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Ritter writes: "The key to victory over the Islamic State is to be able to get at what is, figuratively and literally, inside the building."

ISIS fighters drive around Mosul in vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces. (photo: Reuters)
ISIS fighters drive around Mosul in vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces. (photo: Reuters)

Why the Current Approach Against ISIS Will Fail

By Scott Ritter, Reader Supported News

03 October 14


ome 23 years ago, I went to sleep fearing the rumor of war, and awoke to find war had broken out. In the hours between dusk and dawn on January 16-17, 1991, the United States, at the head of a mighty international coalition, sent waves of cruise missiles and aircraft into Saddam Hussein's Iraq in an effort to compel his withdrawal from Kuwait. These attacks had been planned for months, highly choreographed ballets which saw resource "A" applied against target "B," to achieve outcome "C."

The aerial assault went off like clockwork, and the initial reports spoke of tremendous success. The reality is that they were, by and large, ineffective. The F-117 stealth fighters and Navy and Air Force cruise missiles that led the attack either missed their targets, failed to drop their bombs, or ended up destroying buildings that had long ago been emptied of anything of value. "Strike Package A," the vaunted counter-SCUD aerial assault into western Iraq, missed all of its fixed targets, and failed to destroy or interdict a single mobile target. This was a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout the 48-day aerial campaign.

I was in General Schwartzkopf's underground command post in Riyadh on the morning of January 17, part of a battle damage assessment team trying to piece together a snapshot of our military accomplishments that had transpired overnight. Later, as a UN weapons inspector inside Iraq, I was able to speak to the men in charge of the buildings and facilities we were trying to destroy that night. "You Americans are very good at blowing up concrete," General Amer Rashid, the Deputy Director of the Military Industrial Commission, told me. "And we are very good at pouring concrete. But if you give us enough forewarning, there won't be anything but concrete in the places you bomb."

This was indeed the case. On the morning of January 17, 1991, I spent hours scanning images of dozens of buildings and structures, looking for the tell-tale signs of a bomb hit that would signal "objective achieved," with no regard whatsoever for what was actually inside the structure. As a UN weapons inspector, I spent days cataloguing the sophisticated machinery that had been evacuated from these very buildings to remote sheds and warehouses days and weeks before the bombs fell. For all the planning and preparation that went into the opening attacks of the Gulf War, in the end they accomplished but very little.

I went to sleep fearing the rumor of war. The unrest in Syria and Iraq, brought on by the actions of the Islamic state (formerly known as the Islamic State in Syria, or ISIS), was threatening to spill over into the region at large. I awoke to find that the United States had, in concert with five other Arab countries, launched a concerted strike against the Islamic State inside Syria, expanding an air campaign that had up until then been limited to targets in Iraq. War was, once again, thrust upon us.

This attack had been weeks in the planning, with high profile hearings and consultations taking place in Washington, DC and in the capitals of Europe and the Middle East. The Islamic State, having demonstrated its media savvy with slick Internet videos depicting its various heinous acts, would have obviously known such an attack was coming. Given that its ranks are filled with veterans of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003-2011 American invasion and occupation of Iraq, it can be assumed that the Islamic State is well-versed in the effects of various American air-delivered munitions and their method of delivery. Having tracked American drones and reconnaissance aircraft overflights of Syria in the past weeks, the potential areas of interest were likewise well known to the Islamic State. As was the case in the Gulf War, I am certain the United States and its Arab allies succeeded at blowing up concrete. I am equally as certain that anything of value that might have been housed in such structures, whether human or machine, had long ago departed.

Despite the pounding Iraq took over the course of 43 days of concentrated aerial bombardment in 1991, after the war ended it retained significant strategic capability, either intact or able to be reconstituted in a short period of time. Air power alone did not then, and cannot today, solve a problem as complex as the one confronting the world vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein's Iraq (in 1991, and again in 2003) and the Islamic State's so-called "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq today. Nor are "boots on the ground" an adequate solution, even in conjunction with overwhelming air support. While the coalition assembled during the Gulf War proved adept at closing with and destroying the dug-in Iraqi Army, the elite Republican Guard divisions that represented the focus of the coalition air and ground forces emerged from that conflict intact and fully capable of continued combat operations. Likewise, the armed forces of Iraq were never fully defeated in 2003, nor did they ever surrender. Instead, they melted away overnight, part of a larger long-term strategy of resistance to American occupation initiated by the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, and sustained over the years by that organization and a myriad of other resistance groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to the Islamic State). Once ensconced among a sympathetic and supportive population, these surviving forces provided the kernel of resistance that was never defeated, and which serves as an important element of the combat power of the Islamic State today.

