington and regional capitals involved a series of military and political moves whose effectiveness now is open to appraisal. Stalemate best characterizes the present state of affairs. ISIL's expansive campaign has been blunted but little progress has been made in retaking the territory they had seized. The situation varies only slightly from one of the numerous fighting fronts to the others. In the Kurdish north of Iraq (and in the Korbani district in Syria), the Peshmerga have been successful in blocking ISIl advances toward Kirkuk and other population centers.

In the center, the Shi'ite militias -- aided in some instances by the few capable units of the Iraqi National Army -- have made progress in clearing ISIS from small towns and villages to the south of Baghdad and to the north in Diyala province. These were Sunni enclaves whose allegiances had been exploited by ISIl at the crest of last summer's wave. In the West, the government forces have had only modest success as ISIL remains firmly implanted in Fallujah, the parts of Ramadi that they have held since December 2013 and the adjacent countryside. Their presence around the airport has diminished and the danger to the capital itself largely neutralized, but ISIL is not an entirely spent force there.

The American contribution has been in the form of airpower. It played a decisive role around Korbane where ISIL was obliged to concentrate forces in its stubborn but futile effort to bring reality into line with its image of invincibility. Elsewhere, its effectiveness has been more limited. Fixed installations such as infrastructure in and around Raqqa have been badly damaged. But ISIl equipment and troops seem to have suffered relatively little from airstrikes. Just this Thursday, ISIL seized part of the Anbar town of al-Baghdadi and attacked the nearby Marine base at Ain-al'Asad where 329 marines are training the Iraqi 7th division. No explanation has been given as to how ISIL could assemble forces and launch such an attack when exposed to aircraft at the base. Why this is the case is not obvious to the untutored observer.

The military picture is strongly influenced by political circumstances -- within Iraq and in the neighborhood. The grand coalition of dozens of countries with a stake in thwarting ISIS has not yet been translated into the arrival on the scene of ground troops. No Sunni state has expressed a readiness to put boots on the ground. Turkey remains ambivalent about ISIL as Erdogan is reluctant to abandon his dream of some sort of Ottoman restoration that entails the overthrow of Assad in Syria among other salutary developments. Saudi Arabia is paralyzed by its own equivocation about making a physical commitment to a cause their populace is distinctly unenthusiastic about. The House of Saud is riding the tiger it helped create through support, direct and indirect, of jihadi movements in Syria. It now at once fears ISIl turning on them and the possible internal unrest that could be triggered by their actually taking up arms against them. King Abdullah of Jordan, too, has been worried by the possible domestic repercussions of deploying troops to fight ISIL. The gruesome murder of Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh may have shifted the popular mood for the time-being but the King still shies away from committing ground forces. The al-Abadi government in Baghdad, for its part, is leery of inviting foreign Sunni armies onto their territory. There is too much historical memory and atavistic sentiment to make that palatable. Better the Shi'ite Iranians or Christians from afar.

The Iranians by all accounts have provided substantial assistance. It is multiform: training and direction of the enlarged Shi'ite militias, equipment, advisers, some cadres. At this point, Tehran does not seem inclined to engage Iranian ground forces since ISIL presents no military threat to them or the Shi'ite controlled government in Baghdad. They certainly are chary about establishing a presence in the Sunni areas of Iraq.

That leaves the United States. The American mission has expanded by fits and starts over the past half year. Last year, President Obama repeatedly pledged that the United States would not become the Air Force for the Iraqi military. That statement is now inoperative. He also made clear that the purpose of a modest presence was a) to prevent the fall to ISIS of the Kurdish capital Erbil, and b) humanitarian rescue of the Yazidis. That statement, too, is inoperative. It was the beheadings of two Americans that drastically altered the political calculus in the White House, not a strategic reassessment. The later presidential formulation upped the objective to defeating and destroying ISIL. There has been no public explanation of why the transformation has occurred.

The training program is moving slowly without any apparent sense of urgency. Why that is the case is yet another of those small mysteries that surround the situation in Iraq (and Syria). Manpower is desperately needed. Moreover, batches of American trained Iraqi soldiers still have to be welded into an army. In World War I, it took the United States Army a full year to prepare green troops for combat on the Western Front. And it had the advantage of an organizational infrastructure, a competent officer corps and a vital institutional culture. The Iraqi army has none of that.

