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ISIS, Regional Failures, and the Necessity of Western Action

For over a half-a-decade, the world has watched with great interest authoritarian regimes in the Middle East crumble. Hope quickly changed to horror as an unending spiral of grotesque violence established a foothold in Syria and Iraq. In recent years, the world has witnessed ISIS not only emerge from its cradle in Iraq and extend its bloody tentacles into neighboring states such as Syria, but export its brutality to distant lands.

Over the last few years, the international community has effectively been paralyzed by the heinous spectacle of unmitigated death and destruction. Early on in the Syrian Civil War, when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad indiscriminately used chemical weapons on rebel fighters and civilians alike, the United States Department of State publicly mulled over possible methods of intervention.

In a region marred by regional rivalries and complicated by wider geo-political conflicts, the international community was slow to aggressively combat the most dangerous extremist organization in the world.

In his final address to the United Nations General Assembly last September, President Obama commented on the multi-faceted crisis that has encompassed the Middle East and greatly impacted the West, stating:

The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed. And if we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long. But I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts, and our international community must continue to work with those who seek to build rather than to destroy.

And there is also a military component. to that. It means being united and relentless in destroying networks like ISIL, which show no respect for human life. But it also means that in a place like Syria, where there’s no ultimate military victory to be won, we’re going to have to pursue the hard work of diplomacy that aims to stop the violence, and deliver aid to those in need, and support those who pursue a political settlement and can see those who are not like themselves as worthy of dignity and respect.

Across the region’s conflicts, we have to insist that all parties recognize a common humanity and that nations end proxy wars that fuel disorder. Because until basic questions are answered about how communities co-exist, the embers of extremism will continue to burn, countless human beings will suffer — most of all in that region — but extremism will continue to be exported overseas. And the world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall and prevent it from affecting our own societies.

The president’s speech was exceptionally moving, and highlighted the cultural and political animosity that fuels the existence of an environment amenable to the survival of ISIS’ depravity. Additionally, the widespread climate of domestic unease and fear abroad has been exacerbated by the continuing political strain caused by the refugee crisis. Rampant fear reverberates among the populace of Western nations, sentiments rooted in the belief that ISIS aims to imbed agents within the fleeing masses of innocent civilians.

President Obama addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2016. (Cia Pak)

However, like many political speeches, it obfuscated the grim military realities of the situation. The speech overestimated the probability of success for potential diplomatic solutions, and underestimated the necessity of comprehensive military action to facilitate future diplomatic initiatives. The combined efforts of regional actors, the United States and its European allies in the past few years, paint a much different picture. The international community has increasingly brought its military might to bear on ISIS. When diplomatic solutions proved difficult to secure, the United States and its allies launched their limited military intervention composed of an air campaign and the allocation of special operations forces and logistical support personnel.

The incrementally increasing employment of military assets against ISIS targets has only intensified over the course of the past year, indicating that international policymakers are indeed pursuing an ultimate military victory within the region. While the eradication of ISIS won’t bring a conclusion to the region’s most devastating conflict, the Syrian Civil War, such a victory would ease human displacement and greatly diminish regional volatility, which would enhance the efficacy of diplomacy.

In July, renowned information analysis firm IHS Markit released a report which stated that ISIS had lost 12 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq during the first half of 2016, having already lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015. To date, cooperative international action has proven effective in combating ISIS, however, the question remains as to how much additional ISIS erosion is realistically possible using current methods.

Political rivalries within the region make it unlikely that local military forces will ultimately prove capable of fully defeating ISIS combatants. Iraqi security forces seem incapable—in both resources and resolve, of reclaiming all of their lost territory, and any sort of long term cooperation with Kurdish forces seems unlikely. In October, not long after the Iraqi military launched its campaign to recapture Mosul, the Pentagon adamantly denied that the offensive had stalled. However, reports have surfaced within the last week which clearly indicate that the offensive has indeed ground to a halt, with even the well-regarded Iraqi counterterrorism units having been neutralized.

In Syria, the situation is far more complex. Turkish forces proved to be more concerned with targeting Kurds than ISIS fighters. Gripped by political instability following a failed military coup, repeatedly besieged and strained by extremist attacks, and on a precipitously deteriorating diplomatic course with Russia, Turkey stands to suffer further destabilization which will undoubtedly boil over into Syria. Moreover, both Russia and Iran are committed to supporting the Assad regime, which itself expends the majority of its energy routing American-backed moderate rebel groups, as was evidenced by the recent fall of Aleppo to Assad loyalists. All of which suggests that any regional military solution is unlikely to quell the ISIS insurgency quickly or efficiently, perhaps even counterproductively expanding the vacuum in which ISIS can regroup.

If the current military strategy continues, ISIS fighters will increasingly imbed within civilian populations which provide a level of protection that will precipitously degrade the effectiveness of coalition airpower. To comprehensively defeat ISIS, the deployment of substantial ground forces tasked with conducting door-to-door clearing operations in ISIS-held territory will be required. Thus far, cooperatively irreconcilable local military forces have proved unable to decisively defeat ISIS. Moreover, it’s logical to conclude that as ISIS continues to be militarily pressured and deprived of territory and manpower, that it will violently lash out like a drowning man desperately struggling to stay afloat. ISIS will engage in a level of combat unparalleled in its ferocity, likely overpowering regional security forces that have previously crumbled in the face of stout resistance. Therefore, it seems unlikely that after several more years of fighting, the already beleaguered local forces will possess the stamina required for a final multi-front push.

Perhaps most striking, is the readily apparent correlation between the loss of ISIS-held territory and the exponential growth of ideologically-linked attacks in Western nations. Within the last year, the United States, France, and Belgium have all borne witness to the spilling of blood from ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. As ISIS’ desperation grows, it’s a justifiable assumption that the exportation of terrorism will increase as it attempts to drive its opponents from the field, perhaps utilizing catastrophic weapons and materials—recalling a recent attempted mustard gas attack on coalition troops in Iraq and a feared security breach at a nuclear power plant in Brussels.

Certainly, nobody wants the deployment of Western boots on the ground, however, it has become a necessity. For the West, direct action is required to safeguard international security which has been demonstrably and repeatedly threatened. It’s an inescapable reality that the West must now spearhead the effort to destroy the veritable heart of the genocidal organization. Most of all, it’s the duty of the militarily-advanced Western nations to uphold international law, defend human rights, and protect their respective national interests.