Iraqi Victory Over ISIS in Ramadi Could Prove Pivotal

(December 28, 2015 – New York Times)

BAGHDAD — Breaking a seven-month occupation by the Islamic State, Iraqi troops on Monday retook most of Ramadi, the most populous city in western Iraq, overrunning a government compound held by the terrorist group at the city center and dealing a setback to its deadly grip on large parts of the country.

Iraqi soldiers continued to face stiff resistance by Islamic State fighters in several pockets, and their hold on Ramadi — achieved after a week of fierce fighting with help from American jets that pounded enemy positions — remained tenuous. In Washington, Pentagon officials warned that it would be premature to declare outright victory.

But if the government manages to hold Ramadi, it could prove pivotal to the efforts to beat back the Islamic State in Iraq and, ultimately, to reverse the group’s gains in Syria as well. The Obama administration is hoping that a victory in Ramadi could also help vindicate its strategy of relying largely on air power to aid Iraqi and other partners fighting on the ground.

The Ramadi campaign is the latest in a string of defeats for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and its Arabic acronym, Daesh. The group has lost as much as 40 percent of the Iraqi territory it conquered last year.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who announced the city’s “liberation” on Twitter on Monday night, has vowed to now focus on recapturing Mosul, a larger city in the north that the Islamic State seized in 2014.

The battle for Ramadi, which had proceeded in fits and starts since the summer, was waged partly by Sunni tribesmen whom American troops had trained to fight alongside the forces of the Shiite-dominated government. If it continues, such cooperation — a delicate alliance, given Iraq’s long history of sectarian violence — could help corrode the Islamic State’s claim to represent all of Sunni Islam.

In a televised speech on Monday night, Mr. Abadi extolled what he described as the cooperative effort of “different affiliations and religions and sects” among Iraqis in routing Islamic State fighters from Ramadi. “The year 2016 will be, God willing, the year of ending the presence of Daesh from the Iraq lands,” he said.

The retaking of the city center began around 8 a.m., when government tanks and bulldozers breached the walls around the local government complex. Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Belawi, the leader of a battalion of Sunni tribal fighters, said the remaining militants had either fled or been killed. State television broadcast images of soldiers raising the Iraqi flag above the compound and singing the national anthem. The number of casualties was unclear.

A military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, declared the city “liberated,” but other Iraqi officials later offered more cautious assessments.

Iraqi security forces were able to re-enter a damaged government compound in central Ramadi that had been held by Islamic State militants since May. Government troops recaptured much of the city on Monday after a week of fierce fighting. Credit European Pressphoto Agency

By the evening, a military commander, Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, estimated that the government controlled 75 percent to 80 percent of the Ramadi area. Insurgents were still in control of several suburbs, including the villages of Sajariya, Sufiya and Albu Ghanim, northeast of Ramadi, and three towns to the east: Albu Bali, north of the Euphrates River, and Khaldiya and Husayba al-Sharqiya, south of the river.

General Mahlawi said those areas “will be liberated quickly,” but he declined to specify a timetable. A Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, warned that Islamic State fighters might have escaped by melting into the local population.

Supporters of the Islamic State, which relies heavily on social media for recruitment and publicity, had used Twitter to dismiss reports of the impending fall of Ramadi as exaggerated or fabricated. But on Monday evening, an online account associated with the group called on supporters to “not forget your brothers in Ramadi” in their prayers — an implicit acknowledgment that the Islamic State was under siege.

“The clearance of the government center is a significant accomplishment,” Col. Steven H. Warren, the United States military spokesman in Baghdad, said in a statement. “Today’s success is a proud moment for Iraq.”

Colonel Warren said the American-led coalition had conducted, as part of the Ramadi campaign, more than 630 airstrikes since July, including three on Sunday that hit 18 targets.

In recent months, the Islamic State has had to withdraw from the town of Sinjar, in northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border, and the cities of Tikrit and Baiji, in the “Sunni triangle” north of Baghdad.

A soldier in a heavily damaged building in the Huz neighborhood of Ramadi, Iraq, on Sunday. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A soldier in a heavily damaged building in the Huz neighborhood of Ramadi, Iraq, on Sunday. Credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ramadi had been one of the largest cities under the extremist group’s control, along with its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, Syria. It still controls Mosul, as well as Falluja, which sits between Ramadi and the capital, Baghdad, nearly 60 miles to the east.

The fall of Ramadi to the Islamic State in May was an embarrassing blow to the Iraqi government and military, setting back efforts to recapture the surrounding Anbar Province from the group.

