The Islamic State group is losing territory in direct combat with US air and, increasingly, ground forces. That's the good news. The bad news is it will try to offset these losses through increasingly brutal and illicit tactics. Consider recent reports indicating ISIS already uses human shields to frustrate US air attacks as it retreats in Syria.
This expanding US combat mission, coupled with both presidential candidates vowing to be more aggressive against ISIS, makes it highly likely ISIS will exploit images of civilian casualties and suffering to undermine the legitimacy of our military campaign. It is essential that we match our combat power with a commitment to preserve the moral legitimacy of these operations. We must ensure these operations are judged by an accurate understanding of the law and not distorted by ISIS in their effort to "win" the information war.
The strategy is straightforward. Enemies unconcerned with international law create a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma for their law-abiding opponents by deliberately exposing civilians to unnecessary risks during armed conflict. ISIS knows no matter how callous they act toward civilians, US forces — like their Israeli and NATO counterparts — often take extraordinary measures to mitigate risks to noncombatants, even if they must restrain their use of force and thus hand their enemies ill-gotten tactical advantages. Even when law-abiding militaries employ superior combat power, the inevitable but lawful collateral damage produces a strategic victory for their enemies in the court of public opinion.
Following the law can be challenging. It requires the attacking commanders to use available information in the heat of battle to anticipate that any harm to civilians will not be excessive, relative to the military advantage from the attack. This challenge increases exponentially against enemies who care little about respecting the law, and human life, but rather seek to exploit it. Unfortunately, the public often assumes this law circumscribes any action that might lead to civilian casualties. This is exacerbated by an erroneous "David versus Goliath" sympathy for the militarily weaker, non-state enemy.
As we observed participating in the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs' assessmentof the 2014 Gaza War, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is perhaps the best laboratory for understanding these challenges. It has invaluable experience adhering to the obligations of international law against adversaries like Hamas that deliberately exploit civilians. We also observed how Hamas nevertheless won a strategic victory by spreading misinformation and intentionally misconstruing the law.
The IDF increasingly is signaling it will do what is permissible under the law if Hezbollah provokes another war in Lebanon, including attacking targets that Hezbollah attempts to shield illicitly with civilians. Unfortunately, just as has happened during past campaigns, Israel will almost certainly face unjustifiable condemnation in international media for attempting to protect itself through force, even if it adheres to international law.
US forces constantly confront similar tactics and, like the IDF, consistently (and properly) try to mitigate the consequences of attacks that cause civilian collateral damage. In fact, tactics and techniques to lessen risks to civilians are a pervasive aspect of professional military operations today, and are reassessed and improved constantly.
This ultimately indicates a central and vital aspect of legitimate military operations: It is precisely when the enemy you confront cares nothing about the law or civilians that commitment to humanitarian obligations becomes the most vital. If we judge professional militaries by this standard, the ledger sheet is more positive today than ever for both the US military and IDF.
The candidate who inherits the immense challenge of commanding our military will no doubt seek more effective methods to strike our enemy’s vulnerabilities. Like the IDF, our forces will continue striving to avoid civilian casualties against adversaries that likely will attempt to manipulate public opinion by misrepresenting the legality of such casualties.
If left uncontested, these misrepresentations will undermine the perceived legitimacy of our forces’ mission and will negatively shape our future operating environment against ISIS and similar groups. Israel’s experience underscores the importance of military might, unwavering determination, and a society that understands international law and the civilian protections it demands. Therefore, any effective anti-ISIS strategy must include a forceful explanation of how the laws of armed conflict allow law-abiding militaries to use decisive combat power to close with and destroy their enemies.
The American flag worn proudly and prominently by our service members is a constant reminder that the battles they fight and the hardships they endure must advance the values of our democracy. Central to this ethos is respect for the international laws of war. If Americans want to empower their military to protect them from threats like ISIS, they must first understand that an enemy who hides behind innocents ultimately bears responsibility for their lives and for the consequences of their actions.
Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski (ret.) is former commander of US Marine Corps Forces Command. Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn (ret.) is a presidential research professor of law at Houston College of Law, and senior adviser to
JINSA's Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Both
worked on JINSA's 2014 Gaza War Assessment Task Force.