If there were ever any doubts that ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) poses a threat to the international community, or that they are on a direct train, fast or slow, to the scrapheap of history, the vicious murder of journalist James Foley should have dispelled them. As clear as the problem may be, however, its causes and possible remedies remain murky in the discussions of pundits and politicians. The scramble to both assign blame and appear decisive in response has, predictably, produced a muddle of implausible diagnoses and cures.
Though there are many dimensions of this discourse one might examine, the discussion of American policy toward Syria is a particularly illuminating point of departure. Critics of the Obama administration fault the president for failing to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The president responded to this criticism by noting that: "[The idea of] farmers dentists and folks who have never fought before
going up against...ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few
arms is a fantasy. And I think it's very important for the American
people - but maybe more importantly, Washington and the press corps - to
The empirical case supporting the president's reasoning here is very strong. If the Iraqi military, trained and armed by the United States for a decade, could not defeat ISIS during the battle for Mosul, it is foolish to insist that a small ragtag band of Syrian militia could fare well against ISIS given some fraction of that support. However, this type of logic only yields good results if it is applied rigorously and consistently.
Alongside his credible assessment of the Free Syrian Army's chances against ISIS, President Obama has been adamant in insisting that the key cause for the rise of ISIS was the exclusive and discriminatory policies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: "The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form
an inclusive government — one that represents the legitimate interests
of all Iraqis." Inclusiveness and toleration are no doubt virtues that would serve any government well, but the idea that they could have prevented the rise (or can hasten the defeat) of ISIS is dubious, as demonstrated by the experience of neighboring Syria. No one would call the government of President Bashar al-Assad a model of inclusiveness, but his army was making gains in the field against ISIS even as Mosul fell. If one is going to compare apples to apples, as President Obama did in juxtaposing the Free Syrian Army to the Iraqi military, one must likewise assess the performance of Nuri al-Maliki's government against the other government that has opposed ISIS, that of Bashar al-Assad.
What could explain the disparity between Syrian and Iraqi military performance against ISIS? I would suggest that there is a rather simple answer that policy makers and commentators on all parts of the political spectrum have largely ignored.
By the end of 2013, the Syrian Air Force had 469 combat and reconnaissance planes in operation, mainly consisting of MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets. The Iranian Air Force has more than 600 fighter jets of various types. The emirate of Oman, a country of roughly four million people, has 12 American F-16 and 10 British Hawk 203 fighter jets, and is expecting delivery of another dozen British Eurofighter Typhoons.
At the time that ISIS captured the city of Mosul, the Iraqi air force
had only two planes, both Cessna prop planes modified to carry Hellfire
missiles. This last fact is key to understanding the current crisis in
Mesopotamia and the Levant. It exemplifies the culture of error that has
driven U.S. policy since the 9/11 attacks.
Why would the Republic of Iraq, a country of more than thirty-six million people, once home to one of the world's largest military forces, engaged in a decade-long civil war, be possessed of only two propeller-driven Cessna planes to serve as its air defense? What nation would risk being so lightly armed? The answer, of course, is that no sovereign nation would.
Air power is what distinguishes the army of a sovereign state from the paramilitary and insurgent forces that have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. Modern foot soldiers maintain discipline and mission focus in the face of extremely hostile circumstances, in part, because they know they can count on the logistical and tactical support of a sophisticated air wing. In 2014, an army that goes into battle with two armed Cessnas is not a real army, and the government commanding that army is not a real government. Is it any wonder that men who knew they were part of a fake army fighting in the name of a fake government should lose morale and break ranks when faced with a comparably armed force driven to suicidal frenzy by religious fervor?
This circumstance trumps all other variables in discussing the career of ISIS leading up to and beyond the capture of Mosul. Arguments over the training of the Iraqi military or the retention of U.S. combat forces in Iraq are rendered pointless by the raw reality of Iraq's neutered air defense. If the U.S. had kept 50,000 soldiers in Iraq until 2025 and only then
left Iraq armed with two Cessna planes, by 2028 the country would have
descended into a civil war just as destructive as we see today.
The fact that Iraq lacks a credible air defense has nothing to do with the wishes of anyone in Baghdad, it was mandated in Washington. Washington has refused to allow Iraq to arm itself because that would put Iraqi politics totally beyond the control of the United States. Some of this is no doubt an expression of the soft bigotry of low expectations. U.S. leaders do not trust Iraqis to manage their own affairs, thus they deny them the tools to genuinely do so even as they spout rhetoric about Iraqi accountability.
The absurdity of the situation, however, is driven to a large degree by systemic factors intrinsic to American politics. Since the 2003 invasion U.S. elected officials have been politically liable for the performance of the Iraqi government. This vulnerability has driven American policy decisions, not only in Iraq, but in the larger Middle East, for most of the Bush and all of the Obama presidencies. An American leader contemplating giving fighter jets to Baghdad has to worry about the prospect of their being used against the Kurdish regime in Erbil. Giving planes to the Kurds might result in their being used against the Turks. The downing of a Malaysian airliner by Russian separatists in the Ukraine provided an object lesson in the unpredictable volatility of war by proxy, and American leaders are accountable to forces (the media, the political parties, the voting public, etc.) with which Vladimir Putin need not contend.