Reasserting control over Ramadi, the capital and largest city in Anbar, will allow Iraq to cut off supply lines to Falluja and may make it very difficult for the Islamic State to continue to hold that city. American-trained Sunni tribesmen are part of a force that is supposed to hold Ramadi and prevent Islamic State militants from returning.

President François Hollande of France, who declared his country to be “at war” with the Islamic State after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, congratulated the Iraqi prime minister on Monday and called the “liberation” of Ramadi “the most important victory since the start of the fight against the terrorist organization” last year.

“This is a major step in restoring the authority of the Iraqi state in the service of all its citizens,” Mr. Hollande said.

Eid Ammash, a spokesman for the Anbar provincial council, said in a telephone interview that troops had been careful about entering the government complex in Ramadi to minimize losses, and a police commander, Mazin al-Dulaimi, said forces had to make sure that suicide bombers and snipers were no longer inside the compound.

A military vehicle carrying members of the Iraqi security forces flew the national flag as it drove through Ramadi on Monday. Credit Reuters

Through intercepted wireless communications, he said, the police learned that snipers in the government complex had been trying to delay the Iraqi forces’ advance, to facilitate the escape of fellow militants.


But Pierre-Jean Luizard, director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, and the author of a recent book about the Islamic State, cautioned against seeing Ramadi as a turning point. He said the Islamic State’s power derived not from military strength but from “the weakness of its enemies, first and foremost the Iraqi state with its Shiite-dominated government.”

Dr. Luizard added that the Islamic State could not be defeated unless members of the Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Iraq until the United States invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, were assured a place in the government, which he said would require different constitutional arrangements.

“The Islamic State continues to make a better offer to the people it controls than the Baghdad government, whose return is the greatest fear of most inhabitants,” he said of the Sunnis of Anbar Province.

Still, Daniel L. Byman, a Georgetown professor who studies global jihadist movements, said the campaign to retake Ramadi was a cause for cautious optimism.

“It’s not an isolated event or simply a symbolic victory,” he said. “It shows the Islamic State is facing real reversals on the ground.”

He said Sunni tribes in Anbar Province were ultimately pragmatic. “They want a high degree of independence, but they also want to be on the side of the winners,” he added. That said, Dr. Byman warned that the Islamic State still has tremendous resources.

“If it can expand in Syria even while losing in Iraq, it can still claim victory,” he said. “It needs the perception of success. And one reason it’s expanding its terrorist operations outside the Middle East is because of the military losses in Iraq. The more losses it suffers on the ground, the more likely it is to strike back with international terrorism.”

What Is America Fighting For?
What America Is Fighting For!

(December 19, 2015 – The Atlantic)

LibertyThe United States has been at war with ISIS for more than a year. But you cannot beat a surging ideology without a higher sense of purpose.

The United States has been at war with ISIS for more than a year, and with Islamic extremism for nearly a decade and a half. But beyond defending the homeland against terrorism, U.S. leaders have not offered a compelling answer to this vital question: What is it that America is fighting for?

The question has taken on new urgency as electoral politics has driven a surge of illiberal populism, not only in the United States but in many European democracies. America will not defeat the grave challenge it faces by retreating from its core principles. When societies fall out of touch with their most elevating, unifying beliefs, they decline into cynicism and sloth. This is how states and civilizations decay and disappear.

When these principles were first codified in 1776 and in 1789, in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they embodied a uniquely American creed. But they drew heavily from European Enlightenment thinkers. And the founders advanced them as universal values. Since America’s founding, the principles of equality, freedom, and government by and for the people have been increasingly embraced around the world, particularly since the mid-1970s, when democracy began its spread from being mainly a Western phenomenon to a global one, in nearly 120 countries today. During this period, the number of liberal democracies—with good protections for political and civil freedoms under a rule of law—also steadily increased, from 57 states in 1994 to 79 states in 2005 (about 40 percent of all the world’s states). And that is where it remains.

Over the last decade, democratic progress ground to a halt and freedom has been receding, for a number of reasons. The debacle of American intervention in Iraq, which was justified in part as a “democracy promotion” exercise, soured the U.S. and other Western publics on the goal of trying to support the spread of democracy, even by peaceful means. The shambles in Iraq, the rise of China, the aggression of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the tentativeness of American leadership have also diminished American prestige and influence in the world. And in poorer countries, democracy has struggled against long odds due to weak states, massive corruption, and low levels of education.

