US President Barack Obama’s announcement on September 10 of an extended US bombing campaign in both Iraq and Syria, in a “relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist”, suggests for the US administration at least, the lessons of the Iraq war have not been learned.
Despite a declaration that airstrikes would be coordinated with the movements of local forces fighting against IS, the scale and spread of the aerial campaign undermines the ability of a coalition to defeat IS. Put short, it does not appear as if the administration grasps the nature of the conflict, or indeed the methodology required for defeating IS.
In his statement, the President outlined the counter-terrorism campaign, to be implemented by “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground”. However, Obama faces a dilemma; if the US uses airstrikes as a means of “degrading and dismantling” IS, they risk perpetuating the Middle Eastern image of America as ‘The Great Satan’ when innocent civilians are killed, whether by the strikes themselves or the ensuing devastation. By contrast, not implementing airstrikes where they may be effective allows the Islamic State to continue expanding into the region. In essence, neither strategy is tenable as it would result in the deaths of civilians, so a balance must be found.
US airstrikes have proven their effectiveness against IS forces, namely those aimed to relieve pressure placed on the Yazidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar in early August. Yet they must be viewed within their own context. It was only in combination that aid drops to the stranded Yazidis, airstrikes and the ability of the Peshmerga broke the siege. In such an instance lies the misunderstanding officials and commentators have about the conflict; that the importance of one must naturally outweigh that of others.
Claims of a great US victory and the proof of the efficacy of bombing campaigns are met equally by those who applaud the impact of Kurdish forces in physically breaking the siege on August 14. However, the issue is far more complex than the comparative effectiveness of airstrikes. Defeating IS militarily and ensuring their destruction is not one and the same. To win, opponents of IS must gain the ideological support of the population, something the US currently does not have.
Interviews with Syrian and Iraqi civilians have shown that for at least some of the populace, US intervention would be detrimental to their efforts to install governments of their choosing. The Islamic State deals in fear and ignorance, controlling territory by limiting education and scaring people into submission, a policy far more dangerous than military prowess.
Already there are disputes between local forces; Iraqi and Kurdish forces maintain mutual antipathy towards each other while moderate Syrian rebels, supported by the US, claim their fight against IS shares links to the current civil war against the Syrian government. Meanwhile, other Syrian rebel groups have recently signed pacts of non-aggression with IS forces in Syria, compounding the difficulty the coalition faces in successfully arming opponents of IS.
For better or worse, the map of the Middle East has changed. The containment of IS and its dismantling relies on the ability of local forces to retake land and establish workable infrastructures. Obama’s strategy oversimplifies a conflict with no simple solution, one where the timeline for success stretches far into the future. In the years to come the legacy of this struggle will lie not in the military campaign itself, but in the social and political culture that follows.