The War on ISIS: 6 Issues to Ponder Before Escalating the Fight

The Buzz

The recent attacks in Paris have spurred a flood of demands to escalate the fight against ISIS. Now that the initial shock is over, it is time to explore in greater detail what such efforts should look like if their results are not to prove worse than the threat that ISIS currently poses. The following is an attempt to sketch a number of questions that should be pondered before a decision to further escalate the war is taken.

First, do the western potential partners to a “coalition of the willing” to defeat ISIS have the stomach for this fight? An effective war on ISIS requires capabilities and determination. Capabilities include both material resources and creativity in using them: high quality tactical and operational intelligence and planning as well as strategic thinking and the capacity to execute effectively the conclusions of such thinking. The defense communities of western countries are not lacking such capabilities. But do leaders and publics in the west have the determination to sustain the human and material costs of such a war?

When fighting is confined to the use of airpower to bomb targets from high altitudes in order to reduce the risk that an airman will be captured by ISIS – no matter that the likelihood of killing innocent civilians is far greater when bombs are dropped from such heights – what does this tell us about the will to take on ISIS?

President Barack Obama’s conspicuous reluctance to deploy a significant number of servicemen and servicewomen on the ground resulted not from an under-estimation of the threat that ISIS poses but rather from the president’s judgment about America: his assessment that the American people will not accept the casualties and expenditures of another massive and sustained effort in the Middle East. Yet if Obama’s premise is correct, the promise to “degrade and destroy” ISIS will continue to ring hollow and it is U.S. deterrence – not ISIS – that will be degraded.

Moreover, the post-Paris inclination to increase the efforts to fight ISIS will be self-defeating if these fall short of the deployments needed to achieve the latter’s destruction. Indeed, without crushing ISIS such an increase will merely confirm ISIS’s narrative – its version of the “clash of civilizations” that pits the western “crusaders” against their Arab and other Muslim victims. Thus the west will pay all the costs associated with larger deployments and the Middle East will experience even greater destruction associated with the use of American, British, French and Russian airpower without meaningful gains.

Second, do the potential Middle Eastern partners have the will for a significantly enhanced against ISIS? So far, these states have shown very limited determination to sustain such a fight.


Because ISIS comprises the # 2 priority of many of the region’s states but with the possible exception of Iran, it is the # 1 priority of none. Saudi Arabia and some of the GCC states perceive Iran to be their main threat. For Turkey the greater fear seems to be the perceived threat of Kurdish separatism. For the Egyptian government it is the Muslim Brotherhood and local ISIS affiliates such as Beit al-Makdis. For most Sunni Iraqis it is the Shi’a dominated Iran-influenced government in Baghdad. And for Israel it is the Lebanese’ Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Unless these countries become persuaded that their number one  threat is ISIS, it will remain impossible to create a regional contingency of an effective “coalition of the willing” to defeat and destroy it.  

Third, can ISIS be defeated without the successful waging of a “war of ideas”? ISIS has had remarkable success in inspiring young men and women from the Middle East and North Africa, Russia, Europe and the U.S. to join its ranks, whether as fighters or as functionaries in their Caliphate. This success cannot be reversed without engaging ISIS’s extremist ideology, debunking the efficacy of its Armageddon-type ethos, and demonstrating that it violates the letter and spirit of Islam. This is critically important even if engaging with the theological aspects of ISIS is irrelevant to the more urgent task of dislodging ISIS from its territorial base in Syria and Iraq.

Fourth, could the “day after” ISIS defeat be even worse than the challenges it currently poses? If the success in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that there can be no greater folly than to fail to devote sufficient thought to the “day after.” For Europe, Russia, and the U.S. the Caliphate’s defeat may prove an even greater challenge than its current terror attacks. This is so because during the last few years, thousands of ISIS fighters have gained combat experience fighting some truly tough adversaries – particularly the Kurds.

In the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat, those among its ranks who will not be killed or captured will be heading home, to the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Belgium, and scores of other countries. Many will have no way to do so other than to cross through Turkish territory – another nightmare for Ankara. Upon their return, some may have the capability and will to take revenge by engaging in various forms of terrorism in their home countries. Others will wait to join new terror organizations that will be formed in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat, just as Al-Qaeda in Iraq has morphed into ISIS. Thus, a strategy for defeating ISIS that does not include a chapter on managing the risks of the post-ISIS environment is surely bound to prove self-defeating.

