Two months after the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and one month after President Obama announced his strategy for fighting the group, the area under jihadist control continues to expand. In the east, IS forces have advanced to the outskirts of Baghdad and may soon be able to shell the international airport. The Iraqi army is no better at resisting IS now than it was when it lost Mosul and Tikrit last June. In the west the jihadists took the strategic Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani, near the Turkish border, after a three-week siege during which continual U.S. air strikes proved ineffective in denying IS a significant victory. IS now controls a contiguous tract of land from the western suburbs of Baghdad to the outskirts of Aleppo, nearly 500 miles.
It is becoming clear that the extent and duration of America’s involvement will be much larger than the President says. Obama predicts that it could take three years to win the war against the Islamic State. His former CIA director and secretary of defense Leon Panetta, however, said on October 5 that “we’re looking at a 30-year war.” There are four main reasons why America cannot win this war, regardless of its duration: Obama’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge the nature of the enemy, an absence of reliable ground troops, a lack of trustworthy regional allies, and the President’s explicit rejection of any kind of deal with Bashar al-Assad.
“If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles,” Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago. Obama’s willful refusal to acknowledge the nature of the enemy is a fundamental problem. ISIL is not “Islamic,” he assured the nation in his September speech announcing his anti-IS strategy. “No religion condones the killing of innocents,” he added, “and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” Contrary to Obama’s assurances, Islam does condone the killing of infidels (non-Muslims) and apostates (Shi’ites, by IS lights): They are not “innocents,” by definition. And, of course, Muslims have been killing other Muslims—often on a massive scale—ever since three of the four early caliphs, Muhammad’s immediate successors, were murdered by their Muslim foes.
It is immaterial whether the IS is true to Islam as Obama chooses to define it: The Islamic State is true to the principles and practices of historical Islam. Muhammad executed Meccan prisoners after the battle of Badr in 624. He condoned the killing of women and children besieged in Ta’if in 630. He carried out a genocide of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula so thoroughly that not a trace of them remains. Christians living in the “Caliphate” face three options, according to IS officials: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax (jizya), or suffer “the sword.” This choice is as conventionally Islamic as it gets, having been stipulated many times in the Koran and in the Hadith.
One practical result of Obama’s arbitrary decision to deny the Islamic character of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate is the virtual impossibility of building a reliable “coalition” with conservative Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They had been aiding and abetting ISIS for years, and have neither the will nor the resources to fight it. The leaders of all Sunni Arab countries and Turkey are well aware that, contrary to Obama’s claims, ISIS/IS is a Muslim group par excellence, firmly rooted in the teachings and practices of orthodox Sunni Islam. They are loath to ally themselves with the kuffar in fighting those who want to fulfill the divine commandment to create a sharia-based universal caliphate. Those leaders are for the most part serious believers, and they do not want to go to hell for helping America defeat it.
No air campaign can be successful in the absence of reliable, well-trained, and well-equipped troops on the ground. There are none. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army is not reliable, as attested by its string of recent defeats. It cannot be counted on to cooperate with the armed forces of the overtly anti-Shia regimes, even if in the fullness of time Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar provided ground troops. The Kurdish peshmerga also would be loath to treat Saudis or Qataris as brothers in arms. Were they even capable of major operations, both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga would be perceived by the Sunni Arab majority in northwestern Iraq as an occupying force, with the predictable result that the Caliphate could count on thousands of fresh volunteers. Obama’s “regional allies” could end up helping their Sunni coreligionists fight the Shia apostates.
The Syrian opposition, which Obama wants to arm and train, is ideologically indistinguishable from the Islamic State. The major groups fighting are Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with Al Qaeda yet supported by Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Front. (The Kurdish YPG in northern Syria is only interested in protecting its own area.) The opposition is militarily ineffective, internally divided, corrupt, and far keener to renew its stalled fight against Bashar al-Assad than to fight the Caliphate. Obama’s stated reliance on the Syrian opposition is at odds with his own doubts about its viability, expressed in an interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman in August:
With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Yet Obama is now rejecting cooperation with Damascus—the only realist course with any chance of success—and relying on a “fantasy” scenario to create those elusive boots on the ground. No lessons have been drawn from Libya’s collapse into bloody anarchy, or from the failure of America’s decade-long effort to train and equip the Iraqi army, which disintegrated when faced with the IS five months ago. A key element of the U.S. strategy envisages Saudi Arabia training most of the rebels, which is tantamount to the FDA subcontracting the training of its agents to Mexican cartels. Even if those rebels were “moderate” to start with, a few months in Saudi training camps would be certain to radicalize them.
The claim that there are Syrian moderates capable of simultaneously fighting the Islamic State and the Assad government is pure wishful thinking. Similar efforts—U.S. air power coupled with local boots on the ground—have failed in Yemen and Somalia. Yemen is an ever-growing hotbed of terrorist activity regardless of, if not thanks in part to, more than 100 American air strikes since 2002, which killed some 500 militants and over a hundred civilians. (When Yemeni kids are disobedient, their parents have a new way of enforcing discipline: “A big American drone will come and get you!”) The State Department admitted in its most recent worldwide terrorism report that, “of the AQ affiliates, AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) continues to pose the most significant threat to the United States and U.S. citizens and interests in Yemen.” Its success, according to the report, is “due to [sic] an ongoing political and security restructuring within the government itself”—which is one way of saying that there is no effective government and no reliable security forces. “AQAP continued to exhibit its capability by targeting government installations and security and intelligence officials, but also struck at soft targets, such as hospitals,” and it proceeds to expand the territory under its control.
Somalia, across the Red Sea, is an utterly failed state with no functioning government. It is a safe haven for al-Shabaab, a terrorist group capable of launching complex attacks against soft targets in neighboring countries, notably last year’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, which killed at least 67 people.
Obama’s insistence that “ISIL” (the President’s preferred name for ISIS/IS) is a terrorist group pure and simple, devoid of any vision, reflects a conceptual delusion that cannot provide the basis for a sound strategy. His own State Department declared as far back as July 23 that “ISIL is no longer simply a terrorist organization.” “It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria and Iraq,” Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on that day. And the Islamic State does have a vision, one that is eminently Islamic in its millenarian strategic objectives, in its tactics, and in its methods. It is no more utopian than Obama’s vision of an “indispensable” America that stands for “freedom, justice and dignity.”
In its self-proclaimed status as a caliphate, the IS claims—in principle—religious authority over all Muslims in the world, and ultimately aspires to bring all Muslim-inhabited lands under its political control. Last June, ISIS published a document which announced that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the khilafah’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.” It rejects the political divisions established by Western powers in the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1917. Its self-declared immediate-to-medium-term goal is to conquer Iraq, Syria, and other parts of al-Sham—the loosely defined Levant region—including Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and southeastern Turkey.
This is a bold, even audacious vision, which millions of Sunni Muslims in the Arab world and elsewhere find attractive. American air power will prompt many of them to join the fight. Once armed, trained, and equipped at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, the “vetted” Syrian rebels will join forces with the IS against Assad, just as their Saudi mentors will instruct them to do. And Barack Hussein Obama will go down in history as yet another president who has passed on an unwinnable war to his successors.