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"Stopping ISIL: What Should (or Shouldn’t) Be Done?"

UN Ambassador Samantha Power speaks to President Barack Obama.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

"Stopping ISIL: What Should (or Shouldn’t) Be Done?"

Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Fall/Winter 2014-15

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Belfer Center Studies in International Security; Harvard–Belfer on Syria

 

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, President Barack Obama called on the world to join in the effort to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to “dismantle this network of death.” Samantha Power, U.S. permanent represntative to the UN and Belfer Center alumna, said at the UN on August 15, 2014, "The growth of...ISIL, al-Nusrah Front, and other associates of al-Qaeda respresents a grave threat to the people of Syria and the people of Iraq, as well as to the region ad the larger international community."

We asked international security experts at the Belfer Center for their responses to the question:

As ISIL continues to expand its reach and brutality, what must be done in the next year—by neighboring states, the U.S., or others—to degrade and destroy this group?

 

Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs:

Churchill famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.  Could something similar be said about President Obama's announced strategy against ISIL?  Have any of the critics or chattering classes identified a superior, feasible alternative?

The strategy Obama outlined is: (1) limited (restricting the US role to airstrikes); (2) local (drawing upon ground support from diverse opponents of ISIL); (3) long (understanding that the fight against ISIL will take years rather than months); and (4) flexible (recognizing the wisdom of Clausewitz that military strategy should be able to adapt to the “fog and friction” of war).

ISIL poses—first and foremost—a threat to Iraqi, Syria, and neighbors in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Turkey, and Iran.  Strategic patience on our part will be required to concentrate the minds of these states, maximizing their incentives to respond—not just to wait for Uncle Sam.

 

Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics and director of the Belfer Center's Future of Diplomacy Project:

Ultimate success against ISIS…will depend on the United States helping to pull together a ground component to match the air campaign. ISIS is too strong, too entrenched, and too wealthy to be defeated by air power alone. This means the United States will have to equip and train the Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect Iraqi Kurdistan against ISIS assault….An effective ground component must also be built in Syria itself….But Obama is right to resist re-introducing substantial ground combat forces back into Iraq. …[It] would undermine the essential point Obama has been making to the Iraqi government and its Sunni Arab neighbors — this has to be your fight…

Americans should expect this to be a long, dangerous, and often frustrating mission. But we would be derelict in strategic and even moral terms if we left unopposed a vicious and predatory terrorist group that could ignite an even more bloody regional war engulfing not only Iraq and Syria, but also neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and even Turkey. (Boston Globe, 9.24.14)

 

Chuck Frielich, senior fellow with the Belfer Center's International Security Program:

Obama’s plan for dealing with ISIS is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. ISIS is the symptom and immediate threat, not the root problem, which is that the Mideast is a fundamentally ill region and will continue exporting its problems for decades, unless the U.S. and West come to understand that we are engaged in a fundamental normative and strategic conflict and adopt a generational approach to regional change. This would include state building, including a “Mideast Marshall Plan” to diminish those grievances that do stem from a lack of socio-economic opportunity; promotion of gradual political reform and democratization, subject to considerations of stability and strategic interest; counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation policies to root out all forms of terrorism and prevent dangerous states such as Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; and limited military engagement, as needed, though there is no need for large-scale ground interventions.

 

Barak Mendelsohn, research fellow with the International Security Program

The first step is to prevent ISIL from advancing and committing atrocities in new locations. In some areas, the bombing campaign has been instrumental in halting ISIL’s progress. But airpower’s effectiveness has been limited by the inability to engage ISIL in a sustained manner in other flash points, and the absence of ground forces to exploit aerial bombings has allowed ISIL to continue making gains. For the coalition to be able to deploy forces quickly, it needs bases closer to the battlefronts, allocation of more intelligence assets (particularly drones), and capable ground forces that could be deployed rapidly. The second step is rollback. This would require weakening ISIL by squeezing its resources through denial of access to funds, stopping the flow of foreign fighters seeking to join it, and preventing ISIL from acquiring new supplies of weapons. But the most important element in the campaign is persuading local Sunnis to fight ISIL, which would require making generous offers both in Iraq and in Syria, and making a credible commitment that we will deliver on our promises.

 

Payam Mohseni, director of the Belfer Center's Iran Project and fellow of Iran studies

By viewing ISIS as an opportunity to “reset” its working relations with Iran in the region, the United States can help Iran become a constructive player in the conflict and weaken the potential for it to act as a spoiler or destabilizing force. Moreover, it will allow the United States to make effective use of Iranian power and the Shi’a militias in opposing ISIS, by far the best regional means of military boots on the ground. To do so, the United States must not only clarify its own vision for the Middle East, but also, just as importantly, persuade Saudi Arabia to cooperate and work with the Iranians. Yes, engaging Iran and incorporating it as part of the Middle East order will be a daunting task fraught with its own risks, particularly at a time when the nuclear negotiations are taking place. But not doing so will only further exacerbate the ongoing conflict in a direction that will be worse not only for the entire Middle East, but for U.S. interests as well. (National Interest, 10.6.14)

 

Nawaf Obaid, visiting fellow with the Belfer Center

There needs to be a combined Arab army that will invade Syria and bring down the Assad regime in Damascus and the other main urban centers and then go onto the northern Syrian territories held by IS and literally eradicate IS fighters from every city and village. Otherwise, IS will continue to grow in strength and popularity in Syria and around a Muslim world, overwhelmingly dominated by Sunnis. No western ground forces, especially American, should be inserted into this conflict. The damage being done by American strikes on Syria and Iraq on the hearts and minds of the majority of ordinary Muslims is already tremendous.

