More so than encompassing narratives, such as Pan-Arabism and Islamism, local identities have gained in recent years in the Middle East, politicizing and militarizing the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. These trends have created an opening for the Islamic State (IS), which has morphed into a large, difficult and complex challenge.
The U.S. intervention to date has produced important gains. Although the city of Sinjar taken from Kurdish forces remains under IS control, humanitarian aid has reached the beleaguered Yazidi population on Mount Sinjar. Kurdish morale has been shored up, helping Kurdish forces to recover most of the areas briefly lost to IS in Gwer, Makhmour and the Mosul Dam, while preventing the group from advancing toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
However, the terrorist network is far from being defeated. IS has become the world’s most powerful quasistateand internationally networked extremist entity. This terrorist network is in the process of establishing a state called the Khalifat. Limited U.S. actions taken up to now are unlikely to be sufficient even to contain the threat from IS—that is, preventing IS from expanding beyond the large areas across Iraq and Syria that it currently controls—much less to defeat the network and eliminate its sanctuaries.
IS retains support from key power centers, such as tribes and former Baath military officers. After capturing immense financial resources, oilfields and military equipment from deserted Iraqi forces, IS is earning over $1 million in revenues per day. Since the U.S. strikes began, IS has taken over Jalula from the Kurds and is currently focused on the Iraqi town of Qaim on the Syrian border. The fall of Qaim would set the stage for an IS capture of Haditha—a vital link between the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and home to Iraq’s second-largest dam—and eventually, the provincial capital in Ramadi. Losing Haditha and Ramadi would mean that the whole of Anbar province would come under IS control, leaving anti-IS Sunni tribes without major strongholds.
Defeating IS is important. But achieving it will take time and calls for a long-term humanitarian, political and military strategy, including addressing the underlying sources of Sunni discontent. IS takes advantage of Sunnis’ discontent and promises to return them to a dominant position. It has embraced the concept of Khalifat as the right form of government for Muslims. In the history of Islam, the Khalifat period marked a period in which Sunnis were dominant. IS hopes that the Khalifat can stand as a model of Sunni government and a rival to the Shiite Vilayati-faqih in Iran.
There is considerable discontent among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, Sunnis have found themselves on the losing end of Shiite-dominated governments. Nouri al-Maliki alienated Sunnis and Kurds alike, while Bashar al-Assad ignored and even supported IS operations against the nationalist Syrian opposition. Millions of Sunni internally displaced persons and refugees are now living in squalid conditions in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond. As a result, opposition to Shiism is the key ideological underpinning of IS.
IS is the successor of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the Sunni areas of Iraq, disaffected tribes and other local leaders supported AQI before turning against the network in 2006. By 2008, AQI reached a state of near-destruction due to three main factors: widespread outrage at AQI’s maltreatment of the local population; U.S. outreach to the Sunnis through political, financial and security support; and a commitment by Iraq’s central government to respond fairly to the Sunni community’s aspirations.
Moderate and nationalist Sunnis, however, lost ground to IS amid the total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the unraveling of Syria. Without the restraining influence of the United States, Maliki moved to snub and persecute Sunnis. And in the absence of support from the international community in the face of Assad’s brutal tactics, disaffected Sunni Arabs—even those who do not necessarily embrace its neo-Salafist ideology and intolerance towards Christians and Yazidis—embraced IS as the answer to Shiite repression.
The Obama administration has not clarified whether the objective of U.S. policy is to defeat IS or merely to contain the network. Containment would involve a more limited U.S. humanitarian, political and military effort. But it would present risks similar to those that the United States assumed during the 1990s when it opted for a policy of containment and coercive diplomacy against the Taliban–Al Qaeda nexus. A more ambitious strategy now could avoid greater risks over the long term.
Defeating IS would involve a long-term, comprehensive strategy consisting of the following five steps:
Mobilize a Major Humanitarian-Relief Effort:
The humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria requires a massive response. This is essential strategically. Friendly countries who host large number of refugees, such as Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq are at risk of destabilization. For displaced Sunni Arabs, poor refugee conditions can lead to radicalization and opportunities for IS to recruit them. If we allow IS to exploit this opportunity, the threat could expand exponentially.