While the West has not even begun to think of mitigating the risks in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat, Middle Eastern countries and Russia are already obsessed with this issue. Indeed, another reason why an effective “coalition of the willing” to defeat ISIS has not emerged thus far is that these countries deeply disagree about the region’s desirable future in the aftermath of an ISIS defeat. Moreover, some of these countries are so mesmerized by the prospects of thousands of combat hardened ISIS alumni that they may prefer that ISIS be contained within ever smaller enclaves in Syria and Iraq rather than be entirely dislodged. This may be especially true for Russia for whom the return of ISIS veterans to Chechnya and the Caucuses may be a much bigger nightmare than a contained Caliphate. In that case, we may be dealing with a case of massive hypocrisy: many of the governments that currently profess to be committed to ISIS’s defeat may much prefer to see ISIS contained but not destroyed.

If competing visions and interests regarding a post-ISIS Middle East is currently paralyzing the efforts to build a “coalition of the willing,” it is essential that diplomatic efforts to negotiate the construction of such a coalition focus on this topic: can the gaps between these different visions be reduced? Can the interests of the countries that are candidates for membership in such a coalition be made to better align?

Fifth, is it not time to rethink the role of Russia and Iran? It seems almost self-evident that the suggested reexamination of the various parties’ interests and of their possible better realignment should include rethinking the role of these two countries. Such rethinking might include showing greater empathy to the challenges and predicaments that these two countries face. This has not been the case thus far – President Obama has not shown nearly the same level of sympathy to the Russian lives lost by ISIS’s bombing of the Metro Jet plane in the Sinai as he has shown in reaction to the Paris attacks.   

For some members of the possible “coalition of the willing” the suggested rethinking requires a complete about face – from regarding these two players as a big part of the problem to considering them as part of the solution. Yet the potential benefits of persuading Iran and Russia to play a more constructive role are enormous. In the case of Moscow, these benefits may extend far beyond the Middle East, as they may open the road to a new grand bargain with the west aimed at significantly reducing the odds of escalation to a nuclear war with Russia over the Baltics and the Ukraine.   

Finally, can the defeat of ISIS be meaningful and sustainable without restoring the deteriorated Middle East states? It is difficult to see how a defeated ISIS can be prevented from simply morphing into another terror organization without a restoration of the region’s state system. This does not imply that the region should remain wedded to its existing regimes. Indeed, there are good reasons to suspect that the failure of many of these regimes to meet the minimal expectations of their constituencies has created the “breeding ground” for terrorism to flourish. But it probably means that the region’s states must be restored as unitary actors that enjoy a monopoly of force, that the institutions of state must be rebuilt to respond to their citizens’ expectations, and that these states must have defined, well marked and well protected boundaries that would make it more difficult to import and export violence across the region.

Without addressing these six questions convincingly, escalating the fighting against ISIS may make as much sense as did the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and is a member of the Board of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: U.S. Army/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The U.S.-China Relationship: War, Peace or Just Troubled Times Ahead?

The Buzz

The recent freedom of navigation operation undertaken by the USS Lassen in the South China Sea advertises a new sharper edge to U.S.–China relations.

Some analysts have begun to write about a ‘tipping point’ in the relationship (see here and here); media reports sometimes talk of a relationship in crisis. It’s not that bad—yet—but things are getting more serious. To see why, we need to look at the broader regional landscape and then fit U.S.–China relations into that. The U.S.–China bilateral relationship is undoubtedly the region’s most important, but Asia’s no G2—it’s a large theatre with no common front line and a high level of economic interdependence.

Indeed, we’re moving into a world of uneven multipolarity in Asia. It’s easiest to see the shift by using a long baseline: compare the relative weightings of the major players in 1995 with what they are now. In 1995 U.S. preponderance was so marked that all other players looked like minions. But 20 years later we see an Asia characterized by a number of strong players: China, Japan and India in the top tier; South Korea, Australia, Indonesia in the second tier; and a range of regional states—like Vietnam—in fast-growing Southeast Asia.

