Airstrikes Forcing ISIS to Dig In Militarily and Ideologically

United States (US) aircraft have flown about 4,100 sorties against ISIS militants since August.

As reports from Western media sources suggest the bombings have had a positive effect by “halting” ISIS advances, other have claimed that the airstrikes have had only a minor impact. An IS-Syrian fighter told Cable News Network (CNN) in the past few days that US attacks have been “totally ineffective.”

“We’ve been ready for this for some time. We know that our bases are known because they’re tracking us with radars and satellites, so we had backup locations” (reports Business Insider’s Jeremy Bender).

Some terrorist experts argue that the primary use of military force is sufficient for defeating terrorist groups. Political scientist Prof. Barry R. Posen and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Security Studies Program opines that, “[o]ffensive action and offensive military capabilities are necessary components of a successful counterterror strategy.” Military force was effective in the decline of the late-19th century Russian group Narodnaya Volya, Peru’s Shining Path, and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

A number of explanatory variables show that in other cases military force needs to be supplemented by further initiatives. ISIS’ ideological motivation, diverse economic engine, its regime type, breadth, goals, and support bases undergird this idea. Countries that supply military materials for the combat phase of the campaign cannot sufficiently build a civil society necessary to help during and after the conflict.

Political and economic support can also assuage the plight of civilian Muslims directly and indirectly suffering, suppress ISIS’ backing, and prepare for post-conflict development. They simultaneously maneuver the West away from the bridled image of a coalition proud to use weapons of war and that respond to ISIS in the manner they might welcome.

With airstrikes underway it should be incumbent upon the US to apply pressure elsewhere to isolate ISIS from domestic, regional, and international support bases. Popping a pimple requires squeezing it on all sides.

The US needs to improve its game, or rather, begin playing the game instead of being played by others. If the US is serious about taking the lead in the campaign against ISIS, all regional Arab states need to be involved.

Cooperation between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims could leave little room for IS and cause disenfranchisement among its supporters. It might, at the very least, compel would-be foreign fighters from Western countries to abstain from traveling abroad to join the jihadists.

The US and its allies need to redraw their lines of inclusion. Syria’s President Bashar Assad is all smiles these days and he has every reason to be. The Assad regime has managed to become positioned so that it is more akin to a friendly partner as opposed to foremost impetus of the conflict.

Before ISIS assumed a significant position on foreign policy agendas of major Western states, Assad received waves of attention for torturing and attacking civilians as well as military opponents “on an industrial scale,” notes Business Insider’s Michael B. Kelly, “unseen since World War II.” Assad is still that man.

Syrians have shown their willingness to stand by the US if it were to draft a comprehensive strategy that included targeting the Assad regime in addition to ISIS. Hadi al-Bahra, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), said that they stand “ready and willing to partner with the international community not only to defeat ISIS but also rid the Syrian people of the tyranny of the Assad regime” (quoted in The Guardian).

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will continue to blow smoke. Much of his strength lies in his rhetoric. Although typically a pot-banger, Putin has occasionally used the pot to do the banging against others. But even his most recent and bold engagements (i.e., Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the “August War” in Georgia, and the Crimea crisis) have shown just how short an operating range he has.

Putin tends to show his strength in his own backyard but only in short bursts.

Iran has remained a discreet but still very active state in the Syria-ISIS war. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called US proclamations about ISIS “absurd, hollow, and biased.” Nonetheless, Iran has so far been a spectator as the US and its military forces act as a proxy, and this is the dynamic that the US must work to overturn.

ISIS threatens Iran through its extreme violence and attention on Shi’a Muslims. However, the elimination of ISIS could also have negative outcomes for Iran. By greatly limiting the resources of ISIS (or even its destruction), Sunni Muslims’ power might surge and consequently contest Tehran’s interest in becoming the regional power.

Iran needs to keep the conflict as far away from its doorstep as possible. Al Jazeera’s Soraya Lennie explains that there is a lot at stake for Iran. Tehran’s territory, power, influence, and security are now at risk. Syria, however, does not pose a direct threat to Iran.

Iran is already looking at what will be after ISIS. For the US and it allies, the focus is on the now. Yet, the US and coalition strategies for dealing with the situation at this point needs to be bolstered so as to move beyond the predominant use of military force and become much more comprehensive. At the same time the prism of analysis needs to be cast on the future of the region and what is required in a post-ISIS Middle East.

Whatever course of action the US and its allies choose to pursue, they must be aware that there are many players here and that they are playing more than one game. The West would be wise to do the same.

*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Stewart Webb.

Stewart Webb is the editor of DefenceReport. He holds an MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University (UK) and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University (Canada). He is the co-editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (forthcoming, 2015), Taylor & Francis. 

About the Author
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.
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