Moreover, IS is seeking to establish itself as a quasistate, providing humanitarian aid and services in areas it controls. The international community and its local partners must compete for the hearts and minds among refugees and communities seeking protection from or willing to align against IS. This competition will be waged in part in the provision of humanitarian relief and basic services. It is a competition that we must win.
This effort also should be used as an instrument for expanding the coalition of countries working to defeat IS. While some governments may join us in military actions, many more will be willing to participate on the humanitarian side. The United States should mobilize a coalition of donors on the scale of the effort to support the first Gulf War financially. It could set the stage for a major effort that would continue beyond the defeat of IS to promote economic growth and development in the region along the lines of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe.
Catalyze Settlements to Unify Anti-IS Groups in Iraq and Syria:
The Obama administration has signaled that it will accelerate efforts against IS once a unity government is formed in Baghdad. The administration is right to use military support—including material for the Iraqi military and moderate Sunni forces, and air attacks against IS—as leverage in encouraging Shiite political leaders to share power and resources with Sunnis and Kurds. Sunni participation in the fight against IS is vital, but Sunnis forces are unlikely to take up arms against IS without sufficient political concessions.
Even in the face of an existential threat from IS, it will be difficult for Iraq’s political parties to agree to meaningful power- and resource-sharing. Iraq’s prime minister designate Haider al-Abadi—the descendent of an old Baghdadi family and a London-based exile during the reign of Saddam Hussein—may be more open-minded than his fellow Dawa-party predecessor al-Maliki. But Abadi represents the same ideological and Islamist part of Iraq’s political spectrum and must be responsive to his predominantly Shiite constituency in pursuing any compromise that satisfies Kurdish and Sunni demands.
The goal for many Sunni political leaders is a detailed agreement—not a statement of principles—entailing an end to de-Baathification, release of prisoners, decentralization of security responsibility and devolution of authority. This would allow Sunni provinces to form federal regions with their own local security forces.
The United States should immediately engage with Sunni political leaders, not only to help formulate the needed political settlement, but also to bring moderate Sunni forces onto the battlefield against IS and to find ways to split Baathists and tribes away from their alliance with IS. Also, if a Sunni-Shiite power-sharing arrangement proves impossible to attain, the disintegration of Iraq will become inevitable. In that case, a U.S. relationship with a Sunni leadership capable of defeating IS on its home turf in western Iraq will be critically important.
Kurds, meanwhile, want a country with two systems—a federal Iraq in the Arab part of the country and a confederal Kurdistan—in which the regional government keeps recently acquired territories and controls its own air space, arms purchases and oil exports. If power sharing does not work, Kurdish leaders would likely push for sovereignty and independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has stated that the current effort at forming a unity government is Iraq’s last chance. Should this effort fail, it would serve the interests of both Baghdad and Erbil for the Kurds to pursue sovereignty and independence through an agreement with the central government.
Even if progress is made in Iraq, the IS threat will persist in the absence of a settlement in Syria. As in Iraq, the most feasible formula for resolving the crisis in Syria is a unity government with power sharing at the center between the Assad government, moderate Sunnis, and Kurds and other groups, and devolution of authority to regions and provinces, perhaps organized on an ethnic and sectarian basis.
Field Robust Supporting Military Operations:
The defeat of IS will require a stronger military response than the United States has fielded to date. The model should be based on the successful effort to topple the Taliban government after 9/11, which involved U.S. special forces and air power working in combination with local forces. However, it should be more robust than the Afghan campaign in terms of security assistance and follow-on stabilization efforts.
In Iraq, this means working simultaneously with the Iraqi government, the Kurdish regional government, and friendly Sunni forces to develop and execute a campaign plan against IS. The Kurds should be provided with heavy weapons and materiel and supported by U.S. special forces and air strikes to liberate IS-controlled areas from the north. Similar support should go to Iraqi Security Forces and friendly Sunni tribes in a concerted effort to take control of western Iraq. As territory is taken, it is essential that governance and services be put in place to consolidate gains and win the political competition against IS.
