(This is the first of a two part article written by Col. Paul Taillon)
Over the last two months, the Islamic State (IS) and its acolytes have escalated their operational tempo. They have taken down a Russian airliner over Egypt, orchestrated Beirut’s deadliest suicide attack in 25 years and undertaken a well-planned attack in Paris that witnessed the worst violence in France since World War II. These attacks killed nearly 400 people and wounded even more. According to an IS spokesman, Paris was just “the first of the storm.” This spate of IS and IS-inspired attacks was closely followed in California by the murder of 14 people attending a Christmas event in early December, by a well-armed, radicalized Muslim husband and wife team. These series of audacious events shocked Europe, North America and the Middle East. Moreover, these attacks caught off guard the respective police and intelligence communities, who did not expect, nor believe the IS, its acolytes and sympathizers capable of orchestrating such far-reaching operations outside of the occupied Iraq and Syrian areas that make up the Islamic caliphate.
These devastating events have forced governments, especially in France, Belgium, Russia, Lebanon, the United States (U.S.) and Canada, to re-evaluate their respective assessments as to the capabilities, operational reach and influence of what had been described as a “localized” terrorist group. The IS capabilities, command-and-control, equipment and its ability to hold ground locally now parallels that of a rudimentary but effective conventional army. In addition, its demonstration of its reach and influence outside of the caliphate now make it an international terrorist group. This is reinforced by the IS announcement in late November that it “pledged to kill Crusaders in Washington and beyond.”
If the West and other nations involved in this conflict hope to achieve “victory” over the Islamic State, they must first understand its strategic intent, i.e. the intended “end state.” As demonstrated in IS literature, social media content and activities, the strategic intent is to entice the U.S.-led coalition to undertake operations in the caliphate’s home turf, which now consists of substantial portions of Iraq and Syria. The IS outlined its intent in its magazine Dabiq, in the article, “The World Includes Only Two Camps-That of ISIS and That of Its Enemies.” IS argues that “since the beginning of the Islamic State and its caliphate the world is now clearly divided into two camps, with no gray zone between them.” These two camps are represented by IS and its supporters; and the West and its followers. Anyone who disagrees with the Islamic State, including moderate Muslims, is considered an apostate and accomplice of Western powers. The article attacks Al Qaeda and other Sunni groups that do not recognize the authority of the Islamic State, accusing them of “partisanship and insufficient devoutness.” It stresses that anyone who has hitherto tried to remain neutral must now choose to which of the two camps he belongs, arguing that “the existence of the Caliphate causes the West to increase its pressures on moderate Muslims living within its borders, leaving them only two options: either become complete apostates or else emigrate to the Caliphate.”Furthermore, “with the advent of the caliphate, Muslims can no longer justify living in the West by claiming that the Muslim lands are ruled by apostate regimes….”
The IS intent is to instigate what has been described as a war of civilization, a clash of values or a collision of world vision. According to Joseph Bahout, visiting scholar in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, “IS needs this in order to fulfill its own cataclysmic prophecy, to hasten the ‘end of times,’ and to bring down the utopian Armageddon dream it shares with so many of the region’s other terrorist movements and sects.”
Various commentators, as well as political and military leaders have argued that the only way to address the IS dilemma is to deal a destructive ground campaign on their home territory, utilizing the full range of conventional weapons, including the introduction of ground forces tasked to eradicate the IS in situ.  Should the U.S.-led coalition undertake a ground invasion, employing Western forces and the necessary subsequent operations to eliminate the IS and its supporters, such events would most assuredly address the Islamic State’s strategic design. The costs would not only incur substantial loss in both blood and treasures reminiscent of Iraq and Afghanistan, but would likely exacerbate further conflict while exposing both local and regional tensions, encompassing the political, religious, territorial, historical and philosophical rifts that permeate the region. Many of these complexities have been neither fully revealed, nor fully appreciated by the coalition and its American leadership. Moreover, such an act would further exacerbate relations between Muslims and others, thereby facilitating the Islamic State’s aim in orchestrating no gray zones. Even should the IS be decimated, there are other Islamist groups waiting in the wings to take its place.
