The Limits to Fighting the Islamic State
CANBERRA – There is a long history of misconceived and over-reaching foreign military intervention in the Middle East, and it is to be hoped that US President Barack Obama’s decision to wage war against the Islamic State will not prove to be another. No terrorist group more richly deserves to be destroyed outright than these marauding, genocidal jihadists. But as the US-led mission is currently conceived and described, it is not clear whether its objectives are achievable at acceptable costs in terms of time, money, and lives.
The basic problem is that the Islamic State’s territorial gains are being approached from three completely different perspectives, demanding three different types of operational responses. There is the humanitarian mission to protect civilian populations in Iraq and Syria from mass-atrocity crimes. There is the need to protect other states’ citizens from Islamic State terrorism. And there is the desire to restore states’ integrity and stability in the region.
Obama’s rhetoric, and that of his most enthusiastic partner so far, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has wobbled between the first two objectives and hinted at the third, creating hopes and expectations that all three will be effectively pursued. But only the humanitarian mission has any realistic chance of being delivered through the four-part strategy now on the table: air strikes against Islamic State forces; training, intelligence, and equipment for Iraqi and Kurdish military forces and Syria’s non-extremist opposition; intensified international counterterrorism efforts; and humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians.
It is obvious that Western-led military operations cannot by themselves re-establish the territorial integrity of Iraq or Syria, or restore wider regional stability. Military intervention may help to hold the line against Iraq’s further disintegration and the spread of the Islamic State cancer into countries like Jordan. But if 150,000 US troops could not stabilize Iraq in the absence of an inclusive and competent government, the limited measures on offer now simply will not suffice. And we should know by now that any Western military intervention with overtly political, rather than clearly humanitarian, objectives runs a real risk of inflaming sectarian sentiment.
Things might be different if the US and other key players could simultaneously embark on a broad regional stabilization enterprise, but there are too many competing agendas to make this realistic for the foreseeable future. The Sunni-Shia rivalry means that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will concede no meaningful role to Iran. Nor will the West acknowledge Iran’s centrality to any multilateral process, for fear of losing negotiating leverage with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.
Few are willing to accept that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, despite his abominable record, now almost certainly must be part of the solution. And the open sore of the Israel-Palestine conflict plays into every other rivalry.
The counter-terrorism objective is more inherently plausible than that of political stabilization, and domestic politics in the US, Australia, and elsewhere probably require the prominence that it has received from Western leaders. To the extent that their breeding ground can be destroyed, as Al Qaeda’s was in Afghanistan, there will be fewer newly minted terrorists to worry about.
But it is difficult to believe that a military campaign of the kind now contemplated, even with substantial support from Arab countries, can achieve that objective any time soon, or at an acceptable cost, in both Iraq and in the Islamic State’s Syrian havens. The real burden will have to be borne, as now, by effective international cooperation in intelligence and policing.
The competence of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces – crucial if territory is to be taken and held – will take time to build up, and may never be achievable with the so-called moderate forces within Syria. Airstrikes anywhere risk civilian casualties – and thus the possibility of inflaming the very sentiments one is trying to counter.
Moreover, airstrikes in Syria without the government’s consent or Security Council authorization will be manifestly in breach of the United Nations Charter. The prospect of Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in the US are not remotely real or imminent enough to justify reliance on the self-defense exception. Hearts and minds matter in counterterrorism, and they become harder to win whenever the US and its supporters embark upon military action clearly in breach of international law. The slow buy-in so far of Arab states to Obama’s campaign attests to the nervousness that many of them feel on all of these grounds.
By far the most defensible rationale for military action is – and has been from the outset – the humanitarian objective: the responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes. I have arguedthat all of the conditions necessary in this context have been satisfied, and this will continue to be the case so long as the Islamic State maintains its horrifying modus operandi.
Operating within this framework, US and coalition forces would clearly be entitled to disrupt, degrade, and seek to destroy the Islamic State’s capability in a way that would also serve the counter-terrorist objective. But the primary objective for intervention would remain unequivocally humanitarian, and as such would be much less susceptible to anti-Western blowback than any other mission. There may even be considerable international tolerance for some carefully defined and limited action in Syria in the event of an obvious imminent humanitarian threat.
If the campaign against the Islamic State is defined and conducted with humanitarian protection as its primary and overwhelming objective, it should succeed not only in stopping further atrocities, but also in making large inroads into curbing the wider terrorist threat at its source. If the West strays from that primary goal, the enterprise is likely to end in tears, like so many others in the Middle East.