Started from the Bottom: A New Approach to Countering ISIS

counterterrorismSince 2014 the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” can be summarized as follows:

“Arming and advising local forces and providing them with air support to retake territory, even as the United States continues to directly target ISIS leadership with Special Operations Forces and air power”

Through the implementation of this blueprint, ISIS has lost approximately 40% of the territory it held two years ago. Despite these substantial gains, experts and policymakers are skeptical as to the sustainability of any plan that involves utilizing primarily Kurdish and Shia forces in predominantly Sunni regions. These sentiments are expressed in a report recently released by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) entitled Defeating the Islamic State: A Bottom-Up Approach. In the report the authors emphasize the need for a two-pronged approach to “destroy the proto-state in Iraq and Syria, which is ISIS’s center of gravity.” At its core, this plan advocates: (1) a long-term commitment in eastern Syria to train and advise security forces favorable to the local populace with respect to retaking territory and an indefinite transitional period to formal governance; and (2) rather than evaluating groups in western Syria based on their political allegiances (whether they be to President al-Assad, counter-ISIS, or some combination), the U.S. should instead focus on aligning with actors based on where they fall on the ideological spectrum. By supporting groups that reject extremism as a principle, the U.S. can guarantee that their efforts will marginalize radical threats regardless of political affiliations.

To implement this strategy, the report provides four policy recommendations (listed below) for the U.S. government, which are subsequently expanded upon and discussed.

  1. Build coherent regional armed opposition groups from the bottom up that can hold territory, provide security, and marginalize extremists.
  2. Increase direct U.S. military support to opposition groups and U.S. direct action counter-network operations against ISIS.
  3. Leverage increased U.S. investment on the ground into diplomatic influence with key external actors.
  4. Reestablish legitimate and acceptable governance and negotiate a political end-state for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

The report concludes by acknowledging that western powers (the U.S. in particular) by themselves are incapable of establishing a state in Syria or Iraq that is (1) void of ISIS/other extremist groups; (2) acceptable to the local populace and the regional geopolitical environment; and (3) acceptable to the U.S. The accomplishment of such an illusive feat would require at the very least a profound commitment/partnership with regional Sunni powers, and even then might still be unobtainable. The primary goal of the U.S. should be to focus on eliminating ISIS’s ability to develop and execute threats against U.S. targets; leaving neighboring Sunni powers to take the lead on state-building efforts.

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