Defeating ISIS

Monday the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po, Ambassador James Jeffrey, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, and Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program to discuss “Defeating ISIS: From Strategy to Implementation.”

Filiu, who has been following jihadists for the past 25 years, believes that the threat of ISIS is significantly greater than that of Al-Qaeda in its heyday, citing the economic viability of the caliphate. Filiu thinks that ISIS can be defeated only if we attack it in Syria, not only Iraq. Filiu was “appalled” when President Obama told the New York Times last month that the United States could not rely on a Syrian coalition made up of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.” Those are the people, Filiu commented, who made the American Revolution. They are capable of governing liberated areas, provided they get adequate military support.

Ambassador James Jeffrey addressed President Obama’s use of the phrase “degrade and destroy” versus the standard “defeat.” Defeat connotes an adversary that is a state or military force that can decide to stop fighting and surrender. ISIS does not fall in this category. It cannot be defeated or contained. When ISIS is stopped in one area, it will reemerge elsewhere. The elimination of ISIS will prove to be difficult as they are “part of an ideological movement that reflects the realities of the Middle East.” The United States must demonstrate resolve in order to reassure allies in the region, who have doubts because of the withdrawal from Iraq and the decision last summer  not to use military power in Syria.

What distinguishes ISIS from Hezbollah, the Taliban and other transnational Islamic groups? ISIS is more than just a terrorist or an insurgent group. It is an organized militia with substantial access to finances and arms. It is a territorial power that controls an area larger than several American states. Jeffrey thinks there must be a three-step approach: stop ISIS’s potential and momentum, degrade its potential, and undercut its appeal to disaffected and extremist elements in the Muslim world.

Eisenstadt had a bleaker outlook than the other panelists, as he believes the United States will undoubtedly fall short of expectations because partners on the ground are not ready. This made him differ with the other speakers on timing. While keeping in mind the urgency, Eisenstadt believes in a “paced approach” in combating ISIS that will allow allied forces on the ground–both Iraqi and Syrian–to get up to speed. We should keep in mind the resilience of ISIS due to ideological and organizational factors as well as the operational environment. At the same time, ISIS has major liabilities. It is spread too thin, its application of Islamic law is harsh, and its resources–while large for a terrorist organization–are too small to allow effective governance and services for the population.

You can watch the video of the event here.

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