Down The Rabbit Hole

Photo: Reuters

The Syrian conflict continues. More than 200,000 people have been killed and approximately 11 million people displaced in one of the the worst refugee crises since the Second World War. Pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have been caught up in a veritable maelstrom of outrage, pointing fingers at almost everyone—from the West and Obama, to the Gulf States and Eastern Europe.

Lately, reports on the EU's refugee influx have largely overshadowed news about the current political situation on the ground in Syria, where the issue of ISIS remains.

The battle against this group has reached a stalemate. The airstrikes which were supposed to crush the ISIS have been largely ineffective, incredibly expensive, and have only demonstrated that the organization is more resilient than previously thought. New estimates have suggested that the battle against ISIS could take as long as ten years—which means that thousands more will die, and hundreds of thousands more will be displaced.

Clearly something needs to be done, but what?

Certain right-wing talking heads have proposed what they view as an obvious solution: put American boots on the ground. They argue that a relatively small, elite American outfit would be able to turn the tide against ISIS, and suggest that special forces units, forward observers, or "limited" detachments of a few thousand troops be deployed in the Levant.

It is almost impossible to overstate how incredibly misguided this idea is.

Dropping covert-ops units into Syria is a big deal—even for the U.S., which organizes about 6000 airstrikes per month in Syria and has already eliminated approximately 15,000 militants. The Obama administration has maintained a strict "no boots on the ground" stance for a reason. Breaking this policy would constitute a serious, and unnecessary escalation of the conflict.

Stepping over this line would divide ISIS's enemies, making the desperately needed political reconciliation between rebel and government forces far less likely.

The chaotic geopolitical situation would only get worse. Iran would likely be hostile to increased American involvement, while Putin would see it as another opportunity to discredit the West in the eyes of the international community. Both would intensify—rather than withdraw—their support for Bashar al-Assad.

Even more importantly, however, deploying American troops in Iraq or Syria would play into ISIS's apocalyptic narrative of resistance.

According to ISIS lore, the armies of Islam and the Christian West will fight a great battle on the plains outside the Syrian town of Dabiq, triggering a countdown to the apocalypse and the eventual rebirth of global Islamist civilization.

This myth is a key aspect of the broader strategy behind ISIS's intentionally provocative execution videos, sophisticated social media tactics, and support for lone-wolf attacks on foreign soil. All are part of an effort to goad the U.S. into action.

Similar reasoning underpinned al-Qaeda's September 11th attacks, where the aim was to bait the United States into an ill-conceived war and slowly bleed it dry.

The American leadership must be wary of not falling into the same trap.

Even the smallest U.S. force can have a profoundly negative impact on the conflict. Just imagine for a second what would happen when the first American soldier is captured and gruesomely executed for the world to see—not just in terms of being a massive propaganda victory for ISIS, but also in terms of the outrage and inevitable warmongering that would arise back on the home front.

To tackle ISIS, one must understand that this anti-Western narrative is the root of their appeal. Without a clear-cut enemy their message loses meaning. As soon as American soldiers are seen on the battlefield, the notion "that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims" will be confirmed.

The current stalemate, while frustrating, is still a step in the right direction. ISIS is no longer freely marauding, conquering broad swaths of territory, or looting and pillaging as they wish. Recent reports state an increase in desertions, and that the group may be in trouble financially.

The West must not be discouraged by the lack of progress in Syria and lash out. Putting American troops on the ground there—in any sort of role—would be a hasty, and potentially fatal error.

Robert Gorwa

Robert is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He was recently an International Relations student at the University of British Columbia, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Envoy.

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