The ‘Islamic State’, also known as ISIL, ISIS, Daesh, and the ‘death cult’ (in Australian political parlance), is a difficult group to pin a single, commonly defined name to. This group has revolutionised jihadist thought, using social media, the dark web and brutality in unique and interesting ways. Through the Syrian civil war, Islamic State sharpened its tactical skills to make it one of the most lethal anti-Assad paramilitaries among the cacophony of such groups inhabiting the Syrian battle space. But can bombing stop the advance of IS? No. If the US did indeed doctor its own assessments on the utility of its anti-IS bombing in Iraq, then what is it doing in its internal assessments made thus far regarding the bombing mission over Syria? Politicians want results and military and intelligence careerists want to be the ones providing the ‘good news’. But when is lying to oneself ever a good idea in prosecuting a war on any scale?
British Philosopher A.C. Grayling, (on Australia’s current affairs program Lateline August 27, 2015), is one of many commentators in the international community suggesting that the brutality of the Islamic State is unique in the annals of contemporary Middle East warfare and perhaps, from a humanitarian perspective, an argument for war can be justified. IS routinely displays beheadings and other forms of execution on social media sites. It is known to use rape as a weapon of war against females from ‘enemy populations’, and takes joy in destroying historic pre-Islamic sites within its area of control. By any stretch of the imagination, Islamic State and its adherents epitomize ‘evil’. Recognising this, however, and taking appropriate action to counter its advances, are two entirely different things. In my last blog, I suggested that bombing alone will not produce the outcome civilised communities of the world desire. Bombing, in spite of the new technologies Western air forces have at their disposal, is still indiscriminate. Collateral damage may be far less an order of magnitude than during World War II, but non-combatants and critical local infrastructure still bear the brunt of any bombing campaign, especially if this bombing takes place over built-up urban areas. The civil war in Syria is primarily a war fought for the control of cities and towns. The intensity is such that some 10 million Syrians are now considered ‘people of concern’[i] and the uncontrolled flight of Syrians into over-crowed UNHCR camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, as well as the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe attest to the far-reaching scale of destruction.
So the question remains if bombing IS is not an ideal form of military operation, then what is? In October 2001, the US military, in conjunction with the CIA, worked together with anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan to orchestrate the Taliban’s rout. So effective was this operation – the Taliban being forced from power in the space of two months – that it should stand as the best example of judicious, deadly Western intervention against an enemy in a complex environment. Obviously, Syria 2015 is not Afghanistan 2001. The initial war in Afghanistan was a rural campaign against a largely pre-modern state with tribes, clans, religious and ethnic groups separated by a network of valleys and mountain ranges. Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2011, Syria was a modern, sophisticated and urban state with modern infrastructure. So a strict comparison between one environment and the other is inappropriate. Enforcing an operational template that worked well in one instance, might not bring about the same outcome in another location. Nonetheless, modifying the lessons learnt from Afghanistan in 2001, might serve the Syrian situation well. Critically, this would involve an intervention into the civil war with CIA agents and US/allied Special Forces (SF) troops. The CIA would need to galvanise acceptable Syrian rebel groups into an anti-IS fighting force. The role of the SF would be to train, co-ordinate and support combat operations by local Syrian forces. Politically, there might need to be a ‘deal’ struck with the US regarding the future of the Assad regime among US sponsored Syrian groups for them to change from their ‘Damascus first’ policy. Fighting Assad and IS concurrently means fighting a two-front war. Historically, fighting a two front war rarely leads to victory. Perhaps a deal could be struck that upon US-sponsored Syrian rebels having dispatched IS from Syrian soil, those same forces could be turned against Assad. This would force Assad to recalculate diplomatic initiatives designed to negotiate an end to the civil war, such as the current Saudi-Russian-US-Iranian initiatives. For Assad’s forces not to attempt to attack US-sponsored rebels, their bases or lines of supply while they are engaged in fighting IS, the US would need to provide a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent the continued use of Syrian Air Force assets against rebel military and civilian targets. Neighbouring states such as Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq would need to redouble their border security arrangements to prevent IS fighters fleeing into those territories and establish cells. This should be a cost-effective and operationally effective way of crushing IS in Syria. The critical aspect of this proposition is that upon the defeat of IS, US/allied forces on the ground are withdrawn entirely, and the no-fly zone ends. The fate of Syria should be left to the Syrians to decide. No mission creep. No imposition of Western values. No open-ended occupation. By the time local forces destroy IS, they should be strong enough and co-ordinated enough to take the fight to Damascus without the need for extra Western effort. Such a decision would take enormous political discipline, the likes of which we have not yet witnessed. If this can be achieved, it would be the nearest thing to prosecuting a 21st Century ‘just war’ that should hold up to public scrutiny in the West, eliminate a noxious enemy force (Islamic State), while changing the situation on the ground sufficiently to help end the civil war in Syria.
[i] This includes people living in refugee or refugee-like situations, including displaced people, out of a total national population of 22 million.