The Threat of ISIS

ISIS: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
A week following President Obama’s speech announcing his intention to root out ISIS fighters “wherever they are,” Roosevelt society members met to discuss the terrorist organization that controls territory spanning Iraq and Syria and has assumed markers of a sovereign state. Following a detailed introduction by Ned Brose, Defense and Diplomacy center leader, discussion migrated among four principal questions:

– Could the U.S. have prevented ISIS’ establishment and growth? If so, how?
– Should the U.S. be working with allies in the region to root out ISIS, allies who were complicit in the group’s rise?
– Is ISIS in fact Islamic?
– What should be done?

Predictably, the two heftiest questions–prevention and prescription–generated the greatest input. I will piece these apart below.

Opinion varied significantly with regard to preventive measures, variations that can be assessed by looking at perspectives on what the U.S. should and should not have done. Chief among these, the U.S. should not have invaded Iraq. ISIS developed in the aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its ranks were primarily fed by a different insurgency group, Ansar al-Islam (“Partisans of Islam”), that sought to cripple and expel American occupying forces by targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi sympathizers, obstruct civil reconstruction programs, and foment unrest among Shi’a Muslims, with the purpose of drawing U.S. in to a protracted Sunni-Shi’a civil war. Looking beyond this, the U.S. should not have propped up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki’s exploitation of sectarian tensions alienated Sunni Muslims, many of whom later joined ISIS’ ranks.
Conversely, the U.S. should have confronted the crisis in Syria early on, when it could have stifled the stream of Sunni extremist fighters now loyal to ISIS. It also should have cut ISIS’ financial supply chain–fed by oil wells and gulf powers such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Prescription: What should U.S. do?
We can divide the range of policy recommendations into three broad categories: direct attack, soft power, and abstention.

(1) Direct attack
The U.S. should attack via airstrikes and/or ground troops. Alternatively, it should cut ISIS’ sources of economic funding. In particular, it should block ISIS’ access to oil wells and world markets, and obstruct Gulf financing

(2) Soft power
The U.S. should focus not on engaging in the fight, but on assisting those trapped within it. This means humanitarian aid to civilians in Iraq and Syria. In the long term, the U.S. will gain influence in the region through the attraction of its core ideals: democracy and respect for personal liberties and individual rights.

(3) Nothing
The conflict is beyond our purview and, as history has demonstrated, involvement is not in our or Iraq’s interests. The U.S. should step back and leave Iraq to sort out the conflict itself. Alternatively, it should bolster Kurdish power, encouraging the Kurds to root out ISIS themselves.

The U.S. is now seeking to solidify its own course of action, determining the extent of its coordination with allies and force employed. When tracing out the country’s anticipated degree of involvement, it is useful to think about the questions considered and recommendations offered above. The landscape and accompanying questions and responses will vary considerably in the coming years.

-Thanks to Rachel Bercovitz for writing this outstanding review!

Brief that was handed out during meeting: