June 16, 2016

CNAS Releases ISIS Study Group Final Report


Washington, June 16 – The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) today released the final report of its ISIS Study Group, “Defeating the Islamic State: A Bottom-Up Approach.” The report proposes a strategy based on four key interlocking efforts and then describes how these efforts can be applied region by region in western Iraq, eastern Syria, southwest Syria, and northwest Syria. The report’s authors are:

While the views expressed in the report are solely those of the authors, the report is informed by deliberations of CNAS’ ISIS Study Group, chaired by CNAS CEO Michèle Flournoy and CNAS President Richard Fontaine. The ISIS Study Group held a series of workshops over a six-month period with more than 35 former and current military and government officials and counterterrorism and Middle East experts.

The full report can be found here:

The report’s four key interlocking efforts recommend that the United States:

  1. Build coherent regional armed opposition groups from the bottom up that can hold territory, provide security, and marginalize extremists.
  2. Increase direct U.S. military support to opposition groups and U.S. direct action counter-network operations against ISIS.
  3. Leverage increased U.S. investment on the ground into diplomatic influence with key external actors.
  4. Reestablish legitimate and acceptable governance and negotiate a political end-state for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Please find the report’s Executive Summary below:
Fifteen years after September 11, 2001, al Qaeda has taken significant losses, but the threat from Islamic extremism has morphed and metastasized in ways that remain dangerous to U.S. interests. The most recent iteration of this threat is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the emergence of its proto-state in the heart of the Middle East. The ambitions of the Islamic State pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies. Not only has ISIS created chaos and violence in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other weak, unstable states, but it has also executed major attacks in Europe and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt, and inspired an attack in California. Given the scale of the threat, the United States and its partners must act now to intensify the fight against ISIS in multiple ways.
To address this challenge, for the past six months CNAS has convened regular meetings of its ISIS Study Group, composed of former military officers, former government officials, and experts on counterterrorism and the Middle East. This report offers an overall strategy and series of recommendations both for President Obama and his successor who will inherit this problem. These recommendations are informed by the deliberations of the CNAS ISIS Study Group and reflect the ideas that emerged from those discussions. But the report represents the views of the three authors alone.
In September 2014, President Obama announced a plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.” The administration’s approach, which to date has made gains in rolling back 40 percent of ISIS-held territory, has been based on arming and advising local forces and providing them with air support to retake territory, even as the United States continues to directly target ISIS leadership with Special Operations Forces and air power.
The approach has not been as successful as it must be. It relies too heavily on ground forces that are predominantly Kurdish and Shia, and has not yet built sufficient Sunni forces to retake and, more importantly, hold ISIS territory. U.S. military support has also been limited in a number of unnecessary ways. A lack of embedded combat advisors supporting partners on the front lines, hesitation to deploy more troops, and inadequate delegation of authority have all slowed progress.
The much bigger flaw in the strategy is the policy toward the civil war in western Syria. The Obama administration has prioritized the ISIS fight in the east while seeking a political solution for the civil war in the west. But it was the Syrian Civil War that accelerated ISIS’ emergence from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq in the first place. If the proto-state in eastern Syria and western Iraq is eliminated and extremist safe havens remain in western Syria, ISIS or like-minded groups will take advantage of the situation to hold territory and continue to present a threat. Moreover, many of the key external regional actors prioritize the outcome of the Syrian Civil War over the defeat of ISIS, and if Washington wants to get their cooperation in fighting ISIS – a necessary prerequisite for its defeat – the United States will need to put a higher priority on resolving the war. Finally, prioritizing a political agreement today in Syria, with little American leverage on the ground and conditions that are far from ripe for an agreement, is unlikely to end the conflict.
The overall objective of American strategy should be to significantly reduce and, over the long term, eliminate the ability of ISIS to execute and inspire attacks against the United States and its partners. This will require the United States and its partners to destroy the proto-state in Iraq and Syria, which is ISIS’ center of gravity. As long as ISIS retains its safe haven it is has a base from which to plan attacks against the United States and its allies, and will also be able to present itself as the vanguard of the global Sunni jihadist movement. Equally important and much more difficult to accomplish will be preventing the proto-state’s reemergence or the emergence of alternative extremist groups that can hold territory in Iraq and Syria.
In ISIS-controlled territory, this strategy does not entail a fundamental shift in current U.S. strategy but instead some course corrections. Most importantly, it means a willingness to lean further forward in the types of military action the United States would take in this territory. It emphasizes above all the importance of training local security forces to retake ISIS-held territory and entails a longer slow-burn strategy that may take a number of years but focuses on building the right hold force as opposed to retaking territory with forces that will ultimately be unacceptable to the local population. Importantly, the United States would not introduce U.S. conventional ground troops with the intent of directly engaging in U.S.-led ground combat operations to seize territory from ISIS, as such an approach would be unlikely to work without an adequate force to hold that territory in the aftermath.
In western Syria, a more radical shift is needed. Rather than focusing first on coming to a political agreement, the United States should emphasize arming and training local groups that are acceptable to the United States regardless of whether they are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or ISIS. The purpose of this effort is not just to defeat ISIS but to have these groups marginalize other extremist actors and to leave in place an acceptable and sustainable long-term governance and security situation, which eliminates future terrorist safe havens and marginalizes al Qaeda’s influence and presence. The United States should also be willing to increase its use of military coercion in the west and be willing to threaten and execute limited military strikes against the Assad regime in order to protect these actors while signaling all of the key external actors in Syria, including both its Middle Eastern partners as well as Russia and Iran, that it is willing to get more engaged.
Over time, these dual approaches to displace ISIS in the east and ensure greater moderate control in the west can roll back extremist influence across Syria and Iraq and set the conditions for negotiated political outcomes in both countries. In Iraq, as a local Sunni force extends its influence and control and displaces ISIS, it can increase Sunni leverage in negotiations with Baghdad and over time help facilitate power-sharing arrangements in Iraq that reflect the new security situation on the ground. In Syria, as moderate forces increase their influence and control in the northwest and southwest, eventually there can be a power-sharing agreement – acceptable to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and the internal actors – in which the successor to the Alawi-led Assad regime remains in control of its territory, but local groups reflective of the ethnic and sectarian mix control and govern their territory.
Goldenberg, Scharre, and Heras are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.