How many armchair generals does it take to form a broad coalition? These are men making decisions on the best way to fight what is perceived to be one of the biggest threats to the West for decades, from an arm’s length. The countries signing up to the US masterplan may be worried about this dark force visiting their own borders, but not enough to commit to the fight on the ground.
But should they be?
Barack Obama may not want to commit the same mistakes as George W Bush. But ISIL has the potential to engulf much more than parts of Syria and Iraq. Name a western country that doesn’t have disaffected Muslim youth ripe for seduction by ISIL’s anti-western sentiment.
The Xbox generation was brought up playing games that glorify death and gloss over the awkward bloody reality of war.
The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are also from the Xbox generation. They know what happens to the side with ancient weapons and scarce ammunition left in the bank. This week, ISIL even turned to Hollywood for extra clout, producing a slick movie-style trailer glamourising the conflict.
The world is upside down when the force battling against you uses a familiar cultural idiom to its own advantage.
The trailer, titled “Flames of War”, wasn’t a pious message but a naked attempt to make this conflict look every bit as exciting as the latest action-packed, full-throttle outing from the Terminator franchise. Whoever is driving their PR campaign is riding a perfect storm of opportunity, regional fractures, split loyalties and disaffection.
And it’s got nothing to do with Islam. For once the US secretary of state, John Kerry, put it perfectly: ISIL is “a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement”.
So the Peshmerga, peering over the sand berm across no-man’s land to the black flags waving in the distance, see an enemy of super-human stature. And their commanders aren’t helping to soften this image. I’ve heard the same words used by Peshmerga generals to describe ISIL’s fighting prowess: sophisticated, tactically astute, disciplined and fearless.
The Peshmerga commanders are the first to admit their own limitations. General Hashem Setaie sat in a man-made bunker just 10km from the Rabia crossing into Syria, currently held by ISIL. He said his forces needed to be built from the ground up if they’re going to hold back this black tide.
“As an army we need everything from A to Z. Everything from uniforms, small weapons, body armour, rockets, heavy machineguns, tanks, night-vision kits. Even if they send us mortars – if we don’t have night vision equipment – we can’t see where the enemy is or what he’s doing. We need the whole package.”
I asked the general if they could win this battle without foreign boots on the ground. “No,” he replied. Plain and simple.
He didn’t stop there, admitting that he is no tactician and no technical expert, before adding that the Peshmerga needed experienced officers to advise them how to attack the enemy, and with which weapons.
As well as being overwhelmed by ISIL’s firepower, the Peshmerga lack another weapon that their foe seemingly has in limitless supply.
“They come to die. When they run out of ammunition, they blow themselves up,” said Hajar Nada, a captain who lost both his legs after his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device east of Mosul.
ISIL doesn’t just have suicide bombers in abundance. Its infantry is willing to die.
The Peshmerga are not.
Holgert Hikmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, believes it’s time for the world to realise that they can’t do it alone: “The international community needs to lead this fight because it is a global fight. Right now we alone are fighting them for the whole world.”