Destroying the Islamic State: Answering the Boots on the Ground Question

Given President Barack Obama’s decision not to follow through with his “red line” after the Syrian regime’s sarin gas attack against rebel neighborhoods on August 21, 2013, it is difficult to believe any promises made by him regarding international affairs. On September 17th President Obama stated that “the American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.” Assuming that this is a credible statement, the United States will not have any sort of troops, including Special Forces, combatting Islamic State (IS) forces in both Syria and Iraq. This means no on ground direction of airstrikes, limited capability of rescuing downed pilots in hostile territory, limited coordination with Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces, and most importantly, there will be no dependable force to combat IS terrorists in Syria and Iraq. If the United States’ actions are truly designed to “degrade and destroy” the IS, recent events show that there will need to be a strong ground force to counter IS forces.


Given President Obama’s determination to prevent the return of combat troops to Iraq, who will compose the ground force that will destroy the IS? According to the Administration, the force will be composed of moderate Free Syrian Army rebels, Kurdish forces (composed of the Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga and the Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units), and Iraqi forces. However, the Iraqi Army is in a state of disarray and does not seem poised to retake Sunni Iraqi territory anytime soon. The Kurdish forces are more disciplined and motivated, but are under armed and struggling to advance against the IS in Iraq and appear to be on the defensive in Syria, as evidenced by ongoing siege of Kobani. Finally the moderate Free Syrian Army, while an important rebel group in Syria, is nonetheless underfinanced, under armed, and under continual assault by Assad and IS forces. Additionally, they are in an alliance with the Islamic Front and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which is currently under attack by American air and naval forces (technically attacking the Khorasan group, but the two groups are largely intertwined, and in fact, may be the same exact terrorist organization).


The US’ actions against the al-Nusra Front/Khorasan, one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria, have weakened the capability of the Syrian rebels to combat IS forces through the destruction of allied al-Nusra arsenals and fighters. Therefore, with the Syrian rebels weakening in the short term, Kurdish forces being pushed back in Syria, and the IS’ strength being degraded (the extent of which is unknown), the only group benefitting at the moment appears to be the Assad regime, which has gained territory in recent weeks. Therefore, the US faces two conflicting goals: eliminating the IS and ensuring that Assad does not gain at the rebels’ and IS’ expense. Despite President Obama’s promise to train 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels within a year and to further arm moderate rebel groups and Kurdish forces, it will unfortunately be too limited to ensure the destruction of IS and prevent additional Assad gains, especially in the short term. Given the current situation of the conflict, it appears that the airstrikes around Aleppo could speed up the fall of Aleppo to Assad forces, as Syrian rebel and IS forces in Aleppo are attacked. The fall of Aleppo could bring about the collapse of Syrian rebel resistance and a victory for Assad, while still having to deal with the IS. Therefore, absent airstrikes against the Assad government and its own allied terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, the US must find another avenue to defeat the IS and prevent Assad gains.


The best option to accomplish this is to get Turkey involved in the fight. Turkey is determined to both destroy the IS and the Assad regime. Yet, since Turkey’s Syria policy since 2011 has revolved around overthrowing the Assad regime, Turkey will not engage in any substantial actions against the IS until it is assured that the Syrian government will not benefit from a Turkish intervention. However, President Erdogan has signaled his willingness to commit ground troops if a no-fly zone is imposed over Syria to create a buffer zone for Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Today, the Turkish parliament expanded its authorization to intervene in Syria to include intervention in Iraq and to permit coalition forces to use Turkish territory to attack the IS. However, for Turkey to take the critical step of deploying ground forces, the US must make some commitments to President Erdogan.


First, President Obama must agree to the establishment of a no-fly zone over at least northern and eastern Syria, stretching from the north eastern Idlib Governorate to the IS controlled areas in the east. This would be done under the pretense of ensuring the safety of Turkish troops and eliminating any risks of conflict with Syrian aircraft. The Assad government would be likely to grudgingly concede the loss of its northern airspace, lest it risk an expansion of the no-fly zone to the rest of Syria and destruction of his air force and anti-air defense systems. With the no-fly zone in place, Turkish troops would move to destroy all IS forces in their jurisdiction, which would hopefully include IS forces from Syrian Kurdistan to Ar-Raqqah to Aleppo to the Iraqi border. Syrian government forces would be likely to withdraw from their positions in the north, once again, to prevent confrontation with Turkey and a general war between Turkey and Syria. Once substantial damage has been done to the IS, Turkish forces would withdraw to an established buffer zone stretching along the entirety of its border with Syria to provide a safe haven for Syrian refugees and to guard Turkey from terrorist attacks (and implicitly a safe haven for Syrian rebels). All of these actions would be in violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian government, but the coalition would be able to claim that due to the Syrian regime’s inability to protect its citizens from the IS (not to mention its own continual massacre of its citizens), under the established norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Turkey, the US, their allies, and the international community has the responsibility to intervene.


Admittedly this scenario is unlikely. However, if President Obama’s goal is to “degrade and destroy” the IS, there needs to be an effective force on the ground to do the heavy lifting. It is also important to remember two aspects to the present day conflict with the IS: First, the oppressiveness of the Assad regime created the current Civil War, which permitted the rise of the IS. Secondly, the failure of the Obama Administration to arm the Syrian rebels in 2011 and 2012, when the rebel forces were almost entirely composed of anti-Assad, non-terrorist organizations, enabled the rise of terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and the IS, who were able to secure the necessary funding to arm themselves and effectively fight the Assad regime. Furthermore, President Obama’s decision to not strike Assad forces and/or impose a no-fly zone, especially after the August 2013 sarin gas attack, enabled the Assad regime to consolidate its positions and advance against moderate Syrian rebels, while largely ignoring IS forces. American inaction in Syria helped create the present situation, but there is still time for President Obama to acknowledge his failed Syria-Middle East policy and change course.


Granting Turkey what it wants-a no-fly zone over at least part of Syria and a true American effort to arm and train rebels to overthrow the Assad regime-might be enough to encourage the Turkish government to intervene against the IS. The destruction of the IS and the elimination of the Assad regime are goals that both the US and Turkey desire. Absent a credible foreign force on the ground, the current direction of the conflict points to a prolonged conflict with the IS, the collapse of moderate rebel forces to Assad, and increased insecurity for the US. This outcome can be averted, but only with leadership on the part of the US to guarantee Turkish aims in Syria. Turkish aims in Syria-the overthrow of the Assad regime and elimination of radical Islamists-are consistent with not only the US’ goals, but that of its European and Arab allies. Action has been delayed for much, much too long, but the US and Turkey can still help end the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq. Any action carries risk, but decisive action and overwhelming force against the IS is necessary to ensure its destruction.

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