May 28, 2015

ISIS, Ramadi, and U.S. Strategy in Iraq: CNAS Experts Weigh In


In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, seven Center for a New American Security (CNAS) experts have written short commentaries on U.S. options in the country. These commentaries reflect a broad range of viewpoints, recommending everything from “doing more now,” to creating a regional strategy, to empowering the Sunni population.

In these commentaries:

The authors of these commentaries are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.

The complete commentaries are available below:

In Iraq, Do More Now or Do Even More Later
By Richard Fontaine

U.S. power should focus on containing ISIS’ continued expansion and then rolling back its gains. Failing to step up American efforts now will leave ISIS more entrenched in more places, with momentum on its side, which requires even more American power to stop it. The moment to expand U.S. efforts, still within limits, has arrived.

By some measures – the ability to sell oil, for instance, or engage in command and control – ISIS has no doubt been diminished by the U.S.-led air campaign. But the overall sense left among regional observers is that the current strategy is failing.

The United States will not send great numbers of ground troops into Iraq to battle ISIS directly, limiting the effect of any campaign. But there are at least four steps the United States should take now. 

First, it should speed up the supply of weapons directly to Sunni tribes willing to fight ISIS and to the Kurdish peshmerga, holding out the prospect that arms will flow through Baghdad when the central government establishes a working process for their transfer. 

Second, it should push Baghdad to establish a National Guard with Sunni units based in Iraq’s west and encourage it to keep Shia militias out of Sunni-dominated areas. 

Third, it should step up its diplomatic engagement across the board and achieve greater leverage by signaling a long-term American commitment to Iraq. 

Fourth, the United States should relax the restrictions on American troops in Iraq to permit their employment as forward air controllers and embeds in Iraqi units.

Even if all of this is done, the United States may not defeat ISIS anytime soon. But better to increase the odds of success now rather than face even greater challenges in the future.

To Beat ISIS, Bypass Baghdad
By Shawn Brimley

The United States ought to become more aggressive in supporting actors in Iraq who have the will to fight the scourge of ISIS.

Recent comments by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) vastly outnumbered ISIS in and around Ramadi yet chose to turn and run are, in a word, devastating. Such comments are not made lightly and likely reflect the reality of what happened. Such a rapid retreat makes a mockery of the billions upon billions of dollars the United States has spent in training and equipping the ISF. We must consider what the deeper and more obvious truth might be – that Baghdad has neither the inclination nor the will to help the Sunni population of Iraq fight off ISIS.

If this is true, then reinforcing a failing strategy that depends on Baghdad doing the right thing might not only be misguided but counterproductive. A better approach might be to surge resources to those actors in Iraq who we judge would actually take on ISIS on the battlefield.

There are actors – the Kurdish peshmerga and several Sunni tribes – that would benefit from more direct support from the United States and its allies. It may be possible to deploy special operations forces and other capabilities more directly proximate and responsive to these actors. Baghdad is obviously a central player, and a component of the U.S. strategy ought to be advising the ISF and helping them become more effective on the battlefield.

Given the dynamics on the ground in Iraq, we must develop a strategy that doesn’t depend entirely on Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated ISF doing what they’ve proved by their actions they won’t do, at least anytime soon. It’s time for more action, yes. But also more realism.

Defeat ISIS by Empowering Sunni Population
By Paul Scharre

ISIS has swept into western Iraq – and continues to make advances in key strategic towns like Ramadi – not because they are militarily impressive but because there are no competent military forces to resist them. Iraqi security forces melted away in Ramadi, as they have elsewhere. Even where ISIS is being pushed back, it is Shiite militias who are advancing, not uniformed Iraqi troops.

Fueling ISIS’ advance is a power vacuum in western Iraq, created by the disenfranchisement of Iraqi Sunnis. Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has marginalized Sunnis, withholding from them the political, economic, and security benefits of participation in a multi-sectarian Iraq. The Iraqi government never followed through on the promises of the Sunni Awakening, and it is no wonder that Sunni Iraqis do not see Baghdad as standing up for their interests.

