Two years ago, the British House of Commons stunned the world by voting against military action in Syria. For Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported going to war, it remains the worst defeat of his tenure. Britain was relegated to bombing targets in Iraq while operations in Syria were left to other coalition members, particularly the United States.
Now, following last month’s terrorist attack in Paris, Cameron finally has the authority he wanted. The Commons on Wednesday voted him the authority to attack Syria. British jets can now cross the artificial border that the Islamic State erased long ago.
And so the war expands. Two days after the Paris killings, France was already bombing ISIS’s putative capital of Raqqa, and typically restrained Germany announced its entrance into the fight earlier this week. Surely the West is justified in seeking to destroy the Islamic State. This is an act of retaliation, not doe-eyed nation building or gung-ho military adventurism.
But don’t confuse a moral imperative with an effective strategy. The United States and its allies can bomb the caliphate to shreds—turn the entire desert into a glass parking lot—and it won’t defeat ISIS.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is the nature of the enemy we face. For all its fearsome weapons and grisly execution videos, ISIS is just one iteration of the greater jihadist threat that’s spread with alarming alacrity across the Middle East. Want to prevent future terrorist attacks? You’ll have to weaken al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has expanded thanks to the recent turmoil in Yemen and is determined to attack the United States. The latticework of extremist and Salafist groups in Syria will need to be picked apart. The Taliban must be re-defeated. The processing plant of Wahhabi terror that is Saudi Arabia must be confronted.
Indeed, not only is ISIS far from the sole jihadist threat in the Middle East, it’s not even the most dangerous jihadist threat in Syria. That honor goes to al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate. Unlike ISIS, which ruthlessly stamps out dissenters, al-Nusra has proven itself a team player in the quest to take out Bashar al-Assad, working with more moderate militias and winning over beleaguered Sunnis. So effective has the group been that it’s easy to imagine it becoming integrated in post-war Syrian society, the way Hezbollah did in Lebanon. And al-Nusra shares most of ISIS’s goals: a tyrannical caliphate, suffocating Sharia.
As the Islamic State wanes, the far more cunning al-Nusra will fill the void. Bombing ISIS won’t defeat radical Islam; it could even end up empowering it.
The second reason why pummeling the Islamic State will be ineffective sounds like it was pulled from an alternative medicine textbook: bombs only attack the symptom, not the root cause. ISIS’s key resource isn’t oil, but young, angry, Sunni Muslims, many of whom grew up under the American occupation in Iraq, toiled in destitution, and are now dependent on the Islamic State for a purpose and a paycheck.
These Sunnis faced genuine oppression, both from Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia government in Iraq and Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria. To them, groups like ISIS are expressions of Sunni power, offering direction and enfranchisement at a time when no one else will.
The West might blow ISIS away, it might even engineer a period of Sunni moderation as happened following the troop surge in Iraq, but none of it will last if young Muslims continue to grow up without hope. Tackling this problem means ensuring that the current Iraqi government continues to move away from Shia power and peacefully transitioning out that mass murderer of Sunnis Bashar al-Assad. It also means the region’s Sunni powers must set aside their hobby horses and play a constructive role in stopping the flow of jihadists. Iranian forces won’t do that. American troops can’t.
If that sounds like a monumental task, that’s because it is. Militarily weakening the Islamic State is part of the solution. But anyone who thinks bombs can defeat radical Islam is deluding himself.