President Donald J. Trump vowed to continue the work of the previous United States (US) administration under Barack Obama by devoting all of America’s military power to “crush and destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Having emerged from the remains of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS launched an intensive campaign since 2014, blitzing its way across much of Syria and northern Iraq, and leading to a self-professed caliphate based on a Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam in June that same year.
Much of the discussions about ISIS in recent days have focused on the problems of countering what has been described ad infinitum as a ramshackle force in a long and confusing conflict that can barely be described as a war. Through much of these discussions, the strategic value of the militant group and the context in which it operates has been largely discounted. Likewise, ISIS model – the group’s tactical, operational, and strategic capabilities – has been overwhelmingly underappreciated, and much of what ISIS has achieved in the past few years has defied Western military prognostications.
Despite the advocacy of a major offensive against ISIS, and in light of the West’s hesitance to commit to another possible decade-long war (or even longer), it would be more suitable to acknowledge the group’s utility and recognize that ISIS has the potential to benefit the West. Few Western analysts have expressed interest in using ISIS against Western competitors in the Middle East over an extended period of time.
Despite the group’s wonted atrocities, particularly its heinous attacks against soldiers and civilians alike including women and children, ISIS has the potential for serving both the US and the West as a relatively cheap insurance policy – an important and expendable military appendage in an exceedingly broad and protracted conflict in the Middle East. Keeping ISIS alive and fighting against its enemies without being provided opportunities to gain enough strength to directly challenge the US and its counter-ISIS coalition members is in line with Western security interests.
ISIS can play a key role in preserving a prostrate Iraq and ensuring a prolonged US military and civilian presence in the heart of the Middle East just as the US has done in South Korea. US officials have recently agreed to reassess the US’ military commitment to the region. A slow-but-steady increase, even if it is a way for the US to wage war on the cheap, can come in many different forms and serve a host of perennial interests. US military forces will increasingly be part and parcel to diplomatic efforts to rebuild regional security architecture in the Middle East. Iran’s recent defiance of the nuclear deal and continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons necessitates some form of military presence and capabilities to respond other than the use of stand-off weapons and weapons systems.
Not only can ISIS play a key role by necessitating the presence of US military power, it has the capacity to impede on the strategic military capabilities of Iraq, particularly as the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) attempts to push back against ISIS forces the northern and western parts of the country. Aside from a few minor successes, the IAF has failed to score any decisive victories against ISIS and will be unlikely to for several reasons. First, the IAF lacks the requisite military equipment and materials to inflict serious losses on ISIS. Because ISIS logistics come from Syria, its survival is largely dependant on the integrity of its nest in a region least likely to be accessed by Western ground forces, much less Iraqi military forces.
ISIS frequently uses populations as human shields to great effect, placing Western forces at a distinct disadvantage. The absence of a unified front against ISIS has led to insufficient pressure on the group to achieve any real major territorial gains against ISIS, despite media claims that the caliphate has finally “buckled” during counterattacks that claimed large swaths of ISIS territory last year. Operational solidarity on the ISIS side deserves praise, and probably in orders taller than on the side of the West. Although ISIS lost territory over the past several months, the vastness of territory surrounding ISIS is adequate for continuing to feed the group’s logistical needs. ISIS has managed to maintain its economic and financial activities – activities in the arenas of natural resources like oil, natural gas, cement, agriculture, and revenues from extortion, kidnapping, and trafficking – while taking pleasure in a relatively unbroken influx of foreign fighters, which the group fields against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and many others on the battlefield.
Airstrikes Alone are Ineffective
Maintaining pressure on ISIS by means of airstrikes almost exclusively is neither conducive to achieving the West’s stated goals nor a fitting application of military force. An over-focus on ISIS comes with great consequences and they could be felt in other, more critical settings. The majority of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) funding, for example, comes from the US. With the US war on ISIS having surged to approximately $8 billion USD in 2016, aid to other countries could see drastic reductions. Without Western aid, states like Afghanistan would collapse. This problem is linked further to the military and financial overstretch of the US. Since 9/11, nearly $1 trillion USD has been allocated to the wars in Afghanistan while Iraq has cost the US over $2 trillion USD. Both of those wars have been financed by the US on borrowed money.
