IRAQ, SYRIA AND THE ISLAMIC STATE: THE ‘BOOTS ON THE GROUND’ FALLACY
By Anthony H. Cordesman
19 Sep 14. There are times the United States does not need an enemy in going to war. It poses enough of a threat to itself without any foreign help. The current debate over ground troops in Iraq and Syria threatens to be yet another case in point, compounding the American threats to America that have done so much damage in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the earlier fighting in Iraq.
The Islamic State is Not the Center of Gravity, and the Politics of Iraqi
Unity are More Critical Than the Fighting
To begin with, this is not simply a fight against the Islamic State. In fact, the key center of gravity in this campaign is to create something approaching a unified Iraq that is not dependent on Iran, or divided into Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, and Kurd. There can be no meaningful military victory in Iraq without Iraqi political stability, and changes in the quality and equity of governance that offer every major faction hope and an incentive to cooperate. Moreover, there can be no meaningful military victory unless these changes create a structure of Iraqi security forces that can win back and then secure all of the country.
It is not a fight directed at the Islamic State alone in Syria. Even the best outcome in degrading and destroying the Islamic State will not produce a broad political victory against violent Islamic extremism. It will not defeat such extremism in Iraq or Syria, only suppress it to the extent to which key ethnic and sectarian factions find a better alternative, and the broader threat of violent religious extremism will almost certainly continue to grow in the rest of the Islamic world.
More seriously, it will leave Syria divided between an Assad regime that has managed to create even more casualties, human suffering, and repression than the Islamic State, and retake control of something like 65-70% of Syria’s population while leaving divided and sometime warring rebel factions in the east. The refugee and internally displaced persons crisis that the UN now estimates puts some nine million Syrians at risk will remain, and even the best run U.S. and allied Arab effort to create an effective political and military alternative will take years to build and win.
These are the key goals and realities that will shape the fight against the Islamic State, and the much broader strategic objectives the United States has in Iraq and Syria. They also, however, place some key limits on the kind of U.S. ground presence that will help achieve them. This is not 2003-2011. The United States is not a conquering or occupying state, and it must now intervene in a state that Maliki divided, undermined, and drove into civil war.
History will have to judge whether Maliki was worse than Saddam Hussein, but any use of U.S. ground troops must take account of the reality that any major U.S. combat units sent into today’s Iraq would inevitably become caught up in the civil war Maliki triggered after 2011, and find it impossible not to become caught up in the struggles between Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and Arab forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. He politicized and helped corrupt the Iraqi forces, alienated the Sons of Iraq, sentenced key Sunni political leaders to death, crippled the Kurdish economy and peshmerga, used his army and police to suppress and alienate the Sunnis in the West and North, and create the power vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to win so much territory.
There is a Strong Case Against Deploying U.S. Major Combat Units
A new, better, more honest, and inclusive Iraqi government may be able to overcome this legacy, but it will be a close run thing at best. It will also have to deal with Shi’ite and Sunni factions that see the United States as an enemy, and a population that may see the need for U.S. help, but that Iraqi public opinion polls show sees the U.S. occupation as a key factor in much of