Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Islamic State on the March

The news this week is that the soldiers of the Islamic State have conquered two major cities, Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. One shudders for the fate of Palmyra's archaeological wonders, and for the citizens of both places. The assault on Ramadi took place during a sand storm that grounded US aircraft, and it involved the use of suicide car bombs on a massive scale:
The Ramadi offensive involved 30 car bombs, including 10 that were each roughly the size of those in the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, and that “took out entire city blocks” in Ramadi, the State Department official said. . . . many of the retreating Iraqi forces were physically and psychologically traumatized by car bombs.
Despite bombing by Americans and stout resistance in Kurdistan, ISIS continues to expand its power because it resides within a vacuum of legitimate authority. The Sunni Arabs of Syria and northern Iraq despise their governments and put no faith in them. The experience of ISIS rule has led many Sunnis in Iraq to flee toward government-held territory, but the government is too incompetent, and too suspicious of all Sunnis, to capitalize on the Islamic State's unpopularity.

I have no confidence in the ability of the current Iraqi regime to reconquer the north or even defend all of what they hold. The Tikrit campaign revealed that although many Iraqi soldiers and militiamen are willing to fight, their leadership is divided between those who tilt toward Iran and those who tilt toward the US, and between those who want to bring Sunnis into the state and those who want revenge. In Syria we continue to undermine the only entity that can really oppose ISIS, the Assad government; I still think the "moderate opposition" is a fantasy.

I worry that as the months go by without any real progress, this war could have bad effects in American politics. Already we are seeing the Obama administration releasing bogus lists of achievements -- targets bombed, militants killed, etc. -- to distract attention from the ongoing strategic morass. Republican candidates are outdoing each other in tough talk, and in making the peculiar claim that ISIS is a direct threat to the US. This could all too easily lead to another massive deployment of US troops to Iraq. But in the absence of a political answer to the Caliphate, that would be nothing but a waste of American lives and money.

I have no idea what that political answer might be, and that worries me.

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