The barbaric beheading of journalist James Foley has underscored the malevolence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), stunning an Obama administration that has heretofore been complacent. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned ominously that ISIS constitutes a greater threat to the West than Al Qaeda. “They are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether in Iraq or anywhere else,” Hagel said at a news conference at the Pentagon. Army General Martin Dempsey called ISIS an “organization that has an apocalyptic end of days strategic vision.” President Obama referred to ISIS as a “cancer” and vowed to do whatever it takes to protect American interests.
Now the administration needs a comprehensive strategy commensurate with the magnitude of this grave and growing threat. That dictates expanding the administration’s goal of merely containing ISIS to defeating it swiftly and unequivocally. Containment will not suffice against such a reckless, ruthless, and insatiable adversary. Even the normally pacific Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges the ISIS must be destroyed. General Dempsey concedes likewise that “ISIS must be defeated eventually.” So why defer the inevitable while the costs and risks rise steeply in the meantime?
Accordingly, the administration must escalate significantly its current inadequate strategy of limited airstrikes while untenably making decisive action contingent on the emergence of a multilateral coalition unlikely to arise. The prudential goal of defeating ISIS will require coordinated application of military, diplomatic, and economic power.
First, the United States must strike hard at ISIS militants operating in Syria. As General Dempsey himself put it, ISIS cannot be defeated “without addressing that side of the organization that resides in Syria.” That means an American air campaign to pulverize ISIS’s command, control, communication and logistics, isolating and depriving ISIS of the mobility on which it remorseless expansion depends. The United States should rely on a limited coalition of the willing or go it alone if necessary. Otherwise, Russia, China, and many of our weak-willed European allies will use multilateral forums to delay, dilute, or veto effective action.
Nor should the United States make an air campaign in Syria contingent on obtaining Bashar Assad’s permission. The murderous and virulently anti-American Syrian dictator will probably not grant it. Syrian permission also does not warrant the cost of making improvident concessions to induce either Assad or his revolutionary patrons in Iran. Furthermore, Syrian air defenses lack the capability and Assad the inclination to impede an American air campaign directed against ISIS militants who also menace his regime.
Second, the United States must immediately curtail ISIS’s source of oil revenue, which is financing their terrorist activities. That means capturing or destroying the seven oil fields and two small refineries that ISIS now controls in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq, while thwarting ISIS’s ambitions to seize more. According to K.T. McFarland, former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, ISIS sells 40,000 barrels of oil a day on the black market, generating approximately 2 million dollars a day, with the potential to double that to 80,000 barrels a day. That makes ISIS rich, their military well-provisioned, and their capacity to bribe enormous. ISIS also has set its sights on the 3 million barrels of oil in Southern Iraq and eventually the grand prize of Saudi Arabia’s. Economic analyst Stuart Varney warns that “killing ISIS is a financial necessity because the price and supply of oil for the world is at stake … oil consumers are already paying a premium … from this ISIS threat.”