Secretary of Defense Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis said in an interview on Sunday that US strategy toward ISIL has moved from attrition to annihilation. Since 2014, he said, the United States has been making it difficult for them to stay in one place, disrupting them and chasing them out of their strongholds (through airstrikes). Now, he said, the new strategy is to surround them and kill them all, to prevent the foreign fighters from returning home to foment more terrorism. He also urged a battle of humiliation against them in cyberspace, depriving them of any mantle of legitimacy. He was unapologetic about the recent Pentagon finding that a US air raid set off explosives in a Mosul apartment building, killing over 100 civilians, and seemed to pledge more reckless airstrikes.
ISIL and other radical groups are seeking polarization. Samuel Huntington’s odd screed of the 1990s, “The Clash of Civilizations,” had no truth to it (geopolitics are not made on cultural grounds or the closest US allies would not be Jewish, Wahhabi, and Confucian). The radicals, however, want to engineer such a clash, by hitting soft targets like pop music concerts and getting angry Westerners to mistreat Muslims and drive them into the arms of ISIL. They did the same thing in Iraq, hitting Shiite weddings and then coming back and blowing up the funerals, in hopes of provoking Shiite attacks on Sunni Arabs. They succeeded. Talk, and strategy, like Mattis’s plays into this ploy.
Despite Mattis’s attempt to give the impression that the Pentagon is in charge, the only reason ISIL can be said to be surrounded in Mosul is because the western perimeter of the city is being patrolled by pro-Iranian Shiite militias. This configuration is hardly a US idea, and in any case it is problematic to have Shiite militias bottling up a Sunni Arab population. Likewise, Mattis intends to surround Raqqa in Syria with Kurdish troops, who are seen as alien by the Raqqa population. Surrounding and annihilating are monochromatic words, which ignore the complicated social context in which they are being deployed. It may be that the United States has no choice but to proceed in these ways, but let us not pretend that there will be no downstream complications from them.
The strategy of annihilation is sort of like fighting forest fires with gasoline hoses. In his interview, Mattis showed no interest in how ISIL arose in the first place, or how it attracted or gained the tacit cooperation of several million Syrians and Iraqis. He seems to think that a few slick tweets or videos in cyberspace are the problem. The fact is that all the ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria have siblings and cousins, and simply annihilating them creates a whole slew of new feuds with the United States. Further, the fighters could not have amounted to anything if the citizens of cities such as Falluja and Mosul had felt well-treated by their government and well-represented in the Baghdad parliament. As for eastern Syria, its hardscrabble Sunni Arab farmers have lived under a totalitarian, one-party state for decades, a state oriented to the country’s west and controlled by a Shiite minority. The drought of the last decade killed 70 percent of their livestock and drove tens or hundreds of thousands off their farms.