What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

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

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.

Firstly, one problem with Daesh is that they are revolutionary and expansionary and wish to take over the lands of our allies, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Daesh wants the entire Middle East; it’s part of their ideology. Stability in the Middle East, a priority for the United States, is literally impossible as long as those in Daesh continue to control territory. They will not agree to any compromise. Their beliefs drive their actions.

However, that doesn’t mean that the United States needs boots on the ground; I agree with the reader on that. It’s not our neighborhood, and therefore the other states should have a stronger interest in getting rid of Daesh than we do. Unfortunately, Sunni states like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have decided that Iran and Assad are even worse than these murderous psychopaths that have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria. Both Assad and some of our allies (even one of our NATO allies) are more/less ignoring ISIS because they hate their main enemy more.

But America simply can’t allow radical Islamists to create a state where they attract violent psychopaths from all over the world and indoctrinate young people in jihad. (Our Saudi and Pakistani friends already have that second part covered anyway.) We have to convince the Sunni countries that Daesh will come after them next. Daesh dreams of taking over Mecca, the entire Middle East, and slaughtering the Shias. We have to convince the Sunnis, the Shias, and the Kurds to focus on Daesh instead of each other … and the only way to do that is to give everybody a piece of the prize. Turkey, you get Damascus. Iran, you get Baghdad. Saudi Arabia, you get Anbar (and maybe Yemen).

Rather then destroying the entire region, let’s divide up the failed states among the stronger players and get everybody agree to stop killing each other. Please.

Another reader, Steve Saker, makes a list of proposals:

The solution to ISIS surely involves a series of steps somewhat along the following lines:

1. Degrade them militarily using air power, competent local forces where available, targeted special forces raids, and a rigorous campaign against all of their supply routes.

2. Establish defensible safe zones (with the collaboration of Iran, Turkey, Russia and other regional players) for groups threatened by ISIS.

3. Accept reality and partition both Syria and Iraq into separate regions once the safe zones have been established.

4. Certain special “regions,” such as Raqqa and Mosul, would need to be under a UN mandate probably for several years and policed by a robust international force drawn from many countries outside the region. That force would be further supported by a significant contingent of highly capable anti-terror forces (probably Western).

5. Finally, Assad probably survives in a much diminished Syria. Much of the country, those areas with a Sunni majority, would be encouraged to coalesce into a proto-state. In the east, the former ISIS territory would remain a UN protectorate, as described. In Iraq, something similar would occur. The Kurdish areas would continue to develop and possibly (pace Turkey) achieve statehood. The Sunni tribal areas west of Baghdad would become highly autonomous regions of a very decentralized Iraq maintaining control of their own finances and security.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy, but the alternative of allowing the ISIS cancer to continue to exist must surely allow for some version of this “story” to play out.

One more reader for now, Jesse MacLean:

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. In the discussion about the role of local actors in combating ISIS, I am reminded of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” from the previous Iraq War: who breaks it, buys it. The flip side of this is that if you get other people to break it for you, they will be the ones who “buy” it in the process. In other words, any coalition that takes the offensive against ISIS territories will, if victorious, end up in de facto control of those territories. Considering the tangled web of interests and agendas involved in the fight against ISIS, it is necessary to think about the possible consequences of such an offensive. Once they’ve bought “it” (ISIS territory), what are they going to do with it, and what new challenges might the “purchase” create?

Say that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gets his wish and the Gulf Arab countries “get in the game.” Perhaps the Saudis increase their contribution by leading a coalition of Gulf Arab militaries into Syria to eliminate ISIS from the country, similar to what they are currently doing against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

This is a complicated proposition, even assuming decisive victory over ISIS fighters. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is well known. Iran is supporting Syria’s dictator Assad in his war to retain control over Syria. Ideally, the United States would be able to get these factions to set aside their differences and focus on fighting the common enemy of ISIS. But ISIS poses a materially lesser threat to Saudi Arabia and Iran than either of those two pose to one another, and all parties know it.

Because of this, a Gulf Arab coalition rolling into Syria is unlikely to be 'greeted as liberators' by the Syrian regime and its allies, to use another callback to 2003. If anything, The Atlantic has previously documented how Assad has used ISIS as a tool to prolong his survival. By breaking that tool and encroaching on Syrian territory, a Saudi-led offensive could be seen as a threat to Assad and his backers.

Even assuming pure motives on the part of the Saudis and their allies—an enormous assumption—this Gulf coalition could still very easily get sucked into conflict with Assad and his Iranian allies. The coalition could even be targeted by Russian airstrikes if Putin decided they were supporting the “terrorists”—which is to say, all anti-Assad rebels—which he considers a threat to Russia’s regional interests.

Now, Frederic C. Hof recently argued that fighting Assad is in fact the best way to fight ISIS, in that halting regime atrocities and protecting Syrian civilians will drain support away from the extremists. This may be true, but as long as Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are all ready to fight in Assad’s defence, any move against the dictator runs a very heavy risk of inflaming Syria even further—if such a thing is even possible at this point. Hof is ready to face this risk to protect Syria’s civilians from a butcher, arguing that fighting Assad does not automatically mean fighting Russia and Iran. I am not so optimistic, and believe civilians would suffer even more in the event of such an escalation.

Again, all of this is assuming pure motives, which is to ignore the fact that Saudia Arabia is an infamously cruel regime, that the war they are leading in Yemen has caused enormous civilian misery, and that the Saudis have a well-established record of fighting extremists with one hand and supporting them with the other. If a Saudi-led coalition of local actors routs ISIS from its current strongholds, it seems very unlikely that they will simply declare “mission accomplished” and go home, or work to support democratic forces in the areas they now occupy.

It might suit Saudi interests far more to hold on to that territory as a buffer against Iranian influence in the region, and to empower local rebel factions that will suit their own agenda. Granted, anything Saudi Arabia and company end up doing can scarcely be worse than ISIS control, but these possible consequences must still be reckoned with when considering a course of action.

This is just using a single, highly simplified example of a Saudi-led coalition intervening against ISIS in Syria. The complications multiply if one takes into account the interests of the Kurds or of Turkey or the situation in Iraq, or the role of rival militant groups like Hezbollah or al-Nusra.

I agree that any defeat of ISIS in a ground war should ideally be led by a grand alliance of local actors. Yet if ideal solutions were possible, it is unlikely that a relatively small force of extremist genocidal slavers would be holding out against a good chunk of the human race in the first place.