Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State


Coalition airstrike on Islamic State position in Kobane in October, 2014 – Voice of America photo

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford Jr. announced that the United States and its allies have increased intelligence gathering in Libya in preparation for a possible expansion of the war against Islamic State (IS). A decision is expected to come within “weeks.”

Fifteen months ago I began this blog partly as a reaction to a comment by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about IS: “I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war.” Then I was worried about inevitable mission creep in Iraq and the concept of a forever war in general.

Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return.

Since that post the operation against Islamic State was at least named. Indeed, it did take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a level where they could begin a successful ground operation against IS — Ramadi was retaken last month. There are more optimistic signs as well: IS was recently forced to cut its fighters’ salaries in response to financial troubles likely including oil prices and the US-led coalition bombing campaign on its oil infrastructure. As the Taliban has been finding out with IS in Afghanistan, fighters will often go to whomever pays the most.

But the war against IS is not racing to a speedy conclusion by any means. Like the Hydra losing its heads, when Islamic State loses one battle it strikes one or more places in return. The world was shocked at IS’s reach last November during the Paris attacks. Though some (including this author) were skeptical that those attacks were from IS command and control, IS has released video evidence of the attackers planning the attacks while in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Europol expects more attacks in the future.

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Paris attackers from Dabiq, Islamic State’s e-zine

In Syria, IS launched an offensive in Deir el-Zour, capturing an army base, weapons depots, and killing at least 300 people. If they succeed in capturing all of Deir el-Zour, they will control two provincial capitals in Syria (the other being the IS capital, Raqqa) — a major blow for Assad (and Russia’s) Syrian Arab Army.

With a likely expansion of the war against IS into Libya, Panetta’s 30-year prediction is looking better. One year down, IS does not seem too much more degraded or destroyed than a year ago. And though Obama said then that the war against IS “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” there has since been a Delta Force soldier killed combat in against IS.

As we enter the final year of Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric from the likely candidates on both sides foretells an increased operations tempo — both Hillary Clinton and her opponents have been falling over themselves to explain how they would win the war against IS — from Ted Cruz’s “carpet bombing” to Donald Trump’s “kill terrorists’ families” to Clinton’s “intensification,” it does not appear that this war will end any time soon.

4 thoughts on “Battling the Hydra: The Growing War Against Islamic State

  1. Cynic that I am, I expect an eventual “mission accomplished” moment in the run-up to the 2020 election (regardless of who is president) followed by more military action labelled as being against some other terrorist threat, though with the same ideology and tactics. This will end only when either:
    a) all non-terrorists in the region have died or fled,
    b) when the western powers run out of money and diplomatically decide to let the people who live there decide where to put the borders and how they’d like to be governed.
    Wishing I could be more optimistic but not expecting to live to see peace in the Middle East,


    • I am not too optimistic that your option a) will happen either.

      But the way you worded your “all non-terrorists in the region have died or fled” comment makes me wonder, do you see IS fighters as terrorists?

      Certainly the ones behind the Paris attacks and those who bombed mosques in Kuwait, etc. could be considered terrorists.

      But what about those fighters engaged in ground on ground warfare against the SAA, Jabhat al-Nusra, FSA, et. al?

      I wonder if Islamic State is a terrorist organization, a “terrorist state” (I’ve seen this label and wonder how it could exist) or just, perhaps, a state. I’ll be writing a post that touches on this soon.


      • You raise a valid point there. ISIS is clearly an advocate for terrorist acts worldwide, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they are also an insurgency against nation-states (on principle opposed to even Islamic ones) and thus in opposition to the various other insurgencies that simply want nation-states with different governments (e.g., the FSA) or different borders (e.g., the Kurds).
        The definition of “terrorist” is terribly fluid, depending mainly on one’s politics, but on average specifies it’s limited to “non-state actors” so much depends on whether one recognizes ISIS-held territory as a de facto state or not. But they certainly use terrorist tactics against “infidels” and non-supporters within that territory, as well as more conventional warfare against outsiders. It’s that aspect I was thinking of.
        I look forward to your next post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The War Against Islamic State Has Jumped 1,500 miles to Libya | Insurgentsia

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