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What Would It Take to Destroy the Islamic State?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, Western military powers appear likely to escalate their anti-Islamic State strategies. But what are their options?

by Mike Pearl
17 November 2015, 1:15pm

American cargo planes sit on a base in Turkey. Photo via the US Air Force Flickr account

Even before Friday's terrorist attacks on Paris, Western nations had been bombing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but judging from the rhetoric of the last few days, there's a good chance the efforts to eliminate the notorious Islamist group will be ratcheted up.

French President Francois Hollande has pledged to "destroy IS" and called upon the US and Russia to form "a union of all who can fight this terrorist army in a single coalition." In America, when politicians aren't declaring their intention to stop refugees from Syria from entering the country they're reiterating the need to defeat IS in the most hawkish language available. It's gotten to the point where President Barack Obama has had to go on the record and restate the obvious, that a large-scale ground war with IS would be "a mistake."

From VICE News: France Just Can't Put Enough Boots on the Ground to Wipe Out the Islamic State

This seems like a good time to step back and ask how NATO and Russia would go about toppling the Islamic State. So VICE got in touch with Omar Lamrani, a military analyst for the Texas-based military think tank Stratfor, and ran through a some hypotheticals to get a picture of how different options would shake out. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

VICE: What are some ways the West could defeat the Islamic State once and for all?
Omar Lamrani: There are many things you can do to hurt IS, but there are two factors that have to be taken into account in order to finish them off. You could hurt them by going after their finances. Obviously the United States is going after the oil infrastructure and energy infrastructure in the strikes today in Deir ez-Zor Province, which hit something like 116 oil trucks. We've seen them do decapitation strikes, striking their leaders. We've seen them do propaganda warfare, airstrikes, interdiction strikes, going after their logistic supply lines. Airstrikes and financial stuff can only do so much without guys on the ground to take the fight to IS and occupy their terrain.

Have actual incursions by US troops done major damage?
Up till now we've seen very, very few cases where they took out IS leaders without resorting to kinetic strikes from the air. We saw that raid in eastern Syria where they [killed] a leader involved with oil. That was through an insertion by special operations, but that's very rare. They're talking about doing more of that. We've also seen that case where they [rescused] those prisoners, but that wasn't really a decapitation strike. Essentially, what the United States is talking about is increasing raids, and the "RRR strategy," which is "Raqqa [the largest IS-controlled city], Ramadi, and raids." That involves more hits with commandos, and more special forces raids. But up till now, the vast majority of decapitation strikes were conducted by kinetic strikes from UAVs [a.k.a. drones] and fighter jets.

Don't new leaders just pop back up every time the US takes one out?
The US keeps saying that when they kill the first leader, a deputy will also be killed, and that slows momentum. When you keep killing leaders, it has an effect over time, and yes, that's true to a certain extent. It definitely hurts IS. But a death blow? Can you finish IS by just killing their leaders? That's not the case. The US itself would admit that. It comes out and says without forces on the ground, we cannot actually finish off IS. Without actually occupying the ground in which they operate, IS will continue to survive.

"This is a historical problem, rooted in historical grievances between Sunnis, Shiites, families, borders, ethnicities, and religions."

Obama wants to "intensify" the existing campaign. Can more airstrikes produce decisive, major victories by themselves?
Let's look at what happened in Sinjar [where the Kurds won a victory against IS]. When you have airstrikes in conjunction with a ground-force element, that can prove quite decisive. But airstrikes alone cannot change the picture. IS can be stopped to a certain extent—it can be contained and kept from taking new territory. We saw what happened in Kobane, where the defenders would have very likely been overrun had it not been for US airstrikes. The United States can go up there with its air power and contain further IS growth, but as we saw with the Paris attacks, they're able to hurt the allies' interests abroad.

What's the biggest downside with airstrikes?
Airstrikes can't directly support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's forces. So we saw IS shift over time toward attacking targets which are not heavily covered by air support, and take advantage of that. The recent capture of Maheen [earlier this month], and before that Palmyra [an occupied Syrian town of worldwide archeological significance that was severely damaged this year] are examples. So there are serious limitations to airstrikes. They can be extremely helpful. They can be very decisive in containing IS gains. But by themselves they're not a silver bullet.

Is there a magic ratio of special forces raids, airstrikes, and local paramilitary forces?
It's not like there's a clear way forward that's just not taken. Let's take the Kurdish example, which really illustrates this greater point. With the Kurds, they've proven very effective in fighting IS within the territory—namely northeast Syria, if you're talking about the YPG [the largely Kurdish defense forces that oppose IS]. They've proved that they can push back the Islamic State. The problem is twofold: One, the Kurds can only operate in northeast Syria. They do not have the popular support to go in beyond northeast Syria because they're a small demographic in the greater Syrian country. They do not have the grassroots capability to push far beyond into Arab terrain. They wouldn't be effective there. They don't have the numbers, and they don't have the historical connection to that territory. They don't have the know-how to go into that territory, and there's also the other issue, two: Turkey. Turkey is extremely concerned with the Kurdish question. They're not inclined to support any move that empowers them further. We've seen them carry out airstrikes against them when they tried to cross the Euphrates River westward. So in a sense, the Kurds are partly a solution. They can hurt IS in northeastern Syria and part of Iraq, but they themselves cannot be relied upon.