All of this is to say that Colin Powell's oft-quoted "Pottery Barn" rule ("You break it, you bought it") did not nearly approximate the policy vexation confronting the U.S. in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. By expending so much blood and treasure on the dismantling of Iraqi state and society, the US assumed an exquisitely tangled complex of horizons of virtually infinite liability. The question of how to maneuver amid so many pitfalls of shifting contingency has predictably resulted in a general climate of paternalism and paralysis.
The neoconservative dream was to turn Iraq into a democratic, sovereign ally of the United States. The nightmare that ensued in the wake of the U.S. invasion has turned Iraq into something entirely different. U.S. policy toward Iraq does not merit the label "colonialism," as U.S. leaders have eschewed the level of responsibility and engagement of a genuine colonial metropole. Neither can it be called "neocolonialism," as it is far more intrusive than any cases previously falling under that rubric. Instead, since the invasion of Iraq U.S. policy has embarked upon a kind of "retrocolonialism," an attempt to exercise all of the control of an old colonial power with none of the effort or sacrifice.
This has predictably led to tragic consequences, of which the rise of ISIS is only the most recent and alarming. Moreover, despite the ample evidence of folly, the U.S. seems incapable of changing course. This may be because the remedy for the ills of retrocolonialism is counter-intuitive. If we are suffering now for aspiring to too much control with too little effort, the answer is not disengagement, but a full reversal of the dysfunctional dynamic: less control, MORE effort.
What would this entail? "Less control" is fairly self-explanatory. The U.S. must begin to trust the people of Iraq, Syria, and the Arab world more generally to run their own affairs and conduct their own politics. But this does not mean that the U.S. should abdicate all engagement or influence in Middle Eastern affairs. If there are groups whose interests align with our own, we should assist them even if the results of that assistance are unpredictable and beyond our ultimate control.
Syria provides a case in point. President Obama is correct that providing small arms to the Free Syrian Army would have produced dubious results against ISIS. But that is because, in its dealings with the FSA, the U.S. has remained focused on getting it to do what is in America's interest rather than on assisting it (and the larger Syrian resistance of which it is a part) to achieve its goals. The FSA might be a much larger and more powerful force today (and ISIS much weaker) if, from the outset, America had committed robustly and decisively to the resolution of the Syrian civil war. If the U.S. had declared a no-fly zone over Syria in 2011 or 2012, the FSA might have enjoyed the same success against the Syrian military (deprived of an air wing as the Iraqi military is today) as ISIS did more recently in the assault on Mosul.
We did not provide that kind of robust assistance to the Syrian resistance in 2011 because we could not control the ultimate outcome of the Syrian civil war, and feared that the fall of the Assad regime might empower militant Islamists. Yet despite all that caution, ISIS is more powerful in 2014 than any Islamist group in 2011 or indeed ever in history. We must begin to understand that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, groups like ISIS are as empowered by American inaction and disengagement as anything the U.S. might do.
ISIS's ideology and strategic culture (for example, its ability to motivate members to engage in suicide attacks) makes it uniquely effective in an assymetrical struggle like the Syrian civil war. The longer that war dragged on and the more desperate the position of the resistance became, the greater the ranks of ISIS grew. For all its new strength, however, ISIS has not been able to defeat the well-armed Assad regime. It has thus shifted focus to the "soft targets" of Baghdad and Erbil. Even here, its success has been provisional. Though the Iraqi military forfeited the majority Sunni city of Mosul, when Baghdad was threatened, volunteer Shi'ite militias were able to check ISIS's advance. All of this indicates that though the extraordinary circumstances of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have given ISIS remarkable momentum, there are powerful forces within Iraqi and Syrian society that constrain and counteract ISIS's advance. If the U.S. hopes to defeat ISIS in the long term, it must trust those forces and lend them robust aid, even in the absence of short-term control over outcomes.
"Trust" is the crucial word here. If we are to genuinely trust the Iraqi government, we must allow it to become fully sovereign and develop all of the military capabilities of a nation-state. If we are to trust the Free Syrian Army we must not only provide them with small arms, but assist them with air power in all of their operations, not only against ISIS but also against the Damascus regime.
Already some pundits are squawking that we should partner with the Assad government in Damascus in the fight against ISIS. This is the same kind of retrocolonial thinking that has led us down the primrose path to the current crisis. The Assad regime is a known quantity, so goes this reasoning, while the victory of the Free Syrian Army would create an unpredictable and uncontrollable situation that might bring into power Islamist groups with which the FSA is still allied. This paternalism can lead nowhere good. Conspiring to impose upon the Syrian people a regime they have fought and died to remove will rebound back upon the United States in ways that are impossible to foresee, but the severity of which are pictured in the disgraceful murder of James Foley. Less control, more effort, more trust. If the U.S. ever hopes to set its policy orientation toward the Arab world on a functional footing, it must begin to trust the Arab people themselves, and understand the role they play in determining their own destiny.