A Five-Step Plan to Destroy the Islamic State

Defeating IS would involve a long-term, comprehensive strategy. Here is how to do it.

More so than encompassing narratives, such as Pan-Arabism and Islamism, local identities have gained in recent years in the Middle East, politicizing and militarizing the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. These trends have created an opening for the Islamic State (IS), which has morphed into a large, difficult and complex challenge.

The U.S. intervention to date has produced important gains. Although the city of Sinjar taken from Kurdish forces remains under IS control, humanitarian aid has reached the beleaguered Yazidi population on Mount Sinjar. Kurdish morale has been shored up, helping Kurdish forces to recover most of the areas briefly lost to IS in Gwer, Makhmour and the Mosul Dam, while preventing the group from advancing toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

However, the terrorist network is far from being defeated. IS has become the world’s most powerful quasistate and internationally networked extremist entity. This terrorist network is in the process of establishing a state called the Khalifat. Limited U.S. actions taken up to now are unlikely to be sufficient even to contain the threat from IS—that is, preventing IS from expanding beyond the large areas across Iraq and Syria that it currently controls—much less to defeat the network and eliminate its sanctuaries.

IS retains support from key power centers, such as tribes and former Baath military officers. After capturing immense financial resources, oilfields and military equipment from deserted Iraqi forces, IS is earning over $1 million in revenues per day. Since the U.S. strikes began, IS has taken over Jalula from the Kurds and is currently focused on the Iraqi town of Qaim on the Syrian border. The fall of Qaim would set the stage for an IS capture of Haditha—a vital link between the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and home to Iraq’s second-largest dam—and eventually, the provincial capital in Ramadi. Losing Haditha and Ramadi would mean that the whole of Anbar province would come under IS control, leaving anti-IS Sunni tribes without major strongholds.

Defeating IS is important. But achieving it will take time and calls for a long-term humanitarian, political and military strategy, including addressing the underlying sources of Sunni discontent. IS takes advantage of Sunnis’ discontent and promises to return them to a dominant position. It has embraced the concept of Khalifat as the right form of government for Muslims. In the history of Islam, the Khalifat period marked a period in which Sunnis were dominant. IS hopes that the Khalifat can stand as a model of Sunni government and a rival to the Shiite Vilayati-faqih in Iran.

There is considerable discontent among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, Sunnis have found themselves on the losing end of Shiite-dominated governments. Nouri al-Maliki alienated Sunnis and Kurds alike, while Bashar al-Assad ignored and even supported IS operations against the nationalist Syrian opposition. Millions of Sunni internally displaced persons and refugees are now living in squalid conditions in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond. As a result, opposition to Shiism is the key ideological underpinning of IS.

IS is the successor of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the Sunni areas of Iraq, disaffected tribes and other local leaders supported AQI before turning against the network in 2006. By 2008, AQI reached a state of near-destruction due to three main factors: widespread outrage at AQI’s maltreatment of the local population; U.S. outreach to the Sunnis through political, financial and security support; and a commitment by Iraq’s central government to respond fairly to the Sunni community’s aspirations.

Moderate and nationalist Sunnis, however, lost ground to IS amid the total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the unraveling of Syria. Without the restraining influence of the United States, Maliki moved to snub and persecute Sunnis. And in the absence of support from the international community in the face of Assad’s brutal tactics, disaffected Sunni Arabs—even those who do not necessarily embrace its neo-Salafist ideology and intolerance towards Christians and Yazidis—embraced IS as the answer to Shiite repression.

The Obama administration has not clarified whether the objective of U.S. policy is to defeat IS or merely to contain the network. Containment would involve a more limited U.S. humanitarian, political and military effort. But it would present risks similar to those that the United States assumed during the 1990s when it opted for a policy of containment and coercive diplomacy against the Taliban–Al Qaeda nexus. A more ambitious strategy now could avoid greater risks over the long term.

Defeating IS would involve a long-term, comprehensive strategy consisting of the following five steps:

Mobilize a Major Humanitarian-Relief Effort:

The humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria requires a massive response. This is essential strategically. Friendly countries who host large number of refugees, such as Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq are at risk of destabilization. For displaced Sunni Arabs, poor refugee conditions can lead to radicalization and opportunities for IS to recruit them. If we allow IS to exploit this opportunity, the threat could expand exponentially.

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