If You Want To Stop ISIS, Here Is What It Will Take by Angelo M. Codevilla
The Islamic State’ video-dissemination of one of its goons beheading an American is an existential challenge from which we cannot afford to shrink. Until the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS) did that, it made sense for the U.S. government to help contain it because the Islamic world, which the IS threatens most directly, must destroy it sooner or later. But internetting that beheading was a gory declaration of America’s impotence—a dare-by-deed that is sure to move countless young persons around the globe to get in on killing us, anywhere they can. The longer the Islamic State survives, the more will take up its dare. Either we kill the IS, or we will deserve the wave of terrorism that will engulf us.
Killing the IS requires neither more nor less than waging war—not as the former administration waged its “war on terror,” nor by the current administration’s pinpricks, nor according to the too-clever-by-half stratagems taught in today’s politically correct military war colleges, but rather by war in the dictionary meaning of the word. To make war is to kill the spirit as well as the body of the enemy, so terribly as to make sure that it will not rise again, and that nobody will want to imitate it.
That requires first isolating the Islamic State politically and physically to deprive all within it of the capacity to make war, and even to eat. Then it requires killing all who bear arms and all who are near them.
Why It’s Now Our Business
The Islamic State is a lot more than a bunch of religious extremists. Its diverse composition as well as its friends and enemies in the region define its strength and its vulnerabilities. Its dependence on outside resources, its proximity to countries with the capacity and incentive to strike serious blows, and its desert location, make its destruction possible with little U.S. involvement on the ground, and providing the United States uses its economic and diplomatic power in a decisive manner.
It would have been better for America not to have taken sides in that region’s reshuffling, or to have done so decisively in a manner that commanded respect.
Geopolitically, the creation of a Sunni Arab state in western Mesopotamia should not be any of America’s business. For a thousand years, Sunni Assyrian Arabs from the northwest have fought for exclusive control of that area, against countervailing pressure from Shia Persians from the southeast and their Arab co-religionists. All the while, Kurds held fast to their northern mountains. In recent centuries, the Ottoman Empire arbitrated that ancient contest. In 1801, Sunni Wahabis from the Saudi clan invaded present-day Iraq and inflicted horrors that surpass even today’s. In response, the Ottomans nearly wiped out the Saudis and tortured the Wahabi leaders in the main cities of the empire. It would have been better for America not to have taken sides in that region’s reshuffling, or to have done so decisively in a manner that commanded respect. Alas, U.S. administrations of both parties intervened fecklessly. We are reaping the results.
Now one of the parties to the struggle is making itself our business, and is doing so globally. We have to mind that business.
How to Command Respect Again
To kill IS, take note of its makeup: Sunni Wahabis from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Syrian Sunnis who rebelled against the Alewite regime of the Assad family, the Naqshbandi army constituted by the Ba’athist cadre of Saddam Hussein’s army and security services that fled to Syria in 2003, that ran the war against the U.S. occupation, and that now runs the IS military, plus assorted jihadis from around the world including the United States and Western Europe.
Breaking the hold of ISIS on the people it now rules will require a rude ‘awakening.’
Note, as well, that the IS did not have to exert much power to conquer Sunni majority areas in either former Syria or former Iraq. The people there want to be ruled by Sunni, unless they are given a compelling reason to accept something else. In former Iraq, the local Sunni tribes supported the Sunni Ba’athists’ fight against the Americans until, in 2006, the Shia death squads slaughtered them in such numbers as to lead these tribes to beg for a deal with the Americans. What the American spinners called “the Sunni awakening” resulted from the reality of imminent Sunni mass death. Breaking the hold of the IS on the people it now rules will require a similarly rude “awakening.”
Note the material sources of the Islamic State’s power: supplies from and through Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood government, paid for largely with money from notables in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as well as from the government of Qatar. Beyond religious sectarianism, the motivation for this support is the Qataris’ and the Turks’ foreign policy seemingly based on promotion of Sunni political Islam wherever possible.
The first strike against the IS must be aimed at its sources of material support. Turkey and Qatar are very much part of the global economy—one arena where the U.S. government has enormous power, should it decide to use it. If and when—a key if—the United States decides to kill the IS, it can simply inform Turkey, Qatar, and the world it will have zero economic dealings with these countries and with any country that has any economic dealing with them, unless these countries cease any and all relations with the IS. This un-bloody step—no different from the economic warfare the United States waged in World War II—is both essential and the touchstone of seriousness. Deprived of money to pay for “stuff” and the Turkish pipeline for that stuff, the IS would start to go hungry, lose easy enthusiasm, and wear out its welcome.
Next, the Air War
Striking at the state’s belly would also be one of the objectives of the massive air campaign that the U.S. government could and should orchestrate. “Orchestrate.” Not primarily wage.
Saudi Arabia has some 300 U.S. F-15 fighter planes plus another hundred or so modern combat aircraft, with bases that can be used conveniently for strikes against the IS. Because Saudi Arabia is key to the IS’s existence, to any campaign to destroy it, and to any U.S. decision regarding such a campaign, a word about the Saudi role is essential.
Wahabism validates the Saudis’ Islamic purity while rich Saudis live dissolute lives—a mutually rewarding, but tenuous deal for all.
The IS ideology is neither more nor less than that of the Wahabi sect, which is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, which has been intertwined with its royal family since the eighteenth century, and which Saudi money has made arguably the most pervasive version of Islam in the world (including the United States). Wahabism validates the Saudis’ Islamic purity while rich Saudis live dissolute lives—a mutually rewarding, but tenuous deal for all. But increasingly, the Saudi royals have realized they are riding a tiger. Wahabi-educated youth are seeing the royals for what they are. The IS, by declaring itself a Caliphate, explicitly challenged the Saudis’ legitimacy. The kingdom’s Grand Mufti, a descendant of Ab al Wahab himself, declared the IS an enemy of Islam. But while the kingdom officially forbids its subjects from joining IS, its ties with Wahabism are such that it would take an awful lot to make the kingdom wage war against it.
American diplomacy’s task is precisely to supply that awful lot.
Given enough willpower, America has enough leverage to cause the Saudis to fight in their own interest. Without American technicians and spare parts, the Saudi arsenal is useless. Nor does Saudi Arabia have an alternative to American protection. If a really hard push were required, the U.S. government might begin to establish relations with the Shia tribes that inhabit the oil regions of eastern Arabia.
Day after day after day, hundreds of Saudi (and Jordanian) fighters, directed by American AWACS radar planes, could systematically destroy the Islamic State—literally anything of value to military or even to civil life. It is essential to keep in mind that the Islamic State exists in a desert region which offers no place to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing and strafing. These militaries do not have the excessive aversions to collateral damage that Americans have imposed upon themselves.
Destruction from the air, of course, is never enough. Once the Shia death squads see their enemy disarmed and hungry, the United States probably would not have to do anything for the main engine of massive killing to descend on the Islamic State and finish it off. U.S. special forces would serve primarily to hunt down and kill whatever jihadists seemed to be escaping the general disaster of their kind.
That would be war—a war waged by a people with whom nobody would want to mess. Many readers are likely to comment: “but we’re not going to do anything like that.” They may be correct. In which case, the consequences are all too predictable.
Angelo M. Codevilla is a fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace, Hoover Institution Press, 2014.