ISIS crisis

Recent gains by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and the well-publicized executions of captured journalists and aid workers have once again drawn US military assets and personnel into a civil war. While Iraq remains familiar terrain for both the political elite, the American public and the thousands who served in the Global War on Terror, a great deal of misinformation about what the US can and should do in addressing the civil conflicts in Islamic states in the Middle East remains in mainstream discourse.

In his recent speech at UN, the US President Barack Obama announced a multifaceted strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State organization. The announced strategy is for the United States to lead and expand a multilateral coalition that will undertake direct military action, provide support for partner ground forces in Iraq and Syria, gather and share intelligence and use financial measures to try to progressively shrink the geographic and political space, manpower, and financial resources available to the Islamic State. The US and its allies all have ruled out deploying combat forces to either Iraq or Syria.

Some assert that the US strategy will attract the support of Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq in a broad effort to defeat the Islamic State. Others assess that the strategy might have minimal effect because local anti-ISIS forces will not have support from US or other western combat troops.

Expanding influence

The Islamic State (IS) was initially part of the insurgency against coalition forces in Iraq and has, in the years since the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq, expanded its control over areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria. The Islamic State has thrived in the disaffected Sunni tribal areas of Iraq and in the remote provinces of Syria torn by the civil war.

In the summer of 2014, Islamic State-led forces, supported by Sunni Arab tribalists, advanced along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, seizing multiple population centers including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Since then, ISIS forces have massacred Iraqi civilians, often from ethnic or religious minorities, and recently executed two American journalists who had been held in captivity. The Islamic State’s tactics have drawn the ire of the international community, increasing US attention on Iraq’s political problems and on the civil war in Syria.

Neither pro-Asad forces nor their opponents appear capable of achieving outright victory in the short term. However, the prospect of international intervention to degrade the capabilities of the Islamic State appears to be driving speculation among many parties to the conflict that dramatic changes in the dynamics of what has remained a grinding war of attrition could soon be possible. Some opposition forces seek to cast themselves as potential allies to outsiders who are opposed to both the Islamic State and the Syrian government, while others reject the idea of foreign intervention outright or demand that foreigners focus solely on toppling President Asad.

For the United States and others examining options for weakening the Islamic State, these conditions raise questions about how best to pursue new counterterrorism and regional security goals without strengthening the Syrian government relative to the opposition groups and civilians it has brutalized during the conflict.

Similar questions arise in relation to options for countering the Islamic State without bolstering other anti-US Islamist groups. At present, anti-Asad armed forces and their activist counterparts remain divided over tactics, strategy, and their long-term political goals for Syria, with some powerful Islamist forces seeking outcomes that are contrary in significant ways to stated US preferences for Syria’s political future. The United Nations Security Council also seeks continued Syrian government cooperation with efforts to verifiably end Syria’s chemical weapons program. As of September 2014, all declared chemical weapons had been removed from Syria, and all declared materials of priority concern had been destroyed. Related facilities are set for destruction by March 2015.

The rise of ISIS has posed great problems for the Iraqi state and the legacy of the Iraq war, a conflict on which the US has spent well over a trillion dollars.  As events in late December 2013 and early 2014 have made brutally clear, Iraq is a nation in crisis bordering on civil war. It is burdened by a long history of war, internal power struggles, and failed governance. Iraq is also a nation whose failed leadership has created a steady increase in the sectarian divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni, and in the ethnic divisions between Arab and Kurd.

Iraq suffers badly from the legacy of mistakes the US made during and after its invasion in 2003. It suffers from threat posed by the reemergence of violent Sunni extremist movements like Al Qaeda and equally violent Shi’ite militias. It suffers from pressure from Iran and near isolation by several key Arab states. It has increasingly become the victim of the forces unleashed by the Syrian civil war.

The Islamic State is a transnational Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group that has expanded its control over areas of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria since 2013, threatening the security of both countries and drawing increased attention from the international community.  

In Iraq, the Islamic State’s attempts to assert control over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Al Anbar province and its mid-2014 offensive across northern and western Iraq have underscored the group’s lethality and ability to conduct combat operations and manage partnerships with local groups in multiple areas over large geographic distances.

Reports suggest that the Islamic State’s possession of military weaponry and its willingness to use brutal tactics against its adversaries contribute to the group’s ability to leverage its relatively limited size to control communities through intimidation across a wide area. As of early September 2014, the Islamic State controlled Mosul and areas west to the Syrian border, exercised control over areas of the Euphrates River valley from the Syrian border to Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of Baghdad, and was conducting intense military operations in communities along the Tigris River valley, including in Tikrit and Sammara.

