The least worst options for defeating ISIS: After Ramadi’s fall, President Obama must face some tough choices in Iraq.

The Least Worst Options for Defeating ISIS

The Least Worst Options for Defeating ISIS

Military analysis.
May 19 2015 7:35 PM

Iraq’s Least Worst Options

If we want to defeat ISIS, we are going to have to accept some outcomes we don’t like.

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Saraya al-Salam are transported on the back of a vehicle as they leave Baghdad for the city of Samarra to fight against ISIS on March 15, 2015.
Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Saraya al-Salam are transported on the back of a vehicle as they leave Baghdad for the city of Samarra to fight against ISIS on March 15, 2015.

Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images

The fall of Ramadi, the strategic center of Iraq’s Anbar province, doesn’t necessarily signal the triumph of ISIS, but it does mean that President Obama and various regional leaders can no longer dodge some uncomfortable choices.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decision to let 3,000 Shiite militia men amass outside Ramadi to prevent ISIS from moving further eastward toward Baghdad (and even possibly charging into the conquered city to battle the jihadists head-on) is the clearest sign yet that there is no longer a viable Iraqi army. Its ranks have been whittled away by corruption, incompetence, sparse pay, and lack of allegiance to the Baghdad government.

Obama and his top generals have warned Abadi not to rely so heavily on Shiite militias, which are controlled by Iran. In the battle for Tikrit in March—in which ISIS forces were ousted by a coalition of Iraqi soldiers, Sunni militias, Shiite militias, Kurdish peshmerga, and U.S. bombing runs—American commanders threatened to withhold their air power unless the offensive was led by Iraqi soldiers and no Iranians were on the battlefield. The players complied (though they still quarrel over which faction was responsible for the victory).

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But in Ramadi, where Iraqi troops and Sunni militias swiftly folded under fire, the pretense won’t hold. Shiite militias, mainly the Badr forces, will lead the way by default, and Obama will have to decide whether to hold back, out of some principle, or hold his nose and send in the smart bombs.

Before deciding what to do about Ramadi, Obama—or any other leader with a stake in the fight—first has to decide what outcome he prefers. Since all plausible outcomes are lousy, this means deciding which outcome sickens him the least.

Obama and the leaders of every nation in the region want to see ISIS crushed or contained. But they’ve gone about it half-heartedly because they dread the side effects of doing it with gusto. ISIS is as strong as it is, only because its leaders know and exploit its foes’ dilemmas.

For instance, one potent way of fighting ISIS would be to energize and unify the armies of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds. These are the forces that fear ISIS the most and could fight it most effectively. But there are serious obstacles to forming this alliance. The United States and the Sunnis in the region (including Turkey, the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States) do not want to help Iran expand its influence. Nor do they want to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; in fact, they want to see Assad toppled (preferably by the U.S. military, so they don’t have to bother). Meanwhile, the Turks don’t want to let the Kurds swell with too much swagger. Finally, ISIS itself is a Sunni organization; it has thrived, especially in Iraq, by co-opting local Sunni tribes, whose leaders fear domination by Shiites (including Iraq’s Shiite-led government) even more. To beat ISIS requires neutralizing its sectarian appeal, and that means driving a wedge between the ISIS jihadists and their less militant Sunni enablers. But a coalition that includes Iran or Syria might push Sunnis more firmly into ISIS’s corner—and might keep such Sunni-led nations as Turkey, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia from joining the alliance to begin with.

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Analysts have noted that mobilizing Shiite militias to fight ISIS in Ramadi would intensify sectarian tensions. This is true, but every option that involves fighting ISIS would intensify sectarian tensions. The real question is which options stand a chance of hurting ISIS the most while sharpening sectarian tensions the least. Or, from the standpoint of the United States and the anti-ISIS leaders in the region: Which options might hurt ISIS the most while raising the specter of side effects—the expansion of Iranian influence, the swelling of Kurdish separatism, the bolstering of Assad’s regime—the least?

A more basic question: How would these leaders rank the range of outcomes, including “ISIS wins,” “Iran controls southern Iraq,” “Assad survives,” “Assad is overthrown” (but by whom?), and the rest? Which outcomes are intolerable, which are merely disgraceful, and could the leaders live with some of the latter in order to preclude the former?

“Assad survives” is probably the biggest nonstarter, not least because he may be on the verge of falling. One word from President Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Assad would be gone. The challenge is to give Putin or Khamenei an incentive to pull the plug. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meeting with Putin in Sochi was held, in part, to explore possible terms of such an arrangement. The handshake must have been unpleasant, maybe even disgraceful, but if it leads to the ouster of Assad, which in turn would prod the Turks and Saudis to crack down harder on ISIS, it would have been worth the nausea.

The Middle East is a mess—the product, in part, of the post–Cold War disintegration of borders that were imposed by colonial powers nearly 100 years ago in the wake of World War I. The rise of ISIS, its ability to thrive even though it’s surrounded by powerful nations that dread its aspirations, is a symptom of this mess.

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Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

Logistics, intelligence, airstrikes to help local anti-ISIS forces on the ground—this is what the United States can best offer. Officers and analysts on the ground say that airstrikes terrify many ISIS fighters, who tend to attack in swarms, which provide concentrated targets for a bomb. These sources confirm a report in the New York Times that ISIS launched its crucial attack on Ramadi during a major sandstorm, when pilots (of airplanes or drones) could not have seen its movements on the ground below.

But even in clear weather, airstrikes alone aren’t sufficient. ISIS mingles with the locals (in some cases, they are the locals), making it hard for pilots to distinguish friends (or neutral innocents) from foes. Ground assaults are needed, too—by other locals, who are more likely to speak the language, understand the situation, and wrest away the allegiance of those in the ISIS’s grip or sway.

ISIS isn’t that mighty. It apparently took control of Ramadi with 400 fighters. The surrounding nations could easily rid the region of this gnatlike pestilence if they overrode their short-term fears with their long-term interests. This is easier said than done, of course.  But there is no other solution.