In my last article, I pointed out that committing conventional forces to Syria would be strategically stupid. This naturally begs the question: how do we then defeat ISIS if not with large quantities of infantrymen at the point of the spear? This article is my answer to that question.
In short, I think the proper strategy is to contain them and use attrition to wear them down. President Obama gave a much-derided interview with George Stephanopoulos on Friday morning, seven hours before the Paris Massacre, where he stated that ISIS has been contained. President Obama’s mistake is not that a containment strategy is wrong but that he had failed to contain ISIS. So how do we contain ISIS?
You contain them by stopping all immigration from Syria into your country. And if another country accepts Syrian refugees, you must then take steps to restrict Syrian refugees from coming in via those countries. This is already happening in Europe (though too slowly) but it needs to happen in the US and Canada as well. There are ISIS sleeper cells and sympathizers here already of course, but they can be ground down though patient but relentless police work and counterintelligence operations (including active counterintelligence measures). The key to victory on the domestic front is to cut off their source of reinforcements. I won’t lie to you and tell you that this can be done quickly. It can’t. It is a slow, grinding process but the initial damage has already been done so we might as well just roll up our sleeves and get on with the job.
The natural objection here is that many of the Syrian refugees are probably the most persecuted people on the planet. The Christian and other minorities in Syria are the people who feel the sting of the ISIS lash the most. This is all true. And I think we should help the Syrian refugees as much as humanly possible - as long as we don’t compromise our own security by doing so. The fact is, most Syrian refugees come not directly from Syria but from refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. If we take in any of these deserving people, it should only be after we have vetted them deliberately and methodically in the camps where they currently reside. If in doubt, we should lean towards national security. The isolation of ISIS must be our priority.
That I am right about the way to isolate ISIS can be seen by the Western country in closest proximity to Syria – Israel. It is relatively unconcerned about them. They realize ISIS is militarily incompetent, but as long as their border to Syria is closed, they have little to worry about from them. (In contrast, Israel worries about Iran and its nuclear weapons program. We should follow their lead too, as that is a much bigger threat to the West than ISIS is.)
OK, say we’ve isolated ISIS, now what? The next step is to slowly grind ISIS down in Syria and Iraq through a war of attrition. In a very perceptive article (read the whole thing, as a great man once said), Walter Russell Mead makes the excellent point that in such a campaign, time is our friend while it is an enemy of theirs. What he means is this:
“The goal of the terrorists has always been to escape the drab realities of ordinary history and events, to create a kind of magical space—a return to the 7th century, the age of the Prophet, of miracles and legends. Joining the group offered a real life version of a video game.
The problem the jihadis are now facing is that while it is easy to create this kind of illusion in the short term, it is very hard to make it work over the long run. History grinds that kind of illusion down and drags those who tried to sustain it back into the world of real forces, real obstacles, real (as Clausewitz would say) friction.”
Holding a piece of territory, as ISIS now does, gives them the disadvantage that they now must govern it. This is not a “magical space” anymore but a real space, with ho-hum logistical problems like sewage and food distribution. A logical, rational mind is best suited for such tasks. An apocalyptic religious fanatic is the worst suited. Give them time and their Islamic paradise will turn into hell on earth. (I know it already is a hell on earth, but this fact is currently obscured by the excitement of their military adventures. Unfortunately, euphoria based on military glory can only be maintained for so long, as Vladimir Putin is about to discover in Russia.) In waging this war of attrition, we need to do everything we can to hasten the process along – disrupting cell-phone communications, bombing the oil fields in order to deny them a source of revenue, launch destabilizing commando raids, etc. In this phase of the war our motto should be, the worse the better.
Our ultimate goal should be not simply to defeat ISIS by making the Caliphate implode from its own contradictions, but to make ISIS look like a bunch of incompetent bumblers. The more examples there are of Islamofascist losers, the fewer new Islamofascist movements will develop in the future.
This is a long war, where patience is as much a virtue as ruthlessness and speed. We cannot let ISIS goad us into their preferred course of action by the emotions of the moment. If we do, we are only allowing ourselves to become a cooperative adversary.