The US has Unleashed a Conflict with ISIS which it Can’t Win
New Eastern Outlook
by Petr Lvov
News media worldwide reported on 13 October that Turkey will give the United States and its allies access to its air bases, including Incirlik in the south (150 km from the Iraqi border), to carry out air operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The Associated Press, citing anonymous sources, reported that Turkey had thus far refused requests from Washington to use the Incirlik air base in the air operation against ISIS.
Incirlik is the largest air base used by the United States under its defense treaty with Turkey. Ankara has clearly not been able to resist strong pressure from outside, especially from Washington and Riyadh. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to keep his country out of the battle with the Islamists have ultimately been unsuccessful. Offering the use of its air bases does not make Turkey a direct participant in the hostilities, and Turkey has not invaded foreign soil. But one can confidently assert that it has taken the first step in that direction. And now the Islamists have an excuse for taking on Turkey, which includes bringing their fight to its territory.
In addition, the Kurds, who up until now have been the main target in northern Iraq and Syria, are in an even more difficult situation. The West proposed that they fight Syrian President Bashar Assad in exchange for security. The Kurds responded that although they don’t have much sympathy for Assad, he wasn’t bothering them and had even helped them by providing them with weapons to battle terrorist organizations. But the Islamists have attacked and brutally killed many Kurds, slaughtering entire villages in the process. And now it’s difficult to see how the Kurds are going to build their relations with Turkey and Iraq on the one hand, considering that the major Kurdish parties and organizations are seeking to create an independent state, and the West, which is sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations but cannot support the Kurds at the expense of its relations with Ankara, Baghdad, Riyadh and the Sunni monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, which are members of the anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States and many of the NATO countries.
The ISIS-attacked city of Kobani is located in such a way that heavy weaponry and ground support troops can’t be sent in without passing into Turkey. The Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds form one big nation that has been divided by borders for hundreds of years. Ankara, of course, is not happy about the existence of an autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq. Erdogan fears that separatist sentiment in Turkey will grow, so he won’t have any objection to seeing the terrorists put the Kurds in their place, so to speak, without getting his own hands dirty. The problem for him is that the Turkish Kurds, who are a powerful force in eastern and southeastern Turkey, will never forgive the Turkish government if Kobani and its citizens succumb to ISIS. Ankara holds in its hands the key to solving this puzzle created by the American bombing of Syria and Iraq. Inaction by Turkey spells the destruction of the city and the start of mass unrest in the expansive and densely populated areas of Turkish Kurdistan, leading all the way up to some gloomy scenarios. Ankara would surely have to suppress the mass Kurdish demonstrations with the army, and amid the growing restlessness, ISIS militants would be fully capable of carrying out terrorist attacks in Turkey. Anti-Erdogan feeling would grow even in purely Turkish areas, including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
It doesn’t take a visionary to see how this would play out. The United States and Riyadh would continue to put pressure on Ankara, urging the Turks to send ground forces first into northeastern parts of Syria and then into Damascus. A few measly airstrikes are not going to win the war against ISIS. Of course, troops who are backed by air support naturally have a major advantage. But troops can only be employed if they are engaging the enemy directly in a ground war. There is no direct engagement on the ground between the ISIS brigades and the Iraqi army. And if there is no serious opponent on the battlefield, the side being bombed simply adjusts to the bombings and figures out how to regroup after each strike, which only strengthens its will to win. Which is happening now in the battle for Kobani.
Since the very beginning of the crisis caused by the success of the Islamic State, President Obama has stubbornly stuck to a policy of not sending American soldiers into the conflict zone. The White House is clearly not opposed to a land operation led by Turkey and Iran, as the Iraqi army has collapsed and Syrian forces are defending Damascus from the motley opposition created by the United States and Arab countries. But until Turkey and Iran jump into the fight, without American soldiers this war against ISIS cannot be won. We can therefore conclude that, in Obama’s mind, America can afford not to win it. Is he right about that? Most probably not. ISIS will never become a member of the world community. It is based on violence and genocide and will continue to resort to both because it consists of hundreds of thousands of religious fanatics. Syria and Iraq will be unable to resist if ISIS gains strength in areas it has already captured. The Iraqis and Syrians are fractured after years of civil and ethno-religious war waged by the United States and its allies under the banner of the “democratization” of the Middle East by means of a “color revolution”.
