Beating the Islamic State: Selecting a New Strategy for Iraq and Syria

Beating the Islamic State: Selecting a New Strategy for Iraq and Syria by Ben Connable, Natasha Lander and Kimberly Jackson - RAND Corporation

The U.S.-led strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) — a hybrid insurgent-terrorist group that as of mid-2016 controls territory in both Iraq and Syria — has been criticized for a lack of clarity, overemphasis on tactical objectives, and insufficient attention to the underlying causes of the greater civil conflict across both Iraq and Syria. This report assesses the current strategy and presents three options for a new strategy. Each of these options, derived from subject-matter-expert input, represents a broad strategic approach to defeating IS. Continuous counterterror focuses on containing and suppressing IS while accepting ongoing instability in Iraq and Syria. Practical stability seeks to reestablish the pre–Arab Spring order in Iraq and Syria, building stable states at the probable expense of democracy and human rights. The report recommends the third option: Legitimated stability. This approach pursues a long-term strategy that seeks to address the root causes of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, reconciling the disenfranchised Sunni Arab populations with their governments, and thereby removing the conditions that allowed IS to emerge and thrive. Other alternatives that fail to address root cause issues are likely to condemn the U.S. and its allies to continual crisis and unpredictable and unending reinvestment of resources, with little real gain in security or reduction in international terror.

Key Findings

The Strategy to Defeat and Destroy IS Needs a Bottom-Up Review and Revision

  • No two experts saw the problem the same way, and each expert criticized the current strategy through a unique lens. Nongovernmental experts were, however, nearly unanimous about the lack of clarity and effectiveness of the current strategy.
  • The resulting impression is that the community of experts — including government officials and senior policy analysts in the United States, Europe, Iraq, and Syria — has not settled on the most effective way to defeat IS.

Root Causes Can Be Bypassed or Suppressed, But Doing So Ensures Lasting Instability

  • Failure to address root causes may mean that instability and violence will outlast any individual armed group. Yet there is little appetite for the effort required to address root causes in Iraq and Syria. Current strategy has thus taken a middle-ground approach that does not truly reflect U.S. understanding of irregular war.
  • The research centered on the two prominent theories about root causes in Iraq and Syria, disenfranchisement and the effects of ethnosectarian discord. While the latter does have an influence, but the deeper cause in these two countries is disenfranchisement from the central governments and from the protections they should be providing their entire populations.
  • Debate over what to do about disenfranchisement is growing; this report argues shifting toward political action while maintaining military pressure against IS.

Recommendations

  • The National Security Council should lead a full-scope, bottom-up review of the strategy to counter IS. This review should address specific issues with the current strategy, including a lack of internal consistency in objectives, poorly defined objectives, and a narrow focus on defeating and destroying IS with insufficient emphasis on changing the conditions that allow such groups to exist and thrive.
  • The best way to reduce and, eventually, end insurgency and terrorism is to address root causes or, at least, to establish legitimate and capable governance. Stability is most consistent and enduring when it emerges naturally from popular satisfaction with governance and other socioeconomic conditions, rather than from government oppression or military action by external powers.
  • The legitimated stability option acknowledges that the best way to reduce and, eventually, end insurgency and terrorism is to address root causes or, at least, to establish legitimate and capable governance. The aim of this strategy is to establish legitimate governments in Iraq and Syria. Each government would be capable of addressing Sunni disenfranchisement while protecting the rights of all other groups. Ultimately, strong and legitimate central governments — perhaps federated or confederated to address regional challenges within each state — will reduce the current, dangerous emphasis on ethnosectarian identity politics and violence.

Read the entire report.

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