Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Stuck between a Rock and a Hard Place: How to Combat ISIL

By Matthew McGeePublished October 13, 2014

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Despite frequent airstrikes by US and other coalition members against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria and Iraq, it appears little to no progress is being made in pushing back ISIL forces. Meanwhile, despite having forces on the border and facing an imminent threat should the strategic town of Kobani fall, Turkey for now seems content to wait for two enemies, ISIL and Kurdish forces, which it sees as terrorists, fight each other. In the process, it is preventing the increased intervention that is needed in order to stem the growth of ISIL. In order to protect Turkish security as well as significantly turn the tide against ISIL, greater action must be taken immediately.
By Matthew McGee, 10/13/14

As airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL in Syria stretch into their third week, it appears that there has been no serious damage to ISIL's infrastructure and their threat is every bit as real as it was prior to the strikes. In order to contain and start to reduce the capabilities of ISIL, it is imperative that coalition members start to seriously consider further military steps.

Since the airstrikes began in Syria and Iraq, few inroads have been made into retaking territory captured by ISIL. In Iraq, a largely incompetent military that crumbled in the face of ISIL's summer blitzkrieg is, despite modest gains, unlikely to be able to begin to retake the country's second largest city of Mosul for at least a year, according to retired Gen. John Allen, the former top American commander in Iraq. So incompetent are Iraq's armed forces that in a recent blunder the air force accidently air dropped ammo and food to ISIL insurgents instead of their own troops. Although the more capable Kurdish Peshmerga forces are making headway against ISIL, they still have a long battle ahead before they can effectively remove ISIL from Iraq, even with significant foreign backing.

While in Iraq there is at least a somewhat cohesive force of Iraqi and Kurdish forces supported by mainly US airstrikes trying to retake land from ISIL, the situation in Syria is much different. Not only do the strikes appear to have had little effect in weakening ISIL, it now appears that the fall of the Kurdish city of Kobani on Syria's border with Turkey is imminent

Not only does it appear that ISIL has a solid grasp on most of its territory right now, but in many ways it is currently growing stronger. ISIL is still able to make between $1 million and $3 million daily by illegally selling oil drawn from the ten fields it controls in Iraq and Syria.  Meanwhile, ISIL is still soundly winning the propaganda war. With its sleek videos and thousands of followers on various social media forums, there appears to be little security agencies can do to effectively limit ISIL's outreach online. In no small part because of this, thousands of foreign fighters from Europe are pouring into Syria and Iraq. 

Despite the best efforts of Arab and Western states, the end of ISIL appears nowhere in sight. Even though modest gains are being made in Iraq, the fragmented situation in Syria means there is no significant, cohesive force to regularly act upon strikes by the US and other countries to counter the threat ISIL poses. In order to turn the tide militarily in Syria and hasten progress in Iraq, more significant action must be taken. 

Though Turkey has some legitimate concerns about arming Kurdish forces in Syria, it now appears that there are few other options. As ISIL consolidates control along Syria's border with Turkey and Turkish Kurds clash with police over perceived inaction, in order to appease the Kurdish minority as well as stave off incursions by ISIL into Turkish territory, Turkey must take a more active role. Indeed, it appears that the international community recognizes this and in the coming weeks there may be Turkish boots on the ground, possibly joined by other NATO members, as hinted by the recent opening of Turkish ports and air bases to US forces. While Turkish tanks are currently in defensive positions near the border, a recent NATO announcement stated that if the violence enters Turkey Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be invoked, opening up the possibility of broader international action. 

Even if ISIL does not take action that prompts full NATO involvement, it is still important that more aggressive action is taken in Syria against ISIL. Turkey has implied that it may take further action possibly without NATO if it feels that its national security is threatened, and other nations such as the Netherlands have stated that they will start airstrikes in Syria if there is a UN mandate.

If broader action is not taken soon to combat ISIL, it will only become more entrenched in the territory it controls, making it more difficult to ultimately oust. Therefore, there must be a more robust ground effort by competent, coordinated forces in order to act upon strategic openings created by airstrikes. While air power may destroy facilities and kill a dozen or so militants daily, it alone cannot destroy ISIL. As a well-funded, highly structured, and highly motivated organization, ISIL will take a long time to completely destroy. However, steps can and must be taken now in order to hasten this process.