The US military is gearing up to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring, but there’s virtually no chance this is going to work by itself.
The US spent years training the Iraqi Army, and for what? Baghdad’s forces turned out to be no more effective in the face of the ISIS onslaught than the French were when Hitler invaded.
Had ISIS been nipped in the bud at the beginning this might not have happened, but they’ve had years to build themselves up and grow stronger while an isolationist White House did nothing and let everything fester.
President Obama’s advisors warned him that the Syrian civil war could explode well beyond its borders and even wash up in Europe and the United States if it dragged out long enough, and that’s exactly what happened.
The Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis is still entrenched in its part of the country, and ISIS—one of the most formidable terrorist armies in history—controls the other half of the country, along with an enormous swath of Iraq. There is virtually no chance that a ragtag band of lightly trained “moderate” rebels can compete with the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time if the much-better trained and equipped Iraqis can’t handle ISIS alone.
But this might work if the air campaign against ISIS is expanded dramatically.
So far the air strikes are barely containing ISIS, let alone degrading it, but that’s partly because it’s so half-assed. Occasional pinprick strikes won’t finish off ISIS any more than occasional terrorist attacks in the US would cause Washington DC to implode.
Fighting a terrorist organization or an insurgency with air strikes is a fool’s game, but ISIS is much more than that. It’s not hiding in alleys and shadows and safe houses. It controls a chunk of territory the size of Syria. Its “state” isn’t formally recognized by any real nation, nor does it appear on any atlases, but it has most of the attributes of a state in the making and can be weakened and degraded and destroyed from the skies just like Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya was weakened and degraded and eventually destroyed from the skies.
The US-led coalition might be able to do this. It wouldn’t mean the end of ISIS any more than destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan spelled the end of the Taliban, but it would end ISIS as a “state” and force it to revert to its previous status as a shadowy terrorist organization.
Then it just might be possible for a US-backed force to move into the vacuum. Fighting would continue indefinitely, and the US might have to remain involved to an extent, but at least the Islamic State could be downgraded into a wannabe state that has a much more difficult time recruiting new members. Though I wouldn’t expect a tidy resolution any time in the next decade—it’s far too late for that now—it would be better than watching ISIS expand.
But if we’re just going to train a few thousand people and hope for the best while sending them into a meat grinder without any serious backup, we’re better off staying home and they’re better off being refugees.
Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.