By George Friedman
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said over the weekend that some members of the anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria are doing nothing at all to help defeat the Islamic State. Carter said, “Many of them are not doing enough, or are doing nothing at all.” In a separate interview he said, “We need others to carry their weight; there should be no free riders.” The coalition consists of 65 nations.
It is hard to imagine how 65 nations could coordinate operations, let alone engage IS. Consider the challenges of trying to coordinate communications on the battlefield. Or consider, even if they were only going to provide supplies, the logistical chaos of trying to move supplies from around the world to the battlefield. All coalition partners actively engaged in war is the last thing the United States would want. Obviously Carter knows this perfectly well. However, he delivered the same message in two interviews, so he clearly intended to get the message across.
From my point of view, the message is not about weight pulling. The message is that there actually isn’t a coalition intended to fight IS. What exists is a political coalition designed to demonstrate the breadth of hostility, not to actually fight. For example, Andorra is part of the coalition. I will assume that in doing nothing Andorra is carrying its weight. It has added another name to an impressively long list of nations prepared to add their name to a list.
To create a coalition capable of fighting IS, you need a relatively small number of nations with a need to destroy IS that overrides the attendant costs and risks. These nations should have militaries that are substantial enough to be worth the political and logistical efforts needed to support them. And these forces need the will not only to engage IS, but also to confront the insurgency that IS will leave behind if it is defeated.
There are few nations that fit the description. The United States has an interest in seeing IS destroyed, but it does not pose an existential threat to the United States. The United States also has the military to defeat IS but it is not clear that the United States has the will or ability to defeat an insurgency. Insurgencies followed the defeat of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Iraqi army in 2003. Any attack on IS must take into account what will happen when its conventional military force is defeated.
The United States, Russia, Iran, France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some others all have an interest in defeating IS. Some, like Iran, a Shiite nation worried about Sunni power, may even have an overriding interest. But even if these countries decided their interests outweighed the costs and risks, they are deeply divided on a range of issues having nothing to do with IS. The United States and Russia may share a common interest in destroying IS, but there are many things dividing them, even in the region, such as Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Consider Russia and Turkey or Iran and Saudi Arabia. To construct a coalition on this issue, without taking into account all of the other issues that divide them, is hard to imagine. And if you start eliminating countries that are hostile to other members of the coalition, you quickly wind up with the U.S. leading a coalition of the willing Europeans. That won’t work.
It is important to understand that IS is not primarily a terrorist organization, although it is prepared to carry out terrorist attacks. It is primarily a conventional military force able to occupy and defend a substantial territory. It also has a governing structure with a set of laws (the Sharia as they interpret it), an internal security force, tax collection and so on. It has created what is for all intents and purposes a state, if not a nation, with a fairly well-defined border. Its military is able to defeat enemy forces, or when it is defeated, to contain the defeat, shift forces and maintain the integrity of its position.
But IS has two capabilities that most conventional forces don’t have. First, it is prepared to launch terror attacks. The terror attack in France served an important function. Though it may have moved France to involve itself more deeply, it made other nations more cautious. If IS can create havoc in the heart of Paris, where can’t it reach? And if it can reach anywhere, it may be imprudent to provoke them. Lenin said that the purpose of terror is to terrify. IS uses terror to shape the decision-making on intervention.
Second, the defeat of military forces in the Islamic world has resulted in a second wave of warfare – insurgency. Insurgency imposes a long-term cost on the conventional victors. The troubling element of insurgency is that it does not require large-scale forces or logistics. The insurgents accept much higher casualties than the occupying force can. The occupying country has other interests and a long-term occupation in an area that is not of fundamental interest to them is irrational. The insurgents are fighting for their own country and beliefs, and are therefore both highly motivated and have nowhere to go. The force that engages IS may be able to defeat its conventional force, but must then have the appetite for what comes next.
Paradoxically, the countries that are closest to IS territory appear to have the least desire to engage. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been cautious in direct engagement. They understand their vulnerability to terror attacks and the costs of occupation. The United States is trying to coax Turkey into a combat role alongside the United States, but Turkey is resisting. First, it sees the United States as the weak link in a coalition. The United States’ willingness to serve as a long-term presence is not seen as likely. Turkey would be left the responsibility. In addition, Turkey is not convinced that it can’t reach a political accommodation with IS that secures Turkey, or even move into a role where it can exercise a degree of control over IS.
The American strategy is to induce regional powers to carry the major weight of the war. This includes Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Israel eliminated because it would make things worse. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by U.S. air power, would face a major battle to defeat IS, would face terror attacks at home and would have to bear the burden of occupation.
There is a saying in the Bronx: Why don’t you and him fight. It’s the best way out of a bad situation in a bar. The trick is to look like you’re going to mix it up while finagling others to do it for you. It is a skill. It is not a skill that the United States has mastered yet. Playing the balance of power is not easy. That’s what Ashton Carter’s complaints were about. It was not about the 65 coalition members. It was that the handful who could do something want the U.S. to throw the first serious punch. But it does not make sense for the United States and the other members of the coalition know it. A coalition going in on the ground against IS sounds good. But sounding good is a bad way to go to war.