Petraeus's Plan to Defeat ISIS

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

David Petraeus, the former Army general and CIA director, wants the U.S. to work with moderate members of al-Qaida’s branch in Syria to combat ISIS, the Daily Beast is reporting.

The report, which quotes four sources—including one who spoke to Petraeus directly—states that Petraeus’s plan stems from a similar successful strategy in 2007 during the Iraq War when Petraeus was the commanding general of Multi-National Forces in Iraq.

According to the Beast, Petraeus’s new plan would involve gaining the support of moderate members of Jabhat al-Nusra—one of the strongest forces inside Syria— who only joined the group to fight the Assad regime and ISIS, which is also known as ISIL.

Speaking to CNN, Petraeus elaborated on the Beast’s story. He said:

[T]he question, therefore, is whether it might be possible at some point to peel off so-called 'reconcilables' who would be willing to renounce Nusra and align with the moderate opposition [supported by the U.S. and the coalition] to fight against Nusra, ISIL, and Assad. Doing so would require both the rise of much stronger, moderate opposition groups—backed, again, by the U.S. and the coalition seeking to defeat ISIL—and at the same time, intensified military pressure on all extremist groups.

Under the U.S. strategy during the Iraq War, the U.S. military courted tribal members in the  Anbar Province who opposed al-Qaida. The strategy—called the Awakening Movement—provided tribal volunteers with weapons and payments to fight the insurgency under a partnership with the U.S. military. The combination of this strategy and the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 beat back the insurgency and quelled security concerns at the time.

In the current fight against ISIS in Syria, part of President Obama’s plan is to train and equip “moderate” rebels to fight the terrorist group and serve as human intelligence on the ground. The plan has so far suffered embarrassing setbacks; first when Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told lawmakers the program, originally slated to train 15,000, has only vetted 60 individuals for training (with 54 completing the training) and second, when the small bastion of trained forces were kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra upon entering the Syrian battlefield

Petraeus’ idea has virtually no traction in official circles, the Beast reports, despite his influence, as it is “politically toxic, near-impossible to execute, and strategically risky.”

Consider what some experts are saying:

Here is Frances Townsend, President Bush’s Homeland Security adviser:

For many, trying to potentially join forces with the organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks is a non-starter.  As the Beast noted, this idea signifies a wider rift in the current policy as it applies to ISIS and Syria’s civil war more broadly.