At the moment there appears to be no political solution to the ISIS problem, and while there are ways to weaken ISIS, the gargantuan financial burden owing to military deployments and airstrikes will not bring about its destruction. Paradoxically, the US-led coalition and its military strategy is prolonging the war in Syria rather than bringing it closer to an end. At the same time, despite numerous tactical successes, the application of US and Western military force over the past few years has led to a host of unintended consequences. Using fighter jets to bomb targets is effective if the aim is to produce an environment conducive to militant extremism and in which ISIS ideology thrives. The character of that environment can resonate back home, where disenfranchised members of Western society might journey down the short road to radicalization. While each nation in the counter-ISIS coalition holds diverse, if not conflicting, strategic aims, the disparate nature of those aims have done much to erode the West’s resolve to fight ISIS, and to fight the group effectively.
Protracted Conflict in Syria
Intensify or prolonging the war in Syria would be a strategic and costly error, but the war in that country, which began as an uprising that quickly turned bloody and violent, provides the West with an opportunity to adjust the boundaries of power across much of the Middle East. ISIS has nestled itself in a defensive position, making “liberation” in any traditional sense a daunting feat. Short of being entirely indifferent to moral arguments and human suffering, disposing of ISIS could lead to the creation of further atrocities and less manageable outcomes:
First, the destruction of the group would result in thousands of foreign fighters returning to their home countries, exacerbating not only states’ current terrorist risks and threat levels but aggravating “lone wolf” risks as well, or even violent responses from far right groups. They would have to undergo a rigorous process of deradicalization and rehabilitation if they were to be successfully reintegrated into normal society. They might not even be interested in reintegrating.
Second, the destruction of ISIS could result in larger and more powerful or dangerous group emerging, proving even more difficult, if not impossible, to manage. A similar debate presided over the destruction of al-Qaeda some years back with arguments centering on the view that a more violent and destructive al-Qaeda following in its wake is a distinct possibility.
Third, the eradication of ISIS could result in dispersing dozens of cells or micro-groups across the Middle East and Europe, or possibly even encourage a massive relocation to North America, becoming extremely challenging to track or contain. They could have the capacity to undertake violent operations based on the same fundamentalist ideology as ISIS but in much more vulnerable locations.
Erosion of the Caliphate
Although an attractive option, capturing ISIS’ de facto capital would lead directly to the end of ISIS aggression. The defense of symbolic strongholds like Mosul and Ramadi are not necessary for the territorial continuity of the caliphate, nor are they crucial for maintaining the ISIS mythos. ISIS’ atrocities have understandably spawned an incredible compulsion to find a hasty military solution.
However, there is good reason to be cautious about driving ISIS out of Raqqa. While its loss would not immediately lead to the end of the group’s state building and regional military efforts, it could radically transform the way ISIS defines itself as a terrorist group and as the Islamic State. Syria and Iraq, and elsewhere would remain a bubbling cauldron of ISIS ideology and extremist violence. This might come as a particularly poignant idea when one considers the comparably rapid rise of the group and its departure from the expectations of most Western analysts who probably believed al-Qaeda symbolized the epitome of organized terror and non-state militancy.
The group boasts an endless supply of suicide bombers and a vast arsenal of captured military equipment. Overestimating the implications of liberating territory from ISIS could come at high costs, especially given that the area would require a military presence afterward to prevent the return of ISIS forces in addition to attracting other equally violent groups. It would be impossible to guarantee that post-conflict operations would be perceived as liberation and not illusory occupation. Plans to defeat ISIS have to be linked to visions of a post-ISIS Middle East with attention afforded to the anomalies that are less recognizable than Sunni disenfranchisement or populous disenfranchisement. The Kurdish dimension of a post-ISIS world in Iraq/Syria/Turkey necessitates focus given the level of logistical, training, and political support provided by the US and its partners.
If the West were to destroy ISIS, and its forces fragmented, ISIS operatives would retain their training and their fighting skills, which are particularly effective in urban-combat environments. ISIS could become an even more nefarious enemy if Raqqa were to be taken, and the caliphate conquered by Western forces as occupiers, crusaders, or neoimperialists. ISIS, recently described by Scott Jasper and Scott Moreland an “adaptive hybrid threat in transition,” might diverge from a character of fighting that the West is more accustomed to and for which they are better suited. The West could even see its airstrikes option taken off the table if ISIS were to scatter and take to urban environments.
