President Barack Obama has declared that the United States will degrade and destroy ISIS with only American airpower, training of the moderate Syrian opposition, retraining the Iraqi Army, and arming and aiding the Kurdish militia along with the help of America’s allies in the Middle East.
The strategy is less based on military reality than on how to wage a war through polls. The White House is terrified of being accused of committing Americans to another war in the Middle East.
Yet, that is exactly what the current administration is doing – this time, like the last time, U.S. forces are going in a conflict for a long time, but without a coherent strategy. In effect, Obama’s approach is flawed – airpower by itself cannot defeat ISIS.
The brutal and bloodthirsty ISIS is both an unconventional army (although quickly morphing into a conventional force) and a terrorist organization and will respond accordingly. American bombers will kill some of its fighters and destroy some of its weapons, but ISIS will not stand and fight.
Ex-officers and non-commissioned officers of the Iraqi army who were hounded out of the Iraqi armed forces because they were Sunni Muslims lead part of ISIS. The other ISIS fighters are members of Sunni tribes trained from boyhood in unconventional, the rest are urban terrorists.
Consequently, ISIS will not going to stand and be bombed or try to hold on to territory. This ultimately will force the US to conduct a multi-level campaign – part counterinsurgency and part short mobile firefights. That means tough ground fighting – hit-and-run tactics, ambush and occasional, but very few, conventional battles.
Under these circumstances, the Obama Administration expects that troops from Iraq, Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, etc. will commit to a long-term bloody campaign for the sake of the United States.
As a matter of fact, all of America’s allies in the Middle East, with the exception of the Kurds and Iraq have politely declined to take part in a ground campaign.
A few more warplanes planes only contribute to the image of an international coalition and one with Muslim allies. So much for America’s Middle East allies – but they are in a difficult position. ISIS is holding 49 Turkish nationals as hostages. And in all likelihood ISIS will take more Muslim hostages and behead them in retaliation.
Another, much more important factor, is that: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been aiding ISIS in its fight against Syria’s Assad regine. For these Sunni states the war against the Shiites is far more important than destroying ISIS.
What the Obama, and previously the Bush Administration, failed to realize is that the struggle for the supremacy of Sunni or Shia versions of Islam supersedes all other conflicts in the Middle East. Unfortunately, familiarity with history is not a strong suit amongst US policy makers and Washington think tanks. History drives events in the Middle East and is the catalyst for conflict.
There maybe side wars such as the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and even the war against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Sunni- Shia competition throughout the centuries has been a fight to the death.
This is what partly motivates Saudi policy to fund madrassas that preach terrorism in the Middle East – they prefer to manufacture fanatic Sunnis than lose them to Shia – and the other part is that the royal family essentially pays extortion to the Saudi religious establishment in exchange for its survival and wealth.
As a result, billions of dollars, earned with the sale of petroleum, is funneled to promote Wahhabi Islam throughout the world. Obama’s strategy against ISIS, consequently, is a poor second to the interests of the Saudi royal family that defines itself as the leader of Sunni Islam.
The successive regimes in Ankara had planned to establish a Turkish hegemony in Central Asia and eventually in the Middle East and only cozied up to Washington when it suited Turkey’s long-term interests. In addition to losing the hostages, fighting a long drawn out war against ISIS along Turkey’s eastern frontiers is not something that inspires Ankara’s confidence.
The Obama strategy in degrading and destroying ISIS, in effect, relies on few assets. Maybe a retrained Iraqi Army, a better equipped Kurdish force, and the so-called moderate Syria opposition.
Considering that the United States has practically no intelligence assets in Syria, it is remarkable that the Obama Administration can identify an opposition group in Syria, among a myriad of extremist organizations, let alone determine that it is moderate.
Indeed, the notion of a moderate Muslims has been a misconception that has befuddled U.S. policy makers and strategists. There are Muslims and there are fanatics of various stripes.
Islam, like all other religions, has followers who are unbalanced and bloodthirsty – it has nothing to do with Islam or being a Muslim. It does, however, have to do with reactions to historic injustices and destruction.
André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.