Just prior to the U.S.-led anti-Daish (ISIS) campaign into Syria, the group released a highly-polished 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” in which they challenged the United States to heavily mobilize in Iraq and Syria. They have made similar taunts when they executed Western hostages, seized American weapons, or co-opted the rebels trained to fight against them.
Why are these extremists so eager to lure America into the theater?
Because while al-Daish has unrivaled wealth from multiple channels, a vast array of arms, and commands tens-of-thousands of soldiers– the one thing they seem to lack is popular legitimacy among the local populations. This is a big problem for a group that aspires to statehood. However, the recently-expanded intervention will likely help al-Daish mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against a greater enemy (the U.S.-led coalition)—with ISIL portraying themselves as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its non-state interlocutors have little exposure and everything to gain.
Bolstering the Legitimacy of the Enemy
Resistance organizations like al-Daish are defined nearly as much by their enemies as they are by their own actions. To them, it is an honor when U.S. politicians declare ISIS a major threat to the world order which must be resisted before, as Sen. Lindsay Graham audaciously put it, we “all get killed here at home.” It is a propaganda victory when the United States marshals more than 50 nations to join their ill-defined and likely ill-fated campaign. That al-Baghdadi and his forces could warrant such a response is a testament to their apparent significance and strength—a message that is reinforced the longer al-Daish continues to stand defiant in the face of such overwhelming opposition.
While most of these allies’ participation or support is largely symbolic, each new addition has more utility in bolstering the so-called Islamic State’s credentials as a major world actor than it does in boosting America’s image as a global collaborator. It only helps the extremists further that the military charge against them is led by the world’s unipolar superpower, with kinetic support drawn primarily from the region’s oppressive autocrats and its former colonial and imperial European overlords–the only way the opposing coalition could speak better of al-Baghdadi would be if Israel took on a prominent role as well. That al-Daish is engaged so prolifically in a struggle against these powers, widely perceived as the biggest enemies of Muslims’ self-determination, will go a long way in distracting any sympathetic public from their military excesses and failures in governance.
Civilian casualties will only exacerbate this trend.
Despite initial White House denials of collateral damage, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (an anti-regime activist organization), the first raids on al-Daish killed 70 of its fighters and 8 non-combatants; contemporaneous attacks on al-Nusra affiliates in Aleppo (the so-called “Khorasan Group”) killed 30 militants and up to 11 non-combatants. On Wednesday, there were strikes on al-Daish’s Syrian oil refineries which killed another 14 terrorists and 5 non-combatants. Collectively, roughly 17% (more than 1 of 6) from the total casualties of the coalition’s actions in Syria have been civilians, including children. And this is the hit-rate for the easier “hard targets,” meaning the ratio of civilians-to-militants killed is likely to only get worse as the campaign goes on—an outcome which al-Daish is trying to ensure by integrating themselves more heavily into civilian areas.
There is little means of increasing the precision of these airstrikes without “boots on the ground,” leaving the Obama Administration with the options of either scaling back its offensive in Syria, tolerating increasingly high-rates of collateral damage, or breaking its vow of not committing ground forces in a combat mission—either way it is a victory for al-Baghdadi. To the extent that his fighters are killed in the event of an escalation, they will be glorified as martyrs and used to recruit others to the fight. America is hardly so antifragile.
Signs of Trouble
Because of the complexities involved with kinetic activity, military interventions virtually always last much longer than projected, cost much more in terms of lives and resources, realize their initial goals incompletely at best, and result in myriad adverse 2nd order effects which were insufficiently anticipated or considered at the outset of the conflict. This is true of virtually all major military interventions, perhaps best demonstrated by America’s recent disastrous forays into the Middle East.
Because of the aforementioned asymmetries in costs and risks, this effect is even more pronounced in campaigns against ideologically-driven non-state actors– underscored by former DIA head Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s recent testimony that America is “no safer” as a result of its 13-year “War on Terror;” in many respects, the problem has grown worse. As an official extension of this indefinite war, the campaign against ISIL will probably be equally counter-productive. At this point, it is primarily a question of how much deeper Western powers get sucked into the theater, at what cost, and how badly the whole enterprise backfires down the line.
Less than a week into the campaign, the blowback has already begun. Thousands have turned out across Syria to protest against the coalition airstrikes. Helping to lead this charge are the “moderate” rebels funded and trained by Washington, who condemn the strikes as ineffective in part because their leadership is not being consulted for the selection of strategic targets–although they also deplore the civilian casualties, and the fact that while there have been no strikes on Syrian government targets, the coalition has already begun targeting non-ISIS rebel groups, such as al-Nusra.
Previous U.S. policies aimed at parsing out the “good rebels” from the extremists have already turned al-Nusra from an ally of the “moderates” into a rival. Nonetheless, up until now al-Nusra has been intensely focused on, and extremely effective against, the Syrian government—but in response to the latest strikes they have turned their attention, vowing reprisals against the United States. Worse still, the strikes have pushed al-Nusra towards rapprochement with al-Daish—rather than being divided against one another, they are uniting against a common enemy: the U.S.-led coalition and their proxies, to include the “moderate” rebels—who may increasingly be seen as a more pressing target than the Syrian government. These developments will strengthen both the regime and the extremists in different ways, even as they endanger America along with its regional interests, allies and local agents.
A Better Alternative
The American strategy is doomed to fail because fundamentalism, radicalization, terrorism, and related phenomena are inherently sociological problems—which can be easily exacerbated, but never resolved, by military means. In fact, the most effective action America can take in response to al-Daish is to stop feeding the beast.
This would begin with Western powers cutting their aid to non-state actors in Syria and the broader region, and then by revisiting the levels and types of cooperation afforded to Israel and Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs in order to reduce complicacy with their abuses, depriving militants of new fodder for propaganda. Long-overdue measures to restrict the flow of fighters into the region will be of immense value—particularly if joined by policies to cut trafficking of illicit funds and (especially) arms.
However, the single most effective way to delegitimize al-Daish is to portray and deal with the threat they pose in a less hyperbolic manner. Depicting and treating them as an imminently manageable challenge that can be largely contained and ultimately overthrown by the states and local populations which they occupy is both a more realistic assessment of, and an appropriately condescending response to, the movement; it would simultaneously be more effective and cost-effective.
The more America responds to the so-called “Islamic State” as an existential threat to the world order, the more these proclamations will take on the character of self-fulfilling prophecy—in part because Western powers are essentially glamorizing the actors they ostensibly seek to undermine, even as their reactionary policies play into the hands of the enemy. The best way to defeat al-Daish is to simply refuse to play their game.