The Islamic State (nee: ISIS, nee: ISIL) rules by terror. They decapitate, they crucify, they line-up and machine gun, they discipline their subjects with a head-shot – mostly in public, occasionally recorded for release to worldwide media. They have decapitated, ante mortem, two Americans that we know of. They hold a Britain-size swath of northern Syria and northern Iraq – and all of the American-made weapons contained therein. ISIS also overran Tabqa Airbase in northeastern Syria, coming into possession of an unknown number of MiG-21R Fishbed supersonic fighters.
One White House source on background (read: don’t print my name) has pondered the difficulties of getting Syria’s permission to conduct air ops against ISIS. “Permission”?! Are you kidding me?! We tell Assad, “Interfere with our strikes on ISIS-held territory and lose your air force and radar sites. Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.” This should be done in absentia consultation with, let alone partnering with, the Assad government.
Others worry about partnering with Russia and Iran, or at least doing their bidding, in destroying ISIS. On the surface, the destruction of ISIS will benefit Russia (who wants their Mediterranean deep water port at Tartus) and Iran (who wants a Shi’ite puppet in Damascus), but ultimately, it will benefit the Civilized World in saving the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields from falling to a rabid Islamist khalifat. Russia has its port and Iran its puppet as things are – Syria serves as both under Assad – so defeating ISIS won’t change that status quo.
We need to partner with Sunni Arab states – and by partner, I mean have Sunni Arab states supply ground troops for the effort. It’s neighborhood that is most existentially threatened by these fanatics, but on a higher level the only way to diminish ISIS in Arab eyes – in Muslim eyes – is to have Sunni Arabs refute the legitimacy of the Sunni khalifat and materially assist in their removal. It is vital that the president get Sunni Arabs meaningfully into the coalition as that would help neutralize [Shi’ite] Hizbollah, making them choose between helping Sunni ISIS or Sunni coalition forces. Hizbollah is Iran’s proxy, resisting ISIS advancement into Iraq (on which Iran has designs) and Syria (on which Iran has designs). Iran needs both Iraq and Syria to complete the Shi’ite Crescent stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
CIA now tells us that ISIS “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria.” This number includes some 15,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries, of which around 2,000 came from Western nations. According to CIA analysts, it’s not clear if this number is strictly ISIS troops or includes some in the ranks of other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.
What struck me most about President Obama’s speech Wednesday evening was its utter lack of passion. If you want to hear Mr Obama speak with passion, listen to any of his diatribes against Republican-Americans. This was a professor delivering a lecture that bores him. His heart is not in this thing. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Our “broad” coalition consists of eight European nations and Australia (the only among them willing to actually do something) – as opposed to over 25,000 troops from 49 nations following GW Bush into Iraq.
Since British aid worker David Haines was decapitated for the benefit of worldwide media, Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to announce that the RAF will either conduct independent air strikes on ISIS or join the American air campaign – the announcement probably during United Nations General Assembly meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. Alan Henning, another British aid worker is still held by ISIS. This would bring the “broad” coalition to two.
SecState John Kerry closed a trip to the Middle East saying countries “in the region” and “outside the region” are prepared to engage in military assistance against ISIS and “in actual strikes if that is what it requires.” We know of Australia and probably Britain from outside the region, and that Saudi Arabia will probably allow basing of US assets, if that qualifies as “military assistance” from inside the region, but Secretary Kerry mentioned no one by name. In an incredible turn of events, a US official traveling with Kerry told reporters, “There have been offers to CENTCOM from Arab countries willing to take more kinetic actions,” according to a pool report. “Well, we’re not looking to put troops on the ground. There are some (nations) who have offered to do so, but we are not looking for that at this moment anyway,” Kerry said. That’s precisely what we need – Sunni Arabs willing to actually join the fight.
If we are to “roll back” ISIS, to use the president’s own words, that means we need to retake and hold Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, and others. Somebody’s troops will have to do the retaking and holding – neither can be done from the air. The Kurdish Peshmerga don’t have enough troops to carry out house-to-house combat and then hold the cities, and nobody wants to trust the cut-and-run Iraqi army with anything important. Who then is going to “roll back” ISIS? I’m no more reassured nor more informed after listening to President Obama’s Wednesday night speech and the aftermath than I was before he spoke. We still don’t seem to know what we’re doing.
I hope I’m wrong.
 Jim Sciutto and Jamie Crawford [DC], and Chelsea J Carter [Atlanta], ISIS can “muster” between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, CIA says, CNN, September 11 2014, 2116EDT.
 Peter Dominiczak and Christopher Hope, Demands for immediate military action against ISIL as another volunteer is threatened, in The Telegraph [London], September 14 2014, 2200BST.
 Cassie Spodak, Kerry: Countries “in the region” willing to aid strikes against ISIS, CNN, September 14 2014, 1316EDT.