Dr. Juneau is assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iranian Foreign Policy (Stanford University Press, 2015). From 2003 to 2014, he was a Middle East strategic analyst with Canada's Department of National Defence.
In early 2014, the organization then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant swept across northwestern Iraq while simultaneously expanding the territory under its control in eastern Syria. The group, which renamed itself the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, is led by members of what used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq. It has incorporated Iraqi Sunnis who hold grievances against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad (mostly former members of Saddam Hussein's regime and alienated tribes) as well as a variety of armed Syrian opposition groups. By mid-2014, IS threatened to further expand in Iraq and Syria, while there were plausible fears that it could cross into neighboring countries, especially Jordan. It has entrenched sectarian divisions and further weakened the state in Iraq and has worsened an already devastating civil war in Syria. It represents a magnet and a safe haven for terrorists in the heart of the Middle East.
The United States has developed a three-pillared strategy to confront IS. The first pillar, mostly based on air strikes, seeks to weaken the group but is far from sufficient to defeat it. The second pillar therefore calls for training and equipping local partners who are to assume responsibility for militarily defeating IS. The third pillar acknowledges that IS is a symptom, not a cause, of the broken politics in Iraq and Syria; any long-term solution must therefore be political. This strategy is far from ideal, but it is arguably the least bad option available. Yet, given that the second and third pillars are in the best of cases long-term endeavors, the approach amounts, in the short term at least, to containment. More important, a failure to significantly boost local partners and find political solutions in Iraq and Syria would de facto lock the United States into a long-term containment strategy. This is not necessarily a bad option, but it does carry significant implications