Increased U.S. support for the national Syrian opposition and timely military strikes against IS targets in Syria are necessary both to put pressure on IS across all the territory it controls and to lay the groundwork for a political settlement. While the Obama administration has proposed a $500 million program for nationalist forces fighting IS, delays in the provision of this assistance are working to the advantage of IS, which is seizing ground from moderate Syrians. Given the slow rate at which the proposal is moving through Congress, it may take another year before U.S. assistance makes a real impact on the ground in Syria. IS could take Syria’s largest city of Aleppo in the meantime. This program must be accelerated on an emergency basis.
Internationalize the Anti-IS Effort:
IS poses a security and economic threat to the international community. The more than one thousand Western citizens who have already joined IS could very well turn their attention toward their own countries. The threat from Islamic extremists to Russia and China would also increase, were IS to expand and gain more converts. And IS can disrupt energy supplies from Iraq, increasing oil prices around the world.
The UK, France and others are already providing assistance to the Kurds following recent U.S. strikes against IS. The United States could galvanize even more international action by publicly declaring that its objective is to defeat IS. Engagement at the presidential level would demonstrate U.S. resolve, and would ease negotiations with allies and partners on how they can support U.S. strategy. A presidential envoy, empowered by the White House to oversee the implementation and execution of this strategy, would facilitate unity of effort and shared goals between the military, intelligence community and diplomatic service, and coordinate humanitarian aid efforts between participating countries, international organizations and local communities.
Beyond Syria and Iraq, the Middle East as a whole is threatened by IS. Regional cooperation, in turn, can help in defeating IS. The United States should promote cooperation by Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—behind a coordinated strategy to confront the IS challenge and stabilize Iraq and Syria. The establishment of a contact group offers a potentially useful vehicle through which regional actors could help temper the sectarian polarization that is fueling IS. As seen in Afghanistan, where Pakistan continues to fuel the Taliban threat, defeating IS will be difficult in the absence of regional cooperation.
In the less than thirty days that he has to form a new government, Abadi will need support from the United States, Iran, Turkey and major Arab states to negotiate a formula for power sharing. Agreement on reconciliation and power sharing in Iraq and Syria could facilitate greater cooperation from regional players in sharing the economic and military costs of dealing with the IS threat.
Prepare the American People for a Costly, Long-Term Mission:
Without a sustained effort by the Obama administration and congressional leaders to explain the stakes in the Middle East and prepare the American people for a long-term effort, the wars in Iraq and Syria could become a partisan issue in the 2016 presidential elections at precisely the time when the situation on the ground calls for an expanded U.S. presence. It is incumbent on the president to reach out to congressional leaders and the American people and explain the nature of the IS challenge, how it threatens America’s vital interests and why the United States must address it. With the U.S. population eager to wind down the “war on terror,” this will not be an easy conversation. Indeed, even a minor escalation in U.S. engagement will be difficult in the current war-weary political climate.
The lesson of the rise of the IS is that sustained U.S. engagement in the Middle East is essential to stability and progress. Many may wish to turn their backs on the region, but the costs of doing so have already proven higher than those of a smart engagement strategy. This lesson implies that we should keep a residual force in Afghanistan beyond 2016 and that shaping the region in positive ways will require presence and active management of partnerships across the region.
With respect to Iraq and Syria, a long-term strategy to defeat IS is preferable to containment or other alternatives. Similar to the approach that the United States took in 2001 during the early phase of the Afghanistan campaign, a military campaign relying principally on special forces and air strikes could create space for a major humanitarian effort in Iraq, favorable conditions for internal rebellions against IS, increased support to Syrian nationalists and intensified efforts to degrade IS’ predominantly local sources of financing. Demonstrable progress now would preclude the need for the deployment of combat ground forces, and would help the United States internationalize the mission and promote burden sharing over the long run.