The current crisis, far from bringing Iraqis together, is exacerbating sectarian tensions. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has been slow to support Sunni tribes in their fight against ISIS, and Shiite militias are forming the vanguard of the force against ISIS. Where these militias have made advancements, in areas such as Tikrit, atrocities and looting have followed in their wake. The employment of Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated areas risks further driving Sunnis into ISIS’ arms. To defeat ISIS, local Sunni tribal forces are needed, not only to push ISIS back but to maintain security in Sunni-dominated areas afterward and keep ISIS at bay.

The United States must strengthen moderate Sunni tribes against ISIS, ideally through the Iraqi government but outside of the government if necessary. For those tribes willing to stand and fight ISIS, the United States should back them with weapons, training, and U.S. air support. President Obama announced a plan to do so through the creation of a Sunni national guard eight months ago, but these plans have been hampered by foot-dragging from Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

Rather than wait for Baghdad, the United States should begin supporting Sunni tribes directly, offering Baghdad the potential to run support through the Iraqi government if and when the government makes supporting Sunni tribes a priority. America’s approach to defeating ISIS cannot be held hostage by Baghdad’s dysfunctional sectarian politics any longer.

Confront ISIS But Don’t Get Trapped Again in Iraq
By Robert D. Kaplan

The United States must significantly weaken ISIS without getting trapped again in Iraq. If U.S. troops are inserted to liberate Ramadi and other cities, what happens the day after that when there is no credible Iraqi government whose own troops can secure, hold, and rebuild those places? Therefore, thinking several steps ahead (as we must) means working with local forces, including Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribes, and Shiite militias, while the Pentagon uses creative ways to bolster the Iraq Army – if that is even possible. This strategy, unfortunately, enables Iran, but I see no other alternative. After all, if ISIS can permanently hold significant sections of Mesopotamia and Syria, it will then have the territorial safety it requires to theoretically plan and perhaps execute attacks against the United States from afar, as al Qaeda did from Afghanistan.

Preventing ISIS from establishing itself comfortably in the region is a first priority; shrinking Iranian influence a second. The United States probably cannot do both without inserting significant levels of U.S. troops: Even if they are only special operations forces, limited in magnitude, the administration must be extremely careful not to have a sizable ground presence. Americans are still hated in the region, and caution and restraint have to be watchwords. The country faces challenges globally and therefore should try to avoid getting bogged down in any one place. I assume defense planners can find a sweet spot that features some more special forces, increasing aid to anti-ISIS forces in the region, continuing to negotiate with Iran, and not giving up on the Iraqi government – because it is the only one in Baghdad we have to work with. The Saudis and others are working hard on toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad: The key in Syria will be to avoid, if Assad falls, the emergence of a Sunni jihadist regime.

An Iraq Strategy Requires a Regional Strategy
By Ilan Goldenberg

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.

Embed U.S. Combat Advisors in Iraqi Forces
By Phillip Carter

To defeat ISIS in Iraq, the United States must deploy special operations forces (SOF) to directly advise and assist Iraqi forces in combat and embed those SOF advisors at the tactical echelons where they can make a difference. 

When ISIS fighters came to Ramadi, the Iraqi Army fled, despite having massive military advantages in manpower, materiel, and every other quantifiable metric of tactical power.  What they lacked, according to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, was the “will to fight.” Unfortunately, the current U.S. effort in Iraq provides them neither the right materiel nor the will to fight. The United States has committed just enough to Iraq to signal our support for the Iraqi government but not enough to achieve our objective: the defeat of ISIS. Without a more robust deployment, and a decision to commit embedded combat advisors to bolster Iraqi forces, we will not succeed in Iraq.

The mission for these advisors must be to advise (not just train) the Iraqi Army in combat.  Currently, U.S. military personnel serve as trainers on secure military bases, cycling through Iraqi units for routine training on subjects like basic marksmanship and tactics; U.S. personnel also advise larger Iraqi units from their headquarters, serving as intelligence and airpower liaisons. These roles are important, and should remain so, but they will not bolster the Iraqi Army’s will to fight nor its success on the battlefield, where outcomes are determined by the performance of companies and battalions, not higher level strategy. Embedded U.S. combat advisors, ideally from U.S. special operations forces, should be given the mission to directly advise and assist Iraqi Army battalions and brigades in contact with ISIS.

