APRIL 17, 2016 — Across Europe, law enforcement authorities scramble to unravel Islamic State terror networks poised to strike against innocent civilians. Progress is fitful, and fear of another attack is high.
But on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, better news:
•A loose coalition of forces, backed to varying degrees by the U.S., have reclaimed a huge chunk of Islamic State real estate. The Pentagon now estimates Islamic State has lost at least 40 percent of its territory and 25,000 fighters.
•Russian-backed Syrian government forces recently wrested control of the ancient city of Palmyra. In the gun sights of anti-Islamic State fighters: the group’s strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. But first the U.S., Kurds, Arabs, Russians and assorted rebel leaders reportedly have to settle squabbles about who will take control (Read: Who will get the lion’s share of credit?) and how these cities will be governed.
•Islamic State is also bleeding cash. Since late October, an American air campaign has targeted oil fields, refineries and tanker trucks, and American officials believe they have cut the Islamic State’s oil revenue by about a third, The New York Times reports. (Tumbling oil prices have helped, too.) American-led efforts also are strangling the terrorist group’s ability to move money in the international banking system. One significant result: major salary cuts for Islamic State fighters.
All of this is encouraging. But as quickly as Islamic State leaders are killed, new ones step in. The group still raises fresh millions from extortion, fees and taxes. The U.S. boasts that it has incinerated millions of dollars of Islamic State reserves, but terror attacks that kill hundreds don’t take large sums of cash. From attacks in Brussels and Paris, it is clear that Islamic State is pressing its global campaign to infiltrate jihadists into European (and American?) cities. And it has established beachheads in Libya and Afghanistan.
The U.S. mission? “We’ve got to get these guys beaten and as soon as possible,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said recently. “We’re looking for opportunities to do more.”
There should be plenty in this target-rich environment, if President Barack Obama chooses to aggressively parlay Western gains against Islamic State. Russian President Vladimir Putin has all but declared victory in his mission to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that’s hardly the U.S. mission. We’re hoping Washington will spearhead a bold Islamic State-crushing strategy that cuts off all avenues for Islamic State to retreat and regroup.
Some administration advisers reportedly want to sharply increase training and weapons supply to the Kurds, arguably the most effective fighting force in the region. Others push a plan to do the same for so-called moderate Sunni rebels, hoping they can drive Islamic State from Syria.
Why not both?
The U.S. must launch a complex military operation, and also a stepped-up public relations campaign.
One encouraging sign: Large numbers of young Arab men and women are now turning thumbs down on Islamic State, according to a new poll of 16 Middle Eastern countries. Nearly 8 in 10 young adults oppose the terrorist group, and rule out the possibility of ever supporting the Islamic State even if it scaled back its savage tactics, according to a just-released survey sponsored by PR firm ASDA‘A Burson-Marsteller. That response is a significant increase over just a year ago, when 6 in 10 rejected Islamic State.
Islamic State attracted recruits with surprising victories over the Iraqi army in 2014, beheadings of Western captives, and a violent jihadist message that brought many from Europe, America and elsewhere to fight in Syria. As its forces retreat, its ability to recruit and its appeal to violence should dwindle as well. It is also true, however, that a stronger push against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could spur more desperate jihadist attacks in the West.
The Islamic State battlefield is the Syrian civil war battlefield as well. Fighting surged on that front last week, signaling the possible collapse of a U.S.-backed truce. If so, that will complicate the campaign against Islamic State.
At the moment, however, Europe’s cities remain in peril of Islamic State-dispatched or inspired attack. So do America’s. Stomping out this brutal regime is job one. The sooner, the better.