WASHINGTON — The Paris terrorist attacks seem likely to compel President Barack Obama to consider military escalation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But that probably will not mean dramatic moves like launching a U.S. or international ground offensive or accelerating aerial bombing in hopes of eliminating the global threat of violent extremism.
“You aren’t going to bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age,” Anthony Cordesman, a longtime Middle East analyst, said Saturday.
Cordesman and other American defense analysts said Obama may deepen U.S. involvement incrementally by, for example, embedding U.S. military advisers closer to the front lines of battle with Iraqi forces and with anti-IS fighters in Syria. But that and similar moves to intensify U.S. support for local forces is unlikely to produce quick results.
As Cordesman sees it, years of tragic terrorist attacks like Paris are almost inevitable, and there are no near-term solutions.
Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor of international affairs, said the Paris attack may create a political imperative to do more militarily against IS, but he thinks it would be a mistake to launch a U.S. ground war.
“To defeat ISIL decisively would require hundreds of thousands of Western ground troops, but nobody thinks the ISIL threat warrants that scale of commitment, and in fact it doesn’t,” Biddle said.
At the core of the U.S. strategy in Iraq is a belief that unless local forces are empowered to retake and secure their own territory, any military gains the U.S. could make by leading the charge would be short-lived. In Syria, Obama had been unwilling to get more involved in a civil war, although he recently agreed to send a few dozen special operations forces.
One new wrinkle since Friday’s attacks in Paris is the prospect of France asking its NATO allies to come to its aid, invoking the 28 members’ treaty obligation to consider an armed attack on one member as an attack against them all. That has happened only once in NATO’s 66-year history: in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks against the U.S.
James Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral who served as NATO’s top commander in Europe from 2009 to 2013, said NATO should play a military role now.
“NATO’s actions need to be deliberate, meaningful and at a significant scale,” Stavridis said by email, adding that consultations among the allies should begin shortly.
Stavridis, who is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said NATO special forces could be called on in Iraq and Syria as aircraft spotters and as trainers of anti-IS fighters. They also could gather intelligence and conduct raids, he said. The alliance should welcome nonmember participants, including Russia, he said.
“Soft power and playing the long game matter in the Middle East, but there is a time for the ruthless application of hard power,” Stavridis said. “This is that time, and NATO should respond militarily against the Islamic State with vigor.
Obama began U.S. bombing in Iraq and Syria, along with the deployment of military advisers to Iraq, more than a year ago. And although thousands of IS fighters have been killed, the U.S.-led coalition campaign has had only limited successes.
Overall the extremists remain in control of about a third of Iraq and Syria. IS continues to impose its unforgiving brand of radical Islam and carrying out atrocities against minority groups, including sexual enslavement of women.
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the Obama administration almost certainly will consider new ways to accelerate its military campaign.
Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Obama might opt for at least two changes in Iraq that he has resisted thus far: embedding U.S. military advisers in Iraqi army units closer to the front lines, and deploying forward air controllers on the battlefield to improve the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes.
He saw little chance, however, of the U.S. undertaking a ground invasion of Syria.
“I wouldn’t put that in the realistic category,” he said.
Biddle, the George Washington University professor, said he expects a limited escalation from the U.S. and its allies, but he sees no options that would make a decisive military difference.
“Elected officials feel obligated to do something when bad news emerges from ISIL,” he said. “So they escalate a bit. Because the escalation falls far short of what’s needed to defeat ISIL, the escalation doesn’t solve the problem, and so there’s more bad news of some kind a few months later and the cycle repeats. This could go on a long time. My guess is that the Paris attacks will also follow this pattern.”