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The Threat of ISIL: Managing Expectations in Iraq and Syria

By Donald Sassano
Special Contributor to In Homeland Security

Secretary of Defense Hagel recently stated that ISIL “is beyond anything we’ve ever seen” and “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Almost in unison, Secretary of State John Kerry chimed in asserting that ISIL “is one of the most dangerous groups that I have seen in my time in public life.” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey testified that ISIL poses an existential threat to the U.S. It is “an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated.”

On the other side of the political aisle ISIL-themed calls to action made the administration’s national security talking points seem almost nuanced.

Ready to meet any challenge in the fear-mongering and threat inflation department, Senator Lindsay Graham believes the president has been criminally negligent for not earlier supporting moderate Syrian fighters (The Free Syrian Army) and that we will yet require U.S. combat boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. If not, says Graham, “we all get killed back here at home.”

More on point for the purposes of this argument, Senator John McCain stated that ISIL is “a virus” that cannot be “contained” (my emphasis). Moreover, both Graham and McCain advocate simultaneous military action against the embattled Assad government. Has it not occurred to them that ISIL is Assad’s bitter enemy? Defeat Assad and ISIL will surely benefit, and as I have previously written, Iran will be forced to step up yet again, as it has in Iraq, to safeguard its interests in Syria. The result will be increased tension with Iran at a time when we should aim to “set the table” in Vienna during ongoing nuclear negotiations and work toward a tacit political understanding (if not a grand bargain) that will include Iranian efforts to ease Assad from power.

What about the day after Assad falls?

By now it should be apparent that America has amassed a dismal track record of democratic nation building within illiberal parts of the world, especially in the Greater Middle East. According to realist John Mearsheimer, the U.S. “has proved itself to have little ability to rectify the problems…in Syria. If anything, intervention is likely to make a bad situation worse.”

But shouldn’t American exercise its moral imperative? Unfortunately, to paraphrase Raymond Aron, successful statecraft is rarely about simple choices of good and evil. More often we grapple with outcomes spanning the merely acceptable to the outright detestable. Syria is a case in point. The U.S. would be well advised to pursue the former (containment of ISIL). The latter (defeat) is unrealistic and invites more of the same troubles that has beset U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

First the good news. In a certain respects, ISIL is already contained, principally due to its own overreach. According to Christopher Boland at War on the Rocks, on a whole range of issues ISIL’s power and influence is receding, not growing. It does not enjoy the element of surprise, unlike al-Qaida in 2001, and is therefore a far less potent threat to the homeland, especially when factoring in the U.S. security state that has arisen after 9/11. It is a relatively small cadre (probably no more than 30,000 fighters) surrounded by enemies, currently allied with disaffected Sunni tribes that can be turned. Yes, its brutality is disturbing, but limits its appeal among even those who share in its foundational beliefs. In fact, asserts Boland, it is a lesser threat than Mexican narco-terrorists employing the same forms of barbarism with greater frequency just across our own border.

Now the bad news. ISIL is unlikely to be defeated and any attempts to do so will inevitably lead to more bitter disappointments. The logic of this assertion is embedded in recent history. Given the gargantuan effort the U.S. has expended over the last decade in the Middle East, neither al-Qaida nor the Taliban has been eradicated. Degraded? Yes, especially al-Qaida. But as terrorism expert Paul Pillar has noted, the lesson of the Iraq debacle is “that where there is strong communal antagonisms but a weak political culture for managing such antagonisms, even a big effort by outsiders is unlikely to have a lasting beneficial effect.”

Amid the bombing and coalition building currently taking place, President Obama and his advisors should take pains to damp down expectations. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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