In the final days of August the stage seemed set for a major escalation of America’s air war against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL).  The operation, which started with limited tactical strikes between Mosul and Erbil—initially to save stranded refugees, then to help the Kurds defend their capital—was about to be expanded into Syria.  On August 26, the U.S. Air Force started reconnaissance flights over Syria to locate potential IS targets, only days after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated the likely widening of air operations.

The objective is unclear.  “ISIL must be destroyed, will be crushed,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.  “Absolutely,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes declared, “in the long term our objective would be to see an organization like ISIL defeated.”  Destroying, crushing, and defeating means waging a full-scale war and holding the territory in its aftermath.  To check and eventually roll back IS gains, American air power would need to be coordinated closely with massive ground forces in both Iraq and Syria—but whose forces?  Sending even a limited U.S. contingent back is a political impossibility in an election year.  The fight would be even bloodier and more costly than the nightmare of 2003-11.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi army is not up to the task, as attested by its miserable performance in Mosul.  The Kurdish Pesh­merga is barely able to hold its own positions, and its fighters are interested in an independent Kurdistan, not in putting Iraq together again.  Even if they were capable of major operations, both of them 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.

In Syria the picture is even bleaker.  Helping hard-core jihadists belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra (which is allied with Al Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic Front prevail would hardly be an improvement.  There are no “moderate rebels.”  “In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer.  All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State,” Abu Yusaf, a high-level IS commander, told the Washington Post.  “Now many of the FSA people who [sic] the West has trained are actually joining us,” he added, smiling.

Relying on our “regional allies” to form an Arab “coalition of the willing” would presumably require ground units from some of the countries—notably Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—that have aided and abetted the rise of ISIS.  They would more likely prefer to help their Sunni coreligionists fight the “apostates.”  Many influential men in Riyadh and around the Gulf still regard the IS in western Iraq and northeastern Syria as a welcome buffer against the putative Shia crescent extending from Iran to the Lebanese coast.  In any event, as Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, notes in The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books), the “War on Terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia, which fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.

The final option is to accept the fact that Bashar al-Assad is not about to fall and that his army is the only effective fighting force battling the Islamists.  This realist suggestion is not new, but it gained sudden traction in Washington and London as air strikes appeared imminent.

“The Assad government may be evil—but it is a lesser evil,” wrote Richard  Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, on August 26.  “Such a policy change would be costly but not as costly as a scenario in which ISIS could use Syrian territory from which to mount attacks on the region and beyond.”  Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary and defense secretary, said that ISIS “need[s] to be eliminated and we should not be squeamish about how we do it.”  Gen. John Allen, who commanded the Afghanistan War, said on ABC’s This Week that the effort to stem ISIS would require some form of partnership with Assad: “the actions that we take may . . . provide an opportunity for coordinated effort.”  Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism advisor, was even more adamant: “We are going to have to make a choice.  If we want to eliminate this ISIS we are going to have to deal with people we don’t like.”

These suggestions would be sound, were the decision to intervene sound.  It is not.  Interventions in the Middle East tend to produce unintended results that are often far worse than the original situation.  They also have the potential for mission creep (“getting the job done”).  Destroying, crushing, and defeating the IS is no substitute for a strategically sound cost-analysis assessment, for containment and management.  It is a tall order that could easily turn into another decade of wasted American lives and treasure.