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Opinion: An opponent like ISIS cannot be defeated through standard military action

Conventional military action by America, along the lines of their previous tactics in Iraq, will be ineffective in defeating ISIS.

Niall McGlynn

THE ONGOING CRISIS in Iraq is an example of why “nation building”, “democratisation” and western interventionist policies generally have exacerbated existing conflicts in the Middle East. The situation in Iraq can trace its origins to the American invasion of 2003. By removing Saddam Hussein, who had through his despotic policies kept Sunni and Shia religious extremists suppressed, the American coalition opened the Pandora’s box of toxic religious and ethnic conflict in Iraq. Saddam was a despot, but the alternative to his regime has proved to be far worse.

Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the American invasion, and that number is growing every day. Meanwhile, the country is coming apart, as Sunni Arabs, marginalised by the new ruling Shia majority, have turned to fanatics like ISIS, who seek to form a new “Caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria. The Shia Arabs, who form the majority of Iraq’s population, have turned to hardline clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr and foreign backers like Iran, forming haphazard militias to fight ISIS. Meanwhile in the north, the breakaway Kurdish government has used the chaos to seize territory and cement its independence.

In the middle of all of this, America is sending advisors and troops back to Iraq, less than three years after they pulled out. Renewed intervention, whether by airstrikes or by “boots on the ground” is not the answer. It did not work a decade ago, it will not work now. The Americans have no good options. If they back the Shia government then they will drive more Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. If they try to force the Shia to accept Sunni participation they will have to fight the militias and maybe even Iran. If they look to the Kurds for support they will alienate both the Shia and the Sunni parts of Iraq’s population.

A strong core ideology to motivate followers

In addition to the multi-sided nature of the conflict, ISIS has integrated itself into the civilian population. The Iraqi government is already being accused of killing dozens of civilians while attempting to retaliate against ISIS through air strikes, and the increased firepower America can bring to bear will just increase the number of civilian casualties. Added to this, ISIS has a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers who can attack on foot or by vehicle. Conventional military forces are very vulnerable to suicide tactics, as the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has proved. An opponent like ISIS, which has a strong core ideology to motivate its followers, and is willing to inflict civilian casualties in pursuit of its aims and to use civilians as human shields, simply cannot be defeated in the normal military sense of the world.

Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all proved the same point; the American public strongly dislikes high casualties among their own troops and high civilian casualties among the people they are supposed to be protecting through military action. These are two very laudable traits, which have no doubt saved countless lives. They also make America almost incapable of defeating ISIS, who are well embedded in the Sunni Arab population, and will only become more so as American and Shia military action escalates. ISIS cannot be defeated without a high cost to its opponents, and a massive cost to the civilian population caught in the middle. In these circumstances, conventional military action by America, along the lines of their previous tactics in Iraq will be ineffective and may actually increase the power of ISIS by encouraging more Sunnis to join them.

Iraq as a country

Iraq is an artificial construct, a relic of the Middle East’s colonial past. Its constituent Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations were always more inclined to go their own way, and were held together through dictatorship and force. The ongoing crisis is an inevitable consequence of Iraq’s haphazard formation, and cannot be stopped until all of the key players want it to stop. The Kurds have no wish to live under the rule of the Sunni or Shia Arabs. The Sunnis, being a minority, wish to break away from Shia domination, while the Shia government is essentially governing for a Shia state. Attempts to force Iraq back together through military force will simply prolong and intensify the crisis and bloodshed.

Iraq’s ultimate fate is uncertain. While it cannot continue as it is, it is unclear what the alternative is. A radical Sunni state comprising western Iraq and eastern Syria is unpalatable to most of the region’s other players, but the Sunni Arabs will require some form of self-determination to assuage some of their grievances. Likewise the Kurds will now demand more autonomy and maybe even full independence, while the Shia will look to exert their dominance over the areas where they are a majority. America cannot hope to solve this entanglement through force. Iran’s influence and proximity to Iraq, and America’s insistence on including the Sunnis and Kurds in a power-sharing government mean that Iran’s hold over the Shia government will increase as American involvement drags on.

Washington’s best strategy may be to stay out

The Iraq crisis is in Iran’s backyard, and the Iranians will take a leading role in trying to solve it. In many ways America has nothing to bring to the table, and Washington’s best strategy may be to stay out and let Iran, and Iraq’s other powerful neighbours like Turkey and Saudi Arabia take the lead in managing the crisis. They have more at stake, and they also have leverage over some of the key players that America simply does not have.

It is time for the Middle East’s main powers to step up, learn to work together and start healing their region’s many wounds. This new crisis in Iraq should be an opportunity for America to step back. American military force cannot improve the situation, and will only serve to make it worse. Let the lessons of the past decades finally be learned: it is time for America to stop trying to fix Iraq with force.

Read: “We were afraid for our children”: 10,000 flee Iraq town

Read: US troops flow into Iraq as ISIS continues advances

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About the author:

Niall McGlynn

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