In a new round of radio ads, Donald Trump lays out his strategy for defeating the Islamic State which has taken responsibility for the Paris attacks that killed 129 people. His solution? “Bomb the hell of ISIS.”
Many Americans seem to agree. A majority want Washington to intensify its assault on the militant group, but not by sending in ground troops. They prefer airstrikes.
Airstrikes carried out by the United States, France and Russia have reportedly killed dozens of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq in past days. While the latter two began their campaigns more recently, the U.S. began its bombing campaign against the group commonly known as ISIS more than a year ago.
But those are so-called precision strikes, not full-on bombardments.
So, why doesn’t the U.S. just carpet bomb ISIS?
The answer is more complex than you might think.
ISIS hides among civilians
The most obvious reason is that a larger-scale bombing campaign risks killing thousands of civilians who live in ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS is an elusive target and while Raqqa is de facto capital of its so-called caliphate, the extremists have other strongholds in and outside Syria including Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — home to about 2.5 million people in northern Iraq.
Civilian casualties could be “astronomically high” if the U.S. simply “bombed [ISIS] to hell,” said Will McCants, head of the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations With the Islamic World. “We would risk committing war crimes as a consequence.”
The U.S. is party to the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war which prohibit the targeting of civilians and more extensive bombings.
ISIS represents an ideology
Killing ISIS fighters turns them into martyrs in the eyes of their brethren. Moreover, knocking out one can prompt many more to pop up in their place, like a game of whack-a-mole.
“Targeting an ideology is complex, and the answer cannot be bounded by a conventional military response,” Michael Kay, a British foreign affairs reporter, argued.
Bombing Syrian targets helps Assad
Bombing in Syria could help Assad, a brutal dictator responsible for the death of at least 200,000 of his own people.
By bombing ISIS, it takes the focus off the Syrian leader, who has killed thousands more people — with rockets and barrel bombs — than ISIS ever has.
Already, with Russia entering the war in Syria, ISIS has now created a de facto coalition that includes Russia, the U.S. and France — which before were at odds with each other over Syria — and taken the focus off of removing Assad from office.
Destruction of key cities
Moreover, a full-on bombing campaign could make major cities in Iraq and Syria unlivable for the civilian population, further destabilizing the situation on the ground.
In addition to Raqqa and Mosul, ISIS is present in the city of Palmyra, and it has closed in on the city of Aleppo.
So how do you destroy ISIS?
The current U.S. strategy is part military, part political, part humanitarian. It involves utilizing allies in the region, such as Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as the Syrian opposition, fighting ISIS on the ground, like it did last week in Sinjar, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters pushed ISIS out of the city.
Another part involves limited airstrikes and military advisors — but no ground troops or combat missions.
Analysts say there is yet another way to stop ISIS, and without bullet and bombs: by disrupting their financing.
Through kidnappings and ransoms, illicit oil trade and plundering Iraqi banks, the group makes millions of dollars.
ISIS, said David Cohen, a senior Treasury official, last year, has “revenue streams (that) are, to be sure, diverse and deep,” making it “probably the best-funded terrorist organization we have confronted.”
McCants, for one, believes that the U.S. doesn’t need to widen the bombing campaign since its coalition’s strategy is already working. He cites the fact that ISIS’ territory has shrunk by 25% since summer after shrinking nearly 10% in the first six months of this year.
At the same time, thousands of ISIS targets have been destroyed in the operation, known as Inherent Resolve, according to U.S. Central Command statistics.
US-led 65 nation counter-ISIL coalition has reduced ISIL territory by 25% liberated cities such as Tikrit Sinjar pic.twitter.com/j2omezTcre
— Will Stevens (@WBStevens) November 18, 2015
Another sign that the strategy is working is actually the recent attacks.
“States like ISIS use terror attacks when they feel their regime is threatened. It’s a sign of weakness,” he said. “They change their strategy in order to punish their enemies for punishing them.”
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