West Grapples for a Response to Islamic State

by Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 31, 2015

Finding a strategy to defeat Islamic State will be the focus of political debate in the West

Feeling the pressure on its home turf in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State has taken the war to its enemies’ homes by launching terrorist attacks overseas—and promised more such carnage in 2016.

How to respond to the threat is becoming the focus of political debate on both sides of the Atlantic — with consequences that shape the future of the Middle East and the West.

In the main goal of terrorism — to terrorize — Islamic State has already succeeded. Security has become the main issue for the presidential campaign in the U.S., where a recent poll found that more people fear an imminent terrorist attack now than either right after Sept. 11, 2001 or any time since. France has lived in a state of emergency since Islamic State killed 130 people in November in Paris. In Egypt, the struggling tourism industry collapsed after the October downing of a Russian airliner.

This anxiety feeds, to a large extent, on a sense of impotence. A year and a half since the U.S. began military action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, leading a coalition of 65 nations, the extremist group has managed to retain the bulk of its territory while spawning new affiliates around the world.

The entrance of Russia and France into the campaign against Islamic State in Syria in recent months has, so far, produced only limited results.

In Iraq, where local forces have managed to recapture most of the city of Ramadi that they lost to Islamic State in March, much of the Sunni heartland remains under the extremists’ sway.

Such an ability to “persist and advance,” in the words of Islamic State’s motto, has allowed the group to grow in the public imagination into a multi-headed monster of near-mythical strength — an image that simultaneously attracts recruits and fuels bigotry in the West.

Considering the indiscriminate nature of Islamic State’s targets, it would be nearly impossible to stop all its terrorist attacks unless the group is physically eradicated from the vast territory it controls in Syria and Iraq — an area that attracts thousands of foreign volunteers and serves as a training ground for future terrorists. Even that ground war would only mitigate, and not completely eliminate, the threat—especially by self-radicalized “lone wolves.”

These independent operators, however, generally inflict only a fraction of the damage caused by Islamic State-directed efforts. And as long as Islamic State maintains access to the industrial base and resources of eastern Syria and western Iraq, it can develop a capacity to launch truly catastrophic attacks, terrorism experts warn.

“The learning curve facilitates their operations,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former U.S. government adviser on counterterrorism. “They have the former engineers and scientists and military officers. The longer they have the sanctuaries and the safe havens, the closer we tip toward the potentiality of them using nonconventional weapons.”

Despite Iraq’s recent success in Ramadi, by now it is also increasingly apparent that no regional Muslim coalition could dislodge Islamic State from its safe havens in Raqqa and Mosul anytime soon without significant military involvement by the U.S.

Many Arab countries say they would be ready to join such a broad coalition, along the lines of the one President George Bush assembled in 1990 to liberate Kuwait. So far, however, the Obama administration has been steadfast in its determination to avoid a new ground war in the Middle East, though it increased the tempo of air operations in Iraq and sent small numbers of special-operations forces to Iraq and Syria.

In the administration’s calculations, the cost, including in lives, of any conventional invasion still far outweighs the potential damage that Islamic State could cause to America. Whether that is true depends on one thing: how successful the U.S. and allies will prove in thwarting Islamic State’s overseas plots in the months to come.

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