Therefore, considering recent events, the Western ground campaign to root out the IS is likely not the best military option under the present circumstances. Rather, the coalition’s leadership must parlay Western technology, air superiority, full spectrum intelligence capabilities, information operations, as well as psychological operations, combined with the innate capability to undertake a well-orchestrated raiding strategy to keep the Islamic State’s forces in a constant state of physical and psychological anticipation. This latter method would have immense impact upon IS forces invoking a physically and mentally draining fear of imminent contact with shadow warriors consisting of elite forces dedicated, fully supported, trained and equipped to conduct such operations, preferably at night where these forces would have particular advantage. Such operations, combined with a targeted, intelligence-driven, relentless aerial bombing campaign, conducted by day and night, could very well see the IS caliphate lose more ground, as to date the caliphate has already lost a third of its territory during the second half of 2015.
Unfortunately, to the chagrin of military and political leadership, as well as the respective populations, there is no quick, simple and easy solution, or what is known in military parlance as a McDonald’s strategy. Rather, to affect success, the threat posed by the Islamic State must be seen in the long-term, requiring the strategic patience of all coalitional nations invested in the defeat of the Islamic State.
THE KURDISH SUCCESS STORY
Effective joint military forces have proven they are capable of rapidly pushing terrorists off their territory. Well-trained and experienced forces pushed al Qaeda out of Afghanistan quickly, while intelligence-driven airstrikes eradicated much of its leadership, as well as that of the Taliban, both of whom were sequestered in neighbouring Pakistan.
To date, the most effective ground force engaged with the IS remains the Kurds, who have established a ‘functional’ state within Iraq. Western support continues to assist Kurdish forces by facilitating training and equipment, while supporting their ground operations with intelligence and tactical air support against the IS. Kurdish success on the battlefield has buttressed their political intention to create, in the future, a truly independent Kurdistan. This aspiration for nationhood is both problematic and disconcerting not only to Iraq, but also Turkey. Both nations would see such a move as imperiling their respective sovereignty and revealing difficulties in dealing with a spectrum of economic, resource, territorial and political implications. Further compounding this is the American ‘One Iraq’ policy, which persists in the face of inter- and intra-tribal issues, the Sunni-Shia split, economic, natural resource issues, as well as political and historic frictions that have festered before and since the Sykes-Picot agreement, in addition to the Iranian support for a Shia-led Baghdad government. Should the coalition hope to engender Kurdish support, international and regional perceptions relating to a recognized and independent Kurdistan would necessitate a dramatic political change of policy.
The Kurds are the most trustworthy ground force in the region, as well as “The West’s most effective allies to date. However, the Kurds have reached the limits of their ethnic heartland in both Syria and Iraq and are reluctant to advance further.” Should this be the case, the American-led coalition would have no viable ground force campaign option, unless they employ Western forces.
AN INTERESTING TURN OF EVENTS
The Saudi regional initiative to bring together a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism was announced in December 2015.  This Saudi-led alliance will have a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations. The alliance consists of a long list of countries including Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and Gulf Arab and African states. The coalition’s intent has been noted as “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorize the innocent.” In announcing this alliance, the 30-year-old Saudi Crown Prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, stated that “the campaign would coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, but offered few concrete indications of how military efforts might proceed.”
In the wake of this announcement, military sources said that the U.S. and other NATO allies already involved in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria against the IS would likely have to provide a command and control capability, as well as intelligence in support to the Saudi-sponsored alliance. Moreover, should a Sunni Muslim alliance launch against the IS, the likely intent of the Saudis and their allies would be to anticipate and prevent any vacuum being filled by the Assad regime or its Shia Iranian supporters. Understandably, this new alliance was welcomed, but could draw the West into a confrontation between two historic and powerful rival sectarian blocs.
Some Sunni states, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been accused of supporting militant groups, including the IS. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies may be trying to prove their loyalty to the West, particularly the U.S., in taking on the IS, for they too are targets and fear their own returning foreign fighters. This may be a manifestation of a change of mindset for this region has historically looked to the West for security and it could be a positive step in addressing regional security concerns by themselves. On the other hand, looking back at Arab participation in military operations of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and subsequent regional Arab coalition operations, there is a poor record of effective military cooperation. This historical situation may now be eclipsed by the direct threat that the IS poses to the Middle East; a Sunni ground force could address the problem of having boots on the ground to evict the IS before it metastasizes. This will be a true test of the new Islamic alliance, and its inherent capability to overcome the challenges that are posed by the IS. For many observers, this new Islamic military alliance will likely require a substantial amount of time and coordination of effort, amongst other military requirements, before it could field an effective Islamic Allied force capable of taking on the Islamic State.
(Part 2 of Paul Taillon’s article will continue tomorrow)