Assessing ISIL’s Local Threat (Musa al-Gharbi)
From its inception, ISIL has seized and focused on areas which are ill-defended and where the government presence is generally minimal and largely unwelcome. These areas also tend to be rural and sparsely populated e.g. North (East) Syria, Western Iraq, small areas in North Lebanon)—allowing ISIL to quickly occupy the areas in question and dislodge any (minimal) competition.
Most of the territories they seized in Syria were lands conceded without contest by the Syrian government long before ISIL entered the theater, which al-Baghdadi obtained by subduing or incorporating other, largely local and disorganized, non-state actors who were occupying the territories. This is how they gained so much territory so quickly: they were not facing meaningful opposition.
They have avoided areas which they could not realistically seize or hold, or territories which could only be procured at great cost. Most major population centers fall into these categories, and have therefore been largely immune to ISIL penetration (apart from occasional skirmishes at the outskirts) and are not really under threat. The noteworthy exception, Mosul (Iraq), was only seized because the Iraqi army ceded it without contest and is unlikely to remain in ISIL hands for much longer. In fact, their project of governance over their occupied territories is likely ill-fated even without foreign military intervention—perhaps especially without intervention. Even the sense in which they “control” these tracts is reductively overstated.
This is also worth bearing in mind when pundits discuss the broad swath of territory ISIL supposedly holds—by some reports, about a third of both Iraq and Syria: the percentage of territory is in no way reflective of portion of the relevant populations under ISIL control, as the lands they occupy have small populations and were, in almost all instances, seized with little resistance. Rather than fighting, many of those affected have simply abandoned the areas under assault and sought refuge in government-held territories or neighboring countries.
Because of how they prioritize these already-vulnerable targets, ISIL’s territorial expansion has been able to continue roughly unabated despite the U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which absent the support of ground-forces and especially if lacking a well-conceived broader political strategy, are likely to be counterproductive—a concern raised at the outset by the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Boots on the Ground (Abe Jimenez)
The United States and its coalition seem to be leaning towards at least one half of the missing links described above (albeit, perhaps the less important one): ground troops. They are under pressure to escalate in this way for several reasons—chief among them being that there are a rather finite list of “hard targets,” most of which have already been struck. Beyond these, the risk of collateral damage will be greatly increased, especially as the militants attempt to integrate themselves into the civilian populations of the towns they hold. Precision targeting will require eyes and ears on the front lines.
The ground forces in Iraq and Kurdistan, especially with the support of U.S. Special Forces, have been able to largely stunt ISIL’s progress there. Regaining ISIL-occupied territory will be a more arduous process, but as was mentioned above, the long-term dynamics favor the government.
In a recent Pentagon press conference, General Dempsey stated that it is similarly necessary for ground forces to fight against ISIL in Syria—suggesting this army should consist Iraqis, Kurds and “moderate” Syrians, and would need to be 12,000 to 15,000 strong to retake and hold the lost territory (largely because it is so spread-out). The process of training these forces will likely take years, with ISIL continuing to expand its reach (albeit more slowly) and commit atrocities in vulnerable territories in the interim—particularly in “rebel-held” Syria where the U.S.-led coalition has so far refused to coordinate with the “moderate” rebels they have been training and provisioning for the last three years.
Dempsey said that “No American troops are necessary,” but the slippery slope is ever present. It will be important, especially if ISIL continues with its advance, for the American people to resist reactionary calls for more U.S. troops and advisors to join the fight. As Dempsey stated, local forces will have to play a crucial role—although he did not rule out advising the President on the use of U.S. ground troops if he deems it necessary. Whether it wants to admit it or not, the U.S. may already be on this path.
With regards to Assad, the United States and its coalition of the eager have also started flirting with an ‘attack all parties’ policy—with Administration officials reiterating America’s commitment to deposing President Assad despite the current focus on ISIL.
Towards this end, General Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel mentioned the creation of a no-fly zone to prevent strikes against civilians by the Syrian Arab Army. Though Dempsey stated that the zone is not eminent (and previously declared it to be an ill-advised and likely non-productive measure), he said that discussion of its possibility would continue with the Turkish officials who proposed it.
The Turks have called for a no-fly zone for over a year, but its implementation will require attacking Syria’s very well equipped anti-air defenses. Not to mention that waging a war on two fronts against both Assad and ISIL could complicate matters with Syria’s Shi’a allies, who are carrying a lot of the counter-insurgency weight in Iraq. Despite these complications, the Turkish Parliament has authorized the use of force in both Iraq and Syria—which will likely be used to at least seize a buffer zone. Perhaps they will even deploy their considerable ground forces to render the airstrikes more effective—be they against ISIL or (eventually) the Syrian regime.
In any case, it seems as though the road towards “degrading and defeating” ISIL is going to be paved with boots on the ground. The only question which remains is, whose boots?