Assessing the Campaign Against ISIS

December 9, 2014

This week, both the House and Senate will hold critical hearings to assess the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In advance of these hearings, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) hosted a full-day Forum  last week at which Ambassadors James Jeffrey and Robert Ford, who represented the United States in Iraq and Syria, respectively, described how American leadership will be vital to defeating ISIS.

FPI believes the following key quotes – as well as the full video from the event – will be helpful for lawmakers and their staffs as they examine the Obama administration’s response to this growing crisis.

What Advice Would You Offer the Obama Administration?

“Time isn’t on our side. Reconsider the ‘no U.S. combat formations on the ground’ decision, because you may have to either renege on that or you may have to fall off of your very important mission of destroying ISIS. I think there’s a gap between the two.” – Ambassador James Jeffrey

“We better put, like in every other conflict that I know of, advisory teams on the ground: Joint Tactical Forward Air Controllers and other groups.  These are small numbers of highly trained professionals. They would be at some risk, but they will make all the difference going out there with Iraqi forces….  We don’t have the luxury of having them [the Iraqis] perform in an inadequate way, so that needs to be done right now. I don’t understand why the administration is dragging its heels when it hears from Dempsey it hears from others that this is something that should do and is being contemplated. – Ambassador James Jeffrey

“[ISIS] is not something which drone strikes or F-16 strikes is going to contain because the Islamic State, let’s face it, it’s a state. It drives me crazy that Washington won’t say that. It is a state. It has an administration. It has an army. It controls territory. It runs schools. It runs hospitals. It runs an energy sector. It’s a state, and deal with that. That’s a bigger threat even. So you do not destroy a state just with drone strikes. You’re going to require boots on the ground.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

Partners and Adversaries in the Conflict

“The Iranians and Assad… are not our allies. First of all, on practical terms, they aren’t going to liberate Sunni Arab areas. They’re just going to be massacred themselves and massacre the locals. Secondly, we don’t need them. We and our 60 allies who were up in Brussels have enough forces, have enough money, have enough capability if we mobilize ourselves and do it right; again, with American leadership. We can do this, and we don’t want to do it with them.” – Ambassador James Jeffrey

“Assad and particularly Iran and ISIS are manifestations of the same problem: alternative universes.... There are people in the Middle East, including the Iranians (and the Iranians are the driving force behind Assad), and ISIS, that have an alternative universe view of the world, and they can never be our allies.” – Ambassador James Jeffrey

“In that whole region only a handful of states are really states as we understand it: Israel, Iran, Turkey and the non-state of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The rest of them do not have the anchors that nation states have. Furthermore, that region is faced with a traditional millennial approach to world history, an alternative way of organizing society, politics, state, and religion in these messianic caliphate movements that we keep see emerging from the Islamic world. These aren’t accepted in any serious way by most Muslims, but it is accepted by enough to lead to continuing problems. We have a version of that with Iran and versions of this with the Muslim Brothers, obviously with al-Qaeda, and on steroids with ISIS.” – Ambassador James Jeffrey

“There needs to be a regional political effort at a higher level. It is very clear that we and the Turks are not on the same page about Syria, and I don’t think we’re fully on the same page about Iraq….  That’s going to require some high level time… here [in Washington] working with the leaders in those countries to come to an agreement on not only the Islamic State but a whole broader set of issues related to nation states and stability versus reform.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

On the Situation in Syria

“To be very blunt, it is impossible to contain the Islamic State in even Iraq without also dealing with Syria. If nothing else, the Islamic State, having deep strategic depth in Syria, will enable it constantly to be a problem in Iraq.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

“There is real anger in Syria… that the Americans seem to be more concerned with the Islamic State which has killed probably 3,000 to 5,000 people. But the Assad regime has probably killed 150,000. And so ‘why,’ they ask, ‘are the Americans so concerned about the Islamic State and not about a regime that has probably killed at least 30 to 50 times as many people?’…  That is not a public diplomacy problem. That is a policy problem.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

“On the Syrian side of the border, I have to tell you, it is so bad now that options that would have, I think, been quite useful three years ago, with the passage of three years, it’s much more difficult [now].” – Ambassador Robert Ford

“We need boots on the ground. There needs to be serious thinking here in Washington about whose boots on the ground those are going to be. Do you think Assad has the boots on the ground? Or is it going to be the people against Assad? There aren’t a lot of other options. So, I would submit to you, just the grim reality of Iraq and Syria after three and a half years of horrible war of attrition, the Assad regime does not have the manpower to take on the Islamic State. That’s why it had basically an indirect truce with the Islamic State for the better part of two years. So, they don’t have the manpower, so they have to look to people who are fighting against Assad. And this administration idea that the Free Syrian Army is going to fight the Islamic State without fighting the Assad regime, I have to tell you, the word ‘fantasy’ gets thrown a lot on Syria, that is the biggest fantasy.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

On Advancing Democracy and Security Concurrently

“Don’t give up on reform and greater respect for human rights, but understand that you will have to balance it with security issues.  To my mind, looking at the Arab Spring, you don’t have to have a Big Bang and create democratic governments in six months. You do need to have gradual, visible improvement so that this aggrieved Sunni Arab population… has a sense that, little by little, things will get better. – Ambassador Robert Ford

“I think it would be a mistake for the Americans to ignore human rights in the rush to security policy and the fight against the Islamic State because the Islamic State in part comes out of grievances, human rights abuses committed widely by the Assad regime in Syria and by the previous government in Iraq. That’s where it came from. So you can’t ignore the root causes, even as you address, very reasonably, the counterterrorism pulse. The trick is to find a balance and accept gradual improvement on human rights.” – Ambassador Robert Ford

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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