The bodies of the victims of the massacre in Paris by ISIS terrorists were not yet cold when French President Francois Hollande declared, in front of the Bataclan arena, “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.” Considering that ISIS has been doing just that to everyone who has had the misfortune to come into contact with it, that would be a good policy. But does Hollande or anyone else in the West realize what the implications of “pitiless” mean? He just might. He has already sent a down payment on his promise by sending the French Air Force to bomb ISIS targets in its unofficial capital in Raqqa.
ISIS, almost unique among terrorist groups, has managed to carve out a functioning state in northern Syria and Iraq. It is seeking to expand the Islamic State throughout the Middle East while at the same time conducting attacks in the West, such as happened in Paris. The fact that an Islamic State exists is not only the source of ISIS’ strength but provides an opportunity to effect its downfall.
A sound strategy for dealing with ISIS would be to expand the current desultory campaign of pinprick air strikes and stingy support of local forces such as the Kurdish militia to an all-out military assault with the goal of eradicating the Islamic State from the face of the Earth. The scale of such an operation would be of the sort that has not been seen since World War II. The goal would not be to “degrade” or “contain” ISIS, two words that have unfortunately been used by President Obama. The goal will be to end it.
To be sure, a lot of details will have to be worked out. How many local forces, the Kurds, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and so on should be used as opposed to western armies from the United States and Europe? What should be done about the Syrian regime of Bashir Assad? What sort of settlement should be offered the Kurds? Do they get a state of their own? How does the coalition deal with the Russians, who are involved in the region for their own purposes? How are the ISIS fighters who fall into coalition hands to be dealt with? Should they be imprisoned indefinitely? Should they be executed after being convicted in the inevitable war crimes trials?
A “pitiless war” against ISIS is likely to be an especially ugly one, with lots of destruction and civilian casualties. The postwar period of reconstruction is likely to be long and arduous and, given our experience in the Middle East, possibly more bloody than the initial war. Things will be done that will likely be second-guessed and criticized for years to come.
But the choice, as with Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Iraq may well be to either fight the terrorists where they live or else continue to endure attacks and massacres where we live. It is a horrible choice that presents itself, but it is one that has to be made.