Arguing for the authorization of airstrikes on Syria in the British House of Commons recently, British Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn — a life-long campaigner against war — noted succinctly that we know this about Islamic State: They are fascists, and we have to defeat them.
Experience makes plain that when terrorist movements control territory where they can organize and train, the threat increases exponentially. The United States, the United Kingdom and our coalition partners must intensify our anemic action to destroy the Islamic State.
Coalition airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State, nor end Syria’s brutal civil war. Ground forces will be necessary to take back and hold territory in urban centers in Syria and Iraq. We cannot predict the ultimate makeup of such forces. But we can be certain that they will face an unconventional enemy that will act with utmost brutality and pay no heed to the rules of warfare.
This is the fundamental challenge our democracies face.
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We are confronted by ruthless Islamist death cults that pervert the rules of war to achieve victory and have no respect for basic humanity.
Military planners know from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere that terrorist organizations use a form of hybrid warfare combining terror with more traditional structures found in armed forces to even the odds against technologically superior forces reluctant to risk civilian casualties. Headquarters are placed around, or even within, schools and hospitals. Civilians are prevented from leaving conflict zones. Combatants deliberately dress in civilian clothes, and embed fighting units in homes. Islamic State uses these tactics to slaughter innocent civilians and commit savage acts to increase human suffering in flagrant violation of any moral code.
Rooted in democracies that promote the rule of law, our own militaries will never abandon the values that define us. However, the current coalition rules of engagement well exceed the standards of law for the conduct of war, resulting in playing into the hands of Islamic State by providing it time and freedom of action to continue its atrocities.
These self-imposed restrictions are a conscious political choice and not a legal obligation. They are the result of twisted narratives propagated by our enemies and reflected and amplified to a disturbing extent by international organizations and NGOs.
Here Israel’s experience serves as a cautionary tale. The U.N. Human Rights Council, and several international NGOs, strongly criticized Israel’s conduct during the 2014 Gaza conflict it fought against Hamas’ Islamic extremists. As part of an independent team of military experts from democratic countries examining that conflict earlier this year, we found the opposite — namely that the Israel Defense Forces’ actions to prevent collateral damage were so extensive, over and above the requirements of the Law of Armed Conflict, that they would curtail the effectiveness of our own militaries if we were forced to apply the same cautions to the fight against Islamic State.
Unlike the Islamic State, or in Israel’s case — Hamas — our militaries abide by the Law of Armed Conflict, the rules that govern warfare and seek to mitigate its worst excesses. However, we are faced with brutal opponents on complex battlefields who deliberately seek the most horrific means to slaughter civilian populations they hide among for the purposes of propaganda.
Misguided and ill-informed politicians and international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and NGOs in the West often amplify narratives about the realities of these conflicts that are not only reflective of the prism through which those who seek us harm would like our actions to be viewed, but frankly are illiterate when it comes to the military and legal realities of these fights.
To prevail in the battle against Islamic extremists, be they Islamic State or Hamas, we must counter their corrosive propaganda about the actions of our troops and those of our allies, which our enemies deploy in an attempt to use these slanderous sentiments in the international political arena to constrain us in a way they could never achieve when facing our troops on a battlefield.
Lt. Gen David Deptula and Col. Richard Kemp are part of the High Level Military Group (HLMG) that consists of retired senior military officers and foreign affairs officials from democratic countries.