After initially characterizing ISIS as "a JV [as in junior varsity] outfit," President Obama responded to pressure from the public and from within his own administration by taking action against the so-called Islamic State. Steps the president has taken have temporarily slowed but not stopped ISIS. A second round of ISIS decisions will take place after November's Congressional elections — unless events force them to be made before. So where do things stand and what decisions must be made?
This murderous Islamic jihadist movement now has a formal fighting force of more than 30,000 in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is well-financed and well-armed, with modern weapons mostly taken from U.S. depots in Iraq. It is led militarily, for the most part, by experienced Sunni generals from Saddam Hussein's old regime in Iraq. The political leadership of ISIS aims to establish a radical caliphate across the region. That makes the group a threat to every regime in the region including, of course, Israel. ISIS also threatens to export its terrorist operations to the United States and western Europe.
President Obama came late to grasping the importance and danger of ISIS. But he now has assembled a coalition of Western and moderate Arab nations to resist it. Desperately needed bombing is now striking ISIS troop concentrations, command centers, supply lines and depots. But no one believes bombing alone — or measures to reduce the group's oil revenues or cut off its international financial transactions — will be enough to defeat ISIS. That will require the "boots on the ground" that Obama has, several times, pledged to avoid.
Where will these ground forces would come from? That is not a simple problem.
To "do something" Obama requested, and the U.S. Congress has appropriated a half-billion dollars to train 5,000 Syrian "moderates" in Saudi Arabia. This force won't be ready to fight effectively for a year. It has no identified leader, which Defense Secretary Hagel noted last Friday, and its members are only now being vetted and recruited. Even if these recruits are superbly trained, what chance do 5,000 Syrian soldiers have against an ISIS force that is 30,000 strong — and growing?
Kurdish troops have fought bravely, holding back ISIS in Kurdish territory in Iraq. But they do not presently have the modern weaponry necessary to defeat their better-armed rival. Thus far the U.S. has insisted that such weaponry flow to the Kurds only through the Iraqi central government. But the Iraqi government, with good reason, fears Kurdish separatism and does not want to arm a Kurdish army which would defeat Iraqi forces in a fight for independence. Furthermore, Kurds aspire not just to independence from Iraq, but to a larger Kurdistan which would take territory from Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The incumbent Syrian regime, of course, is fighting ISIS on the ground in that country. The U.S. cannot ally with a regime it is publicly committed to toppling. Syria has, however, tacitly accepted bombing raids on ISIS in its territory.
Iraqi forces have broken and run in most of their important engagements with ISIS, leaving behind weapons and equipment. An effort now is being made to reinvigorate Sunni tribal forces that opposed the Iraqi predecessor of ISIS during the successful U.S. "surge" in Iraq. That will be difficult to do.
Iran has contributed to formation of Shiite militias which are willing to fight against the Sunni ISIS forces. But the U.S. does not want Iran to become directly engaged. Nor does it want Iran to effectively take over governance in eastern Iraq or install a puppet government in Baghdad.
Russia and China adamantly oppose such Islamist movements in their own and bordering countries. But they back the Assad regime in Syria and are thoroughly enjoying the predicaments of the U.S. and NATO countries as they try to cope with ISIS. Neither the U.S. nor any other western nation wants to contribute more than a small number of ground advisors to the fight.
Given all these complications, what can be done right now to fight ISIS on the ground?
First, the U.S. can begin shipping more modern weaponry directly to the Kurds, who can defeat ISIS on the ground in Kurdish territory but will not fight alone against ISIS outside Kurdish territory.
The U.S. can also lobby its present partners to contribute ground troops to an international force. But unless the U.S. is the first to commit such troops, others will not follow. We're probably looking at a force of about 50,000. At least a third of that force likely would have to come from the U.S.
If the president were to reverse his present no-boots-on-the-ground policy, he no doubt would begin by expanding the current U.S. military advisory presence from a couple thousand to 5,000, then more. He would have to commit special operations teams to fight ISIS directly and not merely serve as advisors to local forces.
Both the president and the American people are understandably wary of the kind of creeping buildup which began, in Vietnam, with a few advisors and ended up with 500,000 Americans (and 58,000 dead) in a protracted conflict against an indigenous movement. The country is wearied by our long involvement in Iraq, and by its outcome: an ineffectual government in Baghdad and an army which will not fight.
Americans fear that the planned pullout from Afghanistan will end badly too. There is no appetite for reinserting American forces there. A strong strain of opinion says that the U.S. should simply withdraw entirely from the Middle East and let the locals write their own history, bloody as it might be. The latter course could be defended if the U.S. and its partners did not have such a high stake in the stability of a region which has the potential to become a theater for wider, even nuclear war.
We also cannot tolerate a strengthening radical regime which practices genocide, and which has declared the explicit aim of attacking and destroying non-believers wherever they are — be it Paris, London, New York or other world centers.
There is no peace-in-our-time deal to be made with ISIS. One month before a national U.S. election, neither the president nor a majority in Congress want to send American ground troops back into a region they just left. But some 9/11-scale incident, or major calamity on the ground in Iraq could quickly transform the national reticence into impatience.
Should that happen the president would address a joint session of Congress. Most likely he'd ask for tightened homeland security, more bombing, strikes against ISIS' financial underpinning, an incremental increase in U.S. ground "advisors" and, most importantly, authority to wage war.
White House advisors say congressional authority is not needed. But this is too chancy a venture for any president to undertake on his own.