After the Paris attacks, François Hollande swore to wage a merciless war against Islamic State, against which France, Germany, the United States and even Russia have all intensified their strikes. As this is written, the United Kingdom too joins the effort. Yet there seems to be no visible difference in the course of the Syrian Civil War. Operation Inherent Resolve, the US air campaign, has destroyed hundreds of vehicles and thousands of other targets, yet only minor territorial gains against IS have been made.
What, really, have coalition airstrikes accomplished? They have diminished the ability of IS to fight, surely, but not enough to ensure victory. If anything, there have been more attacks on foreign soil, either by IS “soldiers” or by those inspired by IS propaganda. We are not much closer to defeating them, and every day the war against them drags on increases the chance of another attack on Western soil.
Who is capable against IS in Iraq and Syria? The US-funded and supported Iraqi army ought to be effective. Their early territory losses, combined with the slow effort to recapture Ramadi, suggest otherwise. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces too should put up a good fight, especially with their Russian support. And yet they only lose more territory to IS every day—their territorial gains have only been against opposition groups. The one exception to this depressing narrative is the effort of the Kurdish militias, fighting in northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and western Iran. They have managed to oppose the spread of IS and even capture territory. But the Kurds cannot be expected to fight far outside their own territories.
All this suggests that the war against IS could continue to drag on for years, costing billions to the taxpayer and almost guaranteeing future IS-inspired attacks in Europe or America. But there is a simple solution, the deployment of American or coalition troops to fight IS.
There already are US troops deployed on Syrian soil. At least 50 special operations personnel have been deployed with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Fewer than that, just 24 Green Berets and an undisclosed but certainly small number of CIA operatives, accomplished the overthrow of the Taliban. But they were working with the Northern Alliance, forged by Ahmad Shah Massoud into a far more disciplined force than the Iraqi army can hope to be. Our regional allies are hopeless, but American troops, led by the special operations contingents already deployed, could easily cause the fall of IS.
Policymakers have shied away from “boots on the ground” after the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, but this is a situation where they are necessary and useful. It must be remembered that IS is different than al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or the vast majority of terrorist organizations. It is an organized army, estimated to be between 30,000 and 100,000 strong. It employs armored vehicles (captured from Syrian and Iraqi forces), artillery and even uses drones. Though this technological and tactical edge has afforded IS many victories it means that guerilla wars à la Iraq or Afghanistan will be avoided. The US military has been designed, from its foundation, to fight wars against conventional enemies. The Gulf War was an example of what can be achieved. The same can be achieved against IS.