If the mission is to advise and assist Iraqi forces in combat, then the U.S. must deploy its experts in this type of combat advisory work: Army Special Forces (SF). These units, colloquially known as “Green Berets,” are trained, organized, and equipped to operate in small teams attached to foreign military forces. Each team has the ability both to advise their Iraqi counterparts and to assist them by calling on U.S. airpower, intelligence, and other supporting assets. These teams do not guarantee success by any measure, but they are the U.S. military’s doctrinal answer to the problem of a partner military force that needs help in the field.

Deploying these military advisors in combat carries significantly more risk than the current footprint for U.S. troops in Iraq. In addition to deploying the SF teams themselves, the United States would likely need to deploy a larger force capable of serving as a “quick reaction force,” such as a Ranger battalion, as well as additional helicopter support to provide both combat air support and MEDEVAC support. Each additional combat unit brings with it additional requirements for logistical support, including the forward shipment of food, ammunition, fuel and other supplies; repair of combat equipment; forward medical treatment of casualties; and other functions. 

The United States Must Expand Influence with Sunni Arab Tribes
By Nick Heras

To defeat ISIS, the United States must expand its lines of influence into the Sunni Arab tribal population of eastern Syria and actively support nascent, local tribal insurgencies against ISIS in the Syrian-Iraqi border region. 

ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq without being simultaneously defeated in Syria. Its significant territorial possessions in eastern Syria's Deir al-Zor and al-Hasakah governorate provide it with the vital ability to actively resupply and reinforce its battlefronts in both countries as needed. Further, tribal confederations that span both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, such as the Aqaidat, Baggara, Shammar, Dulaim, and Jabbour, will view the impact of political developments in Iraq and Syria on the Sunni community to make determinations on whether to continue to provide a social foundation for ISIS rule. 

However, in spite of its strong effort to install itself as the state authority with a monopoly of violence in eastern Syria, ISIS faces resistance. Local tribes, such as the Al-Sha'ytat of the Syrian-Iraqi border region of Abu Kamal in Deir al-Zor, have risen in open revolt against ISIS, although these revolts have been brutally suppressed. Angered by ISIS' rule, hardened rebel fighters from local tribal groups including Al-Sha'ytat have formed the "White Shroud Brigade" network, which is waging a cautious, irregular warfare campaign against ISIS. 

In the near term, U.S. and regional partners should seriously explore the feasibility of utilizing the White Shroud Brigade network. In particular, the United States should determine if the network can orient its operations to target and harass ISIS' supply and communication lines between Syria and Iraq and facilitate the transfer of arms, financial, and humanitarian assistance to local tribal groups, such as the al-Shaytat, that have shown the courage to risk displacement and massacre to combat ISIS. Using these lines, the United States and its regional partners can encourage and sustain support for rebellions against ISIS rule in eastern Syria. They should also vet and incorporate several brigades of fighters drawn from the Syria-Iraq border regions to participate in the train-and-equip program. The goal of this effort would be to build out a beachhead of liberated territory in the Syria-Iraq border region where trained and equipped fighters from the region can be reinserted to support revolts against ISIS by local tribal groups as well as a coherent, networked, and momentum-building armed opposition campaign that can be sustained against ISIS' key lines of resupply and reinforcement between Syria and Iraq.


  • 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...

  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

  • Paul Scharre

    Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Paul Scharre is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS. He is the award-winning author of Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence...

  • Phillip Carter

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Phillip Carter was the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. His research focused on issu...

  • 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...

  • Robert D. Kaplan

    Adjunct Senior Fellow

    Robert D. Kaplan is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, originally joining the Center in March 2008. He is the bestselling author of eighteen b...

  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he managed the center’s research agenda and staf...