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Trudy Rubin: Containing, defanging ISIS requires nimble strategy

Trudy Rubin (Courtesy)
Trudy Rubin (Courtesy)
Trudy Rubin

Last week I praised President Barack Obama’s important speech at the United Nations that urged world leaders to reject “the cancer of violent extremism.” But, like many Americans, I voiced concern about whether his strategy – including bombing ISIS and al-Qaida targets in Syria – could achieve his objectives. I promised to examine this question in a subsequent column, so here goes.

First, the president had no choice but to organize a global campaign against ISIS. We can debate whether he could have prevented the group’s rise had he armed moderate Syrian rebels two years ago, as all of his top security team advised, but that is water under the bridge. The rapid territorial expansion of ISIS across large swaths of Syria and Iraq, propelled by thousands of Western and other foreign jihadis, had to be stopped.

Left unchecked, ISIS fighters would have invaded Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened Baghdad and tried to sow chaos in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Their successes have made them a global magnet for foreign jihadis: Key al-Qaida affiliates are declaring fealty to ISIS, core al-Qaida has now been jolted alive by the competition and Western jihadis are being trained to return home with bomb-making skills.

Iraq’s army collapsed before the ISIS onslaught, and it has no air force, so the initial U.S. bombing strikes in Iraq were vital; they checked ISIS’s forward motion. If you follow that logic, it also makes sense to hit the group in its command centers in Syria, where it has built up the core of its ersatz state, its self-described caliphate.

But we all know that airstrikes alone don’t defeat terrorists. The United States rightly isn’t going to send troops to fight ISIS in Syria or Iraq, nor are any of Iraq’s Arab neighbors. Yet Obama has said ISIS must be “degraded, and ultimately destroyed.” So who is going to defeat ISIS?

In the short term, the answer is “No one.” Despite the hoopla, and the CNN headlines blaring “War with ISIS: What does victory look like?”, this is not a conventional war.

The jihadis will be vanquished only when the Arab world resolves the internal problems that are causing the current implosions. But the United States can’t afford to let ISIS expand exponentially while Arab countries struggle to sort themselves out. This is what Obama has belatedly realized.

So rather than a “war on ISIS,” I prefer the term coined by Ryan Crocker, the distinguished former ambassador to Iraq and Syria, who calls the strategy “aggressive containment.”

“We won’t defeat them, but we can keep them badly enough off balance to prevent attacks on the United States,” Crocker told me. “That may not save Syria, but it may save us.”

At the moment, aggressively containing ISIS in Iraq will require more American airstrikes. Kurdish peshmerga fighters (with an influx of new arms expedited by Washington) are ready to protect their region, but the broken Iraqi army – corrupted by political appointments at the highest levels – is just getting back on its feet.

The hope is that a new government in Baghdad may be able to reach out to disaffected urban Sunnis and Sunni tribal leaders; they were so alienated by the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, that some of them tolerated, or even abetted, the ISIS advance.

There are encouraging signs that the new leader, Haidar al-Abadi, grasps the need for a more inclusive government. Most important, he is at least talking about setting up national guard forces composed of Sunni tribesmen who would be willing to fight ISIS in western Iraq. “We must do everything possible to ensure that ISIS doesn’t gain more ground,” Crocker said, while Abadi regroups Iraqi forces. The much bigger question is who will provide the ground troops in Syria that could take advantage of American airstrikes and push back ISIS. Obama’s plan to train 5,400 vetted “moderate” rebels over the next year is too little and too late to make a difference. Moreover, some of the vetted groups have denounced the first wave of airstrikes because they didn’t also target the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

These moderate rebels believe the U.S. strikes will help Assad retain power; they think the bombing of his most radical opponents will enable him to finish wiping out the rest. They also fear it will help him take the key city of Aleppo, which they are now contesting with ISIS and the regime. Assad is happy to kill moderates but has left ISIS mostly untouched.

So “aggressive containment” will face its biggest challenge in Syria. Top Syria expert Josh Landis, at the University of Oklahoma, believes the United States might have to threaten to bomb Assad’s forces if they try to take advantage of the allied airstrikes to destroy the moderates. In effect this would mean forcing a cease-fire between vetted groups and the regime, which might ultimately facilitate negotiations.

This would leave the rebels in their northern sector free to take on ISIS, in a Syria that is effectively partitioned. That might be one way to provide the ground troops to degrade ISIS and other jihadi forces there.

What’s certain is that the struggle to contain and defang violent Islamist extremism in the Mideast will be a long one, requiring a nimble strategy from Obama and whoever succeeds him in 2017.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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