ISIS emerged a decade ago as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, one that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 amidst Iraq’s growing violence and the depravities of Syria’s civil war. This year, ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen . . . beyond anything we have seen.” The group has former military officers who can fly helicopters, spot artillery, and maneuver in battle. ISIS is increasingly a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah—part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.
President Obama has decided that the United States must now attack ISIS, if only from the air. The President vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, and golfed conspicuously, as his initial aerial campaign in Iraq unfolded. He has been less than forthright about why, after pledging to end America’s costly war in Iraq, he believed a return to battle there was necessary. But in interviews and other forums Obama has offered a casus belli, in three parts.
ISIS has massacred religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, and American air strikes can prevent more wanton killing, the President has said. A second imperative is the defense of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous, oil-endowed American ally in northern Iraq, which a few weeks ago was teetering under pressure from ISIS but has since recovered, with the aid of American air power. The third, and most resonant, reason that the President has given is self-defense: to disrupt ISIS before it tries to attack Americans in the region or inside the United States.
ISIS has beheaded one American journalist, James Foley, and threatened to execute a second. Yet some terrorism specialists point out that ISIS is consumed by the sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq, and has shown no intent to launch attacks in the West, or any ability to do so. Still, ISIS has attracted five hundred British volunteers, many scores of other European passport holders, and even some Americans to its fight; they might eventually turn toward London, Berlin, or New York. Last week, British authorities announced that the threat of a terrorist attack on its home soil was “severe,” given the rising number of British jihadis now among the militants in Iraq and Syria.
The question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead. Air strikes against a well-resourced guerrilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. It would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role. But what other professional force will dislodge the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate and then control the population? American policy assumes that Iraq’s squabbling politicians will rally a Shiite-led army to fight ISIS in the country’s Sunni heartland. On recent evidence, this assessment looks unrealistic.
In Syria, the options are worse. Obama has said repeatedly that he does not believe that Syria’s moderate rebels have the capacity to overthrow Assad or defeat jihadists. Yet the alternatives would allow Syria’s violence to fester at the cost of tens of thousands more civilian lives or would tacitly condone an alliance with the brutal Assad, who has been implicated in war crimes.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/08/return-war