The key to degrading and destroying the Islamic State involves the United States looking outside its Iraq first policy and concentrating on Syria as well. The United States must place emphasis on a political solution to the Syrian civil war while encouraging both its allies and the more adversarial actors already engaged in the fight against the terrorist group.
President Barack Obama announced in September 2014 that the United States’ strategy was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), focusing primarily on Iraq. This Iraq first strategy meant strengthening the Iraqi government and its security forces while rolling back the territorial advances made by ISIS. Such a policy is a dramatic reversal of U.S. involvement in Iraq since American troops first invaded in 2003 and, in late 2011, President Obama withdrew troops only to have to send forces back in a few years later with the intention of training Iraqi security forces to stand up to ISIS on their own. However, Syria is a glaringly absent dimension of this ISIS policy. While Iraq is certainly one key to the ISIS puzzle, the terrorists’ advances in Syria are just as significant. A successful strategy to defeat ISIS must look outside Iraq, focusing more the Islamic States’ presence in Syria and employing a coalition of nations to whom ISIS also poses a formidable threat.
President Obama took a step in the right direction when he authorized the deployment of roughly 50 Special Operations forces to Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS. The Obama administration has hesitated to send troops to Syria because the President is “convinced the United States should not get dragged into another prolonged ground war in the Middle East.” American troops must certainly advise, train, and provide assistance to local Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as is Obama’s current strategy in Iraq. However, Special Operations forces are needed in Syria, focusing more on ground combat instead of relying solely on airstrikes.
While a U.S. military presence is needed, ISIS will not be defeated without a political solution to the Syrian civil war. An unanswered question is the political fate of Syrian President Bashar al Assad as ISIS grew in Syria under his dictatorship. Further, forces loyal to Assad complicate the United States’ fight against the militant groups as they target U.S.-backed rebel factions while simultaneously combating ISIS. Assad must go, as many Western leaders asserted in 2011 – but they have little to show for such a bold statement. Thus, the United States and its allies must break the impasse because ending the Assad regime brings the coalition one step closer to defeating ISIS.
The United States must work more with others already engaged in the fight against ISIS. Among the more adversarial actors, Russia began its own air bombing campaign, allegedly targeting ISIS strongholds. There is speculation that Russia has done more damage to U.S.-backed rebels than to ISIS. Iran, like Russia, impedes the United States’ efforts by backing the Assad regime and advising militant groups. Despite their backing of Assad and any strains between the United States and these two actors, they all share a common and more lethal enemy: ISIS.
The United States should also harness its friendly relations with other nations in crafting a holistic strategy against ISIS. Turkey announced it would join the campaign against ISIS in August, only to attack the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The U.S. military has worked with Kurdish fighters against ISIS since October 2014, with those forces proving to be some of the most capable in damaging the Islamic State. France intensified its airstrikes after the November 13 attacks in Paris, striking ISIS targets in Syria. French President Francois Hollande invoked the European Union’s mutual defense clause in need of European solidarity against ISIS. The United Kingdom responded by authorizing its own air strikes in Syria, and Germany increased their supply of resources and troops. While European nations’ involvement will probably not be a game-changer, their participation adds military muscle, political clout, and public support to the coalition against ISIS. Further, the Sunni Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, must get more involved as the militant group poses a grave threat to these Sunni nations as well. Ultimately, the United States must continue its backing of the Kurdish fighters, encourage its European allies, and persuade Turkey and the Gulf States to aid more in the fight against ISIS.