US options in dealing with Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, etc.)

n the abstract, the US has four broad options for dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS), which now more or less controls most of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, much of it uninhabitable. From this base, ISIS regularly sends out multilingual messages of doom and destruction to the rest of the world, but especially to “the infidel West,” which includes the already terrified US. None of the US options are particularly attractive, none are likely to be decisive, and any of them, even if taken independently, remain dependent on others for their eventual usefulness.

The US and all the other players in the region are currently engaged in what the Pentagon has called “a tactical stalemate” in and around the self-declared ISIS caliphate that stretches like a web across some 12,000 square miles of Syria and Iraq, primarily along the great river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, but also across acres of almost empty desert.

Taking the ISIS caliphate as the primary quagmire, the basic US options going forward are: (1) invasion/occupation, (2) escalation, (3) maintaining the stalemate, or (4) disengagement/withdrawal.

(1) Massive invasion, long occupation of the middle of the Middle East

Clearly some Republican presidential candidates and others on the right are making noises that seem to call for just such overwhelming US force in a region where no one anymore believes we would be greeted as liberators. But invasion is far from a popular idea, and invasion with American troops is probably off the table for a year or so, if not more. With no boots on the ground, an occupation is not happening.

But a massive invasion, by the Kurds, say, with overwhelming American air power in support – that seems more plausible. There are lots of Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga in Iraq, where there are 80,000 to 250,000 according to unreliable estimates. There are also semi-independent Kurdish military forces in Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

The Kurds in Syria and Iraq have effectively stood their ground against ISIS, or pushed it back, despite being under-supplied by their supposed allies. In Iraq, the US won’t supply weapons to the peshmerga directly, only through the Baghdad government, which doesn’t want to see the Kurds get too strong, especially while the Iraqi army remains over-matched against ISIS (the pyrrhic victory in Ramadi left the former city of 400,000 largely depopulated and in ruins).

A massive invasion including the Turks is a theoretical possibility, since the Turks have the second largest army in the region (largest is Iran, third is Egypt), but the Turks have spent the last few years helping ISIS more than fighting it, as Turkey drifts ever further toward becoming an Islamic state under President Erdogan. Besides, Turkey has already committed major military forces to fighting the Kurds in eastern Turkey and occasionally bombing the Kurds in Syria.

The Syrian government is already fighting ISIS in Syria, but not that aggressively, since the greater threat comes from 33 Syrian rebel factions. The Russian intervention on the side of the Syrian government seems to have stabilized western Syria somewhat, but the Russians are not about to be welcomed as an ally in any serious invasion to take out ISIS.

Saudi Arabia, with the region’s fourth largest army, is like Turkey in having offered more support than opposition to ISIS over the years. Besides, Saudi Arabia is more obsessed with its criminal air war and naval blockade of starving Yemen than it is with ISIS. And given Saudi unwillingness to test its army in combat with the Houthis in Yemen, it’s not clear how much use they’d be invading anyone else.

Shi’a-majority Iran has good reason to oppose ISIS, which wants to kill all Shi’a as apostates, but who’s going to ally with them? Iran already has troops on the ground in Iraq supporting the Shi’a Kurds (most Kurds are Sunni).

So that massive invasion looks pretty unlikely if the US and Europeans don’t do it, and if they did it would be so last-century, and more pointless than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Egypt would have to cross two other Arab countries to invade ISIS. Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar (some of which have been supporting ISIS) aren’t likely to invade without Saudi Arabia.

That leaves Israel, which feels much more threatened by Gaza than ISIS, even though ISIS is making inroads in Gaza because ISIS considers Hamas too soft.

Besides, if a massive invasion drives ISIS out of Syria and Iraq, they already have a Plan B. Thanks to President Obama and Secretary Clinton (among many others), Libya is open and ready for occupancy (actually, ISIS already has a stronghold around Sirte).

(2) Escalation of current military efforts, or new ones

For the US, escalation would mean more bombing, and more military advisors to the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi army. It might even include more training and arming of Syrian “moderate” rebels although, if past results are a guide, that would mean maybe ten trained fighters and more weapons and supplies to ISIS.

