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Why U.S. Air Strikes in Syria Would Damage, but Not Destroy ISIS

While military action could put the group on its back foot, it is ideology-driven and would continue to attract fighters – and carry out its brand of brutality.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

As U.S. President Barack Obama mulls widening strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from northern Iraq into Syrian territory, analysts say that military force could significantly damage the Sunni militant group – but is unlikely to destroy it.

Last week, Obama approved surveillance flights over ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, particularly aimed at the group’s stronghold of Raqqa province. Raqqa has served as the springboard from which ISIS has launched its offenses on Mosul, Tikrit and parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, gaining enough ground to form a self-styled statelet.

U.S. airstrikes near Erbil, Iraq, have thus far managed to help Kurdish peshmerga forces retake some territory from ISIS – notably gaining Mosul Dam, the country’s largest. U.S. officials have said that at this time, they are not considering sending ground troops into Syria or Iraq.

We asked Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, to weigh in on what U.S. strikes could accomplish against ISIS in Syria.

U.S. military pressure can do a lot of damage to ISIS, but doing deep damage to ISIS is very different than actually destroying the organization or suppressing it for a period of time. That’s a big distinction that often gets lost. During the surge in Iraq in 2007, U.S. military pressure was a major component in weakening [al-Qaida], ISIS’s predecessor.

Military pressure will limit ISIS’s ability to plan and train fighters. It destroys equipment and kills fighters. Most importantly, it will remove their ability to set the terms of the conflict, because they’d be playing defense rather than offense. [They depend on their] mobility and ability to generate tactical surprise. So if you limit ISIS’s ability to plan and carry out campaigns, that’s a major blow to them.

What’s really important to recognize is that a U.S. strike hurts ISIS as an army. It forces them into smaller, spread-out territories. Even in a much-diminished state, ISIS is a strategic threat. And while that military push can force them into a smaller box and limit their power, this is an organization that will continue to do very brutal things and attract foreign fighters, and even though it’s taken on [the makings] of state and army, it is at its core an ideology-driven organization. That will make it very resilient.

What I worry about is the presumption that doing this kind of damage is the same as destroying ISIS. We had 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq during the surge, ISIS’s predecessor was far weaker at that time than ISIS is now, and we still didn’t manage to destroy them. You can do a lot of damage – putting an organization like this on its back foot means a lot in terms of their ability to project power, and we can take the pressure off other groups in the region that are fighting them – but that is a far cry from destroying it. People misunderstood our successes in 2008 as a total defeat, and it was not. If our goal is ISIS’s annihilation, that is a much different undertaking than a goal to merely contain ISIS and limit the damage they can do in the short run.

The other half of this is that you have to build up political institutions, building [governing] capacity among people in Syria and Iraq. This is Military 101. You can weaken ISIS all you want, but if there aren’t political institutions in play [on the ground] to take advantage of that, you’re not going to achieve a decisive end.

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