You can’t beat a surging ideology with no ideology or higher sense of purpose. In the face of the persistent challenge of violent Islamist extremism and the global recession of freedom, what the world has needed is a powerful reaffirmation of the universal relevance of liberal values. Instead, the democratic West has been retreating into moral relativism and illiberal impulses.

You can’t beat a surging ideology with no ideology or higher sense of purpose.
The assault on liberal values has been a defining feature of the democratic recession. During the past decade, democracy has typically ended not with tanks rolling in the streets or the president shutting down parliament, but rather in suffocating increments: with a regime steadily rigging elections, limiting opposition rights, taming independent media, and criminalizing the work of independent organizations. This was the playbook by which Putin took Russia from a quasi-democracy into a personal dictatorship, dependent on xenophobic nationalism and international conflict for its legitimacy. The script has been copied in varying degrees by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, his populist authoritarian soulmates in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, and by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, among others.

With the lavish aid of financial inducements, Putin and his oil-rich fellow autocrats in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have been attracting support from a growing number of European politicians. But worse than material cooptation has been the unabashed admiration for Putin’s illiberal rule from the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, along with many other right-wing anti-immigrant European politicians. In October elections, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party stormed back to power after eight years, with its leader, President Jaroslaw Kaczynski, evincing admiration for Orban’s chauvinistic concentration of power. It remains to be seen if Kaczynski and his party will erode democratic freedoms, pluralism, and the rule of law with the zeal and skill of Orban, but the early signs are disturbing.

Historically, authoritarian populists have thrived at the ballot box when voters feel angry, alienated, and insecure. It’s not just physical insecurity (terrorism, violence, and war) that inclines people toward political extremes. Rapid social change and economic insecurity leave people feeling threatened and unmoored—susceptible to chauvinistic, anti-immigrant slogans.

That is why, even before the current Syrian refugee crisis, right-wing populist parties were gaining dramatically across a Europe buffeted by economic stagnation, large-scale immigration, rising inequality, and the growing distance between ordinary citizens and the institutions of the European Union. Recently, the anti-immigrant right-wing National Front led the first round of French regional elections with 30 percent of the vote. Although it lost all of the second-round races, its leader, Marine Le Pen, is now a serious contender for the French presidency in 2017. In Switzerland in October, the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party became the largest party in the federal parliament with a similar share of the vote. In Austria and Greece, resilient far-right parties have neo-Nazi roots.

As Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote some four decades ago in The Politics of Unreason, Americans have historically flocked to far-right movements when they felt their social status was threatened. A classic analogue to Donald Trump’s tirades against Mexican immigrants—and, now that there is a hotter button to push, Muslim immigrants—was the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, which stirred bigoted populist fears of being overwhelmed by Catholic immigration. It was one of several reactionary movements that sought to curb immigration—fortunately with little lasting effect. Eight decades later, the tables turned when a charismatic anti-Semitic Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, used his radio broadcasts to promote sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and to blame the Jews for the Bolshevik revolution, the spread of communism, and (paradoxically) control of international banking as well.

These were only two of many moments when political demagogues deftly manipulated fear to build a nativist, anti-elitist political movement against pluralism, tolerance, and global integration. Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s had many of these strains, but while Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary in New Hampshire (and little else), Donald Trump could prove to be the most serious U.S. presidential contender in memory to play with this kind of fire.

Common to right-wing populist movements is the nativist instinct to stigmatize and divide, to propagate simple answers to complex policy challenges, and to blame some “other”—a vulnerable minority, a corrupt elite, malevolent external forces, or typically some conspiracy among these—for people’s anxieties. This is the common ground on which Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump stand. While they differ in their implications for democracy (or in the extent to which they have so far had the opportunity to damage it), they share striking similarities in the tone and content of their appeal. Most strikingly, the far-right populists in Europe and the United States share a strong current of respect, or even open admiration, for Putin.

But the nativist lurch tends to end badly for a country, and never more so than in an era when increasing global trade and competitiveness place a premium on openness, innovation, and cooperation. Xenophobic nationalism and ethnic chauvinism stifle the flows of capital, talent, and ideas that are the true lasting foundations of prosperity. As Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, never tires of emphasizing, the common political challenge of our time is learning how to govern over diversity. That is the most precious advantage that liberal democracies (most of all the United States) have enjoyed over other forms of government.

Freedom and pluralism do not just confer a long-run economic advantage. They also generate the deeper cohesion, flexibility, and resilience that have always enabled America to prevail over authoritarian and totalitarian challengers. It is not just electoral choice but an abiding commitment to the freedom and equal worth of every individual that makes the United States and its fellow liberal democracies the envy of most of the rest of the world.

