Maybe ISIS has trapped us, but are they also trapping themselves?

Dan Froomkin at The Intercept is asking whether America is just playing into ISIS’s hands by going to war with them:

There are many reasons the U.S. shouldn’t go to war with the Islamic State — and the best one may be because that is exactly what they want us to do.

A growing number of people I consider experts in the field believe that the recent beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker were deliberate acts of provocation, and that ISIS is not just hoping for an American overreaction, but depending on it — perhaps even for its own survival.

Froomkin is a smart writer, and he quotes a lot of smart observers of America’s Middle East Follies who all agree that the beheadings that have brought us to this point have been intended to provoke the military response we’re now pursuing. And by “the beheadings that have brought us to this point,” I mean the two Americans and one Brit who were beheaded by ISIS on video. They are, after all, the only ISIS atrocities that really seem to be driving US policy, not the countless number of Iraqis and Syrians they’ve beheaded without cameras present, or, hey, the 8 or so people our close ally Saudi Arabia beheaded last month in the regular course of government business. But I digress.

This is, in my view, the correct interpretation of the beheading videos, or at least, let’s say, half of it. There are many reasons why ISIS chose to publicly murder James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and most recently British aid worker David Haines, but the two most obvious ones are: to bring attention to the group and raise its profile among potential recruits or financial backers, and to provoke a disproportionate American response. They’re trying to get us to run the Iraq War, which after all birthed the organization that would become ISIS, all over again. Nothing would bring more credibility to the “caliphate” than for it to stand up to and ultimately defeat the greatest military power of the time (kind of like the actual caliphate did once upon a time), and nothing would boost ISIS’s support in the Sunni community (the less extremist folks who are likely to reject ISIS’s strict manifestation of Islamic governance over time) than for it to defeat an American army that is seen as working on behalf (even if unwittingly) of a would-be Shiʿa takeover of the heart of the region. Get the Americans to start lobbing ordinance on Sunni civilians in the name of the government in Baghdad and its Iranian pals, and wavering Sunnis are again reminded why they’ve been mostly tolerating ISIS as the lesser of two evils when compared to Baghdad. Draw America into a full scale war that it doesn’t really have the heart to fight, win, and the whole region may open up to your advances. This is the Al Qaeda playbook, and ISIS knows that it works because America hasn’t really figured out how to counter it.

So, yes, I think we’re probably giving ISIS what it wishes for. But, you know, be careful what you wish for, right? ISIS isn’t Al Qaeda, by their own design, and that ought to change their calculations here but I don’t think it has. They’re not an informal paramilitary force that can conduct asymmetric strikes to prod the beast and then melt back into the civilian population to await our disproportionate and likely misguided response. They made the decision to declare themselves a state, with reasonably well-defined borders, so we know where they are. They captured a lot of heavy US arms that are only useful in a stand up fight, so it’s not going to be so easy for them to slink back into the shadows. Most of all, they’ve declared themselves a caliphate, and the prestige that they won with that declaration is on the line now. Al Qaeda defines success by pulling off an attack, but ISIS has told its audience that they’re not just in this to hit and run like Al Qaeda, they’re here to take and hold territory, to conquer the region and reestablish the empire that once controlled it. So how do they explain losing big chunks of territory in the face of US airstrikes, as has already happened? How does “Caliph Ibrahim” make a powerful case to the Islamic world if the territory he controls is reduced to a tiny sliver of Syria, or maybe nothing at all? Under the Al Qaeda playbook, there’s not really any territory to lose, but for ISIS, losing parts of the “caliphate” are a blow to their whole image.

When it comes to military conquest, there’s something to be said for the principle that success breeds success and failure breeds failure. Conquerors, like Genghis Khan, or Alexander the Great, or Napoleon, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are only as good as their recent conquests, and historically, when empires or would-be empires stop expanding, they start doing the opposite. Fighters who were used to winning and used to the spoils that come with winning start to wonder what the hell they’re doing with these guys. Potential recruits start looking for other places to channel their ideological and/or psychological issues. Rival factions may try to break up your empire, or local revolts begin to chip at the margins. None of this really applies to an organization like Al Qaeda, but ISIS, in trying to improve upon Al Qaeda, has made itself more like the kind of entity that America actually knows how to fight. They may be in for a rude awakening as a result.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still incredibly ambivalent about what we’re apparently starting in Iraq and Syria. There are a million ways for America to screw this up (or for it to just get screwed up despite our best efforts), and we’ll almost certainly test some of them out along the way. We still don’t really seem to have any idea what to do about Syria, for example. We have to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible, which means no air raids on big cities like Mosul or Raqqah no matter how tactically useful they might be. We have to let the Islamic world, and specifically Sunnis, and more specifically Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, take the lead in the fighting, which is complicated by the fact that the Iranians and the Assad regime are undoubtedly going to use our air campaign as cover for their own offensives (they already have). We can’t be seen as participating in sectarian hostilities, and we can’t pursue this conflict in ways that deflect attention from ISIS’s brutality, or make ISIS out to be the lesser evil. It’s going to take an unbelievable amount of finesse to pull all this off, and I’m not sure we can.

Author: DWD

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2 thoughts

  1. To add to what you said, ISIS’s neighbors, partly prompted by American leadership, are slowly organizing themselves to deal with them. Even Saudi Arabia and Iran got together to talk about a response.

    1. Yes, but it’s usually best to wait and see where those folks are concerned. The Saudis especially may say they’ll help and not actually do anything, or may do something but in a way that doesn’t really help or is actually counterproductive.

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