Reporter's Notebook

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

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What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

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.

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.

“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 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:

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.

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.