Ethics & Public Policy Center

Air Strikes Are Not Enough To Defeat ISIS

Published in Forbes on October 11, 2014



Explosives dropped from the air are among the most terrifying by-products of modern warfare. The destruction that they cause comes from nowhere and unpredictably. And it is compounded by the falling buildings and the fires. People subjected to aerial bombardment will therefore quickly lose heart and sue for peace. So Hitler thought, when he sent the Luftwaffe night after night over London, in order to break the morale of the British people. The result, however, was a determination to sit out the ordeal, a remarkable ingenuity in adapting to it, and a fierce desire for revenge. When that revenge took place a few years later, the German cities were destroyed and thousands killed, many horribly incinerated as at Dresden. But this did little or nothing to hasten the end of the war.

Of course troops who can summon air strikes from the ground have a decided advantage in combat. But they have this advantage only if they are there, on the ground, able to confront the enemy and force him into the open. In the absence of an effective opponent troops can adapt to bombardment from the air, and regroup after every assault, all the more determined to triumph. This is what we are seeing in the battle for Kobane.

Throughout the crisis caused by the rise of the Islamic State President Obama has stuck to his policy of not sending in American troops. And if the Americans don’t go in, probably no one else will go in either, although the feeling in Britain, following the recent despicable murder of civilian hostages, is now leaning towards a fight. In any case there is no other way of winning the war, which means that Obama has decided that, on balance, it is a war that America can afford to lose. Is this true? I don’t think so. The Islamic State will not become a peaceful member of the community of nations. Having established itself by violence and genocide it will continue in the same way, for fear of reprisals and from the natural suspicion of its neighbours.

The Islamic State is a collection of god-intoxicated enthusiasts, enjoying stolen assets and ruling over a subdued and frightened population whose loyalty they cannot guarantee. Like the original Islamic empire, the Islamic State has been established by conquest, and will always need further conquests in order to confirm its legitimacy. Syria and Iraq will be in no position to resist IS, once it has repaired its infrastructure and organized itself as a police state. For it can be resisted only by forces with a rival loyalty, and animated by a national idea. Unlike the Kurds, who fight for their nation and from an ancient claim to territory, the Iraqis and Syrians have little or no national attachment. Faced with invasion they will always be tempted, as they have been tempted at every stage in the present conflict, to lay down their arms and flee to their villages.

If the IS is not defeated in the present conflict, therefore, we will have to accept the presence of an inflamed and paranoid police state in the heart of the Middle East, one whose leaders are hardened by warfare, indifferent to the sufferings of minorities and full of a visceral hatred towards the West and its jahilliya.

The new state will almost certainly begin to take an interest in Turkey, encouraging Islamic extremism there, and reaching out to those young people who are captivated by the jihadist idea. President Erdogan of Turkey has played a double game so far, claiming to be part of the coalition against IS, while watching the destruction of Kobane and resolutely preventing weapons and reinforcements from reaching the Kurds who are fighting there. His own Sunnite religion, and his desire to restore what he can of the Turkish Caliphate, naturally leads to a certain sympathy towards IS, even if he would never tolerate the new state as a partner in an eventual bid for imperial power. One way or another, Erdogan is looking for a result from which Turkey can emerge with real gains and an enhanced Islamic identity. The defeat of IS would not be not such a result – on the contrary, it would leave him with a renewed Kurdish nationalism both inside and outside his borders.

The Islamic State, once it has asserted control within defined borders, will not be a democracy. It will be a police state in the hands of hardened warriors. It will not be accepted by the international community and will have only one thing on which to call in order to establish its legitimacy, and that is the Sunni faith. Once the infidels within the state have been converted or killed, the jihad against the infidel will have to continue. IS will actively foment terrorism abroad, and will almost certainly seek to obtain nuclear and biological weapons. In a worst-case scenario, in which the Taliban regain power in Afghanistan, and a network of sympathy in Pakistan, those weapons will be not so difficult to obtain.

Can America afford this scenario? Surely not. Of course, we can sympathize with the President’s reluctance to get involved. The problem is of far greater importance to Europe than to the United States, and the Europeans seem determined to do nothing, in the absurd belief that nice people have nothing to fear from nasty ones. (See my previous post on Soft Power.) And it is undeniable that the rise of the European Union as a soft bureaucracy, disarming and debilitating the will of the European nations, has undermined the Western alliance, with the result that America is reluctant to be seen to take a leading role.

Still, America will be as much threatened by a victorious IS as the Middle East and Europe will be. The impact will not be confined to the economic sphere. America will have to confront continuous threats to its security and a steady loss of influence across the Islamic world. Whether Muslim countries accept the Islamic State as a legitimate partner, or whether Turkey takes advantage of the situation once again to spread its power to the East, the entire status of the West, and of America as its moral and political representative, will suffer a seismic blow. The future of Israel will again be in doubt, and young people all across the Middle East will be looking for a new order of solutions, one that might promise an end to conflicts that have continued to spread from country to country and have so far never arrived at a destination.

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A YOUTUBE link showing a song and message entitled ‘To Our Countries‘ from two young women, to fighters in the Middle East, that may be of interest to anyone who read my previous post on ‘Too many young men and no women.’

— Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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