FPI Bulletin: U.S. Needs New Strategy to Stop ISIS

August 25, 2014

The beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is a brutal reminder of the group’s threat not just in the Middle East, but also against Americans.  To defeat this threat, the United States should expand the range of its airstrike campaign, increase the number of personnel deployed to Iraq, and empower its regional allies to roll-back ISIS’ territorial gains.

First, the United States should expand the scope of its air campaign against ISIS.  U.S. military commanders in the region are reportedly urging the White House to intensify the air campaign against ISIS.  According to U.S. officials, many of ISIS’ fighters have remained in the open and are vulnerable to airstrikes.  The Obama administration should seize this opportunity to deal a heavy blow to ISIS in Iraq.

In addition, the United States should target ISIS forces in both Syria and Iraq, an action which policymakers are reportedly considering.  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said on Thursday: “Can [ISIS] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.”  Without U.S. pressure on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, ISIS could simply return to a safe-haven and recover from any strikes.  Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Iraq, made the case for expanded airstrikes in The New York Times: “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has declared the Iraq-Syria border nonexistent – the caliphate cannot be divided…This is a unified enemy and must be met by a unified strategy.”

Second, the United States should increase the number of its personnel on the ground to advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga militia, and Sunni tribes.  Additional U.S. military and intelligence can improve America’s situational awareness in Iraq,  advise Iraq’s weakened security forces, and conduct independent counter-terrorism operations.  Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution notes that U.S. personnel are essential to  improve U.S. airstrikes, because “It remains very hard to find and destroy an enemy from the air without good intelligence, gained largely on the ground.”  Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 10,000-15,000 U.S. troops would be required for these missions.

Third, the United States should provide the arms that Syria’s mainstream opposition groups need to defeat both ISIS and the Assad regime.  In his remarks on Wednesday, the President said that the Syrian people “do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists."  However, Mr. Obama has not taken the necessary action to allow them to escape that shadow.  Indeed, he has even said that it is a “fantasy” to believe that providing arms to the mainstream opposition would allow them to defeat the Assad regime. 

The President should heed the advice of his former Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who told PBS Newshour that “We need and we have long needed to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that a couple of years ago…the al-Qaida groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates, who, frankly, we have much in common with.”

In particular, the Obama administration should accelerate and expand its $500 million initiative to train and arm Syrians to fight both the Assad regime and Islamist extremist groups like ISIS.  It should also immediately provide mainstream groups anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to enable them to defend themselves from a potentially-devastating attack against the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. 

Critics have argued that arming these mainstream groups could lead to U.S. weaponry falling into the hands of extremists.  However, as the Associated Press reported, the Assad regime “has long turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria - in some cases even facilitating its offensive against mainstream rebels.”  Izzat Shahbandar, a senior Assad regime official, told the Wall Street Journal this weekend that the purpose of this policy was to force the world to choose between supporting the regime or Islamist extremists by undermining the third option of supporting the secular, mainstream opposition.

Policymakers and lawmakers should instead view the mainstream Syrian opposition as they view the Kurdish Peshmerga militia—a group that shares U.S. interests and values, and badly needs U.S. support.  With over 191,000 Syrians having been killed since March 2011, the Obama administration should make every effort to end this conflict—which means supporting America’s natural allies in the mainstream opposition.

Fourth, the United States should work with the Iraqi government to create a political and economic strategy to defeat ISIS. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Wednesday, ISIS “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen.” Indeed, the RAND Corporation notes that ISIS brings in up to $1 million a day in revenue. In turn, the group uses this income to consolidate control of their territory by providing essential services to areas that they take over.

As the new Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi works to form a new power-sharing government, the Wall Street Journal reports that the “Obama administration is preparing to significantly increase U.S. diplomatic, military and economic assistance to Iraq.”  This effort is welcome, and should be strategically used to prevent ISIS from making further inroads into Iraq.  

In addition to incorporating Sunnis and Kurds into meaningful roles within the national government, the United States should persuade Baghdad to politically and economically empower its local governments by returning larger portions of the country’s revenue to the local governments.  If al-Abadi does not target Sunni politicians as his predecessor did, ends harsh de-Ba’athification measures, and ensures due process for detainees, then many of the grievances that ISIS exploited to come to power would be remedied.


ISIS poses a severe threat to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.  Left unchecked, the group will not only undermine more governments in the region, but also launch attacks against the West.  Defeating ISIS will certainly require significant time and resources, and the administration must articulate a clear strategy for this effort.  Indeed, President Obama described ISIS as a “cancer.” Over the past two years, this cancer has metastasized, and the United States will need to use every tool at its disposal to remove this danger.

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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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