Double Take: ISIS

Photo of ISIS fighters in Raqqa, Syria

What role should the US play in countering ISIS and ensuring both regional and national security?

Blog post by: Grace Mausser

In mid-September, President Obama outlined the American plan for handling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (really, they want to expand throughout the whole Levant, but ISIS is the standard term for the American government so I’ll stick with that). In a nutshell, the plan is to arm the groups we are sort of OK with, stay away from the groups we aren’t OK with, and bomb a lot of things from the air. Further, Obama wants to get as many countries as possible to form a coalition against ISIS. For now, there will be no American boots on the ground. For now.

First: the groups we are OK with. Unfortunately, in the Middle East these options are fairly limited. In his September speech Obama spoke of training and arming the Iraqi army, Kurdish troops, and Syrian rebels. The biggest problem with this plan is that training takes a long time. The US has been attempting to train Iraqi troops for the last ten years, and they still lost a strategic position held by 30,000 troops to an 800-strong ISIS force back in June 2014. Training takes time, and there is strong evidence America is not the best trainer. We don’t seem to have Richard Simmons-like motivating skills. Training troops would have been an excellent idea about twenty years ago. It is still a good idea now, but it is far from a panacea.

Of course, arming people can happen more quickly. Arming the Iraqi army and the Kurds is certainly a good idea. Though they may not always have it completely together, they are both consistent American allies with clear motives. In fact, Kurdish forces, backed by US-coalition, just successfully retook Kobani from ISIS. The Syrian rebels on the other hand have much more opaque objectives. Many of them aim for a democratic Syria; others use the chaos to advocate for a theocracy, caliphate, or extremist-oriented regime. The problem is almost all of them want to push out ISIS. It will be difficult for the US to determine which rebels are “good” and should be armed and which are “bad.” Arming the wrong group could help create another Taliban in Syria. The US should arm these groups in a targeted way: most of these efforts should focus on the Iraqis and Kurds, and only certain Syrian rebels should be armed. It will always be difficult to determine which Syrians to arm, but the US could decide based on both ideology and geographic strategy (i.e. the rebels closest to ISIS frontline should be given priority).

Second: staying away from the groups we are not OK with, namely the Syrian and Iranian regimes. The reasons for this are obvious, but it may not be practical or possible. Assad’s government is supported by Iran, and the Iran-Syria axis is one of ISIS’s biggest enemies. Further, Iran is funding Iraq’s efforts against ISIS. It is going to be impossible for US military officials to avoid all contact with Iran and Syria and simultaneously ensuring overall coordination. War rooms are going to get middle-school dance level awkward if the US refuses to talk with either Iran or Syria. The US may need to prioritize its objectives here. Is staying away from Iran/Syria or creating cohesive strategy against ISIS more important? Considering that Iranian nuclear talks may ease present diplomatic tensions with Iran, I am inclined towards the latter, but the American government, so far, has not publicly cooperated with Iran. I believe this avoidance can only last so long.

Third: bombs. More bombs. The US is now bombing both Iraqi and Syrian territory under the mandate of widening ISID targets. Which pretty much means we have bombed every country in the region in the last ten years (OK, not really but it’s pretty close). Bombing Syria is not a bad idea. It will damage ISIS’s supply lines and limit their mobility between Iraq and Syria. However, it is against international law to bomb a country without asking nicely first, and the US has not had that awkward, “Can I bomb your territory?” talk with Syria. In fact, we have no relations with the Assad regime at all. Currently, the US recognizes the Syrian opposition coalition. Perhaps America has discussed further bombing with the coalition, but these discussions have not been publicized. Doing so would help legitimize the bombing and make the US seem like more of global team player.

Some Pentagon officials estimate it will take up to three years to complete this bombing campaign in Syria, and that’s with adequate support on the ground. Adequate support that is far from guaranteed. This could very well mean that, despite Obama’s best intentions, there may be American troops on the ground in the near future. Americans are preparing themselves for this possibility. Recent CNN/ORC International polls have found that 75% of Americans think it is at least somewhat likely that America will deploy troops in Iraq. Deploying troops may be necessary to lead the newly trained Kurdish and Iraqi fighters and to support the progress made through airstrikes. Unfortunately, boots on the ground may be necessary to expedite ISIS’s demise.

