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Op-Ed

Limited Airstrikes Against ISIS a Bad Idea

Daniel L. Byman

Limited U.S. airstrikes against ISIS would be quick and decisive. They’re also a terrible idea.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is metastasizing, with its forces spreading across Iraq and threatening Baghdad. Much of the world is aghast as this brutal insurgent and terrorist group seems to grow in power, and much of the world is groping for ways to intervene effectively. Iraq’s hard-pressed regime has called on the United States to provide air power to help it defeat ISIS, and U.S. administration officials are weighing limited airstrikes. However, such a move would represent the triumph of tactics over strategy. A successful intervention would require far more massive and comprehensive measures, and in the absence of these, limited steps might be the worst of all worlds.

From afar, surgical strikes seem like an ideal way to intervene. They appear decisive, yet because they do not involve American boots on the ground, they limit risk. If the United States were to deploy fixed-wing aircrafts or drones, so the thinking goes, it could destroy some of ISIS’s forces. This would make it harder for ISIS to mass its troops and move quickly from one area to the next, as large formations and moving targets are particularly vulnerable to U.S. air power. Bombing might offer a morale boost for the beleaguered Iraqi forces, showing them that the United States and its powerful military are on their side. And back in Washington, a limited campaign would answer demands to “do something” about a deteriorating military situation in a country where America lost over 4,000 soldiers and spent billions of dollars, offering an opportunity for the president to look strong.

Yet limited bombing has many downsides. Currently, the United States lacks the intelligence on Iraq and ISIS necessary to carry out anything more than opportunistic strikes. The United States has begun the process of gaining this intelligence, but getting a comprehensive picture will take months, if not longer. ISIS is an irregular army that does not rely on tanks or other mechanized forces to achieve victory, making it hard for air power to deal a decisive blow. Although its convoys flying black flags would be easy targets, it would quickly adapt — becoming more discreet and traveling in smaller units if U.S. aircraft threatened to attack.

In any event, the size and strength of the Iraqi Army is not the problem — it outmans and outguns ISIS by orders of magnitude. Rather, the Iraqi Army’s problems involve leadership and morale. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has systematically isolated Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities and politicized the officer corps. Unsurprisingly, many Iraqis don’t want to fight for what they see as Maliki’s personal militia. Maliki has dismissed several officers due to the Army’s recent dismal performance, but the perception that the Army is Shiite-dominated remains and perhaps has even grown as many Sunnis and Kurds deserted during the ISIS advances of the last week.

If the Iraqi Army withers and runs when attacked, limited airstrikes will ultimately do little to push ISIS back. Air power can’t conquer territory by itself. Even in the best circumstances, airstrikes must be sustained to have a strategic effect. And strikes must work in tandem with advances on the ground, so Iraqi forces can move in and occupy any territory from which ISIS withdraws. If strikes are limited in duration, ISIS can simply lie low, camouflaging its forces among the civilian population and avoiding the offensive until the spotlight moves off Iraq, as it inevitably will. If its forces are hit in one area, it can simply reoccupy the territory when the bombing ends. The United States must be prepared to strike often and repeatedly if it is going to play a major role in pushing ISIS back. This could take months even if all goes well.

The NATO effort to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 teaches us many lessons. The good news is that in Libya the opposition was able to stabilize the front with the help of NATO air power. However, pushing back Qaddafi’s forces required European special operations forces and the opposition to provide the necessary intelligence to call in airstrikes. Opposition forces then moved in on the ground to take the territory Qaddafi’s forces abandoned. Their morale was high as they believed they were fighting for a free Libya. Most importantly from a military point of view, the campaign took several months and involved over 25,000 sorties — a far more massive effort than what is being considered in Iraq.

Making the problem even more complex is the interplay between Iraq and Syria, and the region as a whole. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which renamed itself ISIS (and, to add confusion, has since been rejected by the al Qaeda core), began in Iraq but moved the core of its operations to Syria. This was both part of a genuine desire to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and because the group was hard-pressed in Iraq. As it regrouped and grew in Syria, it expanded operations in Iraq, culminating in the recent offensive. Pushing ISIS back in Iraq is beneficial, but as long as it retains a base in Syria this is only a short-term solution. Even worse is that the problem is spreading throughout the region. Two and a half million refugees from Syria have fled the conflict. This flow, along with the passions generated by the slaughter of the Syrian (and now Iraqi) civil wars, has increased unrest in Jordan and has inflamed sectarian passions in Lebanon, where violence has grown and threatens to increase further. 