ISIS has been particularly effective at demonstrating the West’s weakness in containing terrorist movements or defending its home territory. However, the group has also proven its relative inability to directly attack the West at home, with the exception of a few terrorist attacks perpetrated by individuals who acted in the name of ISIS only. Given the West’s air campaign against the self-proclaimed caliphate, it is neither strange nor surprising that ISIS has endlessly voiced its desire to strike at the heart of the West. As the past several years of militant extremist attacks in Europe illustrate, the West’s “homefront,” including US service members and military facilities, requires a great deal of “target hardening,” which also comes at a price.
ISIS has been notorious for its indiscriminate killings and massacres. It habitually calls out governments and religions for the problems afflicting Sunni Muslims, who also suffer at the hands of ISIS. As with many terrorist groups, some legitimate grievances are brought to the fore, though ISIS fails to fit among the more politically motivated, socially involved, and progressive groups in the Middle East
ISIS has conveniently provided the West with a return address. With its proclaimed caliphate in place, the West knows precisely where to find the group, its base of operations, and exactly where would-be terrorists will rally. The caliphate provides its adherents with a place of purpose, which at least draws them away from where the West would want them the least. So far, ISIS has successfully drawn thousands of potentially terrorists and fighters from Europe to ISIS territory, where the West can track much of their movement.
ISIS’ effective and growing information operations (IO) capabilities, particularly its propaganda and foreign recruitment campaigns via the internet, have reached deep into the West and East, enabling “recruitment in place” and causing major problems for the US and for Europe. The group’s recruitment traction can be accredited to limited political and social intervention strategies in Western countries. A lack of online education, and focus on groups and minorities most at risk to ISIS recruitment seemingly warrants much of the blame. The West can learn a valuable lesson, and make inroads into protecting its own populations against the invasion of ISIS ideology and the persuasion of expressing one’s grievances by means of violence and aggression.
Eliminating ISIS would do little to prevent the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. Nor does the group’s destruction bring the West any closer to resolving the crisis complicated and multifaceted conflict in Syria. Years of civil war have only emboldened Assad against his enemies, providing additional rationale for the US and its partners to decrease the intensity of their attacks against ISIS positions. The West needs to be explicit but realistic about its political and military limitations. If the West were to draw a line in the sand, leaving Syria to Assad, the rebels, and ISIS, regional dynamics could shift in favor of the West. Pragmatically, deposing Assad offers no guarantee that his successor would be better for Syria, the US, or any other state feeling the effects of that conflict. Doubting the sincerity and intentions of the West in its “War on Terror” (WoT) is a relatively effortless matter. The ongoing WoT is not so much about eliminating terrorism as it is about preventing terrorist attacks against states based on relative value, including those closely linked to Western interests.
The past few years of war against ISIS has brought to the fore the possibility that the fundamentalist group can only really be deterred and its violent ideology managed. At least, it is worth considering that the ideology espoused by ISIS has enduring qualities. ISIS is not a simple group. It is a far more sophisticated and deft fighting force than the West cares to depict it as – structured by senior and former Baathists and Sunni Iraqi military skilled individuals, and benefitting from valuable tribal connections. Captured materials and weapons have given ISIS more advanced capabilities than ever before, and while its military reach remains relatively confined to the Middle East, it is there that its operability is merits a greater degree of recognition.
Delivering a fatal blow to ISIS would not promise to strengthen state security in the Middle East or even further abroad in Europe and North America. A profane Iran still stands as the principle threat to security in the Middle East. Iran has repeatedly shown its ambition in dominating the region or destabilizing those of which it has been unable to gain control. Although Iran is a Shiite country and a strong backer of Islam’s Shiite population, it does not mean that Iran is ISIS’ enemy. While ISIS’ continued existence does not come without deep security concerns, the group’s actions against Israel to produce any egregious outcome other than a brief interaction with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in late-2016 that failed to result in any IDF or civilian casualties.
The underlying philosophy, as noted by a higher degree of people joining its forces and its economic/financial clout, even political stature, brand ISIS anything but a simple or incompetent group of marauding men. Its caliphate will likely exist in some form or another two generations from now. ISIS would not be the only militant extremist group to serve as an instrument of US political and security strategy for years or decades. However, notwithstanding ISIS’ potential to serve the security interests of the US and the West for years or even decades, predicting the long-term costs and complications that would accompany that remains a principal challenge.
*Scott N. Romaniuk is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of International Studies, University of Trento (Italy). He is an Associate Researcher with the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing (CSTK) at the University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth) and the Bruno Kessler Foundation (FBK) (Italy). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.