This will be a quick update tonight, with less of the usual analysis, because I just don’t have time.
I have no doubt that ISIS is behind the recent attacks that have been spreading out around the Syria/Iraq theater. Elements of ISIS have claimed responsibility, in one way or another, for all of them, and it is credible that ISIS is behind them (although they are being executed through ISIS affiliates in each local area. The core leadership of ISIS doesn’t have to be involved in planning or managing each attack, and I assume unless it’s proven otherwise that it is not).
But this is not a minor campaign of pinpricks from single-venue terror attacks, randomly distributed here and there. This is a full-blown campaign: a strategy on ISIS’s part.
It is not a defensive strategy to punish the outside coalitions that are now operating in Syria and Iraq: the Russian-Iranian coalition and the Western coalition. I urge you to understand this.
ISIS’s strategy is to enlarge the war. This may seem startlingly aggressive, but it is how ISIS operates. ISIS has only just started mounting major attacks outside the Middle East, but Egypt, Jordan, and Libya would all vouch for the point I have just made. Prior to the ISIS attacks on their strategic rears and centers of gravity, Iraq and Syria experienced the same thing. ISIS creates chaos, over territorial areas, so that it can be exploited on an ever-expanding footprint across the map.
I call it guerrilla blitzkrieg, because ISIS does it through lightning-speed attacks using asymmetric, guerrilla and terrorist methods. But whatever we call it, it’s ISIS’s calling card.
ISIS is sowing chaos and disruption, as far into the enemy’s rear as ISIS can reach. The purpose is not to make us draw back from Syria/Iraq. The purpose is to enlarge the house of war so that it encompasses our territory. ISIS wants to put us in play: knock us off our equilibrium, cause internal dissent and disruption, make life unlivable, sap our will, compromise our sense of organization and perspective, and soften us up for destruction from within.
ISIS sees this as possible because the outside nations – the members of the two coalitions – have been slow to react, and have shown little cohesive will up to now. Although Russia and Iran have shown more than the Western coalition has over the past 90 days, ISIS is still inside their “OODA” loop. At the very least, ISIS perceives itself to be capable of surprising and disrupting the Russia-Iran coalition.
There are a handful of very important strategic developments driving ISIS at this moment. What each of them leads to is the conclusion, from ISIS’s viewpoint, that now is the time to enlarge the war.
1. Russia and Iran have given ISIS more of a challenge in the last month than it faced in the entire previous year – and they are now preparing a major offensive in southern Syria, between Damascus and the Golan Heights. ISIS wants to thwart them and blunt their focus.
This offensive has to do with more than the ownership of Syria; it also has to do with being able to threaten Israel over the next 12 months.
2. Threatening Israel from a privileged tactical position is essential, if Iran wants to be able to install the S-300 systems she expects to receive from Russia in the coming months. Israel has to be kept hunkered down: busy and distracted.
The introduction of game-changing weaponry is the second strategic development, and the delivery of the S-300 – reportedly imminent – is one element of that.
Another element is the reported Russian plan (by some accounts underway already) to deploy the state-of-the-art S-400 system to Syria. While American politicians babble about imposing a no-fly zone on Syria, Russia has the components, easily deployable, that would make that possible.
Russia denies having the system in Syria, and intending to deploy it. But the mere threat of it gives Russia major strategic leverage. With S-400 coverage of Syrian (and probably Iraq) air space – and of the adjacent air space, which potential is inherent in bringing in the system – Russia can exercise a veto over everyone’s air activity. ISIS may be friendless, in terms of potential air support, but no one else can override the Russian veto: not the U.S., not other NATO nations, not Israel.
ISIS doesn’t need to decisively prevent all the intentions of the outside coalitions. The S-400 may ultimately come on in. But ISIS needs to do what it does best: frustrate the enemy’s tactical expectations in Syria/Iraq, and put the enemy’s “safe” strategic rear in play. That’s exactly what ISIS is attempting to do.
3. A third key development has gone all but unnoticed in the West. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s coalition won a seemingly remarkable victory in Turkey’s election this month – remarkable, that is, if you aren’t aware of how freedom of speech and press have been suppressed there, and how likely Turkey is to slip soon into a dangerously uncalibrated one-party autocracy.
Erdogan is showing less and less compunction about clamping down on his critics and political opponents in Turkey. The consequences for Turks will be unpleasant, but for ISIS, the main consideration is that Erdogan is likely to act more unilaterally and aggressively on all fronts, including his policy in Syria and Iraq. That means Turkey won’t maintain the relatively complaisant, low-level profile of the last several years.
We can count on Turkey being more of a power-wielding actor in the days ahead. And Erdogan sees Turkey as being in competition with Russia and Iran for influence over the future of Syria and Iraq.
ISIS sees this, in turn. And we are not in a stable situation at the moment. It is Western self-deception to think things are stable. Westerners who think ISIS has some reason to be afraid of what we might do haven’t been paying attention. What are we going to do about these recent attacks? Decisively attack and destroy ISIS? Really? Who’s going to do that? We have placed limitations on ourselves that prevent us from doing it.
Understand this: ISIS wins by fomenting the chaos it intends to foment. Our incrementalism gives ISIS the space to foment.
This is foreign to our thinking, but it is essential to grasp. We think in terms of settling problems – getting them under control. ISIS doesn’t. ISIS’s vision is precisely about fomenting more problems and enlarging the territorial space of combat and chaos.
Taking advantage of that – in France, in southern Russia, in Afghanistan, in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya and Italy, in the Mediterranean, Spain, and in North America – is what all those ISIS affiliates around the world are for.
But ISIS’s vision is an indefinite one that works to ISIS’s advantage – without promising specific outcomes – by creating the conditions ISIS thrives in, and disrupting the conditions we organized nation-states need to do business.
That’s what ISIS is doing. We may get lucky and see a hiatus after this very large attack in France. Such an attack is a lot to bring off. We don’t know how many cells there might be capable of planning such attacks elsewhere in Europe. (That said, you must not doubt that there are ISIS-affiliated cells with sophisticated capabilities in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark, just for starters.)
It’s going to get worse. They’re coming to America; it’s only a matter of time.
Postscript as this goes to post: on Fox, Megyn Kelly has the conversation turned toward the past, and the argument over what we did in Iraq and how much and whether we remained committed there. This is why ISIS is way inside our OODA loop, able to surprise us and hit us where we aren’t expecting it. It’s because we’re focused, in a lazy, overpoliticized manner, on the past.
The past isn’t going to fix anything for us. We have got to understand the present, and what ISIS’s intentions – and Iran’s, and Russia’s, and those of others – are for the future. We’re over here in America trying to organize our card catalogue of historical reasoning and narratives, arguing over stuff like whose coding scheme will decide where we file things. Even Paris doesn’t appear likely to wake us up.