In the wake of the attack on Paris (and the attacks on Beirut and elsewhere that, not surprisingly, failed to prompt most people to change their Facebook photos or post on Twitter), there has been an outpouring of emotion in the western media. It is reasonable to feel a sense of sadness, fear, and shock in the face of terrorist attacks that kill innocent people. Terrorist attacks are, after all, intended to provoke feelings of fear and panic among their audience. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be: What should we do about the Islamic State and Syria?
Patrick Cockburn has written for the London Review of Books what I think is the most straightforward and accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. If you read nothing else about the fight against IS, please read this, even if it means you do not finish reading this post! The piece predates the Paris attacks, but its conclusions are still sound. Cockburn writes, quite correctly, that the current US strategy of air strikes and the insertion of special forces to advise friendly forces in Syria has already failed. Incremental increases to an already failed strategy do not translate into success, they translate into a more expensive failed strategy. “By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS.” Another thousand strikes will not do the job, nor would sending 5,000 or 10,000 ground troops.
Cockburn is also correct in pointing out that the United States and its allies have backed themselves into a corner by insisting that Assad must go. This leaves us with essentially no one to support other than the Kurds. (Never mind that by supporting the Kurds we are also angering Turkey, a longtime US ally in the region.) While they have had some success in defeating IS, the Kurds have no interest in taking over and ruling Syria—they want to carve out and maintain an autonomous region for themselves. Why does this matter, you say? It matters because this is a civil war that will only be resolved militarily when one side decisively defeats and disarms all the opposition. Otherwise, any gains will be temporary. Russia, however, is not bound by the same restrictions. Russian air strikes will not be a magical solution, either, but by aligning themselves with a functioning force on the ground—the Syrian military—Russia has a chance of using its air power to coordinate with those forces and possibly defeat IS and affiliated groups. Even then, the chances of success are not great. Cockburn writes: “It is a genuine civil war: a couple of years ago in Baghdad an Iraqi politician told me that ‘the problem in Iraq is that all parties are both too strong and too weak: too strong to be defeated, but too weak to win.’ The same applies today in Syria.”
[By the way, if you’re thinking about the 2011 intervention in Libya and wondering why we can’t simply apply the same strategy in Syria, an idea that sadly I think French President Hollande may have in the forefront of his mind, too: the air strikes succeeded in defeating Qaddafi and his forces only because they were working in conjunction with motivated rebel forces on the ground. As I noted above, given that we will not support the Syrian military, there is no similar partner with which the US and France could coordinate their air strikes in Syria. More importantly, the NATO campaign over Libya should not be held up as a model of anything other than the foolhardiness of blindly pursuing regime change in poorly understood societies. That campaign may have ousted Qaddafi, but it left a chaotic power vacuum in its wake. A discussion for another day, perhaps.]
In the wake of the attack of Paris, one of the dominant emotions we have been witnessing is anger: anger at the long-suffering refugee communities fleeing IS atrocities; anger at the intelligence lapses that might have facilitated the attack in Paris; anger at President Obama for failing to protect America (originating mainly in the ridiculous statements of Republican Presidential candidates). If you want to get angry, it’s time to start directing your anger at the Gulf States that are supporting IS, either by funneling money to the forces directly or by failing to stop their citizens from funding these groups. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to a 2009 cable from the State Department. Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are also major sources of funding for IS and similar groups. As Charles Pierce argues in a great piece at Esquire, putting pressure on these American “allies” to stop aiding Sunni terrorist and insurgent groups in the region may be the only way to defeat IS.
Fortunately, Obama seems to agree with me about the perils of sending significant ground troops into Syria. (Although, worryingly, he does promise an “intensification” of the present strategy…so, more guns to the good guys and more advisors? He also asserts that the present strategy “is the one that is going to work,” so he and I do differ on that.) Refusing to send combat troops is prudent; nothing significant has changed about the risk that the United States faces from transnational terrorism. But see above: incremental increases to a failed strategy produce a more expensive failure, not strategic success.