ISIS Has to Be Defeated Politically, Too

A bombing campaign against Islamic State might anger Iraq's Sunnis — but it's necessary in order to establish a government capable of including them.

By Nathan Pippenger

The United States carried out 14 more airstrikes against ISIS on Wednesday, shortly after the militant group released a video showing the beheading of captured American journalist James Foley. Noting that the militant group, which claims to have another American journalist in captivity, can’t simply be destroyed through a bombing campaign, Zack Beauchamp argues that President Obama now must decide whether more drastic steps against ISIS would merely play into the group’s hands:

The basic problem is that the US can’t destroy ISIS from the air. ISIS’ strength comes from (1) support from the Sunni population in northern Iraq and (2) well-equipped, battle-trained ground forces that can be based in cities or Syrian bases. […] Given how unpopular the US remains among Iraq’s Sunnis after the 2003 war, an ill-targeted US campaign could bolster ISIS’ most critical base of support.

These are good reasons for restraint: As Beauchamp notes, the United States’s short-term goal of reversing Islamic State’s military gains could actually cause disaffected Sunnis to rally around it. This would only perpetuate the same sectarian divide now fueling the militants’ campaign. But while there’s a real tension here, it’s also true that no sustainable progress can be made against ISIS without a functional Iraqi government. And that, in turn, requires at least two things that the bombing campaign has arguably helped bring about.

First, Iraq’s incompetent, widely despised, deeply anti-Sunni Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to step down. And to everyone’s pleasant surprise, this actually happened without (as some feared) a violent last stand. As I noted earlier this summer, experts widely blame Maliki for the grievances of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which have fueled ISIS’s success in the northern part of the country. As Olivier Roy has argued, even without the chaotic Syrian war on Iraq’s border, “sooner or later, the Jihadists would have made a breakthrough in the Iraqi Sunni areas because of the frustration of the local population. Since the battle of Falluja against the Americans, nothing has been done to integrate the Iraqi Sunnis into the new state.” Maliki’s exit won’t solve this problem, but it was a necessary first step.

Second, for a more inclusive regime to survive—one with any chance of integrating Sunnis into Iraq’s political institutions and thereby undermining the appeal of anti-government militants—control over the Mosul Dam is essential. When ISIS captured the dam, it briefly (and terrifyingly) had the power to flood major Iraqi cities, including Baghdad. If that had happened, the fledgling post-Maliki regime would have been strangled in the crib. Now, thanks to an Iraqi Army and Kurdish counteroffensive supported by the American bombing campaign, the Mosul Dam is back in government hands.

The best path forward, as Beauchamp argues, is still unclear. Yet even if ISIS can’t be destroyed by an American bombing campaign in Iraq, airstrikes may go a long way toward limiting the damage it can cause. The group operates across borders and has demonstrated a frightening adaptability, but American air power has stopped it both from committing an imminent genocide on Mount Sinjar and from disrupting Iraq’s water supply. Even if they fall short of defeating the group outright, these steps might create just enough breathing room for a better political regime to begin addressing Iraq’s sectarian divisions. If disaffected Sunnis are the “critical base of support” for Islamic State, then strictly speaking, the United States’s choice is not between attacking the militant group and laying the groundwork to placate Iraq’s Sunnis. Rather, the second goal can’t be achieved without the first.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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