Dealing with ISIS: Drones are No More Use Here

Posted on November 10, 2014 by


US foreign policy is in disarray. This isn’t really news – Obama has yet to put together a consistent international strategy – but the situation with the Islamic State (commonly referred to as ISIS) is especially uncertain.

“The Islamic State’s success wouldn’t just turn the Middle East into a region with failed states; it would turn it into a failed region. Such a problem could not easily be contained.” Trita Parsi

America and the West are out of options.

So what’s going to happen? It’s worth considering how conflicts in recent memory have been dealt with and how this can/can’t be applied to ISIS.

Thousands of troops were sent in during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled and a democratic government set up in its place. That government struggled but held together while US troops were still in the country. When they left the country became increasingly unstable, with tensions between the country’s Sunni minority and majority Shia population becoming increasingly fraught. Oppressed under Hussein and denied political power, followers of Shia Islam now dominate the Iraqi government, while Iraqi Sunnis have become ‘increasingly disenchanted with what they see as their systematic marginalisation’ (BBC). ISIS, a Sunni self-proclaimed state and caliphate, has proven that it is aware of how to exploit these tensions. ‘Boots on the ground’ as a means of intervention in the Middle East has proved ineffective in the past.

In Libya and the conflict in Syria America and her allies took a more conservative (i.e. hands-free) approach- training choice ‘moderate’ rebel factions and sending in airstrikes (Libya, and later Iraq). What happened? The rebels toppled Gaddafi, but then everything descended into chaos. Many of the rebels the US had supported in Libya crossed into the conflict in Mali, where they were used to fight French troops there. Again, this isn’t the first time arming rebels has backfired (think Afghanistan in the ‘80s…). In Syria the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the other US-backed factions often failed to agree or work together. Recently, extremist rebel group the al-Nusra Front took the FSA’s last remaining stronghold in the north-western region of Idlib in Syria. Arming rebels, then, isn’t the simple fix that was hoped for.

What to do about ISIS then? The US is already carrying out airstrikes (see featured image), and has seen some success. However the problem is that it is impossible to implement regime change with missiles. However many drones you send in (the UK has also deployed its reaper drones) you cannot set up a stable, presumably democratic government without in-person protection/control of state infrastructure.

Boots on the ground would be hugely unpopular, with both the peoples of the Middle East and the US public, and would only help drive new recruits to extremist groups. This is exactly what happened in Iraq. The intervention of a Muslim army would be less contentious, although it remains unclear if any country in the region (Saudi Arabia, for instance) plans to commit to an intervention of that magnitude. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the White House has made raising this issue a high priority for its ambassador.

Arming the Kurdish militia in the region has been popular in certain circles. Comparatively moderate in their views, Kurdish forces are already fighting ISIS as the group encroach upon the lands they claim. Indeed the US has already begun airdropping weapons and supplies to the Kurdish militia. The problem arises when you take into account the other regional players. While the Iraqi government will appreciate the Kurds’ assistance in the conflict with ISIS, many will be hesitant to increase their influence. They won’t be keen to lose more land to the semi-autonomous Kurdish forces. Turkey have been more overt in their disapproval of this idea. When Kurdish forces (Kurdish Workers Party- PKK) were engaging ISIS in Kobani, a Syrian town a short hop from the border with Turkey, the Turkish military carried out bombing raids on PKK forces. So yet again arming rebels proves to only be part of a solution at best.

US diplomatic relations with Israel and Iran will undoubtedly factor, for different reasons. Both are reasonably stable regional powers who have the potential to make a substantial impact on the proceedings. Iran has already gotten involved in the Syrian conflict, along with its ally Hezbollah. Obama recently wrote a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei detailing their common interest in defeating ISIS. In the last few years Israel has authorised airstrikes in Syrian territory, so it would not be a stretch for this to reoccur. For this to happen Israeli lawmakers would have to feel that ISIS posed a direct threat to them, something which may not happen. Regardless, an intervention by one or both nations could change the regional situation entirely.

It’s unclear if Obama will make any major moves in this conflict. If there was an easy, popular, and logical move he would have made it already. It’s worth noting that although he’s in his final term as President, he will certainly know that sending US combat troops into another Middle Eastern conflict will surely hurt his party come election time. But with ISIS reportedly controlling 20%-30% of Iraq’s populated territory and just 70 miles from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, his hand may be forced.


CC Image Courtesy of DVIDSHUB, Flickr