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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Form an Army to Fight Islamic State - Experts say a broad coalition is needed to defeat threat on ground, but assembling one is tricky

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

It took French President François Hollande to flatly declare it: In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, the struggle against Islamic State isn’t merely a fight. It is a war.

There’s no shortage of aggrieved or alarmed nations to engage in this war, nor of planes to do their part in waging it from the air. What is lacking is an actual army to fight it. “The fundamental problem,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “is we still don’t have a ground partner.”

The principal goal of President Barack Obama as well as European and Sunni Arab leaders now has to be fixing that problem.

Certainly the elements of a real war seem to be in place. Islamic State has declared itself a nation-state. It holds territory straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border roughly equivalent to a medium-sized American state. It has a recognized leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And, if you combine the likely Islamic State role in bombing a Russian airline over the Sinai Peninsula with the terror strikes in Paris, it now has launched attacks against citizens of two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in two weeks.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Islamic State has launched these attacks outside the territory of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” at a time when it actually is losing some ground at home. Kurdish forces have in recent days retaken the Iraqi city of Sinjar, and, with help from U.S. air power and advice, Iraqi forces and Shiite militias have retaken a large Iraqi oil refinery and closed in on the important Iraqi city of Ramadi. The terror strikes may, in that sense, represent an attempt to shift the battle elsewhere.

So, yes, there is Islamic State vulnerability amid the danger. But the forces responsible for these recent gains are limited in their power. The Iraqi army remains fundamentally weak. The “moderate” Syrian militias that exist are weaker still. The Kurdish forces that have had the most success on the ground bring problems of their own; the Kurds’ desire for independence rattles states across the region almost as much as Islamic State does. Shiite militias inevitably will be seen as stalking horses for an expansionist Iran.

This vacuum can’t be properly filled with American troops, or those from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose collective defense pact could be invoked now that one member, France, has been attacked. “The answer is not going to be an enormous force of Westerners,” says Mr. Haass. “That’s not an answer. A U.S. or a NATO force wouldn’t fare better in western Iraq and much of Syria than the U.S. force did in Iraq or a NATO force did in Afghanistan. We need local partners.”

Mr. Obama reiterated at meeting of world leaders in Turkey on Monday that he doesn’t intend to put large number of American troops to the fight but also declared: “I made the point to my fellow leaders that if we want this progress to be sustained, more nations need to step up with the resources that this fight demands.”

Ideally, that would mean Sunni forces from threatened states in the region—Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, and Turkey. But we now know such a force won’t spring up organically, or it would already exist. Instead, some kind of international umbrella under which it can be formed appears to be needed.

If the international community wants to move in that direction, there are several possible paths:

A force organized and helped by NATO, consisting of troops from the region aided by Western air power, intelligence and advisers. The problem is that this option would smack of Western colonialism, and would exclude Russia, which can and should be part of the solution in Syria.

A force organized under U.N. auspices. That would provide a politically acceptable international cover, and show a united international and not merely Western stand against Islamic State. But U.N. politics are always tricky.

An ad hoc international “coalition of the willing,” much like the one formed by President George W. Bush to fight Iraq. It could be formed by U.S., French and even Russian leadership, drawing in all concerned nations and providing funding and a support system for local forces.

Under any scenario, there still would be problems aplenty, starting with disagreement over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He’s seen by some as a part of the solution, by others as the man who single-handedly drives Syrians into Islamic State’s arms. Equally big problem: What is the role of Iran and its Shiite proxies in Syria? And can Turkey work alongside its Kurdish nemesis?

Even success wouldn’t necessarily mean victory. Ending Islamic State’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria would hardly extinguish threats. Islamic State now has inspired cells of radicalized young Islamists across the globe, and the terrorism threat they pose will persist. A bruising fight against Islamic State’s stronghold actually may serve to anger more of those radicalized Islamists in the short run.

But in the long run, turning the tide, most experts agree, starts with eliminating the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria and Iraq. Ultimately, it takes an army to defeat an army.

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