Countering strategy

Since January 2014, US officials have made several public statements describing the potential for Syria-based extremists to pose terrorist threats to the United States. In particular, the US and European officials have highlighted the threat that may be posed by foreign fighters, some of whom hold US and European passports.

At the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, United States unveiled a comprehensive strategy for its efforts to defeat the Islamic State organization. The United States seeks to lead and build a multilateral coalition to try to progressively reduce the geographic and political space, manpower, and financial resources available to the Islamic State.

It also expects different members of the coalition to employ varying means to counter the Islamic State, including but not necessarily limited to direct military action, support for partner ground forces in Iraq and Syria, intelligence gathering and sharing, and financial measure.

The success of the strategy could largely depend on the participation of other actors. A ten-country “core coalition” announced during the NATO summit consists of the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark. Further, numerous Arab states have announced support for the strategy. Experts believe the strategy depends heavily on cooperation from the Arab countries to delegitimize the Islamic State’s ideology, cut off its finances, and provide intelligence on its recruitment patterns and leaders.

 Apparently pursuing its own interests, Iran has been generally cooperating with US policy in Iraq, but the United States has ruled out any formally bringing Iran into any US-led anti-Islamic State coalition. It remains to be seen how Iran may respond to any expanded US efforts to provide support or training to Syrian opposition groups, which Iran may view as a threat to its interests. In Syria, the United States and Iran have generally been on opposite sides: the United States supports Asad’s ouster in favor of a transition regime, whereas Iran is materially supporting Asad’s remaining in power.

However an important question remains: what is an appropriate and effective strategy for the US in Iraq? American foreign policy, long dominated by the short terms goals of presidents, needs to adopt   more long game perspective. The hurry up approach to solving complex political problems is wrought with opportunities for unintended consequences that are vastly more costly than doing nothing. And doing nothing is exactly what the US should not be doing. Rather, US foreign policy makers should be crafting policies that assist enemies and friends alike in their development of strong institutions that are the markers of successful democratic societies.

Experts have continued to stress the need for a negotiated political solution to the conflict in the hope of keeping the Syrian state intact, securing its weapon stockpiles and borders, and combating extremist groups now active there. US administration officials have cited a number of reasons for their reluctance to undertake direct military intervention in Syria or provide large- scale assistance to shift the balance of power there, including fears of exacerbating the violence; inviting greater regional spillover or intervention; or opening a power vacuum that could benefit extremists. Uncertain costs, military constraints, and domestic political opposition to such involvement also have been likely factors shaping Administration considerations.

A lesson one has certainly learned from the last decade is that military action without a clear understanding of the precise objectives of the involvement will always lead to failure. Therefore the US and its allies need to adopt a different approach if they really want to find a long term solution of the current crisis. They should also be sure of the motives of the actions and direct interventions whether it is just to defeat ISIS or establishing peace in the region.

Indirect intervention

The benefits of indirect interventions argue for the use of political solutions. As the civil conflicts that states intervene in are often characterized by profound differences between the warring parties, and intervening in civil conflicts often exacerbates these differences, facilitating further divisions and prolonging conflicts. The crisis in Iraq is no different.

The Shi’a leaders who have controlled Iraq since the handover from the US have systematically excluded Sunnis from the political process, allowed unfettered revenge killings and death squads to operate and generally have made it clear that inter-communal governance will not be a hallmark of the new Iraq. The democratic system the US helped established in Iraq is clearly dismissive of minority rights and currently has displayed little to no capacity to develop a sincere trust between all communities in the country.

Sunni extremists have generally responded in kind to this dynamic, with Iraq falling repeatedly into sectarian violence, most notably in 2006 and again more recently. Perhaps the Shi’a leaders will learn a lesson about inclusion in the political process, provided they are able to beat back ISIS gains with US assistance

The removal of Prime Minister Maliki and the formation of a new government including representatives from the Sunni and Kurdish communities, provides evidence that the political calculations of the Shi’a majority are shifting. However, US air strikes and military aid have the potential to simply save the Shi’a community from having to forge any long term compromise with Sunnis that creates a truly inclusive political order, and the threat of radical Sunni Islamists in the region will continue to drag the U.S. back to the aid of a Shi’a dominated regime.

Moreover, even if the air campaign works to weaken ISIS, only a ground and counter insurgency campaign will truly eliminate the movement’s capacity to inflict harm, and the violence used in the process will only confirm moderate Sunnis’ worst fears about the Shi’a community and their Western allies, given the unintended consequences of an intervention.

If the US continues with short sighted use of violence in Iraq, one can expect instability, chaos, and the next US president outlining how targeted drone strikes and special-forces operations will quickly resolve the instability and root out evil there.