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Who Will Fight ISIS?

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It's likely the US will form a new coalition to wage war on ISIS -- the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. What remains to be seen is who will do the heavy lifting in this coalition. Which nation will be willing to put boots on the ground?

(There are several acronyms used for the same group of jihadi terrorists: ISIS, ISIL -- the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- and DAESH -- an acronym based upon the group's full Arabic name. While a tiny minority within Islam, ISIS is an ultra-conservative Muslim sect.)

In Hillary Clinton's November 19 speech at The Council on Foreign Relations, she said the US goal should be "to defeat and destroy ISIS." Secretary Clinton laid out a plan to defeat ISIS: "The United States and our [current] coalition has been conducting this fight for more than a year. It's time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set."

Approximately 63 nations are part of the current coalition. These include historic allies such as France and Great Britain, and allies of convenience such as Iran and Russia.

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Secretary Clinton continued: ""we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS. Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East" If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities"But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission."

Who are the "local and regional ground forces" we're counting on to occupy ISIS' territory?

Ideally, it would be Iraqi and Syrian forces. Unfortunately, Iraqi forces have proven to be unstable. The New York Times observed that, in 2012, after US troops left: "" tensions began rising between the Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki" Salaries and jobs promised to cooperating [Sunni] tribes were not paid. There seemed little room for Sunnis in the new Iraq. The old Sunni insurgents began to look appealing again." Many experienced Sunni commanders went to work for ISIS.

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As a result, Iraq has three distinct armies: the Sunni army that operates in the west (often with Shiite commanders); the Shiite army and militias operating in central and eastern Iraq; and, the Kurdish Peshmerga that operates in northern Iraq.

Each army has issues. The Sunnis are notoriously unreliable. The Shiites have the backing of Iran and, therefore, are regarded with suspicion when they enter traditional Sunni territory. Although the Peshmerga has proved to be the most effective opponent of ISIS, providing them with arms is controversial; some US analysts believe giving the Kurds heavy weapons will inevitably lead them to fight against the central Iraqi government, as well as Iran and Turkey, and form their own nation.

West of Iraq is Syria, a fractured nation of 17 million. (Roughly 5 million have fled since the civil war started in 2011.) It's an autocracy, dominated by a Shiite Alawite minority led by Bashar al-Assad. Syria is 75 percent Sunni Muslim, 10 percent Alawite, 6 percent other Shia Muslim, and 9 percent who are primarily Christian. The country now has three segments: in the west are Shiites supporting Assad. In central Syria are Sunnis fighting Assad. And, in the east is ISIS.

Hillary Clinton aptly summarized the situation: "On the Syrian side, the big obstacle to getting more ground forces to engage ISIS" is that the viable Sunni opposition groups remain understandably preoccupied with fighting Assad" So we need to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well."

Recently, The Washington Post reported the CIA has been successful recruiting Syrians to fight ISIS.

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If we can't count on Iraqi or Syrian forces to provide reliable "local and regional forces" to fight ISIS, who can we count on? Many neighboring countries have their own agenda. Iran would fight ISIS but would also occupy Sunni territory, take the oil, and support Assad. Turkey opposes ISIS but is deeply suspicious of the Kurds (18 percent of their population). Saudi Arabia opposes ISIS but is deeply suspicious of Iran. Jordan and Lebanon are primarily concerned with ISIS incursion into their territory.

By treaty, the US respects the primacy of the Iraqi central government over the interest of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. But the Kurdish Peshmerga are the most effective boots on the ground versus ISIS.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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