Still, power relativities are shifting more than regional order. Japan’s determined to add some cross-bracing to the current order, seeing that as offering the legitimacy it needs for a larger role. India doesn’t have the influence or the wish to redesign the East Asian order: its growing gravitational weight is still felt most in the Indian Ocean and on the subcontinent. And China’s strategic vision still emphasises a Great Wall, a set of deferential neighbors, and a smaller U.S. presence in proximity to the Wall. But China doesn’t like the current order, which was built at a time when it was weak. It doesn’t believe that, in the long run, the Asian regional order should be shaped in Washington.

The second-tier players are generally too weak to promote their own visions of an Asian order. South Korea and Australia are, in any event, both U.S. allies. Indonesia isn’t, but—like most ASEAN states—it’s disposed to prefer either U.S. primacy to Chinese hegemony or (at worst) a stable great-power equipoise in a peaceful multipolar Asia.

The U.S. is attempting a ‘rebalance’ to Asia. But Washington’s conscious of its global obligations (including to Europe and the Middle East), weary after 14 years of effort post-9/11, and keen to address a range of domestic issues. It knows too that even a successful rebalance won’t restore the U.S. to the degree of primacy it enjoyed in the 1990s.

So in the long run, the US seeks a modus vivendi with a rising, peaceful China. The two countries’ annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue and growing trade figures underline that objective (bilateral trade has grown by 7,550% 1985-2014). But read Lawrence Summers’ latest piece for The Washington Post: “the world—including China—is unprepared for China’s rise.” Summers believes the U.S. still has serious questions to answer in relation to the relationship. Does it want a more prosperous China or a less prosperous one? Does it have a coherent picture of its preferences in terms of China’s policy choices? Does it have a sensible picture of future architectural arrangements?

Similar questions exist in the strategic field: does the U.S. want a stronger China whose weight is felt more around the region or a weaker China whose weight is felt less? For the U.S.—and Australia—the answer, of course, varies depending on what sort of great power China turns out to be. In the South China Sea we see a coercive power, not a consultative one—a power unwilling to accept international arbitration. Nationalism’s a potent driver in Chinese foreign policy at the moment. Moreover, China’s growing weight is felt most starkly along the Eurasian rimlands, in ways that are corrosive of the current strategic order. The contests in the East China Sea and South China Sea aren’t really about rocks—they’re about hierarchy in a future regional security environment.

And there’s a second level of complication: the U.S. and China have to work out their relationship in full view of the region—a region which includes a number of U.S. allies who don’t want the U.S. to treat China as a peer. They worry that its doing so would imply a marginalization of the hub-and-spokes structure.

The good news is that the Thucydides ‘trap’ isn’t inevitable: rising powers aren’t doomed to clash with established ones. Economic interdependence and nuclear weapons lessen the prospects of war. And military manoeuvring in the South China Sea is still about ‘signalling’, not conflict. But the bad news is that some form of clash seems increasingly likely. The U.S. can’t move to offshore balancing without spooking its own allies; but China’s idea of the U.S. as an ‘outsider’ implies just such a shrinking role for the U.S. in Asia. Troubled waters lie ahead.

Rod Lyon is a senior fellow at ASPI, where this piece first appeared.

Image: U.S. Navy/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Got a Plan to Defeat ISIS? Candidates, Show Your Work.

The Skeptics

For many years, my former colleague Justin Logan had an editorial cartoon posted on his door in which two scholarly looking men are reviewing a long and convoluted proof scrawled on a blackboard. Amidst the incomprehensible symbols and numbers, somewhere between the beginning and QED, is written, “Then a miracle occurs.”

One turns to the other and says, “I think you should be more specific here in step two.”

This message seems sadly relevant given that presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have been quick to describe what they plan to do to defeat ISIS. It isn’t enough, however, for these men and women to tell us what actions they would take. It is also incumbent upon them to explain, as precisely as possible, what they believe will happen as a result.

For example, although Hillary Clinton has supported and supervised military interventions in more countries than all of the GOP candidates put together (ponder that for a minute), she apparently feels the need to burnish her hawkish credentials. Last week, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, she called for an “immediate war against an urgent enemy and a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots.”

