To Defeat ISIS, Focus on Its Real Sources of Strength

Metastasizing abroad may help ISIS revitalize its campaign for recruits and money in Iraq and Syria.

First, the United States and its coalition partners need new efforts to cut off ISIS revenue and its bulk cash holdings inside Iraq and Syria. While traditional counterterrorism financing efforts help to keep the group isolated from deep-pocket donors, Washington and its partners may also be able to stem ISIS’s activities in other countries by designating and sanctioning individuals who facilitate the group’s operations abroad or are key conduits for the group’s access to the equipment and expertise it needs to operate its oilfields. But sanctions designations alone cannot solve the problem since they will not disrupt the key local revenue sources. In order to cripple the group’s main sources of wealth, it will be necessary to continue to pressure ISIS’s oil operations and its bulk-cash stores inside Iraq and Syria through airstrikes and raids.

Second, the United States and coalition partners must do more to curb the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria. This will require extensive international cooperation, including information sharing, law enforcement and intelligence cooperation, as well as border controls. The United States should lead a dedicated coalition-wide effort to stem these flows by bolstering law enforcement and border protection cooperation, improving intelligence sharing, and targeting ISIS’s media operations, which fuel this foreign recruitment. Although these short-term steps will help to curb ISIS’s currently expanding influence, a lasting solution will also require additional security assistance as well as vigorous and expedient diplomacy.

While ISIS has made moves to threaten the Iraqi and Syrian governments, these governments can most effectively diminish ISIS by making concessions to their Sunni communities. This might require diplomatic engagement with unpalatable political actors, but at this point, even an imperfect peace is preferable to a protracted war.

Benjamin Bahney is a member of the adjunct staff and Patrick B. Johnston is a political scientist and at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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