In his recent essay for The Atlantic, David Ignatius has, with characteristic elegance and care, detailed “how ISIS spread in the Middle East.” In addition to providing an instructive history of a metastasizing malignancy, he offered some ideas on how to prompt its remission.
This response seeks to pick up where Ignatius left off, with emphasis on Syria. The argument here is, first, that civilian protection in western Syria—where the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad fights for survival—is the mandatory first step toward the negotiated political transition Ignatius deems essential for uprooting ISIS, given how Assad has enabled the group. Second, an American-led coalition, consisting largely of regional and European ground forces, will be required to sweep ISIS from its main Syrian bases in the east. Military victory in Syria, the soft underbelly of ISIS, will leave the group isolated in Iraq— without its Syrian headquarters, oil resources, and lines of communication—thereby turning the tide of battle against ISIS in that country as well. It is Syria, where ISIS is largely imposed rather than homegrown as it is in Iraq, that should be the top battlefield priority.
Ignatius documents how ISIS filled vacuums of political legitimacy in both Iraq and Syria. Nouri al-Maliki’s corrupt sectarianism led many Sunni Arabs in Iraq to conclude that he had no right to serve as the country’s leader, and that both he and the system that produced him were illegitimate. In Syria, the clan-based Assad regime has produced parallel results: The spread of protests against Assad’s corrupt and arbitrary rule in 2011 showed that his regime had lost legitimacy for much of the population four years ago. Judging solely by the numbers of refugees and internally displaced people Syria has generated since then—in no small part due to Assad’s political-survival strategy, which features the mass homicide of civilians—this sentiment has dramatically intensified.