If ISIS is not defeated, then everyone will have to put up with an unpredictable extremist state with battle-hardened leaders and commanders, indifferent to the suffering of ethnic and religious minorities and filled with hatred towards the West, right in the heart of the Middle East. This new state would waste no time worming itself into Turkey, stirring up Islamic extremism there and fomenting unrest among the young with its jihadist ideas. So President Erdogan is now playing a double game. He has supposedly joined the coalition against ISIS, but he is not preventing the destruction of Kobani and is stubbornly refusing to allow the Kurds fighting for Kobani to receive arms and reinforcements. Erdogan is a Sunni, and he also wants to restore a neo-Ottoman caliphate to the extent that this is possible. It’s only natural that he has some measure of sympathy with ISIS, though he certainly will not become a “partner” in ISIS’s construction of an Islamic empire. The Turkish president hopes that one way or another, Ankara will come out of this situation in an advantageous position and with a heightened sense of Islamic identity. The defeat of ISIS does not give him the desired result. On the contrary, it will only strengthen Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and beyond. But once ISIS establishes itself inside defined borders, continuing the jihad is a matter of course. It will support terrorists abroad and will almost certainly try to get chemical, nuclear and biological weapons. In the worst-case scenario, the Taliban would return to power in Afghanistan and rebuild their network in Pakistan, thus ensuring ISIS would have no difficulty whatsoever in acquiring those sorts of weapons.
Would this scenario be acceptable to a Europe led by the United States? Not in the slightest. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene is understandable. The problem is much direr for Europe than it is for the United States, but Europeans don’t seem to want anything to do with it, clinging to the ridiculous belief that the Islamist wave will not reach the frontiers of the EU.
Nevertheless, an ISIS victory in the Middle East poses no less of a threat to the United States than it does to Europe. The effect is not limited to the economic realm. America would have to confront constant threats to its security. It would continue to lose influence in the Islamic world. If Muslim countries start to consider ISIS a legitimate partner or Turkey takes advantage of the opportunity to project its authority further eastward, the status of the entire West and America as a political leader will suffer greatly. The future of Israel will once again be in doubt.
At a Pentagon briefing on 8 October, the U.S. military was extremely candid. The Defense Department press secretary made it clear that the United States could do little to save the more than 200,000 residents of Kobani. Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. could not defeat the ISIS jihadists who had stormed the city. “Time matters here,” Kirby said at the Pentagon. “I know of no plans for a humanitarian relief mission in Kobani. Many of the residents have already fled.”America’s capabilities for fighting ISIS are limited for two reasons. The U.S. waited for months without undertaking any action, and then, on Obama’s orders, decided not to send ground troops into the battle. But even a small number of troops in Syria and Iraq could significantly increase the effectiveness of the airstrikes. With his statements about the weakness of American military power, Kirby no doubt confirmed what Obama said later when he met with military leaders, among them Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command and the leader of the fight against ISIS.
“There is a broad-based consensus, not just in the region but among the nations of the world, that ISIS is a threat to world peace, security and order,” Obama said at the beginning of the meeting. “Their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with.”
However, the Pentagon press secretary tried to explain that the city is doomed to fall because of the limited potential for using air power and the absence of allies in and around Kobani. “Air power alone is not going to be enough to save that city, and we recognize that,” he said. “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now.”
“Airpower can have an initial effect on forcing them out of an area or denying them structure, whether it’s hard buildings or the infrastructure of governance that they have, or revenue,” Kirby said. “You can deny some of that temporarily from the air, but it’s not going to be a long-term fix. The long-term fix is… to deploy competent ground forces that can retake territory from them.” It will be a long time before that happens.
Of course, the United States could send in troops to stop the offensive. However, neither Congress nor the general public is likely to agree to that. The United States can’t defeat ISIS as easily as it routed Saddam’s sanctions-weakened army in 2003. Victory would require the bloodshed of tens of thousands of American soldiers. There is only one effective solution to the problems posed by ISIS, said Kirby. “What really has to happen, long term, is good governance in Iraq and good governance in Syria,” he said. “There is an element of strategic patience here that I think everybody needs to consider, all of us, all of you, the American people, everybody.”
Judging from all of that, those words can be interpreted with a phrase uttered 2,000 years ago by the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate: “I wash my hands.” Washington does not want to get involved in another war in the Middle East, especially amid a new wave of global economic crisis, a sharp decline in oil prices, the protraction of the intense crisis in Ukraine, and so on. The American economy simply cannot hold up under the weight of a new land campaign.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.