The heartbreaking attacks in Paris, taken in combination with those in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey, as well as the stream of oppressed refugees set to flight by ISIS's barbarity, give new and heightened urgency to the problem of ISIS. It has never been more necessary to resolve the problem of ISIS once and for all. Unfortunately, it also has never been more difficult.
The key to confronting ISIS has always been the Syrian civil war. ISIS draws active and tacit support from its opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus, a posture that is persuasive to Sunni minorities in Iraq. Those who look for the causes and the undoing of ISIS in ISIS itself are looking in the wrong place. ISIS is sustained by a context of regional instability and institutional breakdown. Until that problem is redressed, ISIS will endure.
In this respect, the strategy of the Obama administration and its allies has been woefully anemic. The idea that ISIS could be confronted by the application of air power and a search for "partners" in the region absent any resolute policy regarding the larger Syrian civil war was a phantasm. President Obama's claims that ISIS is "contained" or that progress may be measured in the size of the territory ISIS controls are not credible. The political solvency of the ISIS regime will remain intact as long as the outcome of the Syrian civil war remains in question.
Though the Obama administration has been at fault, its critics have offered little in the way of practical advice. Air power will not resolve the crisis, but the deployment of ground troops will likewise be ineffectual absent some clear plan to resolve the Syrian civil war. If American ground troops overran the ISIS "caliphate" they would then be faced with the choice of handing that territory back to the Assad regime or embarking on a long, bloody occupation of hostile territory, both of which would be disastrous in the long run.
The proof of this is in the short career of the vaunted "man of action" Vladimir Putin since he engaged Russian forces in support of Bashar al-Assad. His "muscular" approach should, according to Obama's critics, have produced significantly different outcomes against ISIS. Instead, his government appears as impotent as any other in the face of the horrific attack on a Russian airliner.
What then, are the tactical and strategic options moving forward? Air power is in place to contend against ISIS, but ground forces are needed to destroy its base area. The Kurdish militias and peshmerga have made admirable gains, but they do not have the personnel or the firepower sufficient to the whole task. The necessary force must come from within Syrian society itself, which means that a settlement of the Syrian civil war must be arrived at now.
President Obama should take the lead in broadcasting the urgency of this imperative to the international community. The greatest impediment to this goal is Russia. Vladimir Putin has committed his forces to the the support of the Assad regime, making the key goal of any strategic path to victory against ISIS unattainable. Russia must be moved from its obstructing position and enlisted into the effort to both end the Syrian civil war and destroy ISIS. The destruction of Kolavia Flight 7K9268 gives Russia a new interest in seeing this threat overcome. If President Obama mobilizes all of the economic and diplomatic resources of the US and its allies, it should be possible to enlist the Russians into a plan to end hostilities between the Assad regime and its opponents ex-ISIS, and refocus military energies in Syria on the destruction of the ISIS caliphate.
What might the terms of that kind of political settlement look like? President Bashar al-Assad must step down and an interim government established incorporating members of the political opposition. A new integrated military force consisting of the remnants of the Syrian army and all forces not aligned with ISIS (including, if they will join, even "Al Qaeda" affiliates like the Nusra front) should be formed. The promise of free, fair, and open elections in the wake of ISIS's defeat should be vouchsafed by the interim government and its international supporters, backed by a UN resolution, guaranteeing proportional representation to all sectarian and ethnic groups. A campaign to destroy ISIS should then be launched coordinating the reconstituted Syrian army, the Iraqi military, the Kurdish peshmerga, along with the air power of the US, its coalition partners, and Russia. All of this should be done swiftly, allowing for details to be sorted out after the dust of combat settles, so that the threat of ISIS can be squelched before it further destabilizes the region and the world.
ISIS has proven itself very adept at manipulating postmodern technology and international media in furthering its phantasmal, barbaric agenda. The worst thing that the international community can do in the face of this threat is nothing: inaction in the face of terror and imposed suffering will drive more desperate, aggrieved, and tormented people into the arms of this nihilistic monster. The world must act, and it must act now. We can only hope that our leaders have the wisdom, the ability, and the political will to do what must be done.