Let’s be frank: Those clamoring for President Obama to expand his anti-ISIS strategy of airstrikes and arming of groups fighting ISIS to include American ground troops are being ridiculous. This would include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who apparently missed the big takeaway from the decade-long Iraq war, which is that sending hordes of American soldiers into the heart of the Middle East is a great way to blow the lid off the region’s pressure cooker, which is forever brimming with the potential for sectarian chaos.
Under no circumstances should the U.S. send combat troops to Iraq and/or Syria to fight ISIS. To do so would be launch the best recruitment campaign imaginable for would-be jihadists in the region and around the world, even more so than when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, militants from all over poured into Iraq and gradually forged various alliances, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually yielded ISIS. This time around, however, a serious American presence in the region would be even more appetizing for potential Islamist fighters because of the existence of a highly organized Islamist group in ISIS, which has already achieved tangible gains and has a clear vision of how it wants to impose sharia across the Middle East.
Should the U.S. commit ground forces to Iraq and/or Syria, it will reinforce the erstwhile narrative of Islamic fundamentalists that American infidels are waging a war against Islam.
If there’s a silver lining in the extreme barbarism and bellicosity displayed by ISIS, it’s that this behavior has succeeded in alienating virtually every government in the Middle East and the world. ISIS has already directly undermined the stability of Iraq and Syria by establishing a shotgun caliphate across both countries, but it has plans to expand further still. The potential for ISIS as a galvanizing force for disparate interests in the region is quite real, and Obama must do everything he can to get capable soldiers on the ground who aren’t wearing American flag patches.
Unfortunately, the extent of boots on the ground seems, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, limited to the already decimated Free Syrian Army in addition to the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, which were unable to prevent ISIS from overrunning the northern part of the country in the first place. With some training and additional arms from the U.S., it’s possible these groups could succeed in containing ISIS and perhaps even regain some of the territory lost, but as far as outright defeating ISIS goes, don’t hold your breath.
When it comes to ISIS, the goal cannot be one of containment, but utter destruction. The whole raison d’être of this organization is the establishment of a caliphate across the Muslim world. Its individual members speak of violent jihad and martyrdom as the noblest of pursuits. While the goal of ISIS members is earthly, their reward is heavenly, and like other jihadists, this makes them especially dangerous because practical considerations simply don’t factor prominently into the calculus. As belligerent and ambitious as Napoleon was, he surrendered at Waterloo because victory was out of reach, which he defined in terms of the here and now, and not some afterlife stocked with virgins awaiting him for fighting to the death.
The Obama administration has already said it wouldn’t coordinate with Syria and so far it seems unwilling to cooperate with Iran (and vice versa), but ruling out either possibility is premature. It’s quite likely that well-trained and well-armed government forces from multiple states in the region will be required to truly destroy ISIS. And if it takes an unlikely and unsavory coalition that consists of mainly Muslim ground forces doing the dirty business of defeating ISIS and killing its members, then this is what should happen. Throughout history, reluctant alliances of convenience have helped defeat serious menaces to civilization, and this situation is no different.
Undoubtedly, the Middle East has its fair share of geopolitical baggage, which makes the widespread loathing of ISIS one of those rare cases when the political dynamics of the region are actually quite simple. That’s why the U.S. would be remiss to squander this opportunity.