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The Drones of August

News & Features | September 6, 2014

President Obama has ordered more airstrikes in Iraq over the past few weeks than he has ordered in Yemen and Somalia since he came into office. With the bombing of ISIS forces in support of a Kurdish offensive in August, the president’s air war in Iraq strayed silently from its initial, limited mandate: to protect American personnel, and to prevent the genocide of minority populations at the hands of ISIS. Last week, the president announced his intention to “degrade and destroy” the terrorist group, also known as the Islamic State, by expanding American military action into Syria.

In light of the war’s expansion, here are some of my takeaways from nine months of reporting on the rise of ISIS, first for this magazine, and then for PBS “Frontline”:

 

Much of this situation is completely out of U.S. hands.


Former FBI counterterrorism investigator Ali Soufan, who was at the center of the 9/11 investigations, told me that ISIS and the Iraqi government are proxies in the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Whether or not this will play a decisive role in the success or failure of ISIS, it undoubtedly sets a rigid framework for U.S. action – and it is, of course, out of U.S. control.

Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria is important to ISIS’s success, and it’s almost certainly out of U.S. hands. ISIS gained a lot of power in Syria over the past year by stealing Assad’s weapons and oil fields, and by exploiting the pipeline of young jihadis coming to fight in what was painted as a sectarian civil war. As long as Syria is unstable – and it will remain unstable for the foreseeable future, regardless of limited U.S. military action – ISIS will continue to have a base there.

President Obama’s statements suggest that American airstrikes in Syria are imminent – but such an intervention would face consequences. For one, U.S. action against ISIS in Syria would benefit the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Bashar al-Assad, one of the most brutal dictators in the world. Both are fighting ISIS, and the so-called moderate rebels are now losing, pressed on two fronts by ISIS and Assad – and the “moderates” are sometimes aligned with the Al Qaeda affiliate.

In an interview in The Atlantic, Hillary Clinton argued that the U.S. could have prevented ISIS’s rise if it had armed Syrian rebels earlier. The case seems flimsy. First, it is possible that very few Syrian rebels would have fit the ideal American profile. The U.S. has been covertly arming and training select Syrian rebels for months, and has found the vetting process difficult. Second, ISIS’s base of power has always been in Iraq, and as Brookings analyst Charles Lister told me in an interview for PBS “Frontline,” “The conflict in Syria … definitely wasn’t the spark, the initial facilitating factor, that allowed the Islamic State to begin recovering.” So, even if the U.S. had managed to strengthen some Syrian rebels, ISIS would still have made its violent incursion into Syria last year in full force, and it’s unlikely that the situation would have turned out differently.

“There are no longer any good options for U.S. policy in Syria. There are also few good options – no good options, I think – for U.S. policy in Iraq,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.), one of the architects of U.S. counterinsurgency policy in Iraq, told me in June.

The United States’ best bet may be the (apparently) improving political climate in the non-ISIS part of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently averted a political crisis by agreeing to step down in favor of another Shia Islamist, Haider al-Abadi. Maliki’s alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis helped fuel the rise of ISIS. Whether or not Abadi’s succession will help coax the Sunni militant groups away from ISIS, it is clear that Iraq’s government is where the U.S. has the most influence in combating ISIS – but that may not be saying much.

 

ISIS might collapse on its own, but it probably won’t.


 

ISIS has a clear history of self-defeating behavior. In 2006, the group began oppressing the Sunni groups that had joined it in fighting the American occupation. Those Sunni groups – some paid by the U.S. – turned on ISIS and severely weakened it. Almost all of its fighters were killed or thrown in Iraqi jails. Yet even with the combined forces of Sunni armed groups and the American military, ISIS was never destroyed. Last year, the group broke many of its captured fighters and commanders out of jail. It is stronger now than it was at its peak in 2006. The Sunni groups are back on its side, and the U.S. military isn’t there to stop it, or to pay Sunni groups to turn against it.

Meanwhile, ISIS is showing much of the same brutal behavior that alienated the Sunnis in 2006, but with a twist: they’re providing social services like trash collection and medical care, and they seem to be relishing the thankless task of running local governments. As long as Iraqi Sunnis remain aligned against the Baghdad government, there’s little hope that ISIS’s brutal tactics will spell its own demise.

 

ISIS can’t be defeated without U.S. brigades in Iraq and Syria – and it probably can’t be defeated at all.


We’re talking tens of thousands of regular combat troops, not a handful of bearded “Zero Dark Thirty” guys. Airstrikes can probably contain, but not defeat, ISIS – especially if the strikes only take place in Iraq. And since the ISIS command structure is decentralized, it’s unlikely that a few isolated Special Ops raids on ISIS leadership would bring down the whole organization. It would take a lot of troops, and it would take a lot of time, and it would involve direct engagement in the Syrian civil war. More civilians and American soldiers would die, and such an effort would probably fail to completely destroy ISIS, which managed to survive the aforementioned firestorm of the Sunni groups in 2006.

“A few special forces and American air power, I believe, can prevent ISIS from gaining more territory,” Nagl said. “It’s going to take a lot more than that to defeat ISIS, to push them back through the Sunni areas of Iraq, and to defeat them inside Syria. Somebody’s going to have to do that, I believe, sooner rather than later, before the terror strikes on Western interests emerge from that area. But that will require brigades on the ground – U.S. brigades on the ground.”

 

I’m unsure about this whole situation, as all of us should be.


 

If ISIS consolidates its territory, it will likely attack the west – at least according to analyst

Charles Lister. But how to destroy it – if that’s what the United States mean to do? No one has a palatable answer.