Clinton certainly isn’t the most hawkish candidate out there. NPR assembled a helpful table, complete with links, to the candidates’ views on a range of ISIS-related policies, from blocking Syrian refugees, to sending in U.S. ground troops, to imposing a no-fly zone.

Anyone who promises to take some form of military action or diplomatic pressure to defeat ISIS should be asked the same question: “And then what happens?” Or, more formally, “Please explain, to the best of your ability, how the particular action that you are advocating will accomplish your stated ends. Show your work. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.”

Because international politics isn’t subject to iron laws of arithmetic or gravity, a fair amount of speculation and supposition goes into the making of foreign policy. We guess as to what might happen after a particular course of action is chosen, supported by reasonable assumptions, given the facts on the ground at that particular time and informed by past experience in similar situations. But both the facts and the assumptions should be scrutinized.

Reasoning by analogy is a perilous enterprise, as Ernest May showed many years ago, and can lead to misinterpretation or misjudgment as often as it leads to sound solutions to vexing problems. (This applies in the case of businesses, too.)

In Myths of Empire, Jack Snyder addressed a particular type of misconception, what he calls the paper tiger thesis. On the one hand, a foreign threat is deemed serious enough that preventive action is warranted to eliminate it. On the other hand, the capabilities of the adversary in question are not so serious that he won’t be easily vanquished after a short and swift drubbing. Past instances in which this was true are cited to support the case for war—while the cases that do not conform, when an attacked adversary didn’t tuck tail and run after being hit, are dismissed as inapplicable. The risks of inaction are always portrayed as very high (case in point: here) and the risks of action are deemed to be negligible.

Snyder shows that the paper tiger thesis isn’t a very good foundation for the conduct of foreign policy, generally, but it seems particularly appropriate today, in light of the news that a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian SU-24 and killed at least one Russian, to suspend any inclination to go along with the interventionists’ story, and not simply accept their assumptions about cause and effect. We should especially challenge the facile claims that all will go according to plan—that the bad guys will crawl back into their holes, or simply curl up and die—when the risks of preventive action are very high. Not every brushfire war will turn into a major conflagration between nuclear-armed states (thankfully), but the chance that it might should give all of us pause.

Christopher A. Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: Flickr/Joe Crimmings

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Turkey Shootdown: Russian Air Power has Issues, but Campaign has Been Decisive

The Buzz

News that a Russian strike aircraft has been shot down by Turkey has again focused attention on Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began in late September. The Russians deployed a small but decisive air and naval force to side with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to protect his regime and, specifically, the city of Damascus.

While the Russian Air Force deployment to Syria has undoubtedly complicated the air operations of the US-led coalition, the coalition's significant advantage in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and its ability to use extensive air-to-air refueling assets, mean that its air forces can easily 'deconflict' (that is, reduce the risk of the collision by co-ordinating movements) their operations from those of the Russians.

The ability of assets like the RAAF Wedgetail, the US Air Force E-3, and other ISR aircraft to identify and classify Russian aircraft activity from the time they launch from their Syrian bases means they can be identified and tracked throughout their entire mission. If crews on board an  aircraft like Wedgetail see a potential for imminent confliction, coalition aircraft can be moved out of the way until the Russians complete their operations.

However, deconfliction is far more of a concern for the Russians than the coalition. While the Russians have deployed very capable Su-30 fighters to protect and enhance the situational awareness of their strike aircraft,  the Russians do not have the ability to put together an integrated view of their operating battlespace, as the overnight downing of a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft likely demonstrates. They have little or no idea where coalition aircraft and UAVs are operating, and have little ability to put together a coherent picture of US-led air operations.

On all missions, the level of Russian situational awareness would be significantly lower than their coalition counterparts. As well as Turkish air power, the US Air Force's F-22s would be a significant concern to the Russian Air Force in any confrontation with the coalition.

Russia's air campaign has been effective and decisive:

Nevertheless, Russia has waged an effective air campaign against forces opposed to the Assad regime. In fact, it could be argued that the Russians have shown a better overall strategy for the employment of air power than the US-led coalition.

