Opinion: Searching for a Strategy to Defeat ISIS

September 8, 2014 3:21 PM
An undated photo of an ISIS fighter.
An undated photo of an ISIS fighter.

The news on the crisis with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) is moving so fast that last week’s top story on the situation now seems like ancient history. Last week global news outlets repeatedly made the point that by fighting to defeat ISIS, the United States is, by default, aiding the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria.

An obvious point that was not mentioned by any of the experts is that while in the short term this may be true, defeating ISIS also creates the space needed for moderate, Western-backed factions in the Free Syrian Army to take up the fight against Assad’s forces. Also, it is important to note that as bad as Assad’s forces are, they are not threatening to overthrow every moderate Arab nation in the region or attack the United States and its Western allies. In short, ISIL is the biggest threat to U.S. interests right now.

The war theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, stated “If you can vanquish all your enemies by defeating one of them, that defeat must be the main objective in the war. In this one enemy we strike at the center of gravity of the entire conflict.”

One would argue ISIS is the center of gravity in this conflict—and by defeating it—an opportunity is created for more moderate forces to eventually overthrow Assad. The strategic logic here is that the odds for a more favorable outcome in Syria are far better when ISIS is defeated.

Beyond the current desire in America to take action against ISIS, it should also be framed as an important part of the long-term strategy to shape the region and protect U.S. interests. In short, we are not helping Assad, we are creating the conditions for a better Free Syria in the future. Congress now has an opportunity to vote on a $500 million appropriations bill to arm and equip moderate Free Syrian Army forces. It would be a wise investment, and it’s necessary.

All sides of the discussion unanimously identify ISIS as the greatest threat to the region. After the murder of another American journalist last week, cries for urgent action have now drowned out last week’s cautious warnings about potential strategic repercussions of U.S. airstrikes. “We must act now” is the clarion call of the majority of Americans today.

When asked about expanding the airstrikes against ISIS into Syria, President Barack Obama said on 27 August that the United States “does not have a strategy yet.” That created another media stir, but in fairness, the president was referring specifically to a strategy for attacking ISIS in Syria. That would represent a significant escalation that warrants careful consideration. On 3 September at a live interview conducted at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel clarified the U.S. position and offered a clear explanation of where American leadership is in the process for developing a more comprehensive strategy to “deter and defeat ISIL” in Iraq and Syria.

Among other challenges in expanding airstrikes into Syria is the fact that Syria possesses a degraded, but still-functioning integrated air defense system. Unlike Iraq, Syria has not, and will not, invite the United States to operate in its airspace.

Unlike ISIS, Syrian Forces have the ability to shoot down U.S. aircraft. The United States has not confronted this level of threat since the crisis in Kosovo in 1999. Surface-to-air-missiles and MiG interceptors were not of any consequence in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They would add a new threat dimension to the already complex array of problems for conducting military operations in Syria.

As American leaders search to form a strategy to confront and defeat ISIS, they would be wise to remember the words of the famed naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote “whereas tactics, using as its instruments the weapons made by man, shares in the change and progress of the race from generation to generation . . . the old foundations of strategy so far remain, as though laid upon a rock.” Although the fight against the ISIS currently remains far from the briny deep, Mahan’s wisdom regarding the value of timeless strategic tenets remains as true today as it did in any age. As complex as the situation is, a successful strategy is within our grasp.

Setting aside the emotional reaction to the abhorrent actions of ISIS forces, there is a strategic logic behind these terrorist actions. As the weaker power, the terrorists hope to generate a disproportionate over-reaction for every action they take. For example, Osama bin Laden’s strategic logic behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States was to draw the U.S. into a costly and protracted war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and his Mujahidin fighters imagined they would grind the U.S. down just as they did the Soviets in the 1980s. In his own words bin Laden stated, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. . . Meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars by permission of Allah” (30 October 2004). Bin Laden and AQ were not trying to scare the U.S. away from a fight; rather, they were trying to draw us in closer.

What if President Obama was wrong when he said, “Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven [Sotloff], they have already failed.” What if they haven’t failed? What if drawing us into the fight was exactly what they intended?

As an earlier version of al Qaeda did in 2001, the words and actions of ISIS seem to clearly suggest that they are deliberately trying to draw the United States into the fight. As in 2001, our enemy may not appear at this point in time to be, “rational actors.” This may seem impossible for most of us to understand, but I offer you a couple of reasons why this makes strategic sense. First, by drawing the United States into a more visible role, ISIL may believe that the credibility of the struggling Iraqi military and government is further diminished. This would especially be true if the United States were pushed to a more direct response, such as reintroducing ground troops. In short, our increased presence may further weaken the already anemic Iraqi government.

Second, in the information sphere of the conflict, by taking on the world’s remaining superpower, as al Qaeda did in 2001, ISIS’s profile has risen dramatically in the competition for recruiting new fighters. As it is very unlikely that the United States will reintroduce ground forces, ISIS is probably betting that it can survive U.S. airstrikes.

Why would it believe that? America has been at war—in one location or another—since 1991. What we can do tactically has been demonstrated day-after-day for more than 12 years in this region alone. ISIS has already proved its ability to suffer deeply for itscause. That fact suggests that something new, something surprisingly different will be required to defeat them.

The steps being taken right now: creating an international coalition, shuttle diplomacy, and precision airstrikes when the opportunity presents itself, are all steps in the right direction. But the level of threat presented by ISIS and the measures needed to truly destroy this group will require a level of sacrifice and cost that may exceed anything we have experienced since Sept. 11.

At this juncture, the Third Iraq War is stacking up to be the toughest phase of the post-9/11 wars.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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