On Sept. 19, just days before the U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expanded into Syria, the militant group released a 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” warning about direct military confrontation with the United States. ISIL made similar taunts when it executed Western hostages, seized U.S. weapons sent to Syrian rebels and co-opted groups that were trained to fight against them.
Why is ISIL so eager to lure the United States into battle? While ISIL has unrivaled access to multiple revenue streams, a vast array of arms and command tens of thousands of soldiers, the one thing it lacks is local popular legitimacy — a big problem for a group that aspires to form a caliphate. However, the expanded foreign intervention will likely help ISIL mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against the U.S.-led coalition, with ISIL portraying itself as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its enemies, nonstate actors, have little to lose and everything to gain.
Bolstering ISIL’s legitimacy
Resistance organizations such as ISIL are defined nearly as much by their enemies as they are by their own actions. For ISIL’s leadership, it is an honor when U.S. politicians declare them a major threat that must be resisted before, as Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., put it, we “all get killed here at home.” It is also a propaganda victory for ISIL when the United States marshals more than 50 nations to join its campaign of ill-defined goals and likely ill-fated results. That ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his forces could warrant such a global response is a testament to their apparent significance and strength — a message that is reinforced the longer ISIL remains defiant in the face of such overwhelming opposition.
While the contribution of most of these allies is largely symbolic, each addition to the anti-ISIL coalition bolsters the group’s credentials as a major world actor more than it boosts Washington’s image as a global collaborator. It further strengthens the extremists’ legitimacy that the latest campaign is led by the world’s unipolar superpower, with kinetic support drawn primarily from the region’s autocratic states and former colonial and imperial European overlords. ISIL’s struggle against these powers, which are widely perceived as the biggest enemies of Muslims’ self-determination, will go a long way toward distracting any sympathetic public from its military excesses and failures in governance. Civilian casualties will only exacerbate this effect.
Despite initial White House denials of collateral damage, the first raids on ISIL killed 70 of its fighters and eight noncombatants; contemporaneous attacks on Khorasan, a group of Al-Qaeda veterans, killed 30 militants and at least 11 noncombatants. On Sept. 24, strikes on ISIL’s Syrian oil refineries killed 14 terrorists and five noncombatants. In the first week since the Syrian campaign began, roughly 17 percent (more than 1 out of 6) of the casualties have been civilians, including children. And these strikes were against easier-to-identify hard targets, meaning the ratio of civilians to militants killed is likely to get worse as the campaign deepens and ISIL fighters integrate themselves more heavily into civilian areas.
There is little means of increasing the precision of airstrikes without boots on the ground. This leaves Barack Obama’s administration with three options: scale back its offensive in Syria, tolerate ever higher rates of collateral damage or break its vow of not committing American ground forces in a combat mission. Every option, however, represents a victory for Baghdadi. Because all his fighters who are killed are glorified as martyrs and used to recruit others, the campaign offers little downside for ISIL but entails big risks for U.S. and its allies.
Western powers risk glamorizing the very actors they are ostensibly seeking to undermine while their reactionary policies play into the hands of the enemy. In a word, the best way to defeat ISIL is to simply refuse to play its game.
Given the complex dynamics involved, military interventions typically last much longer than projected and cost much more in terms of lives and resources. They rarely achieve their initial stated goals and often result in adverse second-order effects. Campaigns against ideologically driven nonstate actors tend to be even more risky and less successful because the enemy is extremely flexible and often has little to lose. This fact was underscored by former Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s recent testimony that the United States is “no safer” as a result of its 13-year war on terrorism. In many respects, the problem has grown worse. As an official extension of this indefinite war, the campaign against ISIL will probably be equally counterproductive.
The blowback has already begun. Thousands have turned out across Syria to protest coalition airstrikes. Even moderate Syrian rebels, who are funded and trained by Washington, have condemned the strikes as ineffective, citing the fact that their leadership was not consulted or briefed in the selection of strategic targets. The protesters and some members of the armed Syrian opposition deplored the civilian casualties and the fact that the coalition has already begun targeting non-ISIL rebel groups, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, while there have been no strikes against Syrian government targets.
Once an ally of the moderates, al-Nusra Front has evolved into a rival in part because of U.S. policies designed to help distinguish the “good“ rebels from al-Qaeda. Until now, al-Nusra Front was focused on and has been extremely effective against the Syrian government, but it is now vowing reprisal attacks against the United States for the latest strikes. Worse still, the attacks have pushed al-Nusra Front toward rapprochement with ISIL. Far from being divided against one another, the militants are uniting against a common enemy: the U.S.-led coalition and its proxies, including the moderate Syrian rebels. These developments will not only endanger the United States and its regional interests, allies and local agents but they will also strengthen the Syrian regime and the region’s extremists.
A better alternative
Washington’s strategy is doomed to fail because fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism are inherently sociological problems that can be easily exacerbated but never resolved by military means. In fact, the most effective action the international community can take in response to ISIL is to stop feeding the beast.
This would mean cutting aid to nonstate actors in Syria and the broader region. It also entails Western powers’ revisiting the level and types of cooperation afforded to Israel and Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs in order to reduce complicity in their abuses — depriving militants of new fodder for propaganda. Measures to restrict the flow of fighters into the region should be joined by policies to cut trafficking of illicit funds and (especially) arms.
However, the single most effective way to delegitimize ISIL is to portray and deal with its threat in a less hyperbolic manner. While it should not be taken lightly, ISIL is a manageable challenge that can still be contained and largely subdued by the states and local populations they occupy. The more the U.S. government responds to the so-called Islamic State as an existential threat to the world order, the more these proclamations will become self-fulfilling prophecies. Western powers risk glamorizing the very actors they are ostensibly seeking to undermine while their reactionary policies play into the hands of the enemy. In a word, the best way to defeat ISIL is to simply refuse to play its game.