As President Obama’s international coalition worked alongside Kurdish militiamen in a last ditch attempt to hold off the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), airstrikes thundered around the ethnically Kurdish city of Kobani this past week. With Kurdish PKK forces unable to reach the city, located along the Syrian-Turkish border, the hundreds of civilians remaining are severely outgunned. Many in the international community fear an imminent slaughter.
The airstrikes are part of a larger campaign that has included hundreds of US airstrikes throughout ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria since mid-September, when President Obama announced his plan to systematically “degrade and destroy” ISIS. Yet the success of these airstrikes is dubious. Many of the bombing runs have only succeeded in driving out the jihadi fighters from their most recent gains—such as control over oil fields and dams in Iraq— and have categorically failed to rout the Islamic State from its strongholds in cities scattered across northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The lack of reliable partners on the ground in Syria compounds the current ineffectiveness of the airstrikes and left many observers wondering how Obama’s coalition can reliably follow through on its promise to shatter the Islamic State. If Mr. Obama truly believed that the destruction of ISIS is of the utmost importance for the United States, he would take decisive steps to increase military power on the ground and implement more targeted sanctions to limit the terrorist organization’s financial resources.
Militarily, the most widely debated option is the expansion of the current mission to include a ground invasion by Western powers, including American troops. Although the US State Department is quick to note that the president’s plan specifically precludes ‘boots on the ground,’ comments from senior military officials indicate that some within the Pentagon wish to see a deployment.
Such a deployment is not as far-fetched as one might think. The Pentagon has already announced the presence of US military advisers operating in Iraq to train and assist Kurdish and Iraqi troops. Strategist James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a retired US Navy admiral, floated the idea of deploying ten thousand Western troops to Iraq, where they would provide training and a quick response capability to address specific threats posed by ISIS. Despite the strong public backlash against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, comments from both sides of the aisle in Congress indicate that there may be wider support for such a response—a response which would involve fewer troops than the 192,000 deployed to Iraq. As House Speaker John Boehner adamantly stated, “Somebody’s boots have to be there.”
Until the fundamental thinking within the administration changes regarding ‘boots on the ground,’ Obama’s coalition needs a more immediate and more viable response to the deteriorating situation on the ground. Obama's advisers increasingly favor convincing Turkey to deploy troops to Syria, in order to stabilize what is going on on the ground. Turkish personnel could provide superior raw intelligence and more specific targeting information to Western powers carrying out airstrikes—ultimately making them deadlier for enemy combatants and safer for civilians. While unable to secure Turkish ground forces, General John Allen, President Obama’s special envoy to Syria, took a step in the right direction by negotiating access to Turkish air bases for US and coalition fighter jets after talks in Ankara last weekend. Access to these strategic locations will minimize the distance to bombing targets and allow US jets to remain in the air longer and conduct more strikes each day.
Turkish ground forces provide one other great advantage: their ability to fill the vacuum created by ISIS where airstrikes are successful, saving the coalition from needing to cooperate with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish Parliament voted last Thursday (October 2) to authorize military action, leaving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan open to participate in Obama’s coalition however he sees fit. Based on President Erdogan’s recent speech at the UN General Assembly, it is likely his participation would take the shape of a militarily-ensured buffer zone in northern Syria. In talks with the US, President Erdogan insisted that any Turkish troop deployment is contingent on US support for securing a buffer zone, but the costs and complexities of helping to build a buffer zone make the Pentagon hesitant to promise anything at the moment. The Turks claim that the sanctuary would help Turkey house the 1.5 million—primarily Kurdish—refugees that have fled to Turkey since the start of the conflict in Syria. However, this solution is not perfect either: Turkish leaders have so far expressed little willingness to risk their troops in a fight for ISIS strongholds such as Raqqa or Mosul.
Furthermore, Turkish inaction in Kobani has left a rift between the Turkish government and the Kurdish population, with scores killed in protests last weekend. The deepening crisis in Kobani has also led the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who are heroes in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan due to their defense of Kurdish towns and evacuation of thousands of Yazidi from Mount Sinjar during the ISIS offensive this summer, to pull out of historic peace talks with the Turkish government that began in 2012. In return, the Turkish government bombed PKK camps in the southeast of the country throughout the week. This provocation by Turkey while the US conducted airstrikes less than 100 miles away that implicitly supported PKK affiliates in Syria, makes a multilateral deal between the US, Turkey, and Kurdish rebel groups operating in Syria even more difficult to obtain.
However, President Obama and his allies are missing the simplest way to crack down on the caliphate: the non-military path of leading to a steady increase in economic sanctions against ISIS members, those trading with ISIS, and those donating to ISIS. At the height of its rampage through Iraq this summer, ISIS held more than $2 billion in cash on hand, stealing $430 million worth of gold bullion from Mosul’s central bank in a single day. Its deep pockets make ISIS one of the richest terrorist groups in history. While the UN Security Council has since issued sanctions against many of the group’s most public figures, the organization continues to rake in anywhere between one and four million dollars each day from donations, the smuggling of antiquities, and illicit oil sales.
The organization’s control over Syrian and Iraqi oil fields allows it to profit from the illicit oil trade across the border in southern Turkey, where oil prices are high—over $7.50 a gallon. This makes cheap, stolen oil a prized commodity. Although there are indications that Turkey has clamped down on the illicit oil market, ISIS continues to benefit from the illicit oil trade. If Turkey provided more resources towards preventing the flow of oil, they could seriously hurt the group’s day-to-day bottom line. In addition, ISIS levies a twenty percent tax on the sale of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine artifacts taken from archaeological dig sites inside the caliphate, making the sale of antiquities incredibly profitable for the terrorist group. Research has revealed that many of the artifacts are entering known trafficking rings that distribute them to buyers across the globe; cracking down on these smuggling rings could help limit the group’s disposable income. Finally, personal donations from wealthy Muslims across the Arab world are directly financing ISIS’ arms and ammunition. Much of this money comes from individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, all of which are member states of Obama’s coalition. If these countries are truly committed to stopping the Islamic State, they need to start from within, cracking down on those who provide ISIS with its bread and butter. While the amount of money that ISIS gathers daily may seem small compared to the gains of its rampage this summer, ISIS is still a heavy spender, given that it must provide a living wage, weapons, ammunition, and transportation to each of its thirty thousand fighters.
Obama has stated that sanctions alone cannot quash ISIS, and starving them of funds while implementing a more aggressive military strategy may present the most feasible way to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. If President Obama does not immediately take decisive steps, other cities around the region will face the same fate as Kobani. Unless the US implements a more forceful military strategy that involves someone’s “boots on the ground”, and presses its allies in the region to do their part in combating ISIS, the hope of defeating the Islamic State may be only a pipe dream filled with empty rhetoric from Washington.
The image featured in this article depicts a joint US–Iraqi training exercise near Ramadi in November 2009. The Islamic State of Iraq had declared the city to be its capital. U.S. Army and Iraqi army soldiers board a Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter during a static loading exercise being conducted to prepare for upcoming missions on Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2009. The U.S. Soldiers are assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel St.