"What they have done is taken out all of the high-value, easy targets now," he said. "What they're going to be doing is going after very difficult targets that are going to hide themselves in buildings in populated areas. The leadership (of ISIL) is going to be incredibly hard to dig out of the cities without causing civilian casualties."
The lesson the West took away from massive ground wars ranging from World War I to Vietnam was that the more hands-off you can be, the less costly (in terms of resources, personnel and political will) conflict will be.
Increasingly sophisticated weaponry including satellites and drones plus longer-ranged offense capabilities and so-called "smart bombs" add to the world's arsenal of arm's length weapons.
War is never an "over there" thing for those in the war zone, however. It's immediate. It's intimate. It's horrifying. And the enemy you can't see - the one who fires weapons from the office, like they're playing a video game, then goes home to their family at 5 o'clock - they are vile, despised creatures to be hated, not feared.
Switching tracks for a bit; World War II was an unpleasant war that cost the lives of many soldiers, including Canadian ones. To this day, the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers are honoured in Northern Europe; last time I was there, being Canadian pretty much guaranteed me free drinks any time I was in a bar.
Even the grandchildren two generations removed from war remember the sacrifices made so that they could be free. They recognize the price their freedom came at.
Back to the Middle East. In attempting to avoid a messy conflict (for our side), we can arm rebels, impose sanctions and whatnot, but what we're doing is escalating the war and its impact on civilians. At the end of the day, people want to live in peace - it doesn't matter who destroys your home or kills your children; when they're gone, they're gone.
So I propose something that would be very unpopular and definitely out of touch with the mood of the times. I would propose inserting international forces on the ground with a mandate not to stop ISIS, but to protect civilians and help keep them safe and supplied with the resources they need to survive. For strategic value, I'd want this force to comprise mostly of female soldiers and commanders.
Clearly, their mission would have offensive capabilities, too - you can't defend against David if you've not got a stone and slingshot. Yes, there would be definitive risks and a loss of life that results; such a mission would be of strategic value with loss of life expected.
Here's the game; by putting female soldiers on the ground to help protect civilians, you're putting Western boots directly in the line of fire - suddenly, we're not the bogeyman. These soldiers would be a natural target for ISIS, but that means ISIS will be directly targeting civilians as well as hiding among them - which sends the wrong message. It's all well and good to say you're the only ones with civilian interests in mind (which isn't what they're saying, of course) but when you continuously put your own people at risk and when it's outsiders that have to come in to protect them, the people see the gaps of logic.
Lastly, the gender issue. This plays the psychological card; I have no previous models to turn to for metrics, but I believe this would give the ISIS alpha males the heebie-jeebies. It would also present the more nurturing side of the West to the civilian population (because, like it or not, women are identified as nurturers and peace makers globally) as well as providing strong female role models for women and girls being treated like chattle.
The best option ISIS would have at that point is to recruit women as soldiers themselves, which only works when those women are given a certain amount of privilege that they don't have now. Empowering women can only detract from their end-game.
At the same time, amp up the HeForShe campaign and create a global movement of men supporting women so that we're walking the walk and nurturing a global zeitgeist change that presents a better alternative to ISIS - for everyone except the chauvinistic bullies that flock to ISIS' banner.
It's a back-of-napkin idea, one that I doubt the powers-that-be would take seriously.
But it's certainly a better plan than the re-hashed failure they're pursuing now. So far, the West's engagement in the Middle East for a decade plus has consistently made things worse. It's time to try something different.