Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces say that, with the help of three months of U.S. airstrikes, they’ve retaken the town of Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border from Islamic State. This success doesn’t change the basic strategic calculus of the war on the insurgent group: The fight for Kobani was always more about symbolism than military advantage. But the victory, if you can call it that, carries three lessons about how the conflict with Islamic State is going — and how it can and cannot be affected by the use of force.
The first and most important lesson is that airstrikes alone can’t retake territory from Islamic State. For that, ground troops are absolutely necessary, and the ones fighting now just aren’t sufficient.
From the time Islamic State emerged as a serious regional player, it was obvious that the United States would meet it with significant airpower. These militants represent a major challenge to regional stability, and threaten to reverse any gains that the United States made in Iraq after its 2007 surge and subsequent withdrawal. Even without the provocative beheadings of Western journalists, the wholesale killing of ethnic and denominational minorities, and the horrific mistreatment of women, the United States would’ve had a deep strategic interest in defeating Islamic State.
What wasn’t obvious was that the group would survive the air attack as well as it has done. If Islamic State had been a truly ragtag bunch of hooligans, it might’ve crumbled under the onslaught. In September, when President Obama gave his speech about the threat and commenced bombing, this seemed like a realistic possibility. Probably even Islamic State leadership didn’t know how well its troops would hold up when confronted by U.S. airpower.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Since then, consistent bombing has failed to change the borders of Islamic State control appreciably. In Iraq, the group has taken more territory in Anbar province, while shrinking a bit in Diyala, where Shiite militias and Iraqi regulars have offered resistance.
In Kobani, concerted Kurdish ground efforts combined with air support have finally paid off. This offers some evidence that, with sufficiently motivated ground troops, Islamic State can indeed be pushed back.
The importance of ground troops leads to the second major lesson of Kobani: Ground troops will only be provided by regional actors who have a significant self-interest in pushing back or defeating Islamic State.
The most serious geostrategic problem facing the U.S. in its efforts to combat these militants has been the apparent unwillingness of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey or, for that matter, Iraq to devote significant number of ground forces. Only Iran can be said to have taken seriously the need to use ground troops against Islamic State — and Iran has acted primarily through the Iraqi Shiite militias that it funds and to some degree controls.
The Kurds who fought in Kobani are different. For Syrian Kurds, Islamic State represents a genuine existential threat. For Iraqi Kurds, fighting Islamic State provides an excellent excuse to expand irreversibly into territory beyond what the Kurdish Regional Government already holds. The expansion of what is gradually emerging as a de facto independent Kurdish state is one of the most significant developments in a thousand years of Kurdish history — certainly worth fighting for.
Right now, the other countries whose interests are threatened by Islamic State haven’t judged the threat significant enough to devote troops of their own. Unless they see a core strategic interest, all the pressure that the United States can muster won’t be enough for them to devote troops. In the case of Iraq, you’d think the interest in maintaining a unified country would be sufficient. But apparently you’d be wrong: So long as Islamic State is concentrated in Sunni Arab areas, the government in Baghdad seems to think either that it can’t defeat Islamic State or that it isn’t worth really trying.
This reality is extremely worrisome. It means that, two years from now, Islamic State may have had the time to consolidate its control of the territory it now holds. That would be a major step toward establishing itself as a genuine sovereign state.
Sovereignty is a crucial element of the third Kobani lesson: Islamic State is now willing to retreat from a battle and return to fight another day. This wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Al Qaida in Mesopotamia, one of Islamic State’s predecessor organizations, staked almost all its resources on a hopeless battle against American forces in Fallujah. Ideologically driven and not especially focused on a realistic goal of holding territory, al Qaida was prepared to lose thousands of fighters to make a grand point about confronting the infidel occupier.
In retrospect, the United States was lucky that al Qaida was so unwilling to retreat — because it allowed the organization to be defeated. An adversary willing to lose a few battles is a much more serious threat to win the war in the long run.
The Islamic State retreat from Kobani shows that the group is homicidal but not suicidal — and isn’t especially worried about losing credibility with its global supporters because of a retreat. Both of these features are consistent with the ways Islamic State thus far differs from al Qaida. Where al Qaida went in for spectacle and martyrdom and resistance to the invader, Islamic State aims to become a functioning sovereign state. And states that fight wars sometimes lose battles, sometimes strategically to enable future victories.
To sum up, defeating Islamic State would take ground troops from self-interested U.S. allies. And the foe appears to be rational and strategic. Taken together, these are reasons to think the fight isn’t going away any time soon.
Perhaps if Islamic State planned and executed a Charlie Hebdo-style attack in the United States, public opinion might change. But short of such a homefront attack, or a serious change of attitude by regional actors, Americans had better start getting used to Islamic State — and that is indeed a depressing thought.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and the author of six books, most recently “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”
© 2015, Bloomberg News