Limited US means to fight ISIS

Brett McGurk, an assistant US secretary of state, said recently that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “no longer a terrorist organization. It is a full-blown army.” Others contend that the group will self-implode, or that the threat it poses to the United States is overblown.

On Thursday, Johns Hopkins and the Middle East Institute hosted an event to explore these questions. Omar al-Nidawi of Gryphon Partners joined Middle East Institute scholars Richard Clarke, Steven Simon, and Randa Slim in a discussion moderated by Daniel Serwer.

Simon argued against too much US engagement. He recalled that in 2006, a debate raged over to how to stem the tide of violence in Iraq. One camp, led by General David Petraeus, advocated a sweeping counterinsurgency strategy spearheaded by a troop surge. The other faction, headed by General George Casey, was more circumspect. Petraeus’s theory was flawed, he said, because Maliki’s was not a legitimate government, but rather a sectarian faction in a civil war. Petraeus prevailed, and President Bush deployed 20,000 additional troops. But in retrospect, Simon argued, Casey’s view seems shrewder than Petraeus’s, which was short-sighted. The resources required for a counterinsurgency effort are no longer available. America is powerless to do much now that its forces are out of Iraq and Prime Minister Maliki is in charge. We can use drones or other military tools to decapitate ISIS as a counter-terrorism measure, but counter-insurgency efforts by the US are no longer possible.

Maliki retains a large degree of support among Iraq’s Shia majority, said Slim. Indeed, as ISIS rounds up and executes Shia in Iraq and Syria, Maliki, Assad, and Hezbollah only grow more popular among the Shia. However, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s public split with the Prime Minister could be a game changer. This could pave the way for the formation of a consensus government, led perhaps by Basra governor Majid al Nasrawi. Another possibility is an alliance between Sadrists and former Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi, who won a majority of seats in 2010. But Allawi lacks Iranian support. The only way this could work is if the Sadrists aligned with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The Iranians believe ISIS is part of a larger Sunni conspiracy to destabilize its Shia allies, Iraq and Syria, Slim said. They see Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and even the US as conspiring against Iranian interests in the region. Tehran has argued that forcing Maliki to step down would hand ISIS a victory. But Iran is much more concerned with losing Assad than with losing Maliki. There are any number of Shia leaders in Iraq who could replace Maliki, but Assad is probably the end of the line in Syria.

Sunnis are not as united as the Shia, said al-Nidawi. Divisions have deepened since 2010, when Maliki formed a government in spite of Allawi’s Iraqyyia bloc having won more seats. The rifts were exacerbated when Maliki purged the military and government of perceived (Sunni) enemies. His victory in April weakened the argument of those who sought a political solution, and gave traction to those Sunni who want to use violence to affect change. Short term reforms accommodating Sunni interests in gaining real power, self-government and security could however pave the way for a lasting solution, even if a complete reversal of de-Ba’athification is not feasible. Reintegrating some high profile Sunni politicians would also go a long way towards stemming the conflict. There are thousands of young Sunni men in Anbar and elsewhere who could be persuaded to fight against ISIS.

The Iraqi army is not as hopeless as people imagine. Assad’s army was in shambles during the first months of the Syrian rebellion. But they ultimately got their act together. Some remnant of Iraq’s army will do the same. The Americans have found units with as many as 300,000 troops worthy of support. Syria integrated its irregular Shabiha militia into its regular forces. Maliki will likely follow suit with the Shia militias in Iraq.

It is tempting to wait patiently and allow the Sunni insurgency and the Iran-supported government fight each other to a standstill, as Israel did during the Iran-Iraq war, Clarke said. But if ISIS is allowed to remain in Iraq and Syria, it could pose a threat akin to the Taliban in 1990s. In addition, regional stability is a legitimate American interest, as is blocking an expansion of Iran’s power and influence.

Clarke agreed with Simon that American policy options are limited. The first is to peel off some of the more nationalist Sunnis from the insurgency. Second, we need to think seriously about supporting independence for Kurdistan, if the Kurds will fight ISIS. Even Turkey is warming to the idea of an independent Kurdistan, whose establishment could shift the balance of power in the region away from the ISIS. A Kurdish state could also be a boon to Israel, which has imported Kurdistan’s oil and has long pursued alliances with its non-Arab neighbors. The US should also get serious about arming moderate Syrian rebels, who are fighting ISIS in northern Syria. Clarke called the administration’s current policy “flat ass pathetic.” Simon cautioned that by supplying them with weapons, we take ownership of the conflict. We may also cause more fragmentation, as factions compete for resources. Clarke countered that Obama’s “half assed” approach is undermining confidence of our allies in the region.

The speakers agreed that ISIS poses a serious threat to the region, and could ultimately endanger the United States and its allies. In the end, however, the US must recognize its limited capacity to affect change in the region.

The complete audio of this rich discussion is here.

Here is the video:

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