Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The ISIS Conundrum
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Scroll down for a running conversation from readers and others on the best ideas for responding to ISIS, inspired by The Atlantic’s project “What to Do About ISIS?,” featuring essays from a variety of foreign policy experts. Email us at hello@theatlantic.com.

The satirist and frequent Atlantic contributor Karl Sharro, who has made it his mission to thoroughly complicate our understanding of everything from free speech to the Iran deal to Mideast conflict to the war in Yemen, has done it again. This time his target is what I’d call hammer-nailism: the tendency of analysts to reductively understand ISIS through the lens of their pet cause. Hence scientists and liberals claiming that climate change caused ISIS,  or a certain French economist arguing that income inequality facilitated the group’s rise.

Sharro’s assessment is just a tad wordier:

It’s actually one of the best distillations I’ve seen of the myriad roots of the Islamic State, and it speaks to why answering the question posed by The Atlantic's new project—What to do about ISIS?—is so devilishly hard, but also so important.

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The New Yorker’s Steve Coll reviews some of political-science literature on civil wars for clues about how to defeat ISIS, and how long it will take:

Rereading these works in light of the infuriating problem of the Islamic State, two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

Coll also highlights a point that is, in my view, underappreciated.

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In the Charlie Rose segment seen above, Graeme joins a round table with Will McCants of Brookings and Ian Fisher of The New York Times to address ISIS and the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, another reader joins our ongoing discussion:

I am no specialist, only a French journalist from Egyptian upbringing and background. I will bypass all the basic info of what is ISIS, what it stands for, why it has been expanding so rapidly, who are its members, and how come it so easily finds masses of recruits dedicated to die in the pursuit of imposing sharia law worldwide. A lot of information and analysis material is available, written by over-competent people.

Firstly, I want to make clear that no negotiation is possible with any organization like ISIS, because the leaders, as well as the followers, are deep believers of the wahhabi-salafi creed, by which Allah has ordered them:

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“We have been living the Islamic State forwards, surprised at every turn, but we can perhaps begin to understand it backwards,” David Ignatius wrote in his essay for The Atlantic’s “What to Do About ISIS?” project. His point: Understanding the history of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is critical to understanding the nature of the group today, and how best to confront it.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris felt to me like the definition of living the Islamic State forwards, but their aftermath has many people thinking backwards—debating the organization’s lineage and the essence of its power.

Consider, for example, an article in today’s New York Times, which asks experts “how global powers can smash ISIS.” I imagine some people would challenge the premise of the question. (As one reader wrote in as part of our ISIS series, “Before [Americans] can have any kind of national conversation about WHAT to do about ISIS, we should first arrive at some kind of consensus about WHY we should do anything at all.) But the answers are still revealing and worth checking out.

Proposals in the Times survey range from prioritizing the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to partnering with Assad and Russia against the greater evil of ISIS; from a scorched-earth ground offensive by the U.S. and its allies to countering the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate with a European Union-style system of transnationalism in the Middle East.

There’s also discussion of ushering in a “reformation of Islam,” in part by reining in an often-overlooked player in this conflict: Saudi Arabia.

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Here are three more smart, considered emails from readers on the question. (Keep in mind these were sent prior to the devastating attacks in Paris on Friday and in Beirut on Thursday.) A reader in Shanghai, Doug Pancoast, is “particularly intrigued” by the comments of the second reader here:

Firstly, I basically agree with him that the only real lasting solution for stability in the Middle East is to create separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish states. However, Turkey in particular would be unlikely to even consider this (nor would Iran, Iraq, or Assad), but my solution to ISIS and the Syrian Civil War is to divide up Iraq and Syria, two failed states, and allow Turkey to take over much of the Sunni portions of Syria (including Damascus) while Iran annexes the Shia portions of Iraq and makes them an autonomous province of Iran. (The Alawites would get a small coastal nation and Assad’s patrons would force him to accept the deal.)

However, where I disagree with the reader is regarding Daesh (ISIS). The reader insinuated that allowing Daesh to have a state would be acceptable because by having a state it would be more vulnerable if it were to attack the United States. Though an intriguing argument, there are a few problems with this way of thinking.

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From Jeff’s 2007 cover story on how the remapping of the Middle East

Since we published the big piece from David Ignatius that primed our ongoing examination of the ISIS conundrum, two other pieces have entered the fold: Martha Crenshaw and Lisa Blaydes scrutinize Ignatius’s call for reconciliation among Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, while Frederic C. Hof emphasizes that “protecting civilians from Assad is the first step toward the settlement David Ignatius deems essential.” A few readers join in:

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate. The two actions that the U.S. must implement immediately to decisively influence a favorable outcome to the situation in the Middle East are:

1) We must make every anti-ISIS country and faction accept that they have to commit the vast majority of the ground troops needed to confront ISIS. It’s their neighborhood, not ours. Significant numbers of U.S. boots on the ground only produces negative results.

