Despite its brutal murder of American aid worker Peter Kassig, there is mounting evidence that, as I noted on these pages last month, “slowly but surely, the tide is beginning to turn against ISIL”.
ISIL is finally being defeated in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Its advances in Iraq have been halted and are starting to be rolled back. The terrorist group lost control of the country’s biggest oil refinery at Beiji. The relatively poor production values of the latest ISIL murder video suggests a group in distress. Some reports even suggest that several key ISIL leaders, possibly including its “caliph”, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, may have been injured and others, including the notorious Chechen extremist Abu Abdul Rahman Al Shishani, killed in coalition airstrikes.
American Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Martin Dempsey, confirmed last weekend that in his view the battle against ISIL is “starting to turn”, at least in Iraq.
However, as things stand, neither the strategic posture nor the existing resources of the US-led coalition are fully commensurate with the stated goal of “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIL.
Therefore, the coalition faces a series of crucial choices. Either the ultimate goals of the mission will have to be downsized to conform with what can be accomplished by the present level of investment, or the degree of commitment and resources will have to be significantly increased.
The anti-ISIL campaign will almost certainly be expanded, particularly since Barack Obama can tap into considerable bipartisan and public support for that, and because not doing so would essentially mean pulling back from the “degrade and destroy” objective in favour of an indefensible policy of containment that can essentially live with a weakened ISIL.
But it’s not just a matter of increased airstrikes against a much wider array of targets, significantly expanded covert operations, or the carefully calibrated expansion of “boots on the ground” activities by special forces, trainers and advisers, or other coalition troops. There is a fundamental political conundrum that must be resolved.
On September 16, American defense secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate committee that “destroying ISIL will require … effective partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria”, and that these do not presently exist.
Identifying or creating, and greatly empowering, such partners will be the single greatest determinant of the success of the broader mission to “destroy” ISIL.
In Iraq, Syria and some other parts of the Middle East, the traditionally empowered Sunni Arab regional majority now feels besieged, abused and attacked. ISIL’s rise to power has occurred in precisely those places where this is most deeply felt, as the organisation poses as a champion of the Sunnis.
Any local ground force that will be effective in truly demolishing ISIL, especially in northern Syria, will have to credibly challenge those claims. They will have to be seen as not just friendly, but as saviours of those very Sunni communities, and certainly cannot be perceived as representing hostile sectarian or ethnic interests.
This is going to be difficult enough in Iraq, where the betrayal of the “awakening” against ISIL’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has left a vast chasm of mistrust between Sunni communities and the Baghdad government. Moreover, ISIL is aware of the danger surrounding them and has moved swiftly and brutally to crush any hint of dissent or opposition in Iraqi areas under their control such as Al Alam.
But it’s going to be even more difficult in Syria, where years of neglect for moderate opposition groups have left them hamstrung against both the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship and ISIL (which is moving ever closer to its former rivals, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra).
In both countries any sense that the anti-ISIL intervention either wittingly or unwittingly aids the central governments at the expense of Sunni communities will be disastrous.
And in Syria, the United States as leader of the coalition is going to have to work hard to overcome the impression that it is either ambivalent about the future of Mr Assad, or even reluctantly in favour of him staying in power.
Whether the impression of American ambivalence about Mr Assad is attributed to fears about the practical consequences of Syrian state disintegration, or is seen as emerging from a tacit respect for Iran’s sphere of influence and allies in the context of a potential nuclear agreement – and even if such perceptions are completely erroneous – the American-led coalition will not be able to dislodge ISIL in Syria if it is perceived as benefiting the dictatorship.
Mr Obama himself appeared to recognise this problem on Sunday when he said cooperation with Mr Assad was out of the question and noted: “For us to then make common cause with him against ISIL would only turn more Sunnis in Syria in the direction of supporting ISIL and would weaken our coalition.”
Mr Obama should follow this impeccable logic to its conclusion. In fact, the project to destroy ISIL, if it is to succeed, must be linked to a categorical and practical rejection of the Assad dictatorship and a policy, reflected on the ground, that explicitly and unequivocally seeks regime change in Damascus as well.
Without that, Mr Hagel’s indispensable “partners on the ground” – the eventual key to the entire campaign against ISIL – either won’t emerge at all or won’t stand a chance of prevailing.