But let there be no mistake, IS will not be eradicated without the fall of the Assad regime. IS grew out of the butcheries that Assad’s forces committed. The current Syria policy by the international community is simply not sustainable and an absolute travesty.

 

Farah Pandith, senior fellow with the Belfer Center's Middle East Initiative:

America can’t “degrade and destroy” these groups without committing itself (and building a new kind of coalition) to stop the appeal of the extremist ideology. The answer is not in using hard power alone, but combining it with the same amount of attention, coalition building, money and seriousness in a global soft power strategy. This means unleashing the creative, local, organic efforts that stop a young boy (and increasingly young girl) from finding their narrative appealing. This has been done on a micro scale through counter narratives and programs in the real and virtual world….[T]hese groups are savvy and smart in their online and offline marketing….

Using credible voices from across the planet, we must build like-minded active networks and organize campaigns that criscross the planet and prevent the spread of the appeal. Fierce attention to religious education and global public pressure on Saudi and Qatar to stop their systematic indoctrination of intolerance for diversity of Islam (not to speak of other faiths) is key. Winning the ideological war against the extremists is possible, but America must commit to this effort in its entirety – not just a current group called ISIL.

In the thirteen years since 9/11 we have learned a massive amount about the way in which Muslim millennials get radicalized. What good is this knowledge if we don’t use it to prevent the process from happening?  ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other ideologically driven non state actors are winning because they have a steady stream of recruits.  America can’t “degrade and destroy” these groups without committing itself (and building a new kind of coalition) to stop the appeal of the extremist ideology.

The answer is not in using hard power alone, but combining it with the same amount of attention, coalition building, money and seriousness in a global soft power strategy. This means unleashing the creative, local, organic efforts that stop a young boy (and increasingly young girl) from finding their narrative appealing. This has been done on a micro scale through counter narratives and programs in the real and virtual world. There is proof of concept from which to scale up.

Based on an “us and them” framework, these groups are savvy and smart in their online and offline marketing. Their consumers are digital natives, share a crisis of identity, and seek answers from Sheikh Google and beyond.  Using credible voices from across the planet, we must build like-minded active networks and organize campaigns that criscross the planet and prevent the spread of the appeal. Fierce attention to religious education and global public pressure on Saudi and Qatar to stop their systematic indoctrination of intolerance for diversity of Islam (not to speak of other faiths) is key. Mobilizing vibrant millennials by lifting up their voices to speak to their peers will catalyze action in new ways.

If we use the next 12 months to  focus as seriously on soft power as hard power,  we will not only “degrade and destroy” ISIL, we will be on our way to prevent a new generation from joining the extremist’s call to action. Winning the ideological war against the extremists is possible, but America must commit to this effort in its entirety – not just a current group called ISIL.

 

David Petraeus, retired four-star Army general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center:

It will take years, not months, to overcome the ISIL threat; indeed, as the administration has noted, this challenge will not be resolved in President Obama’s remaining years in office. The campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria should include elements of the civil and military components of the comprehensive counterinsurgency plan that were employed during the 2007 U.S. surge. In Iraq, the key difference is that the Iraqi government needs to take a leadership role where the U.S. did before. Iraqi forces – including in reconciliation and in security tasks, with the Iraqi military and police, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni militias – will need to continue working to clear ISIL on the ground. The U.S. can provide support through airstrikes and special advisers, but we should be careful not to take over the leadership of units on the ground. And as hard as Iraq will be, Syria will be vastly harder. Reconnaissance and intelligence operations are critical: we need to identify ISIL targets as soon as they pop up and hit them as soon as we can. Regional allies can also play an important role, not necessarily by adding boots on the ground but by additional air assets and by providing much-needed funding for counter-ISIL operations.

Looking ahead, we should neither underestimate Iraqi troops (especially after U.S.-led reconstitution operations are conducted) nor overestimate ISIL. ISIL has become mythologized already, and in many ways their military leadership is impressive, but they can be defeated by a coordinated effort of competent forces with intelligent leadership. Again, though, these campaigns will take years, not months, and considerable resolve, persistence, and sheer will.

 

Ariane Tabatabai, associate with the Belfer Center's International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom:

As the United States begins to lead the international coalition against ISIS, it must take several steps. First, Washington must carefully choose the groups it is supporting in the region. In the past, countries have trained and armed groups in the Middle East and South Asia, which have later revealed more dangerous than the initial threat they were supported to fight. Second, the coalition must undermine the sectarian nature of the conflict. This is key in ensuring that Syria and Iraq maintain their national unity and territorial integrity after ISIS is dealt with. Third, the United States must work with Iran and must encourage Riyadh to talk to Tehran. Fourth, states must make adjustments in their foreign and domestic policies. Western countries with considerable numbers of jihadists, such as France, must question their policies, including on immigration and integration/assimilation.

 


 

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For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

"Stopping ISIL: What Should (or Shouldn’t) Be Done?." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2014-15.

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