The Big Cost of Success: The Rise and Ultimate Fall of ISIS

October 18, 2014 Topic: ISISCounterinsurgency Region: IraqSyriaUnited States

The Big Cost of Success: The Rise and Ultimate Fall of ISIS

"The strategy that once propelled ISIS to the heights of success will become the source of its downfall."

To be sure, ISIS will persist for the next few months and even years. American airpower alone cannot dislodge the Islamic State. The group will still find it easy to scatter and conceal targets in an urban environment, and the United States will not entertain the level of civilian casualties necessary to put a serious dent into the organization’s infrastructure and operations from the sky. While the United States will keep the pressure on ISIS with occasional airstrikes, it cannot singlehandedly drive the organization from the population centers it controls.

However, the United States can use its aerial campaign to create space for the advance of indigenous ground forces in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, Washington has already begun working with the Iraqi central government to revitalize the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for a renewed push north and west. The United States has also begun arming and training the Kurdish peshmerga, and it plans to work with Baghdad to set up National Guard units in Sunni communities.

Critics have claimed that this strategy will not work because the Iraqi military is incompetent. If nearly a decade’s worth of American military training could not prevent the ISF from being overrun by ISIS over the past summer, the argument goes, then how can the United States hope to get the army up and running in enough time to make a difference?

There are reasons to be optimistic. First, this argument ignores the fact that the United States has multiple local partners in Iraq, and others—like the peshmerga—have been far more resilient than the ISF. Second, the Iraqi military lost in part because it was surprised by and unprepared for the Islamic State’s rapid advance. With American planes in the air, the ISF is unlikely to be caught off-guard again. Third and most importantly, the ISF did not break and run because of ineffective and poorly trained soldiers. Rather, it fell back because it lacked the morale and leadership necessary to keep disciplined in the face of the ISIS onslaught. As former Ambassador Crocker put it, “The Iraqi military is not rotten to the core. It was rotten at the top.” A reengaged United States is well positioned to ensure effective leadership and improve the ISF’s morale. Iraqis may have mixed feelings about the United States, but they recognize the capacity of its fighting forces.

Accordingly, the Islamic State will face determined pushback in Iraq. In Syria, the United States will have fewer options for local partnerships, none of which are ideal. Blended together in some proportion, though, these three options should prove sufficient:

First, the United States can work with existing nonstate actors, such as moderate Syrian rebels, Sunni tribes or Kurdish forces. Unfortunately, however, no group has demonstrated both the capacity and will to snatch Syria away from ISIS’ grip. Each group seems puny when juxtaposed with the military might of the Islamic State, and some groups (like the Kurdish militants) are interested only in self-autonomy, rather than the larger national question.

Second, Washington can try to cobble together a new coalition of existing rebel groups. It has not been particularly successful at this endeavor in the past, but it may fare better with renewed commitment. If it can create an effective moderate alliance, then, after many months, the United States may be able to fashion a force able to take on the Islamic State. But if Washington pursues this expensive option, it should recognize that its efforts will likely take a long time to bear fruit.

And third, the United States can make a tacit deal with the devil: Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Assad has the capability and, of course, the motivation to reestablish order throughout Syria. At the same time, he has bloodied his hands more than perhaps even ISIS itself. Even putting aside moral qualms, it would be particularly galling for Washington to work with him. The Islamic State was able to flourish in part because al-Assad let it; he calculated that once he routed the moderate rebels, the West would be forced to cooperate with him to destroy ISIS. To the extent that the United States permits al-Assad to regain control, his bet will have paid off handsomely.

While the United States has no perfect options in Syria, there are a number of actors on the ground who have the incentive to check the Islamic State at least locally. Between themselves and American airstrikes, they will be able to restrain and, in time, diminish the Islamic State. Even if ISIS manages to keep thriving in some small patch of Syria, it will have lost enough territory to undermine a key pillar of its claim to leadership of violent Islamic extremism.

Neither Lasting, Nor Expanding

Translated into English, the Islamic State’s slogan roughly means: “Lasting and Expanding.” But ISIS’ days of expansion are at an end. With American planes overhead, the group’s mechanized forces will be totally exposed when on the attack. Likewise, the Islamic State has denied itself the option of an urban insurgency through its shocking but ultimately counterproductive savagery.

In the longer run, the American coalition and local actors will continue to chip away at the Islamic State’s territorial holdings. Of course, President Obama overestimated the chances of success when he insisted that the American objective was “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. It will be a long time before that categorical goal can be realized; terrorist organizations like ISIS are rarely destroyed outright. But over time, the United States will likely shrink the Islamic State’s enclave until the “State” no longer exists in any meaningful sense. At that point, ISIS may survive by taking on a new, underground form. In so doing, though, it will have betrayed the strategy that brought it notoriety and power. Although this outcome may not meet the lofty objectives set by President Obama’s rhetoric, it would nevertheless count as a marked success. The Islamic State will not last long in its current incarnation.

Sean Mirski is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Supreme Court Chair of the Harvard Law Review. He is also the co-editor ofCrux of Asia: China, India and the Emerging Global Order.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0