As a young U.S. Army Infantry officer, I was taught to put the bottom line first: Without sending thousands of American soldiersinto combat, we can rapidly defeat the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—only if we bring in regional Muslim powers, specifically Turkey, to provide the boots on the ground necessary to finish the terrorist group that attacked us on 9/11.
Although ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State, occupies more than a third of Syria and Iraq, they are fundamentally weak in possessing no popular support in the areas they have conquered. The foreign-fighter infused jihadis, the most disciplined, motivated, and funded force on a chaotic battlefield, have seized advantage of indigenous movements that weakened national control. In Syria, where the entire country has turned against the dictator al-Assad. The only exception are the minority Shia-offshoot Alawites of whom the tyrant is a member. And in Iraq, minority Sunni Arabs (a majority in northern Iraq where ISIS now holds sway) refuse to accept Shia majority rule in a democracy installed with so much American blood and treasure.
There is an historic opportunity here for a grand bargain that will finally end al-Qaeda and its totalitarian, medieval ideology that spurs forward ISIS and its fellow travelers. Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab Gulf states desperately want the U.S. to go after Assad—the only regional ally of the much-feared Shiite Iran. If we do confront Assad as we did Gaddafi in Libya with airpower, the dictator will fall. Now that we have something the Sunni powers want, there is leverage to obtain what we need. In exchange for military support against Assad—air strikes, forward air-controllers, intelligence, and training—the Sunni powers must put troops on the ground to occupy Syria Kosovo-style, then deliver up ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (the other al-Qaeda spawn on the battlefield), along with prohibiting their own citizens from financing jihadi groups and extremist religious schools through fraudulent “charity” organizations. Additionally, once the region is stabilized, Ankara must allow the Turkish Kurds autonomy.
Going after Assad makes sense strategically in that our attacks on ISIS in Syria have allowed the regime to focus on destroying the moderate resistance that current U.S. plans depend on to defeat ISIS! In a one-two punch in what evidences possible coordination between the jihadis and Damascus, Jabhat al-Nusra just rolled up pro-American forces in northern Syria striking a serious blow to the White House’s hopes of relying on these groups, haltingly trained and lightly armed by the U.S. The idea that we can separate the battlefields of Iraq and Syria along lines drawn on a map by the French and British in 1917 belies reality. I’ve been on that frontier where my company helped build and operate the Iraqi Border Patrol Academy at al-Walid; it reminds one of Mars with an orange-red sand dune void stretching for miles. This is an absolutely porous frontier.
After destroying Assad’s military, shouldn’t we fear the jihadi reaction to the necessary occupation of Syria after our Iraq experience? There is an inherent flaw, an Achilles heel, in the jihadis’ anachronistic vision of Islam—the concept that allows those that do not follow their highly punitive version of sharia to suffer takfir (to be declared non-Muslims, worthy of death). This extreme vision we saw fail during the Iraq War when first the Anbari Sunni Arabs turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the earlier name of ISIS. Then all Sunnis nationwide followed the Anbaris, and finally the entire Islamic Middle East when Osama bin Laden was not even in the conversation after assassination by “infidels” (Americans) during the Arab Spring. Thus once the jihadis lose the upper hand in the use of violence to U.S. airpower and Muslim soldiers from Turkey in Syria and to a reconstituted national army in Iraq, they will collapse like a house of cards stripped of any claim to popular support.
Having authoritarian-leaning Turkey lead the occupation force is not ideal. We will have to ensure they follow a democratic path for newly liberated Syria. But we are faced with no other choice if we are to defeat rapidly ISIS, whose leader, the new “caliph,” threatened in 2009 upon release from U.S. military prison in south Iraq: “I’ll see you in New York.” Otherwise, President Obama’s strategy of containing ISIS until we train the Free Syrian Army and revive the Iraqi military will require a “three- to four-year effort,” as General Ray Odierno, former U.S. Iraq War commander and now Army chief of staff, stated recently to the New York Times. Unfortunately there is no containing a force now clearly possessing the wherewithal and intent to inspire and launch terrorist attacks on Europe and then, on America.
Carter Andress is president of AISG, Inc. (American-Iraqi Solutions Group) and the author, with Malcolm McConnell, of Victory Undone: The Defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Its Resurrection as ISIS (Regnery, October 2014).