The American-led effort to defeat the Islamic State is yielding significant tactical and military results. But the campaign is deeply flawed: It’s being waged as if the politics can be worked out after the fall of ISIS’s statelet, and in the process providing ISIS the conditions that will ensure its revival.
Western air power is currently enabling ground forces regarded as illegitimate by many locals—the local branch of the PKK in Syria and Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadi militias in Iraq, primarily—to take over territory from which ISIS has been cleared.
Already residents in Sunni cities like Mosul and Raqqa, including those who have paid a high price for anti-ISIS activity, have said that ISIS will gain significant support during an invasion by these forces, simply as a means of defending their homes, and afterward there will be political space for ISIS to present itself as the least-worst instrument for advancing local interests.
This sense of a US-enabled anti-Sunni campaign is also helping ISIS mobilize foreign sympathizers, who are called on to launch “defensive” terrorist attacks to punish those governments taking part in this “conspiracy against the Sunnis.”
Support to local, legitimate forces is the crucial missing component of the attempt to sustainably defeat ISIS. The tribal outreach of the Awakening in Iraq is a model for the necessary engagement.
In Syria, the mainstream armed opposition has shown itself willing and able to fight ISIS, but to devote themselves to that fight the threat from the Assad regime would have to be removed. In both cases this would involve the US actively working to check Iranian influence—something the current the administration has proven unwilling to do.