If the United States degrades freedom in the quest for security, its citizens will wind up neither free nor secure. There is little that the radical Islamists want more than to propel America down this self-destructive path. In the battle against Islamic terrorism, there is nothing that will strengthen the country more than to affirm that Americans are all in this fight together, equally, irrespective of race, religion, or class.

Air campaign cripples ISIL oil industry in Syria

(December 1, 2015 – USA Today)

A U.S.-led air campaign aimed at crippling the Islamic State’s oil business knocked out the militant’s main oil infrastructure in Syria, dealing a major blow to the group’s finances, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The airstrikes have largely shut down the Deir ez-Zor facility in Syria, which accounted for about two-thirds of the Islamic State’s oil revenue, said Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. “We do believe we pretty much turned off the Deir ez-Zor oil capacity,” he said.

The damage follows a month-long air campaign aimed at crippling the Islamic State’s black market oil business.

The Treasury Department has estimated the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, brings in  $500 million a year from selling discounted oil on the black market. The Pentagon says about half the terror group’s revenue comes from oil.

Deir ez-Zor is a major oil-producing region in part of eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State militants.

U.S. officials acknowledge the damage to the Islamic State’s revenue may not have an immediate impact on operations.

“It’s not a knockout,” Warren said. “It’s a body blow.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in congressional testimony Tuesday that refinements in intelligence allowed coalition aircraft to specifically target parts of the oil infrastructure that directly benefit the Islamic State.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the aim is to prevent militants from producing and shipping oil without permanently destroying the infrastructure, so it can be restored once the civil war in Syria ends.

The air campaign is called Tidal Wave II, after the World War II air campaign aimed at destroying oil refineries in Romania to cut off oil for the Axis powers.

The U.S.-led coalition has targeted Islamic State oil infrastructure since bombing  began more than a year ago, frequently hitting mobile oil refineries. But militants were able to quickly repair oil infrastructure after it was hit.

This year, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, ordered a review of the bombing campaign to determine whether more effective targets could be developed.

Staff officers developed a broader list of targets, including well heads, oil collection points, trucks and the distribution network.

As part of the campaign, coalition aircraft destroyed 399 tanker trucks that were used to deliver black market oil, the Pentagon said. Before launching the airstrikes, the coalition dropped leaflets instructing the drivers to abandon their vehicles.To reinforce the message, aircraft dropped bombs in front of and behind the convoys.

Dunford said the drivers were not considered combatants.

Knocking out a large chunk of the Islamic State’s revenue is a blow to the militants, but the group still gets much of its money from other sources, including extortion and taxing businesses and individuals in areas it controls, said Jeff White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The coalition will continue to strike oil infrastructure to ensure militants are not able to rebuild the industry, the Pentagon said.

“You have to keep hitting them,” White said. “There’s a market for the oil. People are going to try and produce it.”

Islamic State defections mount as death toll rises, U.S. official says

(November 29, 2015 – USA Today)

Two Islamic State fighters captured near Sinjar, Iraq.

Two Islamic State fighters captured near Sinjar, Iraq.

WASHINGTON — Defections of Islamic State fighters — a closely watched measure by officials of U.S.-led coalition — have begun to thin the ranks of the militants in Iraq in the last month, intelligence reports and drone footage show.

Wholesale defections, sparsely manned checkpoints and elite foreign fighters pressed into mundane duty indicate that the U.S.-led bombing campaign and advances by Kurdish forces are eroding the forces of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, said Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the counter-ISIL coalition in Baghdad.

Top military officials estimate that the campaign has killed 23,000 Islamic State fighters, raising their death toll by 3,000 since mid-October. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East as chief of Central Command, told troops last week in Iraq that the campaign is inflicting maximum pain on the enemy, according to a military official who attended the meeting but who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

Warren cautioned that evidence of Islamic State manpower shortages was largely anecdotal. When indicators are combined, however, they show strains on the group’s fighting force, he said. Islamic State fighters continues to field about 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, and they hold key Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi, and large portions of Syria.

It’s also too soon to tell if apparent strain on the group is a long-term trend, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. “I view those as provisional signs of progress,” O’Hanlon said. “Individual metrics like  these can be deceptive, especially given the difficulty of measuring things accurately. I’d tend to agree with CENTCOM that these anecdotes and snippets of information sound promising, but just remain a bit more skeptical until we see some more indicators and see what happens when more time passes.”