The Obama administration has yet to articulate a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State that goes beyond the notion of simply "defeating" them. If history is a judge, it is hard to comprehend how the air strikes that just transpired over Syria -- or any combination of airstrikes, over any length of time -- will, in and of themselves, solve the problems manifested by the existence of the Islamic State. Killing men who willingly seek martyrdom is like blowing up concrete -- there will always be more who are willing to die, just as there will always be someone willing to pour more concrete for us to blow up.

The key to victory over the Islamic State is to be able to get at what is, figuratively and literally, inside the building. In the case of the Islamic State, this means coming to grips with the reality that the "caliphate" is more than an artificial construct of so-called "terrorists." The notion of a "caliphate" has been a vibrant part of the Sunni Arab world since the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire, and the caliphate it sustained and supported, was far more than the Turkish entity portrayed by the west. It was a force of Islam, one that found adherents throughout the Muslim world, including the Arabs. The end of the Ottoman Empire did not bring with it the end of the romance of the caliphate among Sunni Arabs, and the promise it held of a greater Islamic state ruled by Shari'a law. Indeed, many Arab nationalists who fought on the side of the west against the Turks hoped for the creation of a greater Arab state centered on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina which would replicate the form and function of the Ottoman Caliphate.

This was not to be, and the artificial nation states created by the British and French from the Arab lands of the former Ottoman Empire -- Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon -- only exacerbated the frustration of a people -- Sunni Arabs -- who have been collectively disenfranchised as a result. One of the unintended consequences of America's nearly quarter of a century conflict with Iraq is the extent to which the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent effort to isolate and eliminate Syria's Bashar al-Assad has detrimentally impacted the psyche of the Sunni Arab populations of both nations. Thanks to two-plus decades of disruptive American policy toward Iraq and Syria, a population of more than 20 million people no longer identify with the ruling governments in place in either Baghdad or Damascus. This not only hamstrings any policy built around engendering stability through inclusive governance in either capital, but it also ensures that any such policy will only highlight the extent to which America and its proxies are disassociated when it comes to defining and pursuing any viable center of gravity among the Sunni Arab populations of Iraq and Syria today.

The notion of an Arab "caliphate" is not a new phenomenon fabricated from thin air by the radical jihadists of the Islamic State. Rather, it has existed in the psyche of the Sunni Arabs of Mesopotamia and the Levant for more than a century. The essence of the successes enjoyed by the Islamic State to date centers not on any wide-spread embrace of their radical vision, but rather the fact that their movement gives voice to a dream that has long been dampened by the forces of the west and their autocratic regional allies. The Obama administration has stated that the recent strikes against Syria are but the beginning of a more comprehensive campaign to defeat the Islamic State. But bombs and missiles, while adept at blowing up concrete and creating martyrs, have never been successful when it comes to eradicating ideas.

Void of any competing ideology, it is hard to see how this new war on the Islamic State will ever succeed in supplanting the visionary dream of a Sunni Arab Caliphate that resides in the hearts and minds of so many Sunni Arabs living in Syria and Iraq today. On the contrary, it is likely that this campaign will succeed only in fanning the flames of the radical Sunni fringe, empowering them in a way nothing else could. America's allies in this effort -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- are a living manifestation of the kind of autocratic rulers who have earned the contempt of many of the disenfranchised Sunni Arabs who currently flock to the Islamic State. These autocrats, more than anyone, understand the dangers posed by the concept -- and reality -- of a Sunni Caliphate, since it is their very survival that is at stake.

This is one fight the United States, having committed itself to, cannot simply walk away from. The ramifications of retreat would be dire and virtually uncontainable. It is also a fight the United States is poorly equipped to deal with successfully. Bombing cannot, and will not, deliver success. Nor will boots on the ground, even if America was disposed to do so. What is needed is a competing ideology that resonates not with America's erstwhile Arab allies, but rather the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration has yet to articulate anything that remotely competes with the vision of a Sunni Caliphate. Unless the policy makers who authorized the use of military force against Syria are able to do so, and soon, America's new Syrian adventure may very well prove to be the death knell for a Middle East whose basic construct was engendered by European Empire, and sustained by American Imperialism, for the past century.

