September 12, 2014
A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State
The Islamic State poses a grave danger to the United States and its allies in the Middle East and around the world. Reports that it is not currently planning an attack against the American homeland are little comfort. Its location, the resources it controls, the skill and determination of its leaders and fighters, and its demonstrated lethality distinguish it from other al-Qaeda-like groups. Its ability to offer safe-haven and support to terrorists planning attacks against us is beyond any terrorist threat we have ever seen. The thousands of American and European citizens who are fighting alongside the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria constitute an unprecedented threat to our security regardless of whether those groups intend to attack us. The Islamic State is a clear and present danger to the security of the United States. It must be defeated.
Developing a strategy to accomplish that goal is daunting. The situation today is so bad and the momentum is so much in the wrong direction that it is impossible to articulate a direct path to an acceptable endstate in Iraq and Syria. American neglect of the deteriorating situations in both countries has deprived us of the understanding and even basic ground intelligence needed to build a strategy. We must therefore pursue an iterative approach that tests basic assumptions, develops our understanding, and builds partnerships with willing parties on the ground, especially the Sunni Arabs in Iraq who will be essential to set conditions for more decisive operations to follow.
The core challenge facing the U.S. in Iraq and Syria is the problem of enabling the Sunni Arab community stretching from Baghdad to Damascus and Turkey to Jordan to defeat al-Qaeda affiliates and splinters, while these extreme groups deliberately concentrate in Sunni majority areas. Persuading those communities to rejoin reformed states in Iraq and Syria after long seasons of internal strife will be daunting. But their participation in state security solutions will be essential to keep al-Qaeda from returning. Many of these populations, especially Syrians, may be losing confidence in such a post-war vision.
The problem in Syria is relatively easy to state, but extremely difficult to solve. The Assad regime has lost control of the majority of the territory of the Syrian state. It has violated international law on many occasions and lost its legitimacy as a member of the international community. Assad himself is the icon of atrocities, regime brutality, and sectarianism to Sunni populations in Syria and throughout the region. His actions have fueled the rise of violent Islamists, particularly ISIS and JN. U.S. strategy must ensure that none of these three actors control all or part of Syria while supporting the development of an alternative, inclusive Syrian state over time.