Defeating ISIS is definitely the West’s fight

Shadi Hamid writes: The notion that ISIS could be contained was always based on wishful thinking. Perhaps just as problematically, it suggested a narrow Western-centric lens.

ISIS has been spilling over throughout the Middle East and beyond for quite some time now – in Libya, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Nigeria. An extremist, inherently expansionist state in the Middle East is not something anyone should learn to live with. Yet, as ISIS ravaged the region, the predominant response has been an aimless, desultory counter-ISIS effort on the part of the U.S. and its allies. Our hearts weren’t in it, but neither too were our minds.

The Obama administration seemed to take refuge in the idea that ISIS has “no place in the 21st century” or that ISIS and its ilk would ultimately “be defeated” – in the passive tense – “because they don’t have a vision that appeals to people.” It was almost as if the arc of history would intervene against them, even if we couldn’t be bothered to muster the effort.

The reluctance to consider direct military action in Iraq and Syria – beyond targeted airstrikes against ISIS – has been a constant feature of the public debate in Western capitals. Everything ISIS has done, with its ever increasing brutality, apparently wasn’t enough to shake the international community from its torpor. Yet even now, after the Paris attacks, the only thing that’s been promised is more of what we were already doing.

We can and should have a wide-ranging debate on how much force and treasure to commit to this new phase of the fight, but the argument that this is not “our fight” no longer has any standing. This does not mean repeating the blunders of the Iraq war, and, in any case, no one to my knowledge is advocating for an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq and Syria. There is quite a lot between a full-scale invasion and the desultory efforts of the past few years. As many have long been calling for, no-fly and no-drive zones should be established in Syria (in areas where Russia is not active) to protect civilians and allow rebels to hold territory and provide a governance alternative to ISIS. This would require a significantly larger number of special operations forces than the “fewer than 50” committed in October.

We’ve overlearned the lessons of the last war, and understandably so. This, in some sense, is a good thing. We can’t just go in and level Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital and hope for the best. As always, local Sunni forces are critical, and, in Syria, the United States has done a remarkably poor job of boosting, or even just engaging with, mainstream rebel actors who are both anti-ISIS and anti-Assad. The importance of local allies who have buy-in is something we learned in the devastating aftermath of the Iraq invasion. But what we haven’t learned, at least up until now, is that non-intervention can, sometimes, be just as costly and dangerous as intervention. Presumably, there is a middle ground between these two extremes of the Bush and Obama eras. Now is the right time to find it. [Continue reading…]

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