The United States spent a quarter century bombing, invading and occupying Iraq to rid itself of Saddam Hussein, and now we can only dream of having such a strong, inclusive secular leader. In bombing Syria, the United States seems to have embarked on a similarly open-ended campaign to eliminate the Islamic State, and the vision of a caliphate it embraces. Who knows what will exist in its place in five, ten or even twenty five years. The American public should be rightfully fearful of any policy maker who claims the gift of prophesy, for in the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, today we may speak as children, but soon we must put away our childish things, and view the past through a glass, darkly. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # RMDC 2014-10-03 18:29
Thanks, Scott. I think you are right and history shows this. Air power is never very successful against military targets. Militaries are mobile and can get out of the way. It takes hours for a cruise missile to fly from the Persian Gulf to a target in Syria. By then the militants are long gone.

But air war is devastating against civilian targets. Bombs can take out the infrastructure needed to support life -- electricity, water, sewer, food supplies, hospitals, and so on. In Iraq, the US was very successful in bombing the entire civilian infrastructure. This is commonly called bombing a people back into the stone age or at other times back to a pre-industrial life style.

Of course, destroying the civilian infrastructure is a war crime and makes the US a worse violater of international law than ISIS because the scale of US bombing is so much greater.

But Obama and Pentagon killers don't give a shit. The real intention of their war is to destroy the conditions of life in Syria so that Assad falls. This is not a war against ISIS. That pseudo-goal will fail exactly as Scott says. But the war against Syrian civilians will be successful. After a year of Obama's bombing, a million Syrians will be dead and most Syrian cities will be rubble.
+4 # geraldom 2014-10-04 19:33
RMDC, you mentioned civilian targets, the murder of innocent people, men, women, and children, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and sometimes whole families as happened in the recent war on Gaza by Israel.

The following article came out today on Yahoo news:

Peter Kassig's parents are pleading for mercy from IS to spare their son, not to kill him. I believe there was a plea from his wife a few days ago. There’ve also been pleas from the other families of IS victims for mercy as well.

If I am correct, James Foley’s family were ready to pay a ransom to have their son released, but the U.S. govt under Obama threatened to imprison them if they paid that ransom.

I truly feel for these families, and I wish that IS would stop these killings, but, and I use this “but” not to justify the murder of Mr. Foley and others and what could happen to Peter Kassig, but I would like to find out from the families who lost their children and/or their husbands as a result of IS what they feel about the parents who were murdered (and who continue to be murdered) by the indiscriminate bombings and the continued illegal wars of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and now Syria (and where does this all stop) by the U.S. govt and its puppet allies in Europe and in other parts of the world?

+4 # geraldom 2014-10-04 19:34

Have they seen the pictures of the dead children and babies laid side-by-side next to each other in these horrific wars for U.S. world domination. Do they know that over a ½ million Iraqi children under the age of 5-years had died as a result of the heinous sanctions pressed against Iraq by the U.S. and its puppet allies in Europe who followed their marching orders by the U.S. between 1991 and 2003. Can they picture the families of these ½ million children as they watched them die? I watched a documentary entitled “Iraq’s Missing Billions,” and saw two immature Iraqi babies die unnecessarily in incubators in front of the father in an Iraqi hospital during the U.S. occupation of Iraq because the U.S. govt never gave Iraqi hospitals the money it promised to improve the facilities.

I can go on and on and on, RMDC. The history of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the U.S. govt in the name of world domination goes way back, decades, at the least back to the overthrow of the democratically- elected PM of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. I don’t want to even think about how many indigenous people have died, parents and children, at the hands of the U.S. govt in the 60 years that have passed and the fact that no one has ever been held accountable for the destruction and the death that has occurred, and the arrogance of U.S. leaders whenever they respond to events like these in U.S. history.

+3 # geraldom 2014-10-04 19:36

Even though it could be said that WWII was a legal and valid war, the dropping of the two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians instantly and the continued horrific deaths that have continued on over the years due to the effects of radiation poisoning were totally unnecessary, so I have to include the suffering and the deaths of those Japanese as war crimes and crimes against humanity as well

Why is it that I feel that Americans, British, French and Germans among others, somehow have this feeling of exceptionalism over that of the lesser countries in the world, especially those people who live in Moslem nations. Obama has just opened up the spigot a few days ago to allow the unlimited killing (murder) of innocent civilians in the indiscriminate bombing attacks in Iraq and Syria. Moslems have very little value as human beings as far as Obama is concerned.

I do apologize for the length of this post, but I didn’t know how I could shorten it.
+13 # CarolynScarr 2014-10-04 01:06
What has been left out of Scott's discussion is the significant number of people in Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region who support a secular nationalist movement. This movement is even more threatening to Western "interests" that the sectarian movements, which have often been supported by the U.S. They still are. There are no "moderate" rebels in Syria.
+1 # Granny Weatherwax 2014-10-04 10:44
Quoting CarolynScarr:
[...]the significant number of people in Syria, Iraq [...] who support a secular nationalist movement.

