How to Defeat ISIS

by Stephen Bryen


It is still far from certain whether the effort to defeat and destroy ISIS can work. Serious problems divide the most immediately engaged parties, and even in the United States public opinion is split on what needs to be done. Wars, of course, are not decided so much by public opinion but by events. The United States was thoroughly isolationist in 1939, but Japan decided to attack at Pearl Harbor and changed everything. ISIS has been attacking the United States, so far not too successfully. Are we going to wait until something really bad happens?


When the United States entered the Second World War, we joined up with the British, the Free French, the Australians and others willing to be partners.

In the Middle East the United States also has partners such as Saudi Arabia, but so far these “partners” are willing to finance so-called rebels in Syria, but not much else. So the matter of “real” partners is still undecided.

To a large degree US policy in the Middle East has been so bad as to seriously undermine confidence among “partners.” The trashing of Israel and Egypt by the Obama adminisration, the deal with Iran that pulled the rug out from under Saudi Arabia, and the withdraw of troops from Iraq has made the US largely unwelcome these days, and for good reason.

Surprisingly, the Russians want to be our partner, but the Obama administration is not interested. Why?

On a personal level Obama has found himself seriously outclassed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Obama has had a hard time with forceful leaders. Either he grovels, as he did with China’s Xi Jinping, or he reacts with a brutal negativity as he has done with Israel’s Netanyahu and with Putin.

But personal angst is not the measure of a foreign policy, nor should it be.

One of the biggest overall blunders of the Obama administration, along with a number of equally bad leaders in Europe, has been the ridiculous, colonialist idea of “regime change” they have sponsored in Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya and, yes, Israel in the Middle East, and in the Ukraine on Russia’s border.

Consider Israel, a democratic country. Here the administration collaborating with the likes of George Soros and a number of far left organizations and think tanks, did everything they could to defeat Bibi Netanyahu and, having failed, continue to try and cause Israel and its government substantial trouble. This wrecking operation, at the end of the day, as blatant as it is, is just as bad as what was done in Egypt which destroyed Hosni Mubarak, in Libya, that destroyed Moammar Kadafi, and helped force out more than one government in Ukraine. Tampering this way is a form of aggression, plain and simple, and for the most part either it has failed (Egypt, Libya, Egypt) or has led to dire consequences (Ukraine). Got a question about Ukraine? Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs was caught talking on her cell phone to the US ambassador in Kiev, trying to pick the next Ukrainian leaders. Unfortunately for her, the Russians recorded it and leaked the call. President Putin believes the Ukrainian trouble is the work of interference by the United States and NATO. He is at least partly right. Had the US and Europeans stayed out of Ukrainian politics it is unlikely the Ukrainians would have challenged the Russians, and the country might still be intact.

Recently Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow trying to work out a foundation toward a political agreement in Syria. He backed off the idea of forcing regime change (Assad must go as a precondition), which has sent the White House into a storm of semi-denials and curious explanations. Again the Russians might decide they are being two-timed by Obama. If so, a deal is far off.

The basis of a deal is one where a new government without Islamists can be brought into power after ISIS is destroyed, not before. Otherwise ISIS will go about destroying the new government, which will quickly fragment, and Syria will fall to ISIS, leaving both the Russians, the US and the Saudis holding the bag.

Every competent military expert understands that the only way to break ISIS is to defeat them with ground forces, as well as with air power. So far none of the players other than the Kurds, have challenged ISIS, and the Kurds have demonstrated that ISIS controlled territory can be liberated. Thus the question is, who will form the boots on the ground?

A number of political candidates want the US to do it. But without squeezing ISIS on all sides, a US intervention alone is not enough and will lead to many American casualties. So far at least, the Russians have not gotten themselves into the ground war, although they have let surrogates from Iran and Lebanon (Hezbollah) do some of the fighting along with Syrian forces. By what remains of the Syrian army is concentrated on defending what remains of Syrian territory, primarily protecting the main zones where Alawites are the majority.

Neither Iranian forces nor Hezbollah should be acceptable to the United States. This means that any sustainable deal has to bring in Russian soldiers in a coalition with Americans to fight a ground war against ISIS. What size expeditionary force is needed is a matter for military planners to decide, but roughly 50,000 Americans (or Americans and Europeans) and 50,000 Russians could probably defeat ISIS with enough heavy equipment to make sure that they can’t burrow in and sustain a fight. The defeat of ISIS would trigger execution of the political deal that must follow a military victory.

The current President and administration are almost certainly incapable and unwilling to carry out anything as bold as an East-West coalition to defeat terrorism. Nor do any of the Presidential candidates seem to have the vision needed to overcome old prejudices and pretensions. That is too bad because the very future of peace and security rides on courageous decisions and determined execution.

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