The Islamic State: The Case for Expanding the Air War

No action the United States and President Obama takes can eliminate the fact that the campaign against the Islamic State involves major risks, many of which are beyond U.S. control:

  • The lack of Iraqi unity. The uncertain change in the Iraqi government, the high risk it may not be able to bring its Sunnis back into a workable government and the divisions between Arab and Kurd.
  • The lack of an effective mix of Iraqi ground forces. The steadily increasing evidence that the Iraqi Forces are militarily ineffective, that nearly half may need to be written off and the other half will take months to years to be effective. The uncertain ability to bring back Sunnis into a new National Guard. The grave weaknesses in the Kurdish peshmerga caused by a lack of training, equipment, and the near bankruptcy of the Kurdish Regional Government.
  • The weakness of moderate Syrian opposition forces, and the risk that Assad and rival Islamist extremist forces like the Al Nusra Front will benefit from air attacks on the Islamic State in Syria. There is no good option for Syria, only a least bad one, and efforts to try to build a moderate political and military opposition will probably take years and only succeed if the Assad government and other opposition factions largely self-destruct.
  • The uncertain role of allies. Some regional allies like Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and European allies like Britain and France can be counted on if the US shows it is truly committed and will listen as well as lead. Qatar seem to be shifting away from Islamist causes and towards the alliance, but this is uncertain. Turkey and Erdogan stick out as a de facto non-ally, still willing to play games with the Islamic State in order to limit pressure from the Kurds and keep up pressure on Assad.
  • Pressure and opportunism from Russia, Iran, and to some extent China. Russia and Iran can be counted on to try to use the crisis to support Assad, embarrass the United States, and advanced their own interests and influence in spite of the threat they face from the Islamic State. China’s role is more uncertain.
  • A lack of clear international support, and cohesive efforts to halt the flow of money and volunteers and trade, and the broader lack of any cohesive effort by Islamic states and main stream Islam to confront the ideological and politic challenge of Islamist extremism. The UN meeting may help, and key states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have stepped up their efforts to deal with the religious challenge, but the civil and religious aspects of the alliance remain weak.

Once all of that is said, however, these risks combine with the military necessity to support the President’s decision to escalate the air war, and to escalate it further in the future. The United States needed to act far more decisively than it had to date, it could not afford to wait for either political or military reasons, and the risks were certain to grow if it did not take stronger military action.

  • There was a humanitarian necessity. Quite aside from strategy and warfighting, people matter. The crisis with Turkey’s Kurds and other Syrians, and the continuing murders of the innocent required decisive action.
  • The Islamic State’s gains had slowed but it was still winning in spite of U.S. close air support and added advisors and equipment transfers. It was still making limited gains on the Western fringes of Baghdad, putting major pressure on the Iraqi Kurds and creating a humanitarian nightmare for Syria’s Kurds. Air and cruise missile power were the only way to compensate for the current weaknesses of local ground forces, and check the humanitarian disaster along the Syrian Turkish border.
  • Escalating the air war was the only way to attack the Islamic State without taking the risk of relying on weak Iraqi land forces and being seen as taking taking sides. Even a massive rise in U.S. military aid would have taken months to have a major impact on Iraq’s forces before they were cleaned up and reorganized, and could easily have led to the forces getting such aid using it for sectarian or ethnic gains. Moreover, this level of U.S. action shows the new Iraqi government it has a real incentive to reach a national consensus and the United States will react accordingly.
  • Waiting to use strategic and interdiction attacks in Syria and Iraq gave the Islamic State more opportunity to disperse, and made the U.S. effort seem weak and uncertain. The United States had not reported on the details of its air strikes to date, but it was clear that most were close air support, designed to reduce Islamic state pressure on threatened towns and forces, or attack advancing Islamist State forces.
  • The change in the nature of the air and missile campaign was critical to making it effective. Using air and missile power to degrade and cripple the Islamic State requires a massive interdiction bombing campaign to attack its entire military structure, and precision strategic bombing to attack its leadership and its key sources of money and communications. It requires targeted attacks on all centers where foreign volunteers operate, and the same kind of broad bombing campaign that took place in Libya to deny it the ability to move forces with heavy weapons, armor, and “technicals.” Moreover, the long the United States waited, the more time the Islamic State had to disperse key military assets and embed its leaders and forces in the civilian population.
  • Escalating now showed the United States was really serious. It was critical for the United States to prove that this time it actually meant what it said. The United States had to prove it would really act. It was critical to reducing the distrust coming out of previous U.S. indecisiveness over Syria, withdrawal from Iraq, and Arab concerns the United States was tilting towards Iran. It meant leadership and decisiveness.
  • Escalating now showed the United States had real regional and foreign allies. Action by a key European ally like France—and by key Arab allies like Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—showed the U.S. effort to create an alliance was real, ended the Islamist State’s ability to claim that the fight was fought by foreign and crusader forces, and effectively showed that this was an international effort, not simply a U.S. one.
  • It effectively preempted the debate in the UN. Syria, Russia, (and Iran and China?) can still complain, but the United States has already forced the issue of using enough force to have some chance of success, and complaints about a lack of consultation with the Assad government and American unilateralism are not more likely to be seen as obstructions in the broader and vital effort to create more unity in dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State and the broader threat posed by terrorism and religious and ethnic extremism.
  • It put real pressure on uncertain allies like Qatar and Turkey. Qatar seems to be changing and to understand that backing Islamist extremist causes will not protect it from the reality that such causes do not see any moderate Arab or Islamic regimes as anything other than illegitimate and a target, but the US has put needed pressure on the regime. Turkey needs to see that it is isolated, that its façade of alliance needs to be replaced with the reality, and it cannot play the Islamic State off against the Kurds or Assad without real pressure from the United States and other neighboring states.

It should be stressed that this is only a beginning in a campaign that may well take years, where lasting success is uncertain, and there are certain to be reversals and times when pursuing the least bad option means aiding one threat at the cost of another. It is unclear that preempting the UN will lead to any cohesive action by that body, and it is unclear how decisive the air campaign that follows will be. But the Congress, the American people, and the world have seen the United States take a key step forward and it should be recognized as such.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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