Small Wars Journal

An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) First Strategy

Sat, 08/30/2014 - 10:16pm

Op Ed: An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) First Strategy

Robert J. Bunker

Much has changed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya since my writing of two short essays on democractic revolution and democratic realpolitik in the Islamic world in Small Wars Journal roughly three and a half years ago. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has not only complicated this potential democratization dynamic but has qualitatively changed it as a spoiler—at least in the two states it is presently operating in. Some context is required, however, to better understand what the assumptions were for the U.S. in its international policies directed at this area of the globe.  

A simple choice model (see Figure 1) provides an overview of U.S. and allied state preferences for all of the Arab Spring and pre-Arab Spring (e.g. Iraq) countries. All of these countries began with secular autocratic states (0 value) as their baselines—exemplified by the strongmen Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The thinking was that—with demise of these autocratic states—the power and institutional vacuums that would emerge would be filled by a U.S. created democracy in Iraq and the revolutionary forces of democracy (+ value) in the other countries.

As it turns out, the sword of democracy was a rather blunt instrument and no match—when wielded by the indigenous peoples of these countries—to that of the sharper blade held by the various Islamist forces with their deeper spiritual and ideological commitment. These armed groups are composed of warriors gladly willing to die for their cause. The same, sadly, cannot thus far be said for the local forces of democracy. As a result, as secular autocratic states lost internal control of their terrorities, an Islamist state ‘jacking’ (- value) of the expected transition to democracy has taken place.

This development has been a painful realization for many U.S. foreign policy professionals who fully supported the rise of the pro-democracy movements in these countries. However, these movements have proven themselves toothless on the battlefield where the ultimate veto to the ballot box takes place. As in Iraq, partisan and sectarian politics between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd further complicates fielding effective pro-democracy military forces. 

Presently, we have an increasingly fragile Libyan state bereft of Muammar Gaddafi with warring factions fighiting over the key economic nodes of Tripoloi and a recent coordinated United Arab Emirates and Eyptian airstrike on Islamists in that capitol. We also have a military dominated Egyptian state which, until the military’s intervention, was on the path of radicalization under the newly elected Muslim brotherhood dominated government after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has also been greatly weakened by the internal uprisings that have taken place—but has been able to survive and win back some territory with Hizbollah foreign fighter support. On the other hand Iraq, with the demise of Saddam Hussein and his Baathists, has increasingly fragmented (with direct Iranian support of its Shia allies) into its sectarian based regions.  

The rise of ISIS and its subsequent spread throughout Syria and Iraq has futher complicated American foreign policy choices in these two particular states of interest. One of the old axioms of international relations—drawn from earlier historical truisms—is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This logic, however, does not hold up in modern international relations, especially as it relates to present American values and perceptions. As a result, “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy” axiom dominates.

Still, some enemies are more dangerous than others and based on the simple choice model an Islamist state (- value) has to be considered more dangerous than a secular autocratic state (0 value).  This is because pre-existing autocratic states have little expansionist ability due to that fact that they are ideologically bankrupt. Islamist states on the other hand are the main competitor form to the democratic state in the Muslim world. These states—based on Sunni and Shia variants—have very real expansionist potential and, as a result, have to be considered far more dangerous because of their spiritually based ideological component. This component is based on Islamist views of 7th through 9th century Jihad as holy war as opposed to more modern and moderated interpretations of Jihad as one’s internal struggle.

Derived from this realization, and the very real fact that domestic terrorist attack potentials now exist (which includes the recent #AMessageFromISIStoUS Chicago focused tweet), an ISIS first strategy is presently required to be undertaken by the United States. This logic appears to be in line with evolving Obama administration  policies.  When military force is directed at ISIS forces in Syria, this means that we do not have to ally with Bashar al-Assad and/or Hizbollah foreign fighters. When military force directed is directed at ISIS forces in Iraq, this also means we do not have to ally with Iranian foreign fighters.  On the flip side, this also means, in both instances, that we should ignore those anti-ISIS forces because coming into conflict with them would directly benefit ISIS in the process.   

Such an ISIS first strategy should be undertaken as cost-effectively as possible based on a combination of airpower (e.g. aircraft and drone strikes) and special operations forces. Certain requirements exist when following such a strategy. The first requirement is that mission creep does not somehow draw us back into Iraq and into Syria as a result of these operations—our nation can not financially afford such long term boots on the ground (or even worse more failed nation-building) entanglements.

The second requirement is that as ISIS is weakened relative to the other forces operating in these regions (i.e. forces belonging to Assad, Hizbollah, Iran, the Kurds, et. al.), some sort of achievable American geo-political vision needs to be articulated. Creating such a vision is beyond the scope of this op ed. However, it must determine how the conflict environment can be shaped in order to achieve the preferred democratic state (+ value) outcome over the baseline autocratic state (0 value) and even more negative Islamist state (- value) outcomes. Such a vision will be incredibly complicated to implement because, as ISIS forces (and influence) are eliminated in various regions of Syria and Iraq, the ‘political and institutional vacuums’ that will be created will be haphazardly filled by the competing internal and external factions and interests presently engaged in this transnational conflict.

Additionally, the determination will have to be made early on if an ISIS first strategy means the primary objective is the actual elimination of that terrorist and insurgent organization or if it means that the severe degradation (attrition of personnel and materiel) of that organization is the primary objective. The reason for a potential second strategy variant is that a severely weakened ISIS: (a) might have some benefit as a counter-balance to other influences and forces in Syria and Iraq and (b) might have some benefit in order to continue to create a Sunni Islamist schism as an Al Qaeda competitor.