Near Kirkuk in the last week, 90 Islamic State fighters laid down their arms and turned themselves over to Kurdish peshmerga forces, Warren said. The former fighters were local men who had been coerced into joining the jihadists and have grown disillusioned with the cause or simply saw a way to quit the fight by turning themselves in.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq, backed by U.S. airstrikes and advisers, have dealt ISIL blows recently on the battlefield. A peshmerga-led attack in northern Iraq two weeks ago seized the village of Sinjar, which sits astride a key highway and supply line for Islamic State forces. Meantime, over the last few days, Iraqi security forces completely surrounded Ramadi, capturing the last bridge jihadi fighters had used for resupply.

Another sign of reduced Islamic State manpower has been found at its road checkpoints, Warren said. Footage from surveillance drones shows fewer fighters manning those posts than in previous months. One result has been the ability of more civilians to escape Islamic State-held territory, he said, including a group of 22 people who recently fled Ramadi. That city has been held by the jihadists after a larger force fled without a fight.

Austin’s remarks about the number of Islamic State fighters killed are considered sensitive. The Pentagon does not release those figures because, at least publicly, it does not consider death tolls to provide a completely accurate measure of progress. The numbers also evoke the discredited “body counts” from the Vietnam War.

However, the military does keep track the toll of Islamic State dead, indicating that it does consider the death toll a useful metric. In July, officials noted that the U.S.-led bombing campaign, which began in 2014, had killed 15,000 Islamic State fighters. That number has climbed steadily to the 23,000, Austin noted last week.

Despite the heavy loss of Islamic State fighters, the terrorist group continues to replenish its ranks and has shown the ability to strike outside of the Middle East as the attack in Paris showed.

‘Very Soon’ US forces will Arrive in Syria; Russia bombs near Turkey

(November 23, 2015 – Informed Comment)

Turkey’s government is very unhappy today about developments in Syria.

President Obama’s special envoy, Brett McGurk, said Sunday that the some 50 men from special operations forces will arrive in Syria in the very near future. But Turkey has been upset that the US troops will be deployed in support of the YPG, the leftist Kurdish party. Turkey is afraid that autonomy or semi-autonomy for Syrian Kurds with make Turkish Kurds restive.

The US has also stepped up its diplomatic campaign, with Sec. of State John Kerry commenting on the recent meeting on Syria that we could be “weeks away” from the beginning of a transition:

“”AT this time there is a genuine process which presents certain possibilities. Four weeks ago we did not have such a process. In other words, until we convened in Vienna approximately four weeks ago, we did not have a viable political process. We have found a common agreement on the principles and established a concept of giving life to a negotiation with Iran and Russia at the table. When we look at the past four and a half years, we see that this is a unique development. And we have reached the next phase in Vienna, we have determined the dates– specific target dates. In a very important manner, all the sides have agreed on a cease-fire. Currently we are only in need of launching a political process and with that, the cease-fire will go into effect. This is a gigantic step. [French President Francois] Hollande also noted this. If we can get that done, that opens up the aperture for a whole bunch of things.”

The Vienna process imagines regime talks with the ‘moderate’ rebels beginning in January, with a ceasefire in May of 2016 and new elections in May of 2017.
Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar wondered in Radikal whether Kerry’s Syria efforts are doomed to the same fate as his Palestine-Israel negotiations. He also worried that Turkey has no ‘plan B’ beyond its current policies.

Meanwhile, the Russian department of defense said Monday that its air force had launched 141 airstrikes and hit 472 ‘terrorist’ targets in Syria since the beginning of November. The targets have been in the privinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, al-Raqq, Homs and Deir al-Zor.

One of the groups bombed is the Turkmen on the northwest border near Turkey. Turkey is seeking an urgent UNSC meeting over the bombing.

Roger Cohen And Barry Posen On ISIS

(November 23, 2015 – On Point)

This photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Monday, Nov. 23, 2015 shows local Islamic State group headquarters hit by two cruise missiles during the attack of Russian warplanes in Syria. Russia's President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran on Monday for talks with Iranian leaders expected to focus on the Syrian crisis and an international peace plan intended to end the conflict. (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

This photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Monday, Nov. 23, 2015 shows local Islamic State group headquarters hit by two cruise missiles during the attack of Russian warplanes in Syria. (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Our Monday, November 23 conversation with New York Times columnistRoger Cohen and MIT political science professor Barry Posen is worth listening to in full, but we think the following early exchange between the two big thinkers — with markedly different approaches to dealing with the ISIS threat — demonstrates the core of their arguments.

Roger Cohen

The danger with history is that of course we allow the most recent history to dominate our thinking. We forget that after 9/11 the initial moves against al Qaeda’s haven in Afghanistan were effective and that territory was re-taken. It was only when the huge, disastrous distraction of Iraq emerged that the progress that was made was lost.

