Five months after the fall of Ramadi and 16 months after the fall of Mosul, the Obama administration seems to have figured out that things may not be going so well in the anti-ISIS campaign. As a result, following its usual protracted policy review process, the administration is considering steps such as deploying Apache attack helicopters to Iraq and a few advisers to Syria. It’s nice that the administration is considering doing more but these aren’t serious options; they’re gimmicks.
The fundamental problem in Iraq and Syria is political: How do you mobilize Sunnis against ISIS — and for that matter, Shiites against the Iranian Quds Force? Until that happens, it will be impossible to make any real and lasting progress. Sure, we can send better weapons to Iraq but we can’t convince the Shiite militias and the militant Shiites who dominate the government to risk the lives of their troops to clear ISIS out of Sunni areas. And even if we could, it would be impossible to hold those areas without the support of the locals, which is currently lacking. Even if we could evict ISIS from Mosul or Ramadi, some other Islamist terrorist group would arise to resist Baghdad’s encroachments.
As for Syria, there will be no hope of mobilizing Sunnis to fight ISIS unless the U.S. also supports a campaign to get rid of Bashar Assad, who has killed far more people than ISIS has. Yet far from gearing up against Assad, the U.S. is negotiating with his chief sponsor, Iran, hoping to lure Tehran into negotiations over Syria’s future and dropping broad hints that the U.S. is no longer committed to Assad’s removal.
Even people who haven’t read Clausewitz should understand the primacy of politics in warfare. If you don’t get the politics right, it’s hard to accomplish much by military force alone, even when that force is far more overwhelming than any we are likely to deploy under the Obama administration. Remember how hopeless the situation in Iraq seemed in 2006, for example, when we had some 150,000 troops deployed there. Yet within a year, the situation had gone from bleak to positive because we had managed to recruit 100,000 Sunnis to join the Sons of Iraq program to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor. The fact that the U.S. was willing to stay and fight with the Sunnis certainly convinced them to defect to our side but, absent the Anbar Awakening, the “surge” would have been stillborn.
Today there is a pressing need for the U.S. to offer Syrians assurances that we are committed to getting rid of both Assad and ISIS, and to working with our friends and allies to end Syria’s horrific civil war. In Iraq, we must assure the Sunnis that their rights will be protected in the future even after ISIS is gone. That will require in essence a Sunni Regional Government, similar to the Kurdish Regional Government, and like the Kurds protected by its own militia and by American security guarantees.
All indications are that Obama has no intention of taking any of those steps. Until he does, his small-scale military measures are going to be inadequate.