Newsflash: Time Is Running Out to Defeat ISIS

August 21, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: ISISTerrorismDefense

Newsflash: Time Is Running Out to Defeat ISIS

"A brutal battle against nationalist identity is being waged by ISIS, and a response is needed before it is too late." 


There are several changes to the U.S. strategy that need to be adopted. The first is to make one of the key military objectives the restoration of the border crossings between Iraq and Syria. This is not to suggest the current focus on the part of the U.S. to work with Turkey in creating an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria, or to prepare the Iraqi military for an eventual assault on Ramadi and Mosul, is wrongheaded in any way. Rolling back ISIS from these major strongholds is an imperative. But an additional emphasis should be placed on recapturing border crossings between Iraq and Syria which have fallen to ISIS. While on the surface this may not appear to be of militarily strategic significance for the U.S. and its coalition partners, it would be a strategic setback for ISIS because of the symbolic value attached to controlling these border crossings. Recapturing the border crossings deprives ISIS of the narrative that the caliphate has obliterated the two countries of Iraq and Syria, and their nationalist identities, by breaching the Sykes-Picot line. It sends a message that Syria and Iraq may not be mere relics of the past. While this doesn’t necessarily deal a body blow to ISIS’s military capability, it does represent a symbolic defeat and could help break the momentum of its recruitment capabilities. Moreover, it could be a necessary, albeit insufficient, step in restoring some semblance of sovereignty to Iraq and Syria.

The military focus of this strategy for now should be on the Iraqi side of the border. Syria is obviously important, particularly now that Turkey has entered the fray, but Iraq should be the centerpiece of military efforts. While the U.S. backed coalition lacks significant ground assets in Syria and still needs to deconflict its policy of opposing Assad with its ISIS strategy, it already has significant assets on the ground in Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmerga force and the Iraqi military, both of which the U.S. is equipping and training, are the primary assets that will need to be marshaled to recover border crossings and achieve other military objectives. Moreover, U.S., Saudi and Iranian interests are for the most part aligned in Iraq, all backing the current government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. While not yet formally coordinated with U.S.-led efforts, Iran’s presence through the al-Quds force of the IRGC and its support for the Iraqi Shia militias further add to the ground power arrayed against ISIS. And in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, the prospects for greater cooperation in this area are improved.


The second pillar of the strategy involves working strenuously on the diplomatic front with both Iran and Saudi Arabia to break the momentum of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, which ISIS is stoking in an attempt to atomize societies and break nationalist bonds. It is true that the civil wars in Iraq and Syria have involved proxy battles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that these two regional powers fed the sectarian strife that ISIS is now exploiting. But it is important to keep in mind that both Saudi Arabia and Iran were motivated to enter these proxy contests in Syria and Iraq more by a determination not to let one another gain the regional upper hand than by religious or ideological differences. And it should also be kept in mind that, these animosities aside, Iran and Saudi Arabia both recognize now that ISIS has stolen the initiative in these battles and that this organization has morphed into a regional threat.

While it is unrealistic to expect that as a result of U.S. diplomacy Saudi Arabia and Iran will somehow put their animosities aside in time to counter ISIS’s strategy, there have been some positive developments in this area. Recent meetings between Russia (which backs Iran’s efforts in Syria) and Saudi Arabia, and three-way meetings between Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States could point the way towards greater cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in countering ISIS’s strategy to disrupt the regional order.

One of the things the U.S. should push for is a public repudiation by Iranian and Saudi officials of ISIS’s religious ideology and the sectarian violence it is exploiting. Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has made conciliatory statements towards Saudi Arabia as of late, arguing that it is incumbent on the clergy in both countries to invite moderation as a way to counter the extremist messages of ISIS. Rafsanjani may be a lone voice among the ruling elite in Iran, and the Saudis have shown little proclivity to reciprocate. But nonetheless the emphasis of U.S. diplomacy should be on having top, influential Sunni and Shia voices from the region publicly and repeatedly repudiate the messages of ISIS. While the U.S. is currently involved with a strategy with the UAE to get moderate clerics to discredit ISIS, the power of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the two Islamic heavyweights, would be a far more legitimate and robust counterweight to ISIS’s ideological warfare.

The third part of the strategy will be controversial in many parts of the Arab world, particularly in Cairo. But eventual rehabilitation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could be an effective bulwark against the spread of ISIS. The danger is that if kept underground, certain cells of the Brotherhood might break away and align with ISIS out of desperation. If the Brotherhood could eventually resume its role as the unofficial opposition, it could close the space that was dangerously left open after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and that ISIS hankering to fill. Before it is too late, the United States should be having discussions with the Egyptian government about using the more moderate Brotherhood as a bulwark against the more extremist and violent ISIS. While this is unrealistic today given the blood-feud between the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Brotherhood, further inroads into Egypt by ISIS in the future might just create an opportunity for a rapprochement.


A brutal battle against nationalist identity is being waged by ISIS, and a response is needed before it is too late. The United States can’t completely own the response to this ideological challenge. Through an adaptation of its military strategy and use of its diplomatic muscle, the U.S. can open up some of the political spaces closed by ISIS. But it cannot fill those spaces, as nation-building and rebuilding must be done by local and regional leaders. That much we have learned from Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. But a United States role is indispensable in helping restore border crossings between Iraq and Syria, and in enabling local ground forces to recapture major towns and cities, both of which will contribute to breaking the perception of the inevitability of the caliphate. And it can work to delegitimize the sectarian conflict created by ISIS through diplomatic efforts with Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Taken together, these moves can buy some time and open up opportunities for nationalists to challenge the extremist dogma of ISIS. Perhaps this space and time buffer might just be enough to empower regional leaders to challenge the significant threat ISIS poses to the regional order, and possibly to enable citizens to reclaim the original nationalist spirit of the Arab Spring.

Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is a nonresident scholar at The Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Ross is also on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in  Middle Eastern politics. Harrison authored Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books, 2013).

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/