Intervention, as Iraq showed, can be disastrous. But I don’t think anyone can argue in Syria that non-interventionism works.

Barry Posen

ISIS needs a steady diet of telegenic victories to bring it support, and we’ve deprived it of a steady diet of telegenic victories. In fact we’ve started to administer some defeats. So, they have reached out to some soft targets to try and renew the image of momentum that they rely on for recruits.

…Just because one can imagine a solution doesn’t make the solution implementable or wise.

Contain ISIS

The Paris attacks have naturally prompted calls for a stronger response. But restraint is the better course of action.

(November 20, 2015 – The Atlantic)

ISIS’s attack in Paris has prompted calls for a reassessment of the strategy the United States and its allies have pursued in the past 14 months to, in Obama’s words, “degrade and ultimately destroy” this vicious group. If that strategy is succeeding, how could such an attack occur? GOP presidential candidates have hastened to recommend alternatives, including an escalated air campaign with higher tolerance for civilian casualties, or even the deployment of thousands of ground troops to Iraq and Syria.

How ISIS Spread in the Middle East

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught Americans to think twice about the understandable but impulsive pursuit of quick and decisive victories in response to murderous outrages. American attempts to reorganize the politics of other countries by the sword have foundered on nationalist resistance to outsiders, unreliable local allies, deeply embedded cultural practices, and the inherent crudeness of the military instrument. These chronic problems commend the more restrained strategy that the president has employed, which is essentially a containment strategy. Americans might like to be told that they are taking direct action that will eliminate threats once and for all. Containment is a tougher sell, because it requires patience and resilience, and does not promise a quick and easy victory. Hillary Clinton took the politically easy path when she declared at the Democratic debate on Saturday that ISIS “cannot be contained; it must be defeated.”

But no strategy bears a likelier chance of long-term success than containment, even if the exact mechanisms must be reconsidered in the wake of the Paris attacks. It is, for example, hard to see how Western ground forces can liberate the areas of Iraq and Syria currently held by ISIS, and sit on that territory for as long as it takes to ensure that ISIS is no more and that yet another terrorist organization does not rise from its ashes, with fewer numbers and less bloodshed than the original invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency in Iraq entailed. And there is no guarantee that it would work. The seeds of ISIS were planted in Iraq when its parent organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, though battered, survived “the surge” of U.S. ground forces into the country beginning in 2007—the final and tactically most successful phase of the counterinsurgency campaign, which at its peak involved some 170,000 U.S. troops. Al-Qaeda in Iraq itself was born from the American occupation; a new occupation would produce the same kind of resistance, which ISIS or some other group could exploit.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that containment is already working. In the military campaign against ISIS, the chief purpose of containment has been to prevent the group from gaining more territory, while weakening its hold over the territory it has seized and reducing its ability to extract resources. This has meant helping those on ISIS’s frontiers—including Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, the Iraqi central government, and Jordan—to better defend themselves. Perhaps because this strategy has been effective, ISIS now seems intent on conducting brutal and theatrical attacks abroad, and those in its gun sights must respond to the shift. The next task is to build or reinforce barriers between ISIS and its targets. American and European intelligence organizations must intensify surveillance at home and abroad; the United States and its Western allies must press regional powers bordering the territories controlled by ISIS to do more to interdict the transit of volunteers and resources and to counter the poisonous ideology that brings new followers to the ISIS banner.

At the outset of its bloody history, ISIS seemed more committed to organizing a state in the Middle East than it did to conducting terrorism abroad. A strategy that focused on military containment was a necessary antidote to its early successes. Of late, ISIS has been thwarted in its efforts to expand, and has even suffered reverses in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, where it has tried to establish itself among non-Arab, namely Kurdish, populations. In central Iraq, Shiite militias have curbed ISIS attempts to gain a foothold in predominantly Shiite areas. When ISIS tries to fight as a conventional military, it now fails more often than it succeeds. Targeting ISIS’s oil business, an effort the United States has stepped up in the wake of the Paris attacks, has not yet dried up this source of money, but one suspects that ISIS’s revenues will suffer more over time.

The anti-ISIS coalition has clearly been less successful in two other dimensions of the strategy: putting intelligence and surveillance barriers between ISIS’s territorial holdings and civilian targets abroad, and undercutting ISIS’s ideological appeal. These are harder problems than military containment. The free movement of people and information is a defining feature of globalization. It does not take many people to conduct an attack of the kind that occurred in Paris. Those people do have to be highly motivated, however, and reducing the political commitment that comes from the spread of very poisonous ideas to small numbers of young men is a hard problem.

