TIME world affairs

The U.S. Needs to Rethink Its Anti-ISIS Approach in Syria

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters The attackers in Grenoble were said to be carrying a flag like this one being waved in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

The air campaign strategy is hurting nationalists, not jihadists.

The U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has scored some points in Syria, weakening ISIS’s oil infrastructure and revenue and keeping the group out of Kobani. Despite these tactical gains, however, the campaign has had serious local side effects that have undermined the broader, long-term objective of degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria and preventing the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, from replacing or thriving alongside ISIS. Unfortunately, the coalition campaign’s priorities are not aligned with those of the only parties capable of beating Sunni jihadism in Syria — Syrian nationalist groups enjoying broad Sunni support.

Ironically, the coalition campaign has contributed to the near collapse of nationalist forces in northern Syria who, despite their imperfections, were ISIS’s most effective rivals and competed with Jabhat al-Nusra for leadership of the insurgency. Rather than work with the nationalists as partners against ISIS in the north (where jihadists are strongest), the U.S. has excluded them from the coalition military effort. At the same time, U.S. air strikes on jihadists have spared the regime’s forces and inadvertently killed Syrian civilians. The U.S. also insists nationalist forces fight the jihadists — not the regime — making them appear as U.S. agents in the eyes of the Syrian people.

As a result, morale among nationalist fighters in northern Syria has plummeted. Many have defected to the jihadists, who are taking advantage of growing Syrian disillusionment with the U.S. and U.S.-aligned rebels to build influence among the insurgency and the people. Since the coalition campaign started, Jabhat al-Nusra has driven nationalist forces out of much of their core territory in northern Syria, and ISIS continues to threaten those that remain. While nationalists have fared better in the south, they still face a potential jihadist threat there.

Meanwhile, ISIS remains essentially unchallenged in its heartland in northern Syria, despite repeated U.S. air strikes. We may take comfort in believing that ISIS’s repugnant ideology and behavior contain the seeds of its own demise, but that is not likely to reassure its local opponents. And it misses the point: ISIS offers conquered populations the choice between submission — which brings a sense of order and some protection from regime violence — or futile resistance and death. Unfortunately, few rational Syrians in the “caliphate” would confront ISIS, as long as the only alternatives are chaos or the Syrian regime.

As it is currently envisaged, the promised U.S. train-and-equip program is unlikely to reverse the nationalists’ losses or jihadists’ gains in northern Syria. Given that participants will reportedly be tasked with fighting the U.S.’s jihadist enemies but not the regime, Syrian civilians and fighters will see them as U.S. mercenaries, and the jihadists as more acceptable. Instead, U.S. interests would be better served by a two-pronged approach in northern and southern Syria, helping nationalist rebels contain ISIS and compete with Jabhat al-Nusra for control of the insurgency.

In the south, nationalists have fared better at keeping ISIS out and Jabhat al-Nusra in check, partly due to a coherent, rational U.S.-led support program operating covertly out of Jordan. By tightly controlling weapon and funding streams and working with Jordan’s intelligence services to understand the insurgent landscape, the U.S. has helped nationalists in the south avoid the fragmentation, infighting, and lawlessness that weakened them and benefited the jihadists in northern Syria. Substantially increasing material support for nationalists in the south would allow them to dissociate from and compete effectively with Jabhat al-Nusra for leadership of the insurgency, keep ISIS from expanding southward, and prepare for an eventual offensive against the jihadists. Helping southern groups apply military pressure on nearby Damascus would also facilitate a negotiated settlement with amenable regime elements, removing regime violence as a key driver of jihadism in Syria.

The situation in northern Syria is less promising but not hopeless. Even if the coalition wants to avoid confronting regime forces, it can and should concentrate air strikes closer to ISIS’s front lines with the nationalist insurgency, helping the latter block ISIS advances in cooperation with local Kurdish forces when possible. The southern model, in which funds and arms are tightly controlled by the U.S. and flow directly to trusted rebel commanders, should be applied in the north to the extent that it’s possible.

A strategy to beat the jihadists and make sure they stay beaten must be locally driven, led by nationalist forces supported by the Sunni population that forms the insurgency’s social base. Relying on air strikes alone and treating nationalist groups as agents rather than partners violates this principle. It also effectively delegates the fight against the Sunni jihadists of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to a heavily Alawite regime and Shi’ite jihadist groups, including Hizballah. Sadly, this only reinforces ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra’s dangerous but increasingly resonant sectarian narrative: that Sunni Muslims are under siege by oppressive regional minorities, Iran and even the U.S. itself. A coalition strategy that strengthens this narrative would be a tragic failure.

Read next: U.S. Concerned by Iran’s Growing Role in Fight Against ISIS

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TIME foreign affairs

We Must Treat ISIS Like a State to Defeat It

Mosul's Makhmur following invasion of Peshmerga forces
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images Peshmerga forces inspect the death body of ISIS militants following Peshmerga forces' seizure of Makhmur by repelling ISIS militants in Makhmur town of Mosul, Iraq on August 11, 2014.

