America is now involved in fighting ISIS from the air. The rubicon is now crossed and what happens next changes the calculations on Iraq, and the immediate region, tremendously. The American president needed to show that the United States can use its assets to halt the advance of ISIS and the potential massacre of up to 40,000 Yazidi trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Interestingly, President Obama is the fourth American president consecutively to order military action in Iraq- he joins Presidents Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 with this unique distinction.
The air strikes so far seem to be minor by targeting artillery used by ISIS against Kurdish forces defending Erbil and also dropping humanitarian relief supplies to Yazidi. Plans indicate that the airstrikes will intensify in number around Erbil, where American advisors are located, and perhaps targeting parts of Baghdad. Clearly, America thinks the Iraqi capital is under direct threat, that Iran and the Iraqi armed forces are not going to able to do much to protect Baghdad’s citizens let alone Americans. We know already that ISIS has infiltrated Baghdad, created a network of supporters with cash payments, and have conducted suicide operations. With government confusion, and weakness apparent, ISIS knows the time is ripe to keep pushing forward.
The reason for the airstrikes is not only to protect hundreds of US personnel on the ground in Iraq but also to shore-up the Kurdish Region Government (KRG). The KRG, up until a few days ago, seemed outside of ISIS’s sights. Now that calculation is changing and this makes the U.S. and Iraqi neighbor’s nervous. ISIS knows what it is doing: the Islamic State needs—and requires—more territory to expand, capturing as much goods in order to promote its economy. KRG is a rich target and ISIS clearly will bulldoze and kill anything and everything in its path to make the Islamic State a reality. ISIS is true mercantilist machine.
Opening up a Pandora’s Box
The problem with the airstrikes to date is that America is targeting ISIS artillery and associated vehicles. Dozens of ISIS fighters are now dead. Hitting ISIS in this manner may open up a Pandora’s Box because ISIS is looking for a fight with Americans and suck the United States into the conflict and make American targets in the region under threat. An ISIS spokesman allegedly stated: “Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah at the White House.”
In addition, ISIS reportedly stated that it intends to attack Kuwait. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of the Islamic State, reportedly declared his group’s desire to invade the GCC’s northernmost member state. Such a move against Kuwait, which was last invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, would supposedly draw the US back into Iraq so that ISIS could enact its “revenge” according to ISIS strategists who are targeting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia between now and 2019. “We can get even with the United States. We cannot reach them, but they will come to us after we attack Kuwait,” Baghdadi is reported as saying. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia already have troops on their borders but the internal situation in both countries needs extra care because of tribal disenchantment. That could be the turning point in both countries. Also American military and commercial activity in both countries may be targeted by ISIS now.
The type of extremism promoted by ISIS, which claims religious authority over all Muslims and has carried out mass executions on the grounds of apostasy in the past, could fan the flames of sectarian hatred across the region. They target those who are against the current regime and lure them in until eventually they are convinced that they are fighting for a cause. This campaign targets the youth, who are attracted to ISIS as it is more like a “gang” and has all the associated attributes and benefits to attract them.
The American campaign needs to be more robust—attacking all ISIS military and economic assets– and deadly—no deradicalization programs will help these fighters– while at the same time providing humanitarian relief. Damaging ISIS weapons systems does not take the fight out of ISIS. Also, other countries need to get involved. According to an Arab official, Turkey and Britain are assisting the Americans so a coalition of forces needs to be fully implemented. Of course, any friend of America becomes an ISIS target specifically the countries helping support Washington’s air campaign. Simultaneously, countries neighboring Iraq need to ramp up their border and homeland security capabilities in order to prevent the spread of ISIS’s revenge and to watch carefully for the appearance of graffiti, the gang-tags of ISIS.
Clearly, ISIS is the largest threat to not only Iraq but to the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Luckily for the Americans, the brutality and discourse of ISIS is almost mutually hated by everyone in the region so this fact enables countries to rally around defeating ISIS. But ISIS does have its followers and those fighters represent a threat to all. America’s campaign needs a firm mission besides the “light strikes” to date. In addition, President Obama needs to have an endgame in mind: ISIS is not simply going to go away with sorties.