The recent U.S. kill/capture raid on the head of ISIS oil operations in Syria demonstrates the need for updated legal authorities for a limited “boots-on-the-ground” capability to help lead the region, demonstrate our commitment, and inspire our regional allies to form a strong Arab coalition to fight ISIS.
On May 15, 2015 U.S. Special Forces executed a surgical raid on the compound of Abu Sayyaf after months of intelligence gathering. Most have never heard of Abu Sayyaf, but as an ISIS declared ‘minister’, he is close to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and controls one of the group’s main funding sources – black market oil sales. The intelligence U.S. forces now have at their disposal from the documents, computers, phones and hard drives will allow them to fill intelligence gaps and put the intelligence web together so ISIS can be systematically hobbled. Additionally, the corroborative information that will come from questioning the two detainees from the raid, (one being Abu Sayyaf’s wife and the other being a Yazidi girl enslaved by Abu Sayyaf) will be very helpful in putting the minister’s network of contacts together.
This highly risky mission, executed by the most professional strike force in history, will certainly yield intelligence for future opportunities that would not have been accessible if airstrikes were used. Do we want to put U.S. Special Forces operators at risk on the ground where they could be caged and burned alive like the Jordanian pilot, of course not. However, if we wish to resolve this conflict and ensure that ISIS does not gain more momentum and influence to ultimately strike at Western interests, then we have to address this problem in a sober manner. Coalition airstrikes alone are not working. We can certainly continue to disrupt day-to-day ISIS operations with this strategy, but we will never defeat them. To this point, ISIS recently took the city of Ramadi in Iraq, further entrenching its fighters in amongst civilians, schools, mosques, and hospitals as a strategy to hide from coalition airstrikes.
Many cities have fallen to ISIS because: first, the residents feel their government has not represented them and perhaps even betrayed them; second, they know there is not a strong central government to protect them. The winning strategy for ridding the region of ISIS will be for an Iraqi led multinational coalition to enter the cities to Clear, Hold, Govern and Stabilize each area. This would allow for the government of Iraq to reestablish itself and regain momentum as a governing body to trusting, invested citizens.
Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates must be persuaded to full commit to solving this problem with their own forces, not just contributing to the efforts of the U.S. and Iraq. Defeating ISIS cannot have a Western-face, this has to be a true coalition. The U.S. has a strong military-to-military relationship with many of the countries in this region already and can help facilitate greater mutual involvement, as it has in GCC naval operations near the Strait of Hormuz. While not taking the lead in such a coalition, the U.S. could provide tactical intelligence information, airpower, training, advisors and personnel recovery assurances to allow the multinational forces freedom of movement and less risk to aviators. Our Arab partners could be vital, given culture and fluency, in helping to scale regional information operations against the ISIS military and propaganda machine. But here at home there must be an overall strategy developed with appropriate authorities to conduct limited multinational operations.
The commander of US Special Operations Command recently said his forces are “operating in possibly the most complex strategic environment in recent history.” This short article is not meant to over-simplify the larger regional problems including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s relationships in the region and Turkey’s unwillingness to engage in this conflict in a meaningful way. There is a litany of secondary and tertiary difficulties that exist because of the history in the area, but the greatest immediate threat to stability for all remains ISIS. As long as ISIS stands to prove its legitimacy as a Caliphate and can boast of successes over the internet, they will continue to be a threat. Everyone likes a winner, including terrorist financiers and potential recruits.
We now have a great opportunity to go after the leadership of ISIS with the intelligence derived from the raid on 15 May. This could allow for subsequent raids on other leaders in the network to work our way deeper into the webs of power in Raqqa, but it is unlikely to affect the ideological challenges that come with battlefield victories and a mass of online propaganda. We must press ahead now, but the West cannot be the ones most committed to this issue.