photo: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

ISIS Crisis: Search for a Strategy That Doesn’t Feed Its Sales Pitch

By Ken Fireman

“This changes everything.”

This glib, all-purpose response of politicians and pundits alike to the horrific terrorist attack in Paris is centered, more than anything, on the assertion that the U.S. and its allies must “do more” to uproot ISIS from the sanctuary it has carved out in Syria and Iraq.

One Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, who’s pursuing a long-shot bid for the presidency, has called for the commitment of 10,000 U.S. troops. Another, Marco Rubio, advocates a major increase in American special-ops forces. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton now rejects a strategy of merely containing ISIS, implicitly distancing herself from President Obama.

This bipartisan rhetorical farrago masks an urgent, if largely unvoiced, question: How do you attack the group that now constitutes the world’s foremost terrorist threat without playing into its hands?

What has enabled ISIS to metastasize from a regional insurgency into a transnational network capable of wreaking carnage in the heart of a great European city is its ability to attract recruits with a compelling narrative. ISIS portrays itself as a modern-day Saladin wielding the sacred sword to defend the Muslim faith, the Muslim world, the very concept of Islam, against an ancient enemy: western Christian “crusaders.”

It is an old trope, but its familiarity doesn’t diminish its power to attract. Even Rubio, appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” acknowledged ISIS’s success in using “propaganda to attract fighters and donors from around the world” — even as he unwittingly played into its hand by calling the struggle with ISIS “a clash of civilizations.” So did GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, by suggesting that we impose a religious test favoring Christians for admitting Syrian refugees into the U.S.

For U.S. policy makers and those who aspire to succeed them in 2017, the result is a dilemma that approaches a riddle, a vivid reminder of the melancholy wisdom of British statesman John Morley’s aphorism that in politics “the choice lies constantly between two blunders.”

Superficially, it may seem intuitively obvious that more force is needed to prevail over ISIS. The current strategy of air strikes in support of local allies — Kurdish militias, Iraqi security forces, “moderate” Syrian rebels — fighting ISIS on the ground seems increasingly feckless. In the wake of the Paris horror, the temptation to step up the pressure by inserting western forces, of either the conventional or special-ops variety, won’t be easy to resist.

The question that must be asked is whether this would do more harm than good in the long run by reinforcing ISIS’s fundamental narrative. And it is truly a question for which there is no easy answer.

Western militaries do have a record of being able to achieve short-term conventional victories in the Middle East. A U.S. invasion force of about 150,000 overwhelmed Saddam Hussein’s army in a few weeks in 2003. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that a lesser number of western troops, operating with local partners, would be able to defeat the far smaller and less entrenched force of ISIS fighters.

But what do “defeat” and “victory” really look like in this struggle, a classic case of asymmetrical warfare if ever one existed? If ISIS is expelled from its sanctuary, but its surviving fighters scatter and reconstitute themselves in smaller units able to launch unconventional operations, how much has been accomplished? More importantly, if the group’s strongest selling point to potential recruits — that it is the great bulwark against Christian invaders hell-bent on destroying Islam — is reinforced, how many more terrorist cells will be spawned, how many more cities will count their dead?

And these are just the short-term calculations. As the U.S. discovered to its sorrow in Iraq, the initial military operation is the beginning, not the end. Both Iraq and Syria are riven by divisions that may ultimately render them untenable as unified states. A long-term occupation force struggling to contain growing internal chaos is a terrorist recruiter’s dream.

The other side of this tarnished coin is equally compelling. ISIS has repeatedly announced itself as a threat to the most basic notions of human civility. Current strategies to cope with it haven’t worked. The politicians who promulgated them sound increasingly out of touch. Public opinion is a powerful policy driver in democratic societies, and it tends to move in a hawkish direction in the immediate aftermath of events like Paris.

Which may be precisely what the authors of this grotesque slaughter are counting on.

Ken Fireman is a Washington-based journalist who has covered the Pentagon, the White House, and the first Persian Gulf war.

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