Recent days in Iraq have shown the difference that American airpower–and, one suspects, American Special Operations Forces on the ground–can make. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gone from the offensive to the defensive. Whereas Kurd fighters were struggling not so long ago simply to defend Erbil, they are now on the march and apparently in the process of retaking Mosul dam. The Kurds could not possibly have done this on their own; they needed American military assistance, not only in the form of aircraft to drop bombs, but also special operators on the ground who are no doubt calling in coordinates for air strikes.
This raises the issue of why, if this tactic is effective in Iraq, it can’t also be utilized in Syria where the Free Syrian Army is also eager to attack ISIS as well as the Assad regime? ISIS cannot be beaten on one side of the border alone; we need a coordinated strategy to take it down in both Iraq and Syria.
And it is not just the Kurds and Free Syrian Army we should be helping. There are major limitations to how far the Kurds, in particular, can go in northern Iraq. If they try to dominate primarily Sunni areas, they will risk a pro-ISIS backlash from Sunnis. While the Kurds are great allies, we need allies among the Sunni tribes to really retake Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.
Two of the best observers of Iraq–Colonel Joel Rayburn of the U.S. Army and Ali Khedery, a former political adviser to various US ambassadors and commanders in Iraq–had op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times respectively this weekend pointing out how difficult this will be–how much Nouri al Maliki’s sectarianism has frayed the bonds of trust necessary to hold Iraq together. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will have his work cut out for him convincing the Sunnis that, if they take up arms against ISIS, they will not be betrayed as they were after the surge. The betrayal was not only on the part of Maliki; it was also on the part of the United States which promised to stand by the Sons of Iraq (as the Sunni militia was known) and then pulled all of our troops out, leaving them to the mercies of sectarian Shiites.
It is hard to imagine the Sunnis being mobilized again without a great deal of U.S. assistance–and perhaps not even then. Welcome as recent tactical advances are–and they do show what the U.S. can achieve with only a little commitment–they are a long, long way from where we need to be, which is to be destroying ISIS, an organization that Rayburn rightly likens to the Khmer Rouge in the Middle East.