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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.