ISIS now seems intent on conducting brutal and theatrical attacks abroad, and those in its gun sights must respond to the shift.
The United States has been quite energetic on the intelligence and surveillance front, but others closer to the fight have not done enough. Coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 revealed that the French security services simply had inadequate resources to track possible threats. This kind of shortfall probably exists across much of Europe. Moreover, the problem confronted by European security and intelligence organizations is greater than that confronted by the United States. European countries are closer to the Middle East; it is simply easier for ISIS terrorists to get there. There are large, sometimes poorly integrated Arab communities in Europe that, through no fault of their own, can provide a kind of camouflage for small numbers of conspirators. Sadly, some disgruntled members of these communities are susceptible to radical appeals, and sign up or offer succor.
Finally, Europe suffers from a simple tension: Europeans have organized their social and economic life as if the European Union were one country, but European states’ political and security life is organized as if each was still a separate, sovereign country. Terrorists (and criminals) can wander at will across a vast expanse of land and people; as they do so they move from the purview of one national-security organization to the next. European security organizations do cooperate, but there will inevitably be gaps that clever bad guys can exploit. There is no obvious answer to these three problems. That said, more resources would help, and the Europeans must invest more in the internal security aspect of the fight. And, unfortunately, the European Union may have to take a step backwards on social and economic integration, and a step forward on security integration, working more strenuously for cooperation among national police and intelligence organizations.

Turkey poses a delicate political-military problem in the fight against ISIS. It has been a consistent refrain that Turkey has not done everything that it could to monitor, much less control the transit of, volunteers to and from the Syrian Civil War—many of whom are Europeans of Arab descent. These volunteers are traveling to join any one of the many groups fighting the Assad regime, some of which Turkey supports. But, judging from published figures, thousands have joined ISIS, and some of them have subsequently returned to their home countries, trained and ready to participate in terrorist actions. The U.S. air effort against ISIS has profited from the recent opening of Turkish air bases, which facilitate strikes against the group’s holdings in northeastern Syria. So it is a delicate diplomatic matter to criticize Turkish surveillance policy. Nevertheless, without more Turkish cooperation to control the transit of potential terrorists, Western Europe will remain vulnerable, and ISIS will replenish its ranks with foreign volunteers. This issue must be confronted forthrightly.

It is past time to shine a light on Saudi Arabia’s deficiency as an ally and pressure the country to use its clout and resources to counter ISIS.
The most intractable problem facing the anti-ISIS effort is countering its insidious ideology, which brings it new followers. ISIS styles itself an orthodox Islamist group. It is also a cult of violence. The combination draws significant numbers of people to its banner. Western secular governments cannot conceivably rebut ISIS’s religious message, since they have no religious credibility themselves. Independent Muslim theologians, regardless of their eloquence, are unlikely to be an effective counter to ISIS’s concentrated, persistent, and hateful online preaching. But one Arab state has enormous influence on the interpretation of Islam worldwide: Saudi Arabia. The country spends vast sums supporting the building of mosques and Islamic educational institutions around the world. These institutions spread an orthodox version of Islam that scholars have observed is not very far removed from the version that ISIS claims for itself. In disputes in the Middle East today, Saudi Arabia seems much more interested in attacking any trace of Iranian political influence than it is in countering ISIS. It is past time to shine a light on Saudi Arabia’s deficiency as an ally and pressure the country to use its considerable clout and resources to counter ISIS’s poisonous message. This matter should become a regular feature of public and private diplomacy.

The ISIS brand also attracts other terrorist organizations in the region to recast themselves as franchises, and to cooperate with its machinations. It’s important to remember, however, that most of these organizations predate ISIS, and owe their origins to local disputes. The greater Middle East is a riven and unsettled region; ISIS creates some of its own energy, but not all. The ISIS franchise in Egypt, which claimed credit for the downing of a Russian jetliner over the Sinai peninsula in late October, is a group that fought the Egyptian government prior to pledging its allegiance to the Islamic State, and owes its recent recruitment success in part to the ruthless repression of Islamist political organizations, militant or not, organized by the current authoritarian regime, led by President (and former general) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. (Note that this kind of mass repression is not the same as the kind of effective, targeted internal security procedures needed to counter the group without facilitating its recruitment.) The ISIS franchise in Libya seems to have arisen from the anarchy introduced in that country by NATO’s destruction of the Qaddafi regime and the utter failure to plan for its replacement. Because these and similar groups are so deeply embedded in local struggles, destruction of ISIS “central”—that is, the pseudo-state led by the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that currently governs parts of Syria and Iraq—cannot eliminate them. The reverse might be helpful, however. For example, if President Sisi were to pursue more moderate policies in Egypt, he might create a less supportive political environment for ISIS.