In contrast to coalition air forces, Russia has been unconstrained by the legacy of 10 years of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. The tactical micromanagement of each strike sortie, and a total lack of freedom of action given to coalition aircrew, have made it impossible for coalition air planners to put together a coherent air campaign to defeat ISIS.

The coalition's formidable capability is being significantly underused because of self-imposed constraints. Contrast this to the Russian experience; in less than seven days, the Russians were flying more than 60 sorties per day, a very high rate given the modest force Russia deployed. And in the execution of its air campaign in northern Syria against militant groups opposed to the Assad regime, the Russians have used air power decisively in a way the US-led coalition has not.

Russia's quiet military revolution:

While the use of warships and, more recently, strategic bombers to launch cruise missiles to hit targets in Syria is largely symbolic, with the intention to demonstrate Russian capability to the world, the October air strikes were Russia's first operational use of precision-guided munitions, and thus underscore Russia's quiet military revolution. This  transformation has been a result of far-reaching military reforms to create more professional and combat ready armed forces that can swiftly deploy abroad.

In the past, the Russian armed forces needed months to gear up for a military confrontation. They have now shown the ability to react quickly and strike without warning.

The first serious round of Russian reform started in late 2008 after the Georgian campaign, and concentrated on increasing the overall level of professionalism in the Russian forces. There has been reform of the education and training of Russian armed forces personnel and a significant reduction in the number of conscripts.

After the education reforms were put in place, the Russians concentrated on increasing the combat readiness of the force by streamlining the command structure and increasing the number and complexity of training exercises.

The third phase of the reform was to rearm and update equipment. Many Western analysts have concentrated on this phase and have been dismissive of Russian capability because it still remains a work in progress. In doing that, we have ignored the success of the first two stages, which have already given the Russians a far more effective and combat-ready military.

So while the Russians lack modern air-to-air refueling and ISR assets, they have shown a good grasp of how to use modern air power effectively to achieve strategic results. In many respects, Western analysts have dangerously underestimated Russia's reformed military capacity.

Geoff Brown was Australia’s Chief of Air Force for four years until his retirement in mid 2015. Prior to this, he commanded at all levels of the Air Force, including as the Commander Air Combat Group.  During Australia’s 2003 contribution to the war in Iraq, he commanded all F/A-18 and C 130 operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

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China Is Setting Up Its First Military Base in Africa

The Buzz

The People’s Republic of China is setting up its first military base in Africa as it continues its evolution into a global superpower. Beijing has signed a ten-year leasing agreement with Djibouti to build a logistical hub in that nation, which is located in the Horn of Africa.

“They are going to build a base in Djibouti, so that will be their first military location in Africa," U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, recently told defense reporters according to The Hill’s Kristina Wong.  

It was only a matter of time before China set up overseas bases in the region. Beijing has enormous economic interests in the region that it needs to protect. China has set up deals to supply its growing economy—which even as it slows down is expanding at close to seven percent per annum—with raw materials.

According to the Economist, China is the African continent’s biggest trading partner with trade worth more than $160 billion per year. Over the past decade, more than a million Chinese laborers and merchants have move to Africa to work. Essentially, Africa ships raw material to China, which is then exported back as finished products.

China has somewhat of an advantage in competing for business in Africa because it does not have any intention or desire to impose its values on the locals or their governments. As such Chinese investments don’t come with any strings attached in terms of human rights or governance. But there has been some backlash from African civil society groups and even some African leaders. Indeed, Lamido Sanusi—Nigeria’s former central bank governor—told the Economist that Africa is opening itself up to a “new form of imperialism.”

Beijing is apparently trying to address the criticism according to the Mail & Guardian—  a South African paper. In this year’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) China is expected to start offering more access to capital for local African companies. Indeed, the Chinese Export-Import Bank extended $62.7 billion in loans to African countries from 2001 to 2010, according to the paper. The Chinese are also focusing more efforts on publicizing their efforts to create jobs for local Africans. It’s also making more of an effort to comply with local regulations.

The Chinese public relations offensive combined with its new base means that Beijing is in Africa for the long haul. Going forward in the years to come, Beijing could edge out Western influence in the region and secure access to the continent’s vast mineral resources for itself.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

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