Escalation could also mean shooting down Syrian military aircraft, or Russian military aircraft, or even Turkish military aircraft when they attack the Kurds the US is helping, all of which seems somewhere between unlikely and mad.

Escalation of any sort, calibrated to any degree, implies a continued commitment to bringing about an American-led solution to a host of intractable military quagmires that are exacerbated by American “leadership,” and were to a great extent brought on by American-led invasions. Just because Americans in the Middle East are not necessarily THE problem, that doesn’t mean the US hasn’t made most of the other problems worse (a huge exception being working with Iran in peace and respect).

It’s hard to see any US military escalation that’s likely to be useful against ISIS. Humanitarian escalation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere might prove helpful, if it weren’t resented too much by the neighbors.

(3) Maintaining the current stalemate

That assumes a stalemate is stable and relatively easy to maintain, which almost surely is not true. But to continue doing what we’re doing now and expect different results would be, as they say, crazy. Would it be less crazy to expect the same results, a kind of containment?

To maintain the present stalemate would require the Kurds, the Turks, the Syrians, the Saudis, the Iraqis, and most everyone else to maintain their own levels of effort. Right.

(4) Disengagement or withdrawal

For the US, this could mean just leaving the region to its own devices, which are many and awful, but it would possibly be more dangerous to the locals than to the rest of the world. Is it a gamble worth taking? Is it even possible for the US to leave a vacuum and expect others not to fill it?

That leaves some level of disengagement as the apparent best choice where there are no good choices. A good choice would have been: “First, do no harm.” But we squandered that opportunity in 1953, and in 2003, and too many other times to be able to do it now. But the US might still aspire to do less harm.

That would require the government to actually decide what the overall goal of American policy is in the Middle East, articulate it and advertise it and follow its logic. Presumably that would mean operating on principle more than ad hoc opportunity. That would mean giving up non-negotiable preconditions that tend to prolong conflicts mindlessly. For example, requiring President Assad to step down in Syria is a mindless totem that prolongs suffering in several countries and feeds a refugee crisis that continues to spread to many more. The US does not have to endorse Assad to enter into talks that can reduce suffering and may perhaps offer the only path to ending that suffering in the near term.


Another example would involve reminding Turkey that it is a member of NATO and, as such, the US is committed by treaty to defend it, and that that commitment goes two ways. If Turkey wants to remain in NATO, if Turkey ever wants to be in the European Union, the US and Europe should insist on minimally decent Turkish behavior, such as NOT bombing allied forces and, even more, NOT fighting for ISIS, supplying ISIS, buying oil from ISIS, and allowing ISIS volunteers and agents free passage through Turkey in both directions.

Measured, principled American disengagement would end the fiction that “territorial integrity” means defending irrational lines on a map drawn by colonial powers to serve their own interests after World War I. For example, Iraq is an effectively ungovernable state that almost any sensate person understands has three fairly distinct parts. American policy, to keep the antagonistic factions of Iraq locked forever in the same cage, is a major source of the region’s fighting. The US backing of the Shi’a majority in Iraq contributed directly to the evolution of al Qaeda and ISIS. And US refusal to consider the possibility of a Kurdish state prolongs the festering divisions not only in Iraq, but Iran, Syria, and Turkey as well. Each of those four countries has murdered thousands of Kurds with programs of ethnic cleansing that began a century ago and continue today. Rigid American policy makes the US essentially an accessory-after-the-fact to past genocide and enabler to new ones.

The US has enough genocide to atone for in its own history without aiding and abetting genocidal impulses of others. The US has enough to atone for around the world that it should disengage from genocidal impulses everywhere. That would mean withdrawing from the Saudi-led war on Yemen. What articulable policy goal does it serve for the US to participate in a naval blockade that starves non-combatants on all sides? What noble principle is served by the US co-planning Saudi air attacks that are killing Yemeni civilians by the thousands?

Perhaps the next best step in opposing ISIS is for the US to stop behaving like ISIS.