Statehood carries obligations and commitments—and these expose the group to failure

The international community does not yet understand the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Governments are accustomed to thinking of religious militants as networks of terrorists, saboteurs, assassins and opportunists hiding among the population – quintessential non-state actors, fighting the state. These ideas are obsolete against ISIS. ISIS is no mere militia; in its territory, it is the state. Its claims to statehood are neither unfounded nor ridiculous. Its control of vast territory and resources make it arguably the most powerful religious militant group in modern history. Just as states have strengths, however, they also have weaknesses. Exploiting these weaknesses is the only way to defeat ISIS – counterterrorism is not enough – but addressing the ISIS problem starts with understanding it.

ISIS will inevitably launch terrorist attacks on the United States. At present, however, the group is more focused on capturing land, territory, and resources, and fulfilling its dream of re-establishing the Islamic caliphate. ISIS’ proximate enemy is therefore not the United States, but any individuals, groups or governments standing in its path to statehood. As shown by its limited actions in Iraq, the United States has chosen to contain rather than destroy ISIS, and the group can certainly live with this. Having watched core al Qaeda sink into near irrelevance, ISIS has learned that, without secure territory, recruits and resources, it cannot confront the West. Indeed, even such a confrontation is just a means to a much broader, more ambitious end of de facto statehood.

Given the group’s limited size and ideological eccentricity, ISIS’ state-building project has been a surprising success. However, being a state carries obligations and commitments that expose ISIS to failure. By declaring a caliphate, ISIS committed itself to preserving and expanding its borders and controlling populations, including would-be dissidents. By projecting an image of confidence, control and inevitable victory, ISIS continues to attract local and foreign recruits, while co-opting its opponents or intimidating them into submission. Interrupting and rolling back some of its dramatic battlefield successes would have an enormous psychological impact, heartening its opponents, shattering its image of invulnerability and encouraging popular uprisings against it – insurgencies against the jihadist insurgents-turned-governors.

As an aspiring government authority, ISIS is also committed to providing public and social services to the population, activities in which it is already deeply engaged. These many public goods include power and water services, law enforcement, health care, dispute resolution, employment, education and public outreach. These responsibilities cost money, which in ISIS’ case comes from extortion (or taxation, as it were), control of energy and water resources, and plunder.

These sources are of course vulnerable to physical attack and disruption. Strategic assets such as oil facilities and utilities infrastructure are highly visible and vulnerable to air strikes. ISIS also makes little effort to disguise governing facilities, political headquarters and policy and security installations. As a self-appointed state, ISIS sees little reason to keep a low profile in its own territory. Remarkably, its rivals have made little to no effort to target these assets, which are essential pillars of ISIS’ political authority and governance. For those very reasons, however, destroying these facilities without empowering moderate Sunni groups to govern in ISIS’ place would only lead to state collapse in ISIS-held areas. International efforts continue to focus on foreign terrorist finances such as donations. ISIS – a self-funded organization – remains wealthy.

ISIS is brutal toward anyone who resists its rule or laws; force plays a significant role in its control over populations. Like any state, however, ISIS cannot govern by force alone. Governance requires at least some cooperation from key population segments – tribal leaders, local militiamen and business owners, professionals able to provide technical services, and others. ISIS’ ideology is unpopular, but like many citizens of dictatorships, ISIS’ subjects calculate that resistance is pointless without weapons, money and the ability to organize. On these fronts, they are outmatched, due in part to the lack of outside assistance for rebel groups fighting ISIS in its heartland in Syria. These potential subversives can be encouraged and enabled to overthrown the de facto ISIS government.

Above all, ISIS wants to control territory and borders. Otherwise it is just one militia among many others in Syria and Iraq. This requires fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies, within both Syria and Iraq. That means openly moving fighters, arms and equipment across vast desert areas. Therefore, like any conventional army, ISIS is prone to overstretch. These increasingly lengthy lines of communication are prime targets for ground and air attacks that would destroy ISIS’ territorial integrity and fighting capability. For now, however, its enemies – the Syrian regime, Syrian rebel groups, Iraqi Shia militias, Iraqi security forces and indeed the United States – are either unwilling or unable to hit ISIS where it would hurt most.

ISIS is certainly not more powerful than a coalition of all these potential rivals. Even taken alone, most of its enemies vastly outnumber it. But ISIS is adaptive, creative and ambitious. By contrast, the international community’s response has been rigid, predictable and unimaginative. If it continues to see and treat ISIS as simply a terrorist group, the international community will forever be playing defense, which ISIS can happily live with, until it no longer has to and can go on the offensive abroad. Unless its rivals understand and treat ISIS as a state, and exploit the vulnerabilities statehood presents, ISIS will continue to outclass them in ambition and sophistication, and it will have its state.

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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