All in all, this is not the worst strategy we could have come up with. It is a long-term strategy. This will not be a quick fix, and it may very well require a commitment on the ground. Americans seem to be preparing themselves for this reality, but sustained support, both domestically and globally, will require the American government to continually explain why ISIS is a global priority. And that is another question entirely.


About Grace:

Grace Mausser is a junior majoring in International Affairs and Economics. She focuses on Middle East Studies and also studies Arabic. Last fall, she worked and studied in Amman, Jordan. During her free time she enjoys listening to podcasts and NPR, cooking, and reading snarky op-eds.

Blog post by: Iliana Hagenah

In May 2012, a group of armed Syrian rebels kidnapped 11 Shiite Lebanese men making a pilgrimage to Lebanon from Iran. The group responsible is now known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The reason behind the kidnapping reportedly was to hold the pilgrims hostage in rebuttal to an Alawaiti attack on a Sunni village. But, the pilgrims were Twelver Shiites, a completely different sect religiously and seemingly politically to the Alawites.

In mid-June this year, ISIS kidnapped, tortured, and killed many journalists, doctors and activists in a makeshift prison, the basement of a former hospital. According to Obama in his September 10th speech, ISIS’s logic is simple, “it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

The distinctive difference between these two kidnappings is that while the FSA was aided by the US military at the time, ISIS currently has a US bombing campaign against it.

The US first backed the FSA as an Assad opposition group and this month they are finalizing an agreement with Turkey to equip and train them against ISIS. Using the FSA as a proxy to wage a campaign against ISIS could backfire on the region. Although Obama was careful to point out the FSA are “moderates,” supporting a group with human rights violations and a multitude of motives such as the Alawaiti attack may not peter out moderately.

Back in 2012 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on providing weapons to rebel groups such as the FSA in Syria, the Obama administration was reluctant, fearing they would fall into the wrong hands. But neocons like McCain endorsed the fundingwith a picture of McCain and some of the kidnappers surfacing in 2013.   Now, supposedly to fight an existential threat, Obama has asked for the help of the FSA, claiming they are “moderates” and “secular.” This is an effort to paint them as a stable force he can hand the baton of war to, despite the fact that the Human Rights Watch condemned them for their long history of kidnappings and torture.

 However, Obama was right the first time around. Weapons do not stay within an opposition group. This has been seen time and again in Afghanistan, Iran, and even in Iraq. Government troops have sold their weapons in the black market for the quick profit. A US bombing campaign with unavoidable civilian casualties will only proliferate Western resentment in the region. The US is setting up a stage to turn civilians to extremism, and the weapons could fall into their hands

There is also the question of the FSA’s own interests. According to the Carter Center reportthe Free Syrian army is not a single cohesive force the US makes it out to be for simplicity’s sake. The forces are constantly changing with “well over 1,000 unique groupings.” Many of them are Islamic, though moderate, contradicting Obama’s statement that they are secular. As an entity, each group holds different intentions and visions of an Islamic post-Assad state. Many unforeseen internal rifts could appear in a post-US backed world as the group projects its power on the region.

The US wants to counter the ISIS threat without strengthening the Syrian government. The main intentions of the FSA are to take down the Assad regime, so to many of them, the ISIS fight is just a second thought. This past September the US announced it was not just bombing ISIS, but other militant armed groups in Syria as well. This expanded the US bombings to target two al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups – the Khorasan faction and the al-Nusra Front. So it seems through using the FSA, the US wants to exert pressure wherever it can, on Al Qaeda regimes and Assad.

The National Review published an article analyzing Obama’s strategy against ISIS within the rubric of Walter Russell Mead’s “four main policy traditions.” These traditions are used to interpret the  different philosophies that have influenced the US’s foreign policy throughout various presidencies. It assessed Obama’s policy as the Jeffersonian tradition in nature – “to protect virtuous America from a vicious world.” It seems anachronistic to look at past histories to outline overarching policies. We are still choosing outdated US interests with little reflection on past implications or mistakes, such as the black market trading of arms. Although Obama seemingly wants to “protect the world from evil,” the diverse and misunderstood group of armies he is training are potentially leading the country toward a more unstable future.

“This is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said. No, Obama, it isn’t. It is many different fights surfacing under your thumb.

About Iliana:

Iliana Hagenah is studying International Affairs and Music at GW.


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Author: The Globe Staff