If the United States bombs Iraq now, it will once again become tarred with the brush of Iraq — whether Washington likes it or not. At a time when sectarian fervor is at a fever pitch, the United States will be seen as taking sides, in this case on behalf of a pro-Iranian regime. America’s allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are vehemently anti-Iran and scorn Maliki as Tehran’s puppet. They are already suspicious that U.S. talks with Iran are cover for a broader alliance with Tehran and would resent an intervention on behalf of Maliki, as would many Sunnis. These allies may become even more critical of a nuclear deal and broader rapprochement with Iran and conclude that the United States is secretly working to keep Iran’s other ally, the Assad regime, in power.

Putting regional rivalries aside, the Maliki regime is part of the problem. The Shiite prime minister has used corruption, brutality, religious discrimination, and the politicization of the security services to strengthen his grip on power. By militarily supporting the regime, the United States will be associated with Maliki’s rule, no matter how many reforms the country demands as quid pro quo.

A few surgical strikes to hit ISIS forces and leaders is not enough. A truly successful intervention would require far more time and effort on the part of the United States. The good news is that there may be more time than the ominous headlines of Baghdad’s imminent fall suggest. ISIS has so far advanced primarily through Sunni Arab areas, and it will face a much tougher fight as it approaches Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. A one-off set of strikes, particularly if they were divorced from a ground campaign, would offer at best limited military advantages, but would be more likely to produce little lasting effect and might even backfire. The use of force, even limited force, must be linked to a broader strategy for Iraq and for the region as a whole.

The first step is to stop ISIS from spreading farther. The spread of violence in Iraq was utterly predictable, and there is no reason to think it will stop there. The United States should help shore up the regimes in Lebanon and Jordan, providing financial support to manage surging Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations and providing assistance to those regimes’ security forces to police their borders. This aid will not stop ISIS in Iraq or Syria, but it can help prevent ISIS, and regional instability in general, from spreading farther.

The Obama administration should also encourage the Maliki regime and the Kurds to work closely together. Both oppose ISIS, and as Iraq expert Michael Knights points out, the Kurds sit astride ISIS’s lines of advance in Iraq and their military forces are capable and coherent. If they join the fray, they can deal severe blows to ISIS. Bringing the Kurds into the fray would help push ISIS back, and to make a deal, Maliki would have to broaden his government to reflect Kurdish desires for more autonomy — a good thing for Iraq as a whole though a step Maliki will hesitate to take.

At the same time, Washington should continue to step up intelligence gathering. In both Iraq and Syria, the United States needs precise information on ISIS’s forces and its leaders — information that would make any military campaign far more effective. The United States undertook such an effort before in Iraq led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the Joint Special Operations Command, but this took time and resources, with hundreds of intelligence personnel and operators involved. Even more valuable now would be resuming the work the United States left unfinished when its forces departed Iraq at the end of 2011: large-scale training of the Iraqi military and pushing for the associated political reforms. The United States attempted a massive training program while its hundreds of thousands of troops were in Iraq — an effort that saw notable success. But this success has been undermined by Maliki’s politicization of the officer corps since the U.S. departure. Successful training will thus be more than a technical problem; it will require the Iraqi regime to take the political steps necessary to build a professional military. This will be a tall order for Maliki.

Finally, the United States must harmonize its Iraq and Syria policies and develop an overall regional strategy. As the 2011 unrest in Syria has turned to violence and then to civil war, U.S. policy in the region has been reactive. The United States needs to more aggressively back moderate Syrian opposition forces, many of which are strongly opposed to ISIS. It may be too late to topple Assad (especially in the near term), but when combined with a more effective Iraqi military, these forces can put pressure on ISIS on both sides of the border.

To stop ISIS and make the region more stable, the Obama administration needs to ensure that any use of force is embedded in a broader strategy. Otherwise, all that limited bombing offers is the illusion that America is acting decisively, and it could make a bad situation worse.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.