2) We must compel the current Iraqi Shia government to include the Iraqi Sunnis in the central government. This might save Iraq from eventual political disintegration and keep Iran’s influence to an acceptable minimum.

Another reader doesn’t think such Sunni-Shia integration is really possible or even preferable:

Here is the best alternative we have for solving the ISSI conundrum: Simply defend the remaining lands of the country that has been known as Iraq while ISIS consolidates its territorial gains, then broker some demilitarized zones and ersatz borders with neighboring countries.

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The Atlantic’s Jackie Lay / Institute for the Study of War

Nothing, a reader essentially says in response to the question posed by Uri:

It’s weird. EVERYTHING I read on the subject starts with the assumption that SOMETHING has to be done about ISIS, and that WE, America, must at least participate in that something. But why? ISIS is not a threat to the U.S., there’s no real compelling interest for U.S. in preserving the Iraqi regime—or even the Iraqi borders. There are regional actors that have a MUCH greater national interest in resisting or rolling up the Islamic State. Turkey, Saudi, Egypt, and Iran all have powerful militaries, and if they aren’t interested in fighting ISIS, I can see no reason why the U.S. should.  

Before we can have any kind of national conversation about WHAT to do about ISIS, we should first arrive at some kind of consensus about WHY we should do anything at all. Yes, they are a particularly bad bunch, but if that’s the basis for deciding who we should go to war against, we’re going to need a much bigger army.

Another reader provides a longer and more detailed response:

Realistically, there are no good options.

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Shiiite fighters in Iraq battle Islamic State militants. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters)


Fifty years ago, America’s escalating war in Vietnam came under a degree of scrutiny it had long escaped. In February of 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s administration launched “Operation Rolling Thunder”—a bombing campaign against North Vietnam, designed to compel the communists in Hanoi to stop sponsoring the Vietcong insurgency in the South. The U.S. State Department promptly issued a white paper defending its use of air power to save South Vietnam from a “new kind of war”—a “brutal campaign of terror and armed attack” nurtured by a malicious state. This earned a rebuttal from the investigative journalist I.F. Stone, who used the State Department’s own data to demonstrate that the Vietcong was actually receiving little material support from the North, and to argue that the U.S. government, in its rush to rally the American public for battle, was obscuring a key fact: The conflict in South Vietnam was not the product of an unprecedented form of aggression by the North Vietnamese, but rather a genuine civil war.

The contours of the coming debate had been sketched out, to be filled in just weeks later at the University of Michigan during the country’s first “teach-in.” More than 3,000 students and faculty gathered to protest America’s intensifying military involvement in Vietnam through lectures and policy discussions. Thousands of copies of the State Department’s white paper and Stone’s rebuttal were distributed. “We are searching for alternatives,” one organizer explained. “We want at least to stimulate people’s thinking, enabling them to develop positions.” Outside the all-night affair, a counter-demonstrator held a sign asking, “Will Vietnam = Munich?” He promised to register his disagreement with those who opposed the war not with violence or shouting, but by peppering the lecturing professors with questions. Dozens of universities soon staged their own teach-ins. The anti-war movement spread nationally, as the American war itself metastasized.

Today, in the fight against ISIS, we find ourselves at a similar juncture: The war seems of a new kind; the enemy uncommonly brutal; the military campaign against it limited, but potentially limitless. There are plenty of differences between the conflict in Vietnam and the battle against ISIS; among other things, communism has little in common with jihadism (though perhaps not as little as you may think), and North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War, whereas ISIS is affiliated with no other state or larger interstate struggle. But the task of understanding the nature of the adversary, the struggle in which that adversary is engaged, and the full spectrum of thinking on how to confront it is as urgent today as it was in 1965.

As Russia bombs ISIS (and other armed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) in Syria, and Iran-backed Shiite militias battle the Islamic State on the ground, the U.S. government is planning to move American ground troops closer to the frontlines in Iraq and Syria, amid frustration that the billions spent on U.S-led airstrikes against ISIS have resulted in little more than a stalemate. At the same time, the United States, Russia, Iran, and other powers are signaling tentative openness to a long-elusive diplomatic solution to the Syrian Civil War. (For more on who’s fighting whom, and how it’s going, check out Kathy Gilsinan’s guide to the Syrian conflict.)

So what’s the best way for the United States, and the world, to respond to ISIS? Channeling something of the spirit of that first teach-in in 1965, The Atlantic is launching a new project—“What to Do About ISIS?”—where we’ll regularly be asking experts to present their best ideas for how to counter the Islamic State, and then inviting others to interrogate those options and their feasibility. We’re interested in the practicalities and specifics of implementing policies and strategies in a messy world, not vague prescriptions or ideal solutions.

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