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Why Obama's Strategy Against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Is Likely to Fail

12/09/2014 16:39 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

President Barack Obama recently announced a new American campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi al-'Iraq wa al-Sham; ISIS). This campaign, in Obama's words, is designed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS (or IS as they have chosen to call themselves since declaring a "Caliphate"). This is unlikely to happen. While an aerial campaign against IS targets in Iraq and, controversially, Syria, might "degrade" the organisation, it cannot "destroy" it this way.

Obama's strategy of aerial strikes follows a long-established Western pattern of dealing with "insurgents" in Iraq. Almost a hundred years ago, the British introduced the strategy of using the RAF to bomb intransigent tribes and rebels into submission. In one of the first missions of its kind (air warfare had only just been invented), the RAF was employed to bomb Kurdish tribal fighters in the north of Iraq and nationalist rebels in the Arab parts throughout the 1920s. Echoing present arguments about the efficacy of "precision bombing", Sir John Salmond, the Air Officer Commanding British Forces in Iraq at the time, noted that "air action" was "so much more humane than a column".

Then, as now, rebellions and insurgencies were seen as military problems that required military solutions. Through aerial bombardment the problem could be made to go away. And it did - for a while. In the 1920s, Britain saw the north of Iraq as an area that needed to be subdued militarily and brought under the control of a centralised Baghdad government. In 2014, the US sees the north of Iraq in very much the same way: a military problem that requires a military solution and the area needs to be brought back under the Baghdad government's control.

But while the British strategy in the 1920s temporarily subdued Kurdish aspirations in the north and nationalist aspirations elsewhere, in the long run the strategy was disastrous, resulting - directly or indirectly - in the emergence of a powerful Kurdish nationalist movement bent on secession, and the overthrow of the British-installed monarchy and loss of British influence with the 14 July 1958 Revolution. If Obama repeats the mistake of not combining a military strategy with a political one, he too risks the overthrow of the Baghdad regime.

The problem of ISIS needs more than a half-hearted military response. ISIS is an Iraqi political problem that requires a political solution. The origins of the group dates back to the overthrow of Saddam Husayn's regime during the American invasion - which in effect turned Iraq into a "failed state". The dismantling of Iraq's security apparatus, military and large swathes of its civil service in the name of "De-Ba'thification" laid the foundations for the proliferation of Islamist terror groups in the years to come. Disgruntled Sunnis who felt let down by the new American-sponsored, Shi'i-dominated state allowed for the establishment and rapid growth of al-Qai'dah in Iraq - ISIS' forerunner.

Much like ISIS today, al-Qa'idah in Iraq threatened the security of the Iraqi state - having a significant presence in much the same areas that ISIS controls today. It was only driven back through a concerted military and political strategy that significantly involved the bribing of the Sunni community to turn against the Islamists. The so-called Awakening Councils were created among Sunni tribal groups in al-Anbar province, and the scheme was later rolled out on a larger scale. Only by removing this crucial Sunni support was al-Qa'idah in Iraq checked at the time. Today, however, no appeasement of the Sunnis is currently on the table. In fact, it's the opposite.

Since the Americans withdrew from Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki's government became increasingly authoritarian, and many Sunni groups felt that they were marginalised. A political stalemate existed in the country since the elections in April. The elections produced no clear winner, and al-Maliki refused to step down. Thus, when the country was run over by ISIS in the summer, the politicians were bickering amongst themselves. There are even indications that the senior military officers commanding Mosul ordered their soldiers to lay down their weapons and run without fighting the ISIS takeover. Only a few days ago, a coalition government was finally agreed on, with Haider al-Abadi (from the once banned Islamist al-Da'wah Party) as Prime Minister.

It seems that the main reason for the rapid takeover by ISIS of large parts of northern Iraq was the tacit support it received from the Sunni population. Shi'is, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and anyone else who did not fit into the new "Caliphate" were decapitated, forced to pay the jizyah, or fled. An unholy alliance of former Ba'thists, Sunni tribesmen, and violent Jihadis (many of whom come from abroad) forms the basis of the "Islamic State".

Because of this support, Obama's air strike strategy is misplaced and dangerous. In reality, ISIS is quite a small organisation with a few tens of thousands fighters - but they control a population of millions. How, then, can the US decide who is a target? The "Islamic State" is not a conventional state with clearly defined military targets - it is little more than a few bases held by guerrilla groups within a largely supportive civilian population. American "precision bombing" is likely to be as "effective" as it has been in Yemen and Afghanistan where civilian casualties have been the norm rather than the exception - with a steady stream of new recruits to ISIS to follow as a result.

The strategy of "degrading and destroying" ISIS this way is therefore likely to fail without a comprehensive political solution involving an equitable share of power for the Sunni population in Iraq, a withdrawal of American support for Syrian rebels, and the forcing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states to stop sponsoring Islamist terrorist groups throughout the region.