The New York Times Joins the 'What to Do About ISIS' Debate

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

“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.

In particular, Russian experts said the wellspring of radical religious ideology was Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states of the Persian Gulf. Their support of Islamic fundamentalist causes—radical imams and schools—has bred the sort of extremist ideology that is the backbone of groups like the Islamic State, the experts said.

“The roots are not in Syria, but far away,” said Gennady V. Gudkov, a former colonel in the Federal Security Service and former member of Parliament. He says a source of the problems is the Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which have also supported jihadists as a proxy force fighting Iranian influence. “The problem is far more serious. All the world leaders should think of this: A significant part of the Islamic religion is infected with a tumor that is metastasizing.”

An ultimate defeat of the group cannot happen without a reformation within Islam, experts say, and that necessitates a recognition that interpretations of Islam are at the core of the problem, and an outreach to moderate Muslims. The public, said Amaney A. Jamal, a professor at Princeton University, has to see Muslims as part of the solution, not just the target of strategies.

“Where is the panel this morning on the Sunday talk shows where you have Muslim leaders alongside Western leaders to talk about how they’re going to conquer this problem?” she asked. “Instead, you’ll get panels of Western leaders and public policy intellectuals telling you what they will do about Muslims, talking at Muslims.”

To review where The Atlantic’s ISIS project stands: Ignatius has called for world and regional powers to mobilize local military and political forces against ISIS, through efforts like empowering a Sunni tribal movement in Iraq, initiating a post-Assad transition process in Syria, and establishing safe zones in both countries. Lisa Blaydes and Martha Crenshaw have reminded Ignatius that Iraq’s Sunnis are far more divided than it might seem; Fred Hof has argued that any strategy must first focus on Syria, “the soft underbelly of ISIS”; and Dominic Tierney has warned that “safe zones” are sometimes far from safe. You can find Ignatius’s response to these responses here.

Chris has also been rounding up suggestions from readers, which include dividing up Iraq and Syria among regional Sunni and Shiite powers like Turkey and Iran (while denying ISIS a state of its own), and degrading the Islamic State militarily to the point where their former territory can be handed over to the United Nations.

Keep the ideas coming ( We’ll be running more proposals in the coming weeks as well.