Keeping the ISIS Challenge in Perspective

by Wayne White

Once again American observers are outbidding each other over how serious a threat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) poses. Recent IS gains in Iraq heightened Washington’s concern, causing President Obama to huddle with coalition defense ministers. In this air of heightened crisis, the option of deploying US combat troops has been revived. Yet this supposed fix (even just talk of it) involves a host of likely problems.

The 19th Century politician, diplomat and writer Don Piatt once said, “A man’s greatness can be measured by his enemies.” If applied to the Islamic State, IS falls short in terms of the ground conflict. The radical Sunni group’s foes consist of the demoralized, ill-led Iraqi Army; Iraq’s sectarian, dysfunctional government; the better, but potentially shaky, Iraqi Kurds; the paltry forces of the rebel Free Syrian Army; and the fierce-fighting but under-armed and ill-supplied Syrian Kurds. Naturally, IS has scored successes against such weak opponents. But that does not make it the irresistible force portrayed by many.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been virtually useless since replacing the discredited Nouri al-Maliki. Surrounded by much the same hyper-sectarian Shia politicians, Abadi has not made an earnest, good faith effort to weaken IS by wooing away many of its Sunni Arab tribal and military supporters. This is, by far, the most critical factor in Iraq on the ground.  Far more pressure from the US and perhaps mediation by regional actors must be considered.

Without a Sunni Arab game change against IS, isolated western Iraqi garrisons in towns and bases have been falling. The al-Asad Airbase complex near the city of Hit may be next. Largely government-held Ramadi remains out of IS hands, but only because surrounding tribes oppose the group. And even with Baghdad at its back, the Iraqi Army’s performance has been marked by repeated failures.

Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army has received little of the military support for which it has begged for three years. Plagued by inferior weaponry and ammunition shortages, and comprised of a welter of semi-autonomous local militias, it poses little danger to IS.

Though more determined and coherent than the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, typically advance behind heavy US air support or in relatively weakly held IS areas. Despite a few exceptions, they are generally reluctant to advance very far—and hold ground—much beyond their own borders.

Meanwhile, the US ignored heroic resistance by tougher Syrian Kurds until recently. They represent the only major contingent of highly motivated anti-ISIS boots on the ground. Probably in response to Turkish wishes, the US largely withheld air support for nearly two weeks.

Yet since declaring Kobani a humanitarian disaster on Oct. 14, the US has hammered IS positions at Kobani with waves of airstrikes, after strikes last week proved too few. Intelligence sharing between the US and the defenders of Kobani has made the strikes more effective. Had strikes this powerful been launched two weeks earlier, Kobani itself would not have become a battlefield.

Providing no military assistance whatsoever, Turkey has blocked thousands of Turkish Kurdish reinforcements from reaching Kobani. Fighters and doctors on the scene report numerous border closures and wounded combatants dying just inside Syria awaiting treatment in Turkey.  Other fighters from Kobani have been arrested at the border, including some wounded.

Still, all around the Islamic State’s current holdings are countries with powerful militaries capable of dealing serious blows to IS regardless of the group’s fanaticism. Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, and Jordan to the south represent dangerous potential IS enemies if attacked. Just beyond Damascus and northwestern Jordan lies perhaps the most formidable local foe: Israel. Much of Iraq’s Shia south would become a graveyard for IS forces attempting to seize sizeable portions of this hostile area, in part because Iran would not let this area and Shia Islam’s holiest shrines fall.

The Anti-IS Front

Turkish cooperation with NATO against IS would vastly boost anti-IS operations. Air support could be based much closer to targets, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds could receive assistance, and the Islamic State’s smuggling of goods and recruits could be curbed. A Turkish volte-face might also salvage its peace process with the Kurds. Turkey has been holding its support hostage to demands such as coalition airstrikes against the Syrian regime. The coalition must keep pushing back; compliance would dissipate the air war against IS.

Other coalition partners, including NATO states like Germany, have also remained on the sidelines or provided little. This too needs to change to impose further pressure on IS.