If the military outlook is murky, the political climate is dark. Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has taken no meaningful steps to overcome Sunni alienation from the Shi'ite dominated regime. Its leaders do not trust the Sunni tribal leaders and politicians; the Sunnis don't trust the government's promises. Plans to form an alliance between the government forces and Sunni tribes hostile to ISIl are stymied as a result. Indeed, there are reports that the government's refusal to send arms to the dissident tribes has actually led to their being supplied by the Iranians. Evidently, there are more things under the heavens than in our theories -- especially in Iraq. Furthermore, Sunnis' sense of grievance has been exacerbated by the abusive behavior of Shi'ite militias in "liberated" areas where the local inhabitants are treated as ISIL sympathizers. A similar pattern, albeit with less violence, is visible in places where Kurdish forces have driven out ISIL. There, the Kurds are unilaterally settling territorial disputes rooted in Saddam's Arabization campaign twenty years ago. To date, the United States seems impotent to do anything about this fissure in the ranks of the anti-ISIL pseudo-coalition.


ISIL of course is a cross-border phenomenon. Its roots were mainly Iraqi but its incubation took place in Syria. There, it now dominates the opposition to the Assad forces. It is in the process of cannibalizing the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra organization and other small jihadist groups. The "moderate' opposition organized in the Syrian National Council/ Army is marginalized and of little military consequence -- especially on the critical Northern front. The Obama people continue to put on a brave face in public with talk about ambitious programs to train and put in the field a substantial SNA army. In private, they admit that it is all window-dressing. That is taken as a given in the State Department itself. The snail's pace at which the project is being implemented confirms that truth. The main development in Syria is that Washington now has decided to tilt toward Assad -- at least tactically, at least for the time-being.


What is it that might agitate Washington's grey cells? There surely will be no quick breakthroughs that relieve the burden of having to do a serious reappraisal. Prolonged deadlock is what we can expect. That means that ISIS will be a considerable force in both Iraq and Syria; that terrorist attacks in Iraq will continue; that Shi'ite-Sunni relations will deteriorate further with repercussions across the region; that the Iraqi state will experience a de facto tri-partition; that strains in neighboring countries will increase; that the United States will grow more and more frustrated at its inability to put things right.

What might shake things up and break the deadlock? ISIS' ability to resume the offensive in Iraq is one possibility albeit a remote one. The evidence suggests that it has passed its zenith militarily. The weapons it seized from the Iraq army will gradually degrade from battlefield losses, breakdown and the absence of spare parts. Remedying the last will be very difficult unless Turkey were to resume its clandestine support by facilitating the illicit shipping of materials across its territory. In addition, economic conditions are likely to deteriorate. Destruction of infrastructure, including revenue producing oil facilities, will crimp ISIL's finances and its ability to provide for the millions under its rule. It is by no means evident that the "caliphate" territories will even be able to feed themselves in the absence of food deliveries from outside. Declining standards of living could generate local dissent and the disaffection of tribal allies who retain enough autonomy to act on it.

Could the Iraqi army gather the strength to roll back ISIS in alliance with the Shi'ite militias and the Peshmerga (who may be tempted to move beyond their comfort zone with promises of autonomy)? The Obama people wax optimistic on this score. The Pentagon brass speak buoyantly of a major offensive by the revamped army this spring -- or fall, depending on which spokesman you listen to. Before placing bets on its successful performance, though, we should recall similar buoyant predictions for the Afghan National Army over the past thirteen years, the first iteration of the Iraqi army as trained by the incomparable David Petraeus for ten years, and other shortfalls in Georgia, Somalia, Yemen and Mali.

At the political level, an analogous stasis looks to be the order of the day -- and tomorrow. None of the major players is threatened by regime change at the present moment. That includes the government in Baghdad.

That leaves the United States as the wild card in the deck. Only it has the means, the will and the mentality to contemplate the kind of military engagement that could shift the terms of the current equation. What the Obama administration might do once it realizes that its present disjointed efforts are unavailing, though, is unpredictable. Tolerance for a never ending no win/no lose situation has its limits for gung-ho, pro-active America. On the other hand, another major war in the Middle East is politically unpalatable. Irresolution in Washington also is the natural result of operating without any clear-cut strategy. On the record of the past six years, that is unlikely to change.