The recent executions of journalists James Foley and Steven Satloff by a British-accented militant has brought to the public consciousness what Middle East and security experts have known for some time: The Islamic State (IS) is a clear and present danger to U.S. interests in the Middle East and ultimately to the U.S. homeland as well. Recognizing this threat, President Barack Obama is expected on Wednesday to unveil a strategy to counter it.
A comprehensive plan to defeat the IS must involve at least four factors: IS militants must be deprived of their haven in Syria; a coalition of willing local ground forces must be assembled; the U.S. must bring its key advantages in airpower, intelligence, planning and synchronization to bear; and the IS must be isolated physically, financially and ideologically.
That Syria must be part of the combat plan is a simple military fact. The record in defeating groups that have a safe haven to which they can retreat (for example, the Taliban to Pakistan, the Viet Cong to Cambodia) is not encouraging. To be sure, the politics of attacking in Syria are exponentially more difficult than in Iraq because of Syria’s interest to U.S. rivals such as Iran and Russia. But this obstacle must be overcome if the U.S. is to defeat the IS. Its militants have logistics bases, training sites and financial assets in Syria, all of which are vulnerable to attack by air, at least in the initial stages.
Second, the U.S. must assemble another “coalition of the willing” to engage IS militants on the ground. The Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga troops should form the bulk of the force, but there is a menagerie of unlikely allies as well. For example, it is an open secret that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is at least advising Iraqi forces, if not providing shock troops as well. Rather than rejecting its influence, the U.S. should welcome its participation. Likewise, a key participant in the rescue of the Yazidi refugees under siege by IS militants was the PKK, a Turkish-based Kurdish force that happens to be on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. While the U.S. has assisted Turkey in targeting this group in the past, to the extent that the PKK is willing to engage against the IS, the U.S. should accept the help.
Similarly, in Syria there are at least two groups that could be enlisted to fight IS militants: the forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the remnants of the opposition Free Syrian Army. That these two forces are busy fighting each other is, of course, a huge complication. Getting both these forces into the fight against the IS will be virtually impossible outside of some type of negotiated settlement. Further, in Syria and Iraq, there will be a delicate balancing act between accumulating military allies and maintaining the appearance of neutrality in the larger Sunni-Shia cold war. Given IS policy toward the Shia populations in the region, Shia groups — Iran, the Assad regime, Iraqi Shia militias and even Hezbollah — are among the most motivated to fight IS militants. But if the fight against the IS came to resemble an anti-Sunni coalition, military utility could be trumped by political disaster.
The United States should orchestrate this effort by harnessing its strengths. The use of U.S. ground troops remains toxic in U.S. and Iraqi politics and is therefore off the table. But the U.S. can and should provide airpower, intelligence, planning and synchronization (the coordination of complex military operations) — all areas in which the U.S. has a marked advantage. The U.S. should also be willing to provide weapons and equipment to the government of Iraq, at market price. Iraq has sufficient petrodollars to fund its war effort, and it is important that the fight against the IS be, to the maximum extent possible, solved locally.
Finally, the IS must be isolated — physically, financially and ideologically. It is a sad fact that many traditional U.S. allies have been irresponsibly tolerant (or even supportive) of IS militants in the past. Turkey has been described as having rolled out the red carpet for the IS, willing to turn a blind eye to the group’s excesses as long as it opposed the Assad regime. Likewise, Kuwait’s lax money transfer laws have facilitated the movement of IS funds, both internally generated (the majority) and externally. The U.S. must insist that its allies in the region cease any activity that gives aid and comfort to this group. One encouraging sign is the recent condemnation of the IS by Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious authority. But a concerted effort by all actors in the region will be necessary to complicate the movement of IS fighters, intercept at least some of their funding and weaken their ideological appeal.
Confronting the IS threat may require a reassessment of U.S. allies and enemies in the region. Traditional enemies who are willing to assist in the counter-IS effort may find a new hearing in Washington, while longtime allies who are unwilling to assist in this effort may find their relationship re-evaluated. The IS presents a uniquely dangerous challenge; how regional actors respond should be heavily weighted when evaluating the U.S. relationship with them.
This new and novel form of malignant terrorism — taking the form of a de facto army on behalf of a self-proclaimed sovereign state — brings the potential for a uniquely dangerous and murderous disruption in a critical region. While the United States will continue to avoid the use of its ground troops, it should (and appears to be planning to) strengthen its allies on the ground. This model has worked in Libya (militarily, at least — its politics will need more attention than the country has received) and with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and we saw a proof of concept in the Mosul Dam operation, in which U.S. airstrikes helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regain control of Iraq’s largest dam. If a coordinated military response is matched with political isolation of the IS, the threat can be contained and rolled back. Ideology is not susceptible to firepower, but the people imposing it by force of arms are.