Better the Devil we know – Why the aerial bombing campaign against the “Islamic State” could create an even more deadly ISIS.
ISIS has made few friends with its particularly theatrical brand of conquest-by-terror, and it is difficult not to take some grim satisfaction as the group’s media horror-fest finally oversteps its mark, provoking the fiery vengeance of a growing Coalition of appalled states.
However, it takes a short memory to believe that airstrikes alone will put an end to ISIS’ murderous campaign. This physical assault on (and possible disintegration of) the geographic entity of the “Islamic State” risks creating a new tactical situation that will make ISIS more unpredictable. Couple this with the collapse or weakening of state borders across the region resulting from the Syrian conflagration, and we could see an ISIS retaliation far beyond the borders of the existing “Islamic State”. This article will take a two-pronged approach to critiquing the aerial bombardment strategy currently being employed by the US and its European and Arab allies. On the one hand, I will assess the tactical and geo-strategic implications of an aggressive aerial campaign against the territorial entity of the “Islamic State”. The second prong will draw on existing radicalisation theory – specifically “Rising Expectations/ J-Curve Theory” (as coined by Davies in 1962) to predict the likely volatile reaction from ISIS fighters in the event of the physical destruction of their hard-won “Caliphate”.
To appreciate the potential tactical/geo-strategic implications of the bombing campaign against ISIS, one need only look back as far as 2011-2013 Iraq, when ISIS (or ISIL as is was known at the time) had to all intents and purposes been driven “underground” by the combined efforts of a US troop surge, and an exasperated Sunni tribal backlash in the group’s heartlands (known to history as the “Anbar Awakening”). The jihadist group had been driven from its strongholds, no longer an effective presence on the streets of its former strongholds. However, the group would prove in those years that it had been cornered, but not defanged. The now invisible jihadists unleashed such an unpredictable, far-reaching and indiscriminate reign of terror that the entire country was reduced to a state of fatalism. ‘Iraq Body Count’ estimated the death toll in 2013 to be 9,713; the highest figure since the height of the country’s civil-war in 2008; hardly the work of a crippled organisation. This is precisely the tactical situation that the current Coalition bombing campaign against ISIS stands to recreate. If there is one thing we can consistently observe through recent history, it is that Western military forces thrive in conflicts against visible enemies. Western warfare loves frontlines. Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban State with frightening speed in 2011, yet the resurgent underground Taliban insurgency remains deadly 13 years later. The US troop surge and Anbar Awaking similarly chased al-Qaeda fighters from the streets of Iraqi cities with impressive efficiency in 2008, yet the group remained dangerous from the shadows long after. Presently, ISIS is operating “above ground”. It holds established territories and is fighting semi-conventional battles on clear frontlines against Kurdish forces in the North, and Iraqi government forces in the South. Though it may appear powerful, it is exactly where we need it to be, where we can track and contain it. By subjecting ISIS to an aerial blitz, we risk driving the organisation back underground (as its convoys will be unable to move from frontline to frontline, while its static positions will be easy prey for Coalition airstrikes). In such a situation, the geographic “Islamic State” will disintegrate and its fighters will be forced to seek anonymity among the local populace. With no physical territory to defend, the jihadists will likely revert to old tricks – launching indiscriminate bombing attacks at targets throughout Iraq. Worse still, with the collapse or weakening of borders across the region due to the Syrian conflagration, such fighters will be at far greater liberty to target perceived enemies across the region – in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or further afield. The disintegration of the physical “Islamic State” presents another major security concern. As I have said, the existence of a geographic Caliphate provides aspiring jihadists with an established territory to travel to, and to fight for. By denying them this unifying battleground (one which we can contain), ISIS ‘wannabees’ across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Australia and the US, will likely take the battle to wherever they can – i.e. their own backyards. Suddenly, the battlefield grows infinitely bigger, and our enemy infinitely harder to track and predict.
The other likely side-effect of an aerial obliteration of the physical entity of the “Islamic State” is that such a strategy is likely to create an even more volatile and irrational ISIS. This likely phenomenon can best be understood through Davies’ “Rising Expectations” or “J-Curve” Theory. In his study of multiple revolutions, Davies found that activism was far more prevalent under conditions where things were improving, but are then stalled. This is because hardship is so much more agonising when it is born out of shattered hopes and expectations. Davies argued that this frustration can provoke an aggressive response. In the context of ISIS, the destruction of their hard-won Caliphate – the culmination of their Jihadist raison d’etre – is likely to provoke them to lash out. They will be looking for enemies to blame, and the members of the anti-ISIS Coalition will be first in the firing line. Thus, there raison d’etre will be transformed from the defence of a patch of land in Iraq and Syria, to a revenge-driven campaign to avenge the multiple actors conspiring against them – wherever they may reside.
Policy makers must ask themselves an important question – one where they must choose between the devils they do and do not know. We cannot tolerate the existence of a territory-controlling shadow state that murders and tortures without scruples. However, the alternative may just prove an even greater enemy. A simple solution is not easy to come by, but for now it remains unclear – is an aerial campaign against ISIS the worst possible option, or the least appalling one?