Regardless of which strategy is ultimately directed against ISIS, the realization readily exists that expediency requires an ISIS first strategy to be immediately undertaken by the U.S. against this expansionist terrorist and insurgent organization. The U.S. is not required to befriend certain elements in Syria and Iraq to undertake such unilateral and coalition military actions against ISIS—far from it—but must be cogniscent that the second and third order effects of those attacks will create new geographic ‘power vacuums’ in those states which will be exploited by those hostile to our interests.  With this in mind, the end game needs to be devised now prior to the sustained assault on ISIS that is now beginning starts to dramatically weaken it.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   


No one considers the possibility that Democracy in the middle east is the worst possible outcome. Just because a nation is Democratic doesn't mean it's broad even universal base of electorate isn't insane. Refer to Athens which was extremely imperialistic. Refer to Belle epoque France which popularly imposed Napoleon. Refer to the Confederate South which by general democratic consensus instituted a barbarous slave system. Or later, a racial system of tyranny.

The simple fact is that an Islamic Democracy could simply create a state that morally supports Jihad and sharia aside from imposing it by. Fanatical elements.

Iran is functionally a democracy.

Stug Guts

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 9:14pm

"... the various Islamist forces with their deeper spiritual and ideological commitment. These armed groups are composed of warriors gladly willing to die for their cause."

This is the heart of the problem we face. In lesser forms we faced this problem against WW2 Japanese military and German military. Until Emperor Hirohito, a demigod to the Japanese military and civilians, agreed to surrender and cooperate with the US military, Japan would only be defeated and converted to sanity by a decimating invasion of Homeland Japan. Similarly, Germany required the surrender/suicide of Hitler, their godman, to finally surrender and convert to sanity. This was in addition to the destruction of much of homeland Germany.

In both of these cases, the enemies were DISHEARTENED at a deep emotional as well as intellectual level, resulting in conversions to constitutional democracies with appropriate protections and rights for minorities.

Islam is the most severe challenge for conversion to long-term peacefulness. Muslims have a supremacist heritage going on for 1400 years to the present -- and into the future with the murder-promoting schooling of 5-year olds in madrassas and homes throughout the Islam ummah. Dealing with ISIS and its cohorts will be dealing with the symptoms, not with the source of the contagious disease of Islam. Dealing with the immediate threatening symptoms is certainly important. Crucially essential is that Islam, in its activist 'anti-all-others' form prescribed in Koran, sira, and hadith and implemented via sharia and jihad, must be expunged. If not , years after ISIS et al are defeated the seeds, soil, and nutrients will give birth to new toxic organizations, and our children will have to take up the fight.

Eliminating the Islam supremacist/tyrannical/murderous culture is no small endeavor. In addition, those purged of Islamist doctrines and values must develop or accept from others rationales for living differently. Possibly apostates of the formidable qualities of Ibn Warraq, Raymond Ibrahim, ... can show the way.
No easy procedures to follow. Depth of devotion to the old ways varies in Muslim majority and Muslim minority countries. When will Europe erupt with rioting and worse from their ISIS enhanced Muslim minorities? Sweden, Norway, Belgium, England, France, Spain have already given up control of certain areas of their cities and country to belligerent Muslim groups. Rape, murder, mutilation of Muslims and non-Muslims are becoming more commonplace. This acquiescence feeds the fire of Islam; it does not quench the desire for control.


Wed, 09/03/2014 - 5:41pm

Very interesting non controversial analysis. But what if we make the issue more complex (and complicated) by adding sub-types and combinations of «ideal types» (in the Weberian sense)? For example, «expansionist semi-secular ideological autocracy», or «Islamist regional expansionist only» (as opposed to «global expansionist», etc.?
Also it would be interesting to note that the IS/ISIS/ISIL acquisition of territory goes parallel to similar developments in North-East Nigeria (with Gwoza taken as a sort of «tribute» to the IS gains) and, of course, the Shabab footprint in Somalia.
If these three quasi-states develop formal diplomatic relations, there we have a new equation for PR purposes, but with possible other meanings.

N. Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal


Sun, 08/31/2014 - 10:50am

One has to make a clear distinction between real existent hostility (ISIS) and potential hostility (by other uncertainly defined actors), so one has to be decisive in one’s choice which hostility to confront first. Robert Bunker is correct in stating, “an Islamist state has to be considered more dangerous than a secular autocratic state.” The latter is “ideologically bankrupt” whereas the former because of its “spiritual ideological component” has “a very real expansionist potential” and therefore is “more dangerous. According to this logic therefore, one has primarily to confront and ELIMINATE this danger emanating from ISIS and not merely weaken the latter for the purpose of maintaining it as a force that would prevent other forces inimical to the United States from filling the “political and institutional vacuum” left by the decimation and total defeat of ISIS. First, ISIS in its short reign, other than verbally and ceremonially as true believers of the Koran, have hardly established a “political and institutional” framework that with its ousting would be occupied by other belligerent and hostile forces. The area upon which its so called Caliphate was established, from which thousands of people fled to save their lives, will once again, with the total defeat of ISIS, revert back to its original occupiers, Syrians, Kurds, and Iraqis, who with the exception of Syrian supporters of Assad, the latter two groups are hardly enemies of the USA.

The defeat of ISIS by American airpower and by forays of its Special Forces and its allies of Kurds and Iraqis on the ground will be a decisive blow to all Islamist terrorists, including those of al Qaeda. And it will put an end to the flow of its recruits from internal and external sources. I would suggest therefore that to achieve this great victory one must adopt the strategy that will eliminate ISIS and not the strategy that will weaken it.

Con George-Kotzabasis