Quoting CarolynScarr:
There are no "moderate" rebels in Syria.

I fail to see how you don't contradict yourself, yet you might be up to something - could you please clarify?
+21 # Art 47 2014-10-04 05:40
I strongly disagree that the United States cannot walk away from this fight. We can and should walk away from any dumb war. The dominos did not fall when we finally ended our war in Vietnam.

Also, our wars since 2001 have left each area less stable than they were before our military interventions. The first rule should be to cause no (more) harm.

There is not good reason we should continue to fight endless, unjust, unnecessary, and fiscally-irresp onsible wars.
+14 # riverhouse 2014-10-04 07:09
We are warmongers, always on the prowl for a reason to go to war and expend our tax dollars on bombs to reign terror on a population and create more terrorists for us to go to war again and on and on into eternity. We have no interest in peace. We create opportunities for war. We seek our any small excuse for war. It is a self perpetuating cycle of destruction which in the end will also destroy us.
+12 # Citizen Mike 2014-10-04 08:00
This is not about winning anything. It is about creating a permanent war as a profit center for defense industries to feed our predatory economy. In this goal it will succeed because it provokes enemies who have a culture of endless vendetta.
+7 # reiverpacific 2014-10-04 10:02
I don't claim any deep or insightful knowledge of this hornet's-nest-l ike part of the world that we keep shoving our clumsy sticks into but have read deeply historically and socially including the History of Islam but Scott Ritter -the leading WMD inspector pre-"Shock and awe" and it's ignoramus perpe-traitors, knows it as well as anyone in the US military or CIA, who are US-centric and blinkered in purpose as are their Corporate partners.
So why the fuck does the Corpo-Military- Congressional-S enate power-complex keep requisitioning and building expensive, taxpayer-funded boondoggles like the provenly failed F-35 fighter-bomber at the expense of taking care of the needs of it's own people, education, healthcare and infrastructure in the "Homeland"?
I guess "Citizen Mike" has answered this in part but it's never as simple as it seems.
But our alleged leaders' and their patsy-pundits' wantonly ignoring history and blundering incompetence in even trying to understand the long-simmering complexities of an ancient, interconnected web of cultures is inexcusable, given the recent colonial and post-colonial interference, conquests and carving-up of that which they refuse to understand (Lawrence of Arabia notwithstanding).
I have no solution but then I'm not an "Expert" nor a rabid, plunder-happy, chickenhawk neocon warmonger.
-8 # handskhan 2014-10-05 13:48
I am normally against US fighting other countries wars. The wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya were unnecessary for both these countries and the US. What was needed was the elimination of three people - Osama, Saddam, and Gaddafi which could have been done without indulging in full fledged wars.
What we have with IS is the real danger to the whole of Middle East and to the whole wide world. This is a war that must be fought jointly and with boots on the ground as this menace cannot be eradicated by air power alone. The enemy is very clever and has areas to hide and cause more civilian deaths.
This should be done sooner than later and Turkey should be an integral part of this war.
Simultaneously, Asad should be persuaded to leave or else...... as he is part of the problem.
+3 # dandevries 2014-10-05 20:09
"Thanks to two-plus decades of disruptive American policy toward Iraq and Syria, a population of more than 20 million people no longer identify with the ruling governments in place in either Baghdad or Damascus. "

Yes, and many of us here in the good old USofA no longer identify with our ruling government. May our number prosper and grow.
+1 # easter planet 2014-10-05 23:07
Thank you, Mr. Ritter, excellent, but no American is ever going to get "into the building".
Any nation (and that includes you, dear reader) which employs as it's singular response to every international situation the commencement of bombing, is totally morally bankrupt and devoid of new ideas or empathy or true diplomatic engagement, and thus has absolutely nothing to offer as a new paradigm to uplift the Islamic masses which are attracted to the caliphate ideal. America bombed away at the trophic leadership chain in Iraq until nothing but the worst moral bankrupts were left free to try their hand at leadership. So at present we have a situation with moral degenerates on both sides of the "war" - the morally bankrupt Americans and the morally bankrupt followers of radical Islam. Both sides are using human-brain "software" that is obsolete - both those "operating systems" (OS) are past their best-before dates and both need to be upgraded. The capitalist-impe rialist-christi an OS running in American brains is obsolete, and so is the OS running in Moslem brains. I have already written a new OS that meets the demands of the real future, including a new Quran, but nobody is paying any attention - they prefer the status quo, since, if you really want to even have a future, you must take the point that Naomi Klein has finally stumbled upon, that "This Changes Everything".

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