How to Fight — and Beat — ISIS

5 minute read
Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. and coauthor of An Intensified Approach to Combatting the Islamic State.

In bringing terror to one of the world’s most beloved cities, ISIS did far more than wreak devastation on Parisians out for a Friday evening. The coordinated attacks ensured that Nov. 13 will assume a place in the pantheon of dates that are shorthand for barbarism. The violence left millions in France and beyond fearful, traumatized and grasping for a response. And it demonstrated the group’s willingness to attack civilians and targets no matter how innocent or how “soft.”

The attacks also ended any debate about ISIS’s international ambitions. Just weeks ago, experts were divided about the group’s desires, with some arguing that its focus was mostly local, and that its efforts to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria took precedence over attacks abroad. No longer. ISIS is now suspected of having, in short succession, brought down a commercial Russian airliner, launched major attacks in the heart of Beirut and sown violence and mayhem across Paris. Perhaps the group wishes to impose a cost for interventions in Syria by France, Russia, and Lebanese Hizballah. Possibly ISIS sees these countries and others as inevitable obstacles to the state-building project it envisions for the wider Middle East. Or maybe a program of catastrophic international terrorist attacks was part of the plan all along.

It’s hard to know precisely what motivates ISIS, but it would be folly to think that that the U.S. will remain immune from its designs. America remains a harder target than Europe but by no means an impossible one. Even before the latest spate of international attacks, FBI director James Comey reported that ISIS-related investigations are ongoing in all 50 states.

Paris certainly represented a wakeup call — but to what? Already, one hears the rising of a martial spirit that faded in the years since 9/11. President François Hollande said that France will act by “all the means necessary,” and in a way that “will be merciless toward the barbarians.” His Prime Minister added that France must intensify its military operations in Syria in order to “annihilate” ISIS. Over the weekend France carried out air strikes against ISIS positions in Raqqa. Expect escalation on all sides.

The imperative is neither to yield to panic and fear nor merely to continue a failing international effort to combat ISIS. The Obama Administration’s initial response seems worryingly to suggest the latter. Its oft-stated desire to avoid a large-scale American combat role on the ground in Syria and Iraq has moved from mantra to organizing principle. Yet well short of invading either country, there are ways that the U.S. and its international partners can and should intensify the fight against ISIS.

In Iraq, this would start by providing arms directly to Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters willing to take on ISIS, and pushing Baghdad vigorously to establish a national guard that would subsume local units. American advisers embedded with the Iraqi security forces would make their combat efforts more effective, and deploying forward air controllers to spot targets on the ground would make air strikes more accurate. A U.S.-led international effort to push Iraq’s leaders toward more inclusive governance would reduce the political alienation among Sunnis that feeds ISIS’s support.

In Syria, a stepped-up American effort would increase support to Kurdish forces in the north and moderate rebel groups in other parts of the country. The Pentagon’s spectacular failure to train anti-ISIS opposition forces would be far more effective if it removed the restriction on those fighters taking on the Assad regime. Deploying additional special operations forces beyond the 50 announced by President Obama could increase the pace of air strikes and help coordinate efforts against ISIS on the ground. The diplomacy aimed at pushing Bashar Assad to negotiate with opposition groups is likely to come to naught so long as he believes his regime can prevail on the battlefield; strengthening those groups that seek his removal could help bring an acceptable end to the civil war into sight.

In so doing, the U.S. and others — including France — should avoid the temptation to cut a deal with Assad in order to join forces against the greater evil in ISIS. Assad’s own barbarity fuels the sense of Sunni alienation in Syria on which ISIS feeds. His enduring misrule will ensure the civil war continues, and the war is the cauldron in which ISIS and other extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, will continue to thrive. Establishing a safe zone along the Turkish border in the northeast and another along the Jordanian border in the south would help mitigate the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria, reduce the flow of refugees, and create space for opposition groups to quietly regroup and strengthen.

None of these steps would require a major American ground force, and in combination they would significantly enhance the international coalition’s effectiveness against ISIS.

Parisians today have faith that nobody — not ISIS nor any other menace — will darken the City of Light. In this they are most certainly right. Yet if ever there were a cause that should unite the civilized nations of the world, the fight against ISIS should be it. Its cruelty at home — the wanton executions, its enslavement of women, the destruction of humankind’s heritage — is matched only by its growing appetite to export brutality abroad. The time to stop it is now.

Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. and coauthor of An Intensified Approach to Combatting the Islamic State.

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