May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: An Iraq Strategy Requires a Regional Strategy

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg has written a new Press Note arguing that defeating ISIS will require a regional strategy.

The full Press Note is below:

The United States will never solve Iraq without a real Syria strategy and a more direct approach to addressing Iran's regional influence. 

In Syria, a strategy should focus on greater investments in training and arming a non-extremist Syrian Sunni force that is capable of reshaping the balance of power on the ground, rolling back ISIS, and forcing the Assad regime to recalculate and consider whether it is capable of crushing the armed opposition or must instead seek a negotiated outcome. Such an approach may also need to include direct limited American military intervention to support this force and enable a more effective Syrian opposition – most likely through close air support.

This strategy needs to be coupled with a regional approach of both pressure and engagement toward Iran. The United States should look to push back more directly on Iran's support for its proxies in the region, even as it seeks to engage with Tehran on issues of common interests in the aftermath of a nuclear agreement. This would signal to Tehran that it risks a direct confrontation with the United States unless it shifts course in Syria and Iraq but also that if it does change its strategy an opportunity for a negotiated solution exists.

In Iraq, the United States should focus on more directly arming and supporting Sunni and Kurdish partners so that they can effectively fight ISIS and over time build a healthy and secure sectarian power balance in the country. This will require more than just arming these groups but also pressure on Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis to hammer out a sustainable political power-sharing model. 

Taken together, these steps could eventually set the conditions for political settlements to end the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and eliminate ISIS. But it will be a long and difficult haul and success is far from assured.

Mr. Goldenberg is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...