Smashing Islamic State: the trillion dollar challenge

16 November 2015 2:33 pm

The news today is that France has launched air strikes against Islamic State. The French defence ministry said 12 aircraft had taken part in raids on a command centre, munitions depot and training camp in Raqqa. It marks a significant escalation of French involvement in the conflict in Syria. It also follows an agreement on Sunday by the Pentagon to accelerate the process for sharing intelligence about potential Isis targets with the French military. Israel is also sharing intelligence about Islamic State and other terrorist groups with France, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron is announcing plans to recruit an extra 1900 intelligence and security staff.

None of this is likely to help. It may well take generations to beat the Islamic State. And it will cost trillions that the world simply doesn't have.

As The Economist points out, the carnage in Paris on November 13, the two bombings in Beirut on November 12 and the explosion that brought down a Russian aeroplane in Egypt on October 31 signal a change in strategy for Islamic State. It says this shift corresponds with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with the help of US airstrikes, retaking the town of Sinjar in north-west Iraq, threatening the supply lines between the group’s two main bastions, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the Iraqi army encircling IS-held Ramadi, west of Baghdad and the strike by an American drone on November 12 which probably killed Mohammed Emwazi, the IS executioner dubbed "Jihadi John".

Islamic State is shifting the battleground because it's losing territory at home. “Although most of the group's rhetoric is aimed at local enemies in the Middle East, there have long been calls for conquest in the West by the group's leaders and in its publications,’’ The Economist says. “The fear is that as the group comes under more pressure at home, it may lash out even more regularly abroad, choosing the soft targets of Western cities to create the biggest headlines.”

This change will increase the challenge to the US-led coalition, especially with Obama having staked his foreign policy legacy on getting the US out of wars, not entering new ones. The attacks on Paris and Beirut show that coalition governments now face the threat of more attacks in their cities.

Beating this is not going to be cheap.

Bloomberg says the full military option could cost trillions and take decades to implement. It is considered highly unlikely at this stage because it would need to be led by Sunni nations that have shown no appetite for the fight and would pose severe challenges regarding Russia and Syria.

There’s also another question of whether the US and Eurozone can afford it, particularly when the global economy is still recovering from its worst crisis since the Great Depression. At the same time, Egypt is facing a balance of payments crisis and is reeling from its own terror attacks. Saudi Arabia is running out of money as falling oil prices hit government income. Iraq meanwhile is struggling to cope with a slump in oil prices and its own war. And Turkey, which might be best-placed to assist, prefers to attack Kurdish forces in Iraq and in its southeast.

In the meantime, we can expect the war in Iraq and Syria to be fought in many places, from Europe to the US.