How the US should tackle ISIS

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech tonight outlining his strategy for confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). As Obama told NBC’s Meet the Press: "We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat them." The main features of his strategy likely include mobilizing an international and regional coalition, military support to local partners, carefully targeted air strikes in Iraq (and possibly Syria), and no deployment of U.S. combat troops.

This strategy has already had significant success. It has stabilized the situation on the ground in Iraq and begun to reverse ISIS’s momentum. The administration has begun to craft a coalition capable of confronting ISIS across a broad spectrum, and it very effectively used its leverage to push Iraq’s politicians towards the removal of the divisive former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

These early successes should not mask the enormous challenges to come, however. The ISIS surge has galvanized a temporary regional consensus among states that have been deeply at odds in recent years. Iranian-American joint pressure for the replacement of Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi Prime Minister, supported by long-hostile Arab Gulf states, represents a rare model of such effective regional cooperation. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have begun to address long-standing complaints about their role in facilitating support for extremist groups in Syria.

The current urgency of the crisis creates a unique, but short-lived, opportunity for a genuinely effective outside-in, regional strategy to stabilize Syria and Iraq and reverse the gains by ISIS. This coalition is held together only by fear, and will likely quickly crumble as soon as the threat fades. Most Arab regimes today are more deeply consumed by internal political challenges than by Syria or Iraq, with fear of blowback into their own countries driving much of their recent urgency. The hostility between Qatar and other Gulf states runs deep, as does the geostrategic challenge posed by Iranian ambitions. The current fragile accord will likely crumble as soon as the threat fades. Meanwhile, Iraq’s politics and institutions remain dysfunctional, the Syrian opposition deeply divided, and Asad entrenched.

The problems posed by Iraq and Syria are, of course, very different.  U.S. airstrikes and military advisers are in Iraq at the invitation of a sovereign government, and are working within established institutions. There is a relatively clear, if still enormously uncertain, path towards the restabilization of Iraq through political accommodation and institutional reform. In Syria, by contrast, there is no legal authorization for military action, no reliable or effective potential partners, and no clear goal. Once the psychological and operational barrier to military action inside of Syria has been broken, it will be politically and strategically difficult to resist the pressure to expand those operations to regime targets.   

In Iraq, the U.S. should offer strong, consistent but conditional support for both the new Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government with an eye towards preserving the unity of Iraqi state while breaking its political dysfunction.  The arming of Kurdish forces should be conditioned upon a renewed commitment to the integrity of the Iraqi state and should not be allowed to embolden a Kurdish bid for secession.  The arming of Iraqi forces should continue to be conditioned upon meaningful political reform, including the effective accommodation of the vital interests of the Sunni community in both Baghdad and in local Iraqi communities. The U.S. should work to split key armed Sunni groups and tribes from ISIS, while ensuring that this is done through the Iraqi Security Forces rather than as ad hoc arrangements easily terminated once the crisis passes. It should similarly refuse to support actions by Shi’ite militias outside the framework of the Iraqi Security Forces.

Obama did very well by acting to prevent the fall of Erbil or Baghdad, while conditioning additional U.S. military support on political change. He correctly understood that military aid prior to Maliki’s departure would simply enable his destructive, sectarian style of rule which played a key role in both the revival of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency, with ISIS as its vanguard, and the stunning collapse of the Iraqi army. His replacement by Haider al-Abadi, a similar Shia Islamist that has nevertheless committed to forming a more representative polity in Baghdad, was a necessary, but not sufficient, step to begin the engagement of deeply alienated Sunnis. U.S. diplomats must be prepared for the real risk that Iraqi politicians will revert to their destructive, self-interested and sectarian ways once the existential threat recedes.

In Syria, by contrast, U.S. airstrikes offer no plausible path to political or strategic success. A strategy predicated on the existence of an effective moderate Syrian rebel force is doomed to fail. Instead, the focus should be on shaping the environment in ways which will encourage the emergence of a politically legitimate and more effectively unified opposition. The destructive and radicalizing effects of uncoordinated flows of aid to competing rebel groups from outside states and private actors have long been obvious. The emerging regional strategy offers perhaps the first opportunity to unify these efforts to build rather than divide the Syrian opposition. The new coalition should expand on efforts to shut off funding and support not only for ISIS but also for the other powerful Islamist trends within the Syrian rebellion.

This will take time. The immediate goal in Syria should be the securing of a strategic pause between the rebel forces and the regime in order to focus military efforts on ISIS.  Crucially, this strategic pause does not mean cooperation or alignment with Asad, or a retreat from the Geneva Accord principles of a political transition. It should be understood instead as buying the time to shape an environment in which such a transition could become plausible. As the administration clearly recognizes, an alliance with Asad against ISIS would cause more problems than it solves. Even setting aside the moral objections to aligning with a regime responsible for large-scale war crimes, working with Asad would almost certainly drive horrified opposition fighters and civilians toward ISIS and critically divide the regional coalition.  There is little chance at the moment of his overthrow by force at any rate, however. Indeed, like Slobodon Milosevic in the Balkan wars, Asad is less likely to survive a de-escalated but internationally penetrated political landscape than he is to cling to power against Syria’s insurgency. 

The longer-term goal should be to translate this anti-ISIS tacit accord into an effective agreement by the external backers of both Asad and the rebels on a de-escalation of the conflict. Rather than a military drive on Damascus, the international community should build upon UN Resolution 2165 authorizing cross-border aid to  support the delivery of serious humanitarian relief, security and governance to rebel controlled areas and refugees. And it should build upon UN Resolution 2170 sanctioning ISIS and focus upon the joint restriction of the flow of funds and fighters to all sides of the Syria conflict. Asad will not voluntarily agree to such an accord, of course, and would seek every opportunity to disrupt the process. 

It seems likely that the administration intends to expand anti-ISIS airstrikes into Syria. This remains a highly risky proposition, and one likely to enmesh the U.S. far more deeply in the conflict.  If such strikes are begun, they should be restricted to the defense of rebel controlled areas and the targeting of ISIS strongholds and convoys. They should also be embedded within clear political messages to all sides of the conflict. Specifically, such strikes should be conditioned on clear evidence that the opposition and regional supporters of the opposition accept the de-escalation framework presented above, while conveying to Assad’s supporters that strikes will remain solely against ISIS so long as they push Assad to agree on de-escalation parameters.

President Obama clearly understands and is determined to avoid the risks of inadvertent escalation. The President’s fierce opposition to the deployment of large numbers of U.S. combat troops to Iraq (or Syria) will be sorely tested as air strikes and local partnerships fail to deliver rapid victory. Accomplishing U.S. goals in Iraq and Syria without nonetheless falling victim to such mission creep will require clearly laying out obtainable goals and a strategy for achieving them. The tourniquet strategy offers such an approach which meets the immediate threat of ISIS and prepares the ground for a desperately needed political solution.