These responses can yield only incremental improvements. The slow and steady accretion of defensive measures and offensive successes will weaken ISIS’s capabilities and can limit its appeal. At some point, the scales will tip, and ISIS will find itself more and more vulnerable to its local enemies. This strategy takes patience and resilience in the face of the occasional, but shocking, successes that ISIS may enjoy along the way. Democratic polities prefer quick and definitive solutions to security problems. ISIS’s bloody theatricals seem tailor-made to incite Western escalation. We should not oblige them.

To Save Paris, Defeat ISIS

(November 14, 2015 – The New York Times)

MILAN — The Paris slaughter claimed by the Islamic State constitutes, as President François Hollande of France declared, an “act of war.” As such, it demands of all NATO states a collective response under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This says that, “An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Alliance leaders are already debating what that response should be. Hollande has spoken to President Obama. Other NATO countries, including Germany and Canada, have expressed solidarity. Indignation and outrage, while justified, are not enough.

President François Hollande of France, right, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls after a security meeting on Saturday.

Hollande left no doubt that that the attacks were “prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside.” ISIS, or one of its affiliates, has also claimed responsibility for the recent downing of a Russian passenger jet, with the loss of 224 lives. The United States and Britain believe these claims are credible.

It was wrong to dismiss ISIS as a regional threat. Its threat is global. Enough is enough. A certain quality of evil cannot be allowed physical terrain on which to breed. Pope Francis declared the Paris attacks “not human.” In a sense he is right. But history teaches that human beings are capable of fathomless evil. Unmet, it grows.

To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground. After the protracted and inconclusive Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is reasonable to ask if this would not be folly. It is also reasonable to demand – and many will – whether military action will only have the effect of winning more recruits for ISIS as more lives and treasure are squandered. Terrorism, the old nostrum has it, can never be completely defeated.

Such arguments are seductive but must be resisted. An air war against ISIS will not get the job done; the Paris attacks occurred well into an unpersuasive bombing campaign. Major powers, including Russia and China, have vigorously condemned the Paris attacks. They should not stand in the way of a United Nations resolution authorizing military action to defeat and eliminate ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, have an interest in defeating the monster they helped create whose imagined Caliphate would destroy them.

ISIS is slick and effective. It has a well-run propaganda machine and an ideology compelling to disaffected Muslim youth persuaded of Western perfidy. The combination of medievalist literalism and technological prowess has produced a fanatical army of borderless appeal. But ISIS is far from insuperable in military terms. Western intelligence is now elaborate. The almost certain killing in an air strike Thursday of Mohammed Emwazi (known as Jihadi John), the Islamic State’s most wanted executioner, demonstrated this.

It is not enough to say, as the Obama Administration has up to now, that ISIS will be defeated. These words lack meaning without a corresponding plan. There is time pressure because time is being used precisely to plan new atrocities.

With each one, the possibility of a spiral of religious and sectarian violence in strained European societies increases. Hatred of Muslims seems to be on the rise. The Bataclan, the club targeted in the Paris attacks, has, as the French magazine Le Point pointed out, been a frequent meeting-place for Jewish organizations.

The killings occurred as hundreds of thousands of desperate Muslim refugees from Syria are streaming into Europe. This is not the time to turn on them, but to help them, even if extreme vigilance is needed. They, too, in their vast majority, are fleeing ISIS, as well as the indiscriminate violence of President Bashar al-Assad. Nonintervention in Syria has proved a policy fraught with bloodshed and danger, now seeping into Europe.

The battle will be long. Islam is in a state of fervid crisis, riven by the regional battle of Sunni and Shia interests (read Saudi Arabia and Iran), afflicted by a metastasizing ideology of anti-Western hatred and Wahhabi fundamentalism, seeking a reasonable accommodation with modernity. The scourge within it can probably only be defeated from within, by the hundreds of millions of Muslims who are people of peace and are as appalled as any sentient being at the Paris slaughter. Their voices need to be raised in unambiguous and sustained unison.

Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Passivity is a recipe for certain failure. It is time, in the name of humanity, to act with conviction and power against the scourge of the Islamic State. Disunity and distraction undermined past military efforts to defeat the jihadis. Unity is now attainable and with it victory.