In Fight Against ISIS, the U.S. Must Lead, and Not Rely on Allies

Originally published in The New York Times, Room for Debate
September 15, 2014

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. (Reuters)

The essential partners in the fight against the Islamic State are the Sunni Arab populations in Iraq and Syria that reject the ideology and rule of Al Qaeda-like groups. Iraq’s Sunni fought alongside U.S. forces to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq once before, but they will not be able to resist ISIS on their own. ISIS is an extremely lethal and intelligent group that has been terrorizing the populations it claims to govern and assassinating potential resistance leaders.

Syria’s Sunni have an even greater challenge. They face two separate violent Islamist groups in ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, as well as the Assad government. These populations will not be able to commit fully to any effort against the Islamic State without American assistance on the ground.

The United States, however, is trying to get the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Turks, and other regional states to fight ISIS in our stead. Building the coalition is important, but will take time to have any effect. The Sunni Arabs now fighting and suffering at the hands of ISIS need help immediately. The United States must assist Iraq’s and Syria’s Sunni Arabs directly. U.S. air strikes in Iraq have primarily supported Kurdish elements and Iraqi Security Forces, rather than the Sunni Arabs themselves. We will not be able to support them until we have Special Forces with them to help rally, organize, advise and direct aerial fires.

The current focus on building a regional coalition in the context of the strategy the president described last week is really an effort to get other states to do the fighting for us. We do need allies to provide basing, capabilities and support from within the Muslim world. But that alliance can only be effective in support of a strategy (which we have outlined) that includes a real American commitment — including some forces on the ground and the vital military and political enablers that only America can provide.

The Islamic State is a threat to the United States of America, and that is the primary reason we must defeat it. The United States has capabilities that no other state or group in the world has, and that is why we must lead this effort. The partial commitment of threatened states and groups in the region is not a reason for America to hold back. It’s proof that America must lead.