Hollande says France will "destroy" IS. Is France about to put boots on the ground?
I haven't seen any indication that makes it clear that France is going to go in there with ground forces. I've seen reports that they're considering potentially sending special operations forces like the United States.

So if a ground invasion isn't likely, what should a combined international strategy look like?
We are seeing a shift in dynamics where there's a desire to end the Syrian conflict. The reason being, the vast focus of the loyal [i.e. pro-Assad] side and the [non-IS] rebel side is on each other. And that gives IS greater leeway to operate on the fringes, and seize opportunity to take terrain, and so forth. If they do reach an accommodation, a ceasefire, or peace, essentially down the road, it's going to much easier to fight against IS. It's something that the the Russians, the Americans, and the French know the others can agree on. The problem is getting there, given that both sides are so entrenched in their respective proxies on the ground—meaning the Syrian loyalists versus the rebels.

So is it necessary to somehow make loyalists and the rebels play nice?
It's easier said than done, if you're going, "Oh, let's get this peace treaty, and let's fight together against IS!" These countries have extreme suspicions of each other. The United States does not trust Russia, and when Russia began its strikes in Syria, they said they were going to go against IS, but 80 percent of their strikes were against the rebels rather than IS. There's quite a big gap there that's not very easy to bridge. We might see more, pushing toward this peace treaty, but it's nowhere near mission accomplished there.

Let's say the US and its allies can make nice with Russia. What could they accomplish together?
I'm hesitant to go into speculation and hypotheticals, but if they do reach an accommodation between the foreign powers, then the important thing is when you go into eastern Syria, you have to take into account the locals' initial grievances. You might assemble the military force necessary to take it. Especially in an ideal world, if you're talking about a situation where the loyalists and the rebels band together against the Islamic State—that's a very, very strong force. That's something that can defeat the Islamic State. That would just be overwhelming for the Islamic State, and it would be able to push them out. But the underlying grievances and tensions won't necessarily be removed, especially if you're talking about a situation where Assad's power exists. The problem with going into hypotheticals is that the rebels wouldn't cooperate with Assad. It's one thing to remove them militarily, but then you go back to the original problem.

"It's not possible for it to work without first resolving the Syrian Civil War. The Islamic State won't be defeated until the Syrian Civil War is dealt with."

Can't there be a legitimate Syrian regime without Assad?
If it's not Assad, it's still going to be someone the rebels don't like. If that drastically changes, then we're talking about a different situation entirely. If we're talking about a situation where the Russians and the Iranians say, "OK, we'll drop Assad. We'll accommodate the rebels." We'll be able to figure out which rebels to talk to. We're talking about a lot of factors that will have to go really, really well to reach this point in time where there's a combined force ready from both the rebels—former rebels at this point—and the loyalists to go into Eastern Syria and fight IS.

And bypassing the question of who's in charge in Syria isn't an option?
There are so many obstacles on the way to that ideal scenario. It's not possible for it to work without first resolving the Syrian Civil War. The Islamic State won't be defeated until the Syrian Civil War is dealt with.

And after that, how would you make sure IS stayed gone?
If you don't divorce IS from the Sunni community within Syria and Iraq in which they operate, then you will always have the same problem potentially coming back. You have to remember what happened in Iraq after the surge and after the Anbar Awakening, we actually saw the jihadists there, not completely destroyed, but largely negated to a significant extent. Violence went down dramatically. That's because, to a large extent, the Sunni community was brought into the talks. They were given a way out of the crisis. They were told that things could get better for them, that something could be arraigned with Baghdad, with the government. But that didn't really end up happening, and the historical grievances of the Sunni community within Iraq and Syria make it so that groups like IS and other jihadist actors can keep coming back.

Is there another option?
You could try to foment an internal revolt. That might be your wild card. You might seek people under the Islamic State to revolt against them. We might see the Islamic State being removed, but that still leaves us with a situation where another group like the Islamic State, or its successor, will pop up in the same area.

Are you saying the West just needs to slow down, or be patient, or something like that?
Were' looking at a situation that's very, very hard to solve in a short time. That, I think, is the takeaway. This is a historical problem, rooted in historical grievances between Sunnis, Shiites, families, borders, ethnicities, and religions. So it's very difficult to magically solve a problem that's been there a while, and has been made worse over the last decade of war.

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