By Manish Rai
Islamic State has again proved its striking capability beyond Iraq and Syria. The so-called soldiers of the caliphate appear to have underscored their chilling reach — with terrorist attacks against Russia, Lebanon and France. The seemingly synchronized assaults that turned Paris into a war zone came just days after a bombing targeted a Shiite district of Beirut controlled by Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, and a Russian passenger jet was downed in what appears to be an explosion over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The rapid succession of strikes, all claimed by the Islamic State, suggests that a regional war is taking on global dimensions.
The skill and determination of IS leaders and fighters, as well as their organizational size and proven lethality, distinguish them from other terrorist groups. So the potential global threat from Islamic State will be different and much higher in magnitude than that posed by al-Qaeda. One of the biggest ironies is that after a protracted air campaign by the world superpowers against IS, its minions are still able to carry out deadly attacks far from its Middle East strongholds.
Despite thousands of US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that reportedly killed about 10,000 Islamic State fighters, the group continues to replenish its forces. Intelligence analysts estimate that nearly 30,000 foreign militants from more than 100 countries have entered Iraq and Syria since 2011, with Islamic State gaining about 1,000 fighters a month.
A single important component is missing in all the strategies used against IS to date: the absence of any effective ground forces against Islamic State. No amount of airstrikes can fully obliterate these hated Islamist fanatics. This is because even very extensive air campaigns will still leave adequate residual force, leadership, and safe-haven, to allow ISIS to reconstitute and reorganize itself. American forces have been bombing Islamic State targets for over a year without significant progress. US and NATO warplanes have been joined by those of Russia. But all have been unable to seriously degrade IS. The US air campaign was officially aimed at “containing” IS and stopping its expansion. But a strategy that only disrupts or contains without defeating or destroying ISIS has no prospect of success.
ISIS is a serious enemy that shows significant skill in light infantry deployments. Aerial bombing is merely a conventional counter-strategy. It is the least efficient and decisive option. This is proving even truer against the Islamic State in 2015 than it did against Nazi Germany in 1945. The Islamic State is not dependent on heavy industry or urban infrastructure. So targeting such sites won’t affect its fighting capabilities. Air strikes alone are indecisive without a ground campaign to flush the terrorists/insurgents out of their hiding places and to contain to separate them from ordinary civilians. There is need for an integrated strategy that includes including an air campaign and the commitment of ground troops. It’s long been argued that local militias or groups that oppose IS can be used effectively against Islamic State. But it’s a hard fact that none of these groups have the strength to take on IS in direct military confrontation. Even the Kurdish militias like the PKK and YPG which scored battlefield successes against IS in limited engagements are unwilling to fight IS on a large scale and on multiple fronts. The Kurdish militias employ a uni-focal approach that relies on safeguarding their strongholds from IS and consolidating their positions — no more.
To defeat the Islamic State and contain ISIS fighters, the ground campaign needs to be led by first-tier western armies. This must be on a scale equivalent to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would also require the cooperation of Iraq’s and Syria’s neighbors. Nations like Turkey would have to close their continguous borders. Otherwise, ISIS fighters would escape to other states. This cooperation would not only require western “allies” like Kurds and Turkey. It would also hinge on the tacit cooperation of western “enemies” such as Syria, Iran and Russia. Without a western-led invasion, ISIS will dominate its current territory indefinitely. It will preside over yet another lingering civil war, in yet another failed state, and with yet more contagion to other states. The result will be a springboard for attacking western interests all across the region and even on a global scale for years or decades to come.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround (VA) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.