Since mid-September, a military alliance has been battling against the jihadi Islamic State group. The civilian population — in particular, religious minorities that Islamists “drive out and annihilate”* — is supposed to be protected. That’s how President Obama explained it to the U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S. and some European and Arab allies are attacking Islamic State group positions in Iraq and Syria primarily with airstrikes. Germany and other countries are sending weapons and munitions to the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq and Iraqi government troops for the ground war against the Islamic State group. Among them are types of weapons with which the recipients must first be trained for weeks or months — and which the Islamic State group militants already have at their disposal. The U.S. ultimately wants to train 15,000 local fighters in Saudi Arabia and Jordan for the ground war against the Islamic State group by 2017.
For the time being, the engagement with the Islamic State group is the last chapter in the war on terror that the U.S. declared after Sept. 11, 2001. Under the leadership of the United States, almost all the other 192 U.N. countries have in some way taken part in this campaign against the Islamists. Up till now, the site of this war has been in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Mali. The terrorists are primarily attacked from the air: with bombs, rockets, drones and cruise missiles. Afghanistan and Mali are exceptions: In these countries there were ground offensives of Western troops. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other leading figures of the terror network were killed by special U.S. or Israeli teams.
The balance of the 13-year war is sobering: Measured by the declared goal of ending the threat of terrorism, this war not only failed but instead has proven to be counterproductive.
To be sure, thousands of actual or suspected terrorists have been killed since September 2001. But in addition, many thousands of verifiably innocent civilians [have been killed]. This has created new hate, and along with it, a potential readiness for violence and terror. At least 10 potential successors for every terrorist killed — actual or alleged — have arisen. So there is no reason to assume that a war against the Islamic State group waged primarily from the air would prove militarily only to be a success.
A Compartmentalized Civil War
Even in classic international wars of the past century, military victories were almost never won by attacks from the air alone. Especially not, as in the example of World War II, when both sides have air forces at their disposal with comparable capabilities. The victory of the vastly superior NATO air forces in the purely air-centered war against Serbia-Montenegro in 1999 is one of the very few exceptions.
In so-called asymmetrical wars, there is no exception at all. After the attack on Afghanistan at the end of 1979, the Soviet Union did not succeed in bringing the country under control in eight years, despite heavy air superiority and the stationing of over 100,000 soldiers.
Additional problems arise in the present air war against the Islamic State group militants. A compartmentalized civil war is taking place in Syria — primarily within cities — with a variety of players and often hardly comprehensible fronts. The risk of hitting civilians or opponents of Assad whom the West is actually supporting in an air strike is high. Even the most modern, purportedly precise guided weapons and munitions cannot protect against this.
In the second Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. misled the world’s public for two months with the fairy tale of the “surgical precision” of their highly sophisticated cruise missiles that allegedly only hit predetermined military targets. Half a year after the end of the war, it came out that the accuracy of the fire of U.S. weapons stood at a mere 19 percent. In fact, numerous civilian targets were destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed or injured.
The same is valid for the NATO air war against Serbia-Montenegro in 1999 and also for the air war that the U.S., France and Great Britain waged against the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
Ground Troops Are Necessary
To avoid such collateral damages and effectively protect the population of Syria and Iraq, ground troops mandated by the U.N. Security Council would be necessary. The mandate would have to be unequivocally limited to the following: The soldiers would have to create a land corridor through which the endangered people could safely flee from the Islamic State group and the means to provide resources for the suffering population. Cities and regions that Islamic State group militants want to attack and conquer would have to be protected. Lastly, the Islamic State group would need to be driven back from regions that it controls.
Any course of action by U.N. troops against the Assad regime or the support of fighters for the opposition, however, would have to be barred. With such a mandate, U.N. troops would not encounter resistance from the regime, but instead be tacitly tolerated — like the U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State group militants in Syria already are.
The credibility of such a mandate for all parties in the conflict would be considerably increased if soldiers from all five veto-holding powers of the Security Council — the U.S., Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — were to take part in the creation of the U.N. forces. Only in this way would a chance exist of defeating the Islamic State group militants, which U.S. intelligence estimates number over 30,000.
Yet even if this were to succeed, the problem of terrorism would still be far from solved. Because as long as millions of young men continue to grow up without any positive perspective on life in the arc of crisis between Morocco and Pakistan, in Chechnya and other regions of the Caucasus, as well as — increasingly — in European nations, any one of them can become an easy victim for Islamic seducers. And they form an almost inexhaustible up-and-coming reservoir of potential new terrorists.
How, and with what political, economic and social measures can this up-and-coming reservoir be dried up? That is the decisive question. Whoever finds the answer to this will be able to permanently overcome Islamic-justified terrorism.
*Editor’s note: the original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.