FPI Bulletin: Next Steps in the War Against ISIS

October 28, 2014

The U.S.-led coalition has little to show for more than two months of airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a campaign now titled Operation Inherent Resolve.  ISIS has steadily expanded its reach throughout Iraq’s western province of Anbar, from where it can threaten Baghdad.  What’s more, although airstrikes around the besieged town of Kobani have reportedly taken a heavy toll on the insurgency, General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in an October 17 press conference at the Pentagon that “it's highly possible that Kobani may fall.”

In the face of these setbacks, the United States should devote significantly more resources both toward fighting ISIS and addressing the conditions in Iraq and Syria that the group exploited in its rise to power.  In specific, the United States and its allies should:

Expand the Air Campaign in Iraq and Syria

  • Increase the number of airstrikes.  Mark Gunzinger and John Stillon, both of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, note that the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS is far less intense than previous efforts.  For instance, while the U.S.-led coalition averaged seven air strikes per day against ISIS over the past two months, the 2001 mission against the Taliban averaged 86 strikes per day, and the 1999 mission in Kosovo averaged 138. 
  • Deploy U.S. personnel to facilitate an expanded air campaign.  The relative paucity of U.S. airstrikes in Operation Inherent Resolve is due in no small part to the lack of American personnel on the ground to help direct airstrikes.  U.S. forward air controllers, paired with front-line partners in Iraq and Syria, could direct far more effective and accelerated air strikes against ISIS forces. 

Defend the Syrian People from both ISIS and Assad

  • Recognize that the United States cannot defeat ISIS without protecting the Syrian people from Bashar al-Assad.  As noted by the Washington Post, the Syrian people ask “why U.S. warplanes are attempting to rescue Kobani while allowing Assad’s forces to encircle and rain barrel bombs on rebel-held positions in Aleppo.”  The Assad regime has killed more than 190,000 Syrians, fueled ISIS’ rise, and systematically uses chlorine gas against civilians.  By ignoring this slaughter, the Obama administration is undermining its credibility as a partner to the Syrian people who would stand up against both Assad and ISIS.
  • Establish “safe zones” along the Syria-Turkey border.  Foreign policy experts and congressional leaders have long called for safe zones in northern Syria, which would both save countless civilian lives and facilitate the growth of moderate opposition forces.  As former Obama administration Syria policy advisor Frederic Hof has argued, “there is simply no way” that the United States or its allies “can effectively support the mainstream opposition ‘inside Syria’ absent a protected zone in which that opposition can establish a governmental alternative to ISIS and the Assad regime.”
  • Provide arms now to moderate Syrian opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  The FSA and other mainstream opposition groups have an urgent need for weapons.  Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has warned, “Moderate fighters near the northern city of Aleppo are in especially urgent need since they face the Islamic State on one front and government troops on another.”  Indeed, the United States has provided only a few dozen older-model anti-tank weapons to moderate rebel groups.  Without sufficient support now, ISIS and other extremist groups will continue to gain power and influence in Syria. 
  • Create a robust Syrian stabilization force.  Although the Obama administration plans to train some 5,000 Syrian rebels per year, the Washington Post reports that “officials do not believe the newly assembled units will be capable of capturing key towns from militants without the help of forward-deployed U.S. combat teams, which President Obama has so far ruled out.”  This disparity between the challenge in Syria and the administration’s strategy is confounding.  A serious strategy would partner U.S. troops to train and advise Syrian rebels to roll back ISIS’s safe haven. 

Demonstrate U.S. Resolve in Iraq

  • Overhaul the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In a recent report for the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Kimberly Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan, and Jessica Lewis note that after its summer 2014 collapse, the ISF now relies on Iranian advisors and Shi’a militias.  It will not be possible to secure Sunni support for the campaign against ISIS unless the ISF is purged of this Iranian and sectarian influence.  The ISW authors recommend that the United States make clear that U.S. personnel will not support any ISF unit that has Iranian advisors.  As they note, “Since American forces bring a great deal more capability that the Iraqis desperately need, it should be possible to win most of these arguments.”
  • Promote reconciliation between Baghdad and Iraqi Sunnis.  As the ISW authors write, “The Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria are the decisive human terrain in this conflict,” with whom the United States must work to defeat ISIS.  Unfortunately, the United States and its partners are losing ground in this regard.  The appointment of an anti-Sunni politician to serve as Iraq’s interior minister is a dangerous misstep that plays directly into ISIS propaganda.  President Obama and his entire team must increase pressure on the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to ease tensions with the country’s Sunni tribes.
  • Accelerate and expand American weapons shipments to the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds are fighting for their survival, but have so far received minimal assistance.  David Tafuri, a legal counsel for the Kurdistan Regional Government, has observed that “the U.S. has provided fewer than 100 mortars and just a few hundred rocket-propelled grenades” to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who “lack even basic tactical equipment used by modern armies…less than 5% of the Peshmerga fighters even have helmets.”


President Obama correctly said on October 14, “this is going to be a long-term campaign.  There are not quick fixes involved.”  Indeed, General John Allen has cautioned that Iraqi Security Forces will not be ready to retake Mosul for at least a year.  However, this daunting challenge should spur the administration to lay the groundwork immediately for decisive operations against ISIS.  If President Obama takes the steps listed above, then he will put the United States on a path to defeating and destroying ISIS.  However, the longer the administration refrains from taking these measures, the more the threat will grow to both the people of the Middle East and the security of the United States of America.

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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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