If Kobani is an example of solid boots on the ground, Iraqi troops fighting west of Baghdad represent the opposite (despite heightened air support and attacks by US Apache helicopter gunships). In Kobani, Kurds have responded to strikes by attacking to clear IS fighters from some areas lost earlier. Heavier strikes near Baghdad barely shore up wavering defense lines.

Instead of responding to lackluster ground forces by boosting air strikes, it should be made clear that forces willing to fight hard to capitalize on air strikes will receive priority. Otherwise under-motivated forces may do even less, hoping air power would do their jobs for them—a losing proposition.

Is such a policy risky? Yes, but so is pouring in US combat troops in the numbers being discussed. Iraqi forces—with Baghdad at stake—must be forced by circumstance to stand their ground. And if densely populated Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad are threatened, they probably would.

Some have downplayed the impact of airstrikes against IS. They maintain strikes must be complimented by decent ground troops–correct where IS goes for more territory. However, a month of pounding undoubtedly has had an overall impact on IS even if that is not yet evident in some frontline fighting. The air campaign also is a long-term affair, with adjustments, mounting contributions, and accumulated impact. One plus is the Islamic State’s fanaticism, driving it to continue exposing its military assets to airstrikes along frontlines where heavy damage could be inflicted.

Committing US combat troops to battle around Baghdad would signal to Iraqi ground troops that they need not take most of the responsibility for the capital’s defense. Americans concerned that sending combat troops would escalate demand for more (“mission creep”) are correct. Reliance on US troops also would regenerate an unhealthy dependency.

More US advisors instead of line combat troops would be wiser, but competence is not the main problem; Iraqi soldiers must see they have no choice but to fight it out with IS. That goes beyond advice, and some advisors caught up in rapid, haphazard Iraqi retreats could be killed or captured by IS. Although advisors are also valuable in coordinating frontline aerial targeting, Americans would have to be prepared for losses. Some of those might well involve the ritual execution of captured US soldiers—perhaps the biggest risk involved in committing large forces.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. Why are Western forces even being contemplated to be there?
    Why do we not just leave the local combatants to fight it out among themselves?
    I believe a Turkish politician, when asked why Turkey was not intervening in Kobani to save Kurdish forces, responded to the effect that from Turkey’s perspective it was just one bunch of terrorists fighting it out with another bunch of terrorists.
    I am not saying he is right but if that is how Turkey views the current conflict taking place in Iraq and Syria – and bearing in mind the fact that they are far closer to the “action” than anyone else – why should we in the West make arrogant assumptions that we know better than those people living locally?
    As Wayne White points out, there has been no substantive change inside Baghdad so why are any of the Western powers bothering to shore up the “new” al-Abadi administration?
    Why don’t we let him and all the other players out there play it out to a finish?
    The atrocities being committed by ISIS are appalling and Western powers must provide humanitarian assistance – but that is all they should be doing.
    Why is the West expected to take on the moral mantle for what is happening out there?
    Western intervention – or meddling – has contributed to the area’s problems, not solutions.
    Let’s see the West stay out of it.
    Incidentally, ISIS are funding their activities through illicit oil sales and artefact theft sales.
    It is clear that once they are settled down, they will play the same game as everyone else.
    The same critique applies where Syria is concerned too. Leave them to get on with it too.

  2. None of the above. Until the idiots calling the shots are replaced and a different direction is taken, why bother? With the brilliant planning implemented since 9-11, why are we still standing in the ever sinking outhouse? The whole process has been inept from the very beginning, which doesn’t need me to rehash here. The plain simple facts are these, the U.S. broke it, don’t know how to fix it, while wanting to continue the farce of saving face, at any cost.

  3. This is the best article you have written so far Wayne.

    What you don’t seem to get however or don’t want to get is that Erdogan hates Assad and the Kurds far more than he dislikes ISIS.

    Unless Washington can find something to buy him out with, Erdo is not going to involve himself in any real way with any coalition against ISIS, unless HE is given Damascus in return.

    As for the Kurds, (PKK and sisters in Syria) that is a very emotional issue internal to Turkey. Negotiations have apparently fallen through big time and Erdogan wants to break the back of Kurdish resistance.

    He WELCOMES ISIS’s help in doing so.

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