Parce qu’ils n’aiment personne, ils croient qu’ils aiment Dieu.

Because they do not like anyone, they believe they love God.

Charles Péguy

While I mostly criticize US foreign policy, the elimination of ISIL seems like one goal that all civilized people can share.

There are some moments, such as the recently commemorated 70-year-old Second World War, when a fanatical and dangerous ideology becomes such a severe threat that even the most unlikely partners will work together to defeat it. ISIL is such a threat, so brutal that even the Islamic resistance movements inspired by Iran in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq will ally together with the socialist Kurdish PYG forces and the United States to defeat it. When such diverse forces team up, one has to agree that their cause must be a noble and necessary one.

The US has the most powerful Air Force in the world and has yet to use it properly against ISIL. Thus far, the US’s approach to the ISIL threat has been an attempted pinpoint approach, avoiding civilian losses at all costs. There have been some civilian deaths as a result of the US actions against ISIL, but it is hard to deny that the US Air Force is saving more lives in Iraq and Syria than it is endangering. ISIL is a genocidal group, determined to enslave and slaughter millions of people. The group itself only consists of, in the most exaggerated reports, between some thousands and possibly tens of thousands of militants. The downside of the pinpoint approach is that it doesn’t actually do a whole lot of damage, especially to the ISIL recruitment infrastructure and civilian populations who still feel more terrorized by ISIL than by the US bombs being dropped on ISIL (“encouraging” the civilian population into being more decisive about who they support has always been one of the most effective results of overwhelming and almighty air strikes in a situation where civilians are still unsure about who they think is going to win).

The de facto capital of ISIL is the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has been targeted on occasion in the US air strikes against ISIL. Many theorists of “leaderless” terrorism, such as Marc Sageman, might argue that targeting  the ostensible HQ of Jihadists is an outdated approach. The traditional Clausewitzean theory of undermining the “center of gravity” (COG) of the enemy at all costs via the brutal and swift annihilation of the enemy capital, with all other actions being a waste of energy (always go for the killing blow, everything else is pointless), might not work against a decentralized terrorist group. But, such an approach can certainly make such a group far less effective, as well as undermining its morale and discouraging civilians from joining it. ISIL may actually be vulnerable to a more conventional Clausewitzean approach to warfare at this stage, because ISIL is no longer a decentralized group and is actually taking on the features of a centralized state. Unlike al-Qaeda, which was indeed driven into fragmentation due to the sheer force with which the US retaliated against it in Afghanistan, ISIL has actually been let off fairly lightly by the US Air Force.

We have yet to see a B-52 formation flying over ISIL positions and pulverizing vast areas of territory to eliminate them, as happened with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The US has not deployed its most powerful conventional weapons against ISIL. In Syria, President Bashar al Assad has not taken the US campaign against ISIL very seriously, arguing that the small Syrian Air Force carries out far more airstrikes, and kills far more ISIL militants, than the US Air Force, on a daily basis. He has a point.

One reason why the US Air Force has not competed so well with the Syrian Air Force in eliminating ISIL is political. The US has for years been accusing Assad of being too indiscriminate in dealing out punishment to the so-called Syrian rebels (most of whom are ISIL), and Obama is doing his best to not appear to be even more of a hypocrite than he already was. If he began carpet-bombing Assad’s “people” in Syria to defeat ISIL, it would cheapen all the talk Obama and John Kerry issued about Assad “killing his own people” – since Obama and Kerry would effectively be doing the same and on an even grander scale as their way of eliminating ISIL. Past political talking points, therefore, are actually hindering the US Air Force’s ability to act decisively against ISIL.

The best thing for Obama to do, to defeat ISIL, would be to sack the incompetent John Kerry and get him to shoulder the blame for the anti-Assad talking points as well as the ineffectiveness of the campaign against ISIL, saying that he mishandled the Syrian crisis and prevented the formation of a viable anti-ISIL coalition. Then, a new anti-ISIL coalition should be built with the increased cooperation with Assad and reduce cooperation with the deceptive al-Saud regime – which has actually been funding ISIL from the outset as a way of buying political leverage in Iraq and Syria.

The US Air Force should not be competing with the Syrian Air Force to eliminate ISIL, but cooperating with it. Syrian ground forces are in desperate need of more air power in order to displace ISIL from Syria and ultimately eliminate ISIL completely. B-52s would go a long way in obliterating ISIL in Raqqa and Aleppo. In addition to this, the US should stop pretending to separate “good” militants from “bad” militants in Syria and carpet-bomb them all. The combined demoralization, sense of betrayal by the US Air Force (whom they had been praying since 2013 would bomb Assad rather than them) and military pulverization caused by such a revised version of the anti-ISIL campaign would be like D-Day on ISIL, and the entire so-called “caliphate” would collapse within months. As for Raqqa, the civilian losses from the US and Syrian Air Forces destroying the city would probably be tolerable because those who currently reside there must be ISIL supporters and, one way or another, are going to get killed in this campaign anyway.

The US carpet bombed insurgents in the past with no real impact. Why would it work in Iraq and Syria?

The only real argument against carpet-bombing ISIL that I can think of, is that carpet-bombing (using the exact same B-52s waiting in US hangars today) didn’t work too well against dug-in guerrilla armies in past wars, specifically in Asia. The Vietcong and Khmer Rouge were basically unaffected by endless carpet-bombing in the 1970s, leading the US to leave the region in shame after failing to protect at least two sympathetic regimes from collapse under communist insurgencies. The comparison of ISIL with such groups would be ill-advised, however, simply because of the difference in terrain and the size of the guerrilla armies in question. The communist insurgencies of Asia had not thousands of members, but millions. They were also entrenched in tunnel systems under foliage, and the US means of gathering intelligence on them were extremely crude. They were also fully backed by fully-established communist regimes, namely North Vietnam and China. The balance, therefore, was always tipped in favor of a guerrilla army intoxicated with victory in North Vietnam and China, and the civilian population knew it. Civilians in Vietnam and Cambodia were never in awe of US power, but in awe of the success and resilience of the guerrillas and the socialist states backing them.

ISIL simply doesn’t have these advantages enjoyed by communist guerrillas in the 1970s. ISIL is sitting out in an open desert, and barely has comparable numbers of troops to the Vietcong or Khmer Rouge. Support from neighboring regimes to ISIL is limited to a trickle of fighters from Turkey. Therefore, everything suggests that carpet-bombing ISIL – just as the Vietcong and Khmer Rouge were carpet-bombed – would, in this particular instance, successfully allow the US to take the initiative and force ISIL into a more reactive posture rather than actually being the one making the US react. ISIL a perfect target for carpet-bombing, and everything suggests that this ruthless old-school approach would be immediately successful. Whereas the Vietcong and Khmer Rouge had the capacity to actually lure the US and make the US engage them on their terms, ISIL has no such capacity. Like the Taliban, ISIL as a fighting force is doomed to be perpetually on the run, fleeing from city to city, valley to valley, if the US makes any serious effort to target them with its most powerful weapons. As soon as the B-52s appeared, ISIL would stop thinking about taking Baghdad or Aleppo and start thinking about digging the hole in which they would eventually get found and killed.

I am no hawk and it is not common that I endorse violence as a solution to anything, but whatever happens to a barbaric group like ISIL and its capital city is going to be violent whether we support violence or not. To carpet-bomb ISIL would not be a perfect solution, but it would be better than the current mere token air strikes that have no real decisive impact on events on the ground, and it would also be more effective than previous US carpet-bombings around the world against more resilient adversaries.

By Harry J. Bentham

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