November 16, 2015

CNAS Press Note: ISIS in the Aftermath of the Paris Attacks

Washington, November 16 – As the United States reassesses its strategy following terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Paris, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) President Richard Fontaine has written a new Press Note, “ISIS in the Aftermath of the Paris Attacks,” to frame the issues Washington and its international partners will confront. 

The full press note is below: 

In bringing terror to one of the world’s most beloved cities, ISIS did far more than wreak devastation on Parisians out for a Friday evening. The violence left millions in France and beyond fearful, traumatized and grasping for a response, and demonstrated ISIS’ willingness to attack civilians and targets no matter how innocent or how “soft.” 

The attacks also ended any debate about ISIS’ international ambitions. ISIS is now suspected of having, in short succession, brought down a commercial Russian airliner, launched major attacks in the heart of Beirut, and sown violence and mayhem across Paris. It would be folly to think that that the United States will remain immune from its designs. America remains a harder target than Europe but by no means an impossible one. Even before the latest spate of international attacks, FBI Director James Comey reported that ISIS-related investigations are ongoing in all 50 states. 

The imperative is neither to yield to panic and fear nor merely to continue a failing international effort to combat ISIS. The Obama administration’s initial response seems worryingly to suggest the latter. Its oft-stated desire to avoid a large-scale American combat role on the ground in Syria and Iraq has moved from mantra to organizing principle. Yet well short of invading either country, there are ways that the United States and its international partners can and should intensify the fight against ISIS. 

In Iraq, this would start by providing arms directly to Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters willing to take on ISIS and pushing Baghdad vigorously to establish a national guard that would subsume local units. American advisors embedded with the Iraqi security forces would make their combat efforts more effective, and deploying forward air controllers to spot targets on the ground would make airstrikes more accurate. A U.S.-led international effort to push 

Iraq’s leaders toward more inclusive governance would reduce the political alienation among Sunnis that feeds ISIS’ support. 

In Syria, a stepped-up American effort would increase support to Kurdish forces in the north and moderate rebel groups in other parts of the country. The Pentagon’s spectacular failure to train anti-ISIS opposition forces would be far more effective if it removed the restriction on those fighters taking on the Assad regime. Deploying additional special operations forces beyond the 50 announced by President Obama could increase the pace of airstrikes and help coordinate efforts against ISIS on the ground. The diplomacy aimed at pushing Assad to negotiate with opposition groups is likely to come to naught so long as he believes his regime can prevail on the battlefield; strengthening those groups that seek his removal could help bring an acceptable end to the civil war into sight. Establishing a safe zone along the Turkish border in the northeast and another along the Jordanian border in the south would help mitigate the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria, reduce the flow of refugees, and create space for opposition groups to quietly regroup and strengthen. 

None of these steps would require a major American ground force, and in combination they would significantly enhance the international coalition’s effectiveness against ISIS. 

The Paris attacks came at a moment when Washington was already debating the importance of combatting ISIS and the trajectory of the campaign. Now is the time to intensify the effort. 

Fontaine and other CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...