Other People's Boots

In the fight against the Islamic State (IS), President Obama has set forth a loose strategy in Iraq and Syria that is designed to put other people's boots on the ground, supported by U.S. airpower. Such tactics are calculated to avoid the so-called “mistakes” of Iraq and Afghanistan, namely an invasion that lasted over a decade. The question is, though, is this strategy going to lead to an American victory over IS?

Ironically, Islamic State's own propaganda provides solid arguments against the current American strategy. In a strange case of a broken clock being right twice a day, IS has produced a propaganda video entitled "Lend me Your Ears" that disparages the U.S. attempt to arm other proxy forces and rely on airstrikes. These points have some merit when discussing operations against the Islamic State. The IS spokesman was quoted as saying:

  • “The FSA are proven to be an undisciplined, corrupt, and largely ineffective fighting force.”
  • “Airpower is good at taking out specific targets, but is not much use at taking and holding ground. For that you need effective, disciplined troops.”

First, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a poor potential ally for the U.S.  It is undisciplined because the rebels are not unified beyond defeating Assad. With a lack of consensus about a post-Assad Syria, a potential worst-case scenario is that after the dust has settled, a new civil war will spring up akin to the chaos in Libya. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the FSA is decentralized and made up of an eclectic mix of factions. The FSA is also very corrupt. With each faction focused on local battles, the overall goal of defeating Assad is then lost in a storm of petty corruption. Documented in articles such as "How The Free Syrian Army Became A Largely Criminal Enterprise", it is revealed that in the absence of any law, Syria has degenerated into "a dog-eat-dog existence, where men vie for control of territory, money, weapons and smuggling routes." Further, the FSA has been steadily losing ground to both IS and the Assad Regime and other Islamist groups.  Partly because of its disunity, its troops have shown no real ability to defeat its rivals. 

Second, even with more than 60 countries forming up against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it is doubtful this can bring victory over the Islamic State. A member of the Consortium of Defense Analysts concludes that while:

Air strikes are useful, indeed essential, but they are only the first step in attacking ISIL….  Air strikes can disrupt communications, slow down movement, destroy supplies and logistical support assets and blunt enemy attacks. They will make the enemy slower to react, weaker at the attack point and less flexible in operations. All of these are desirable, but they cannot retake lost ground or destroy the will of the enemy. Only ground troops can do that.

And indeed, as the Pentagon has admitted, U.S. airstrikes have, so far, not really degraded IS. In fact, the Islamic State continues to gain new recruits in large numbers despite weeks of airstrikes and other military efforts by the United States.

All in all, the current American strategy is probably doomed to failure.

Since the Obama Administration has said it will not “put boots on the ground,” and the FSA is not a viable force to fight ISIS, I suspect that the U.S. will have to embark on a frantic search for reliable allies to provide the ground troops. This will not be easy. President Obama must confront an entirely new paradigm of geopolitics in light of the Arab Spring. Ofir Haivry outlines the new power blocs, who include familiar faces under different titles. Autocratic Sunnis such as Saudi Arabia “harbor a deeply anti-democratic vision of society.” Sunni-Populists such as the Muslim Brotherhood “would impose extremist rule on their societies.” Shia-Radicals such as Iran seek a nuclear trump card for regional dominance “while making use of mass murderers such as Bashar al-Assad and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.” Finally, Sunni-Jihadists such as ISIS Al-Qaeda, and Al-Nusra are the “bloodthirsty barbarians” seeking to eradicate Western Civilization. Even the best of these groups would only be temporary allies of convenience, not true friends to American interests.

The U.S. would be better off ditching its current weak strategy for a more decisive use of military force, which probably would require U.S. ground troops. I understand that the current strategy exemplifies the severe aversion that the Obama Administration has toward vindicating the Bush-era troop surge. But as the situation on the ground continues to destabilize, the United States will have a major role to play, and it cannot let its biases get in the way of defeating IS. Whether President Obama wants to acknowledge it or not, the War on Terror is still being fought. We should not rely on an "under construction army" in Syria when the United States military is the strongest fighting force in the world.

In the end, it might be better to realize that if you want something done, you need to do it yourself.

Liam Bamford is a Research Associate at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET