The Master Plan: How to Stop ISIS

August 21, 2014 Topic: CounterinsurgencyTerrorismPolitics Region: IraqMiddle East

The Master Plan: How to Stop ISIS

Here is a hint: It is not all about a military solution, but a shared Arab identity.


In a perverse sort of way, the possibility that the ultranationalist Kurds could break away might be a catalyst for the emergence of Arab nationalism in Iraq. The specter of an Iraq without Kurdistan could be a powerful incentive for the leadership in Iraq to try to unify the Sunni and Shia under one identity banner in order to ensure regional political strength and economically viability.

The argument for keeping Kurdistan within a unified Iraq includes avoiding the inevitable regional conflict over Kurdistan that would involve the much more powerful Turkey and Iran, both of which would see an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to their own national integrity. Thus, any solution would need to involve first the reconciliation of the Arab communities of Iraq, followed by the recognition that the Kurds and other minorities would need clear benefits and respect for their own cultural identities and customs.


Second, to accomplish such a difficult reconciliation would require that the leadership of the more-stable Arab countries would have to be supportive of these efforts. The impetus to this would be the very real fear that ISIS may advance into Lebanon and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even across North Africa, leading to further regional destabilization. The most likely candidates for this would be Egypt’s President al-Sisi, whose brand among many of his secular supporters has been burnished by his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis who are already bankrolling Egypt’s efforts and have a direct interest in weakening ISIS. In effect, Egypt would provide the political heft and the Saudis the financial means. While neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia are likely to directly enter the Syrian or Iraqi quagmires, they could be inclined to work with secular Sunni and Shia leaders in these countries who are willing to challenge ISIS in an effort to keep part or all of Iraq and Syria intact by creating a positive foundation for political community and economic growth.

What Egypt’s al-Sisi gains is that he gets to create the narrative that he hasn’t hijacked the Arab Spring, as much of the Western media and many of his own countrymen argue, but rather by quashing the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and helping to oppose the formation of an Islamic terror state in Syria and Iraq, he is setting the stage for delivering on the earlier aspirations of the Arab Spring, as he has often claimed is his long-term goal. One symbolic glimpse into al-Sisi’s possible ambitions to play a larger regional role and fight Islamic extremism is the building of a Nasser Museum to be opened in Cairo in 2015. Another concrete example is the de facto regional coalition Egypt has formed with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states on behalf of regional issues. While this scenario of al-Sisi returning to the spirit of the Arab Spring may seem absurd to many, given his recent crackdown on the press and any form of opposition in Egypt, over the long term, in order to maintain his personal popularity in Egypt, he will need to build a deeper legitimacy by demonstrating that Egypt will advance politically and economically, not just return to a Mubarak-style autocracy.

Without cooperation and some intervention by the more stable regional Arab powers, and possibly even Iran and Turkey, there is a potentially more troubling scenario under which Arab nationalism might emerge. This is a scenario in which an extremist and fanatic strain of Arab nationalism emerges to defeat ISIS from within. As ISIS transitions from marauding to governing mode, there could emerge a split between the religious fanatics running ISIS and the more secular Sunnis who joined forces for political expediency. Either ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proves nimble and pragmatic, recognizing that his fanatic religious ideology and brutal tactics are alienating both religious and secular mainstream Sunnis, and fuses Islamic and Arab symbols together to broaden the appeal, or the more secularly inclined commanders within ISIS, like Saddam Hussein’s former right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Dhouri, launch a coup. Not tapping into a strictly religious identity, and not playing on Iraqi or Syrian nationalist identity, they tap into a latent, more unifying Arab identity to challenge the legitimacy of both the Syrian and Iraqi governments. This is the most dangerous scenario because it could consolidate the territorial holdings of ISIS, perhaps enlarging on it by further challenging the Syrian and Iraqi governments using a broad Arab identity, and then governing the new state in a Saddam Hussein-style fashion.

What is the role for the United State in this identity-based game? The role would be to do what it can behind the scenes to help support the first scenario, and with the help of regional partners and local stakeholders prevent the second scenario. On the regional level, the United States should try to play to the best intentions of the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while not being shy about playing to their worst fears of a cancerous Islamic militancy that could possibly spread to Saudi Arabia, Egypt or any number of more vulnerable states in the region. The United States should also work with the Saudis and others on the financial end of things to try to help reconstruct Syria and Iraq, or what is left of these countries. These efforts on the part of the United State don’t presuppose benevolent motives on the part of either Egypt or Saudi Arabia; rather, they depend on a realpolitik calculation on the part of their leaders. The alternative to a galvanized Arab world that taps into a common identity is that ISIS continues to weaken Syria and Iraq, and that it and possibly other similarly radical groups shape the future of the region. The specter of that could be the impetus to a regional, Arab-based solution that taps into the best, not worst, spirit of the Arab Spring. In addition to its military and political efforts, the United States should incorporate this into its longer-term strategy and avoid further drift into regional anarchy inspired by the likes of ISIS.

Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches strategy. He also teaches Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a frequent contributor of articles on strategic issues facing the Middle East. He is the author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books: 2013)

Michael W. S. Ryan, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, studied Arabic in Egypt and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He served as a senior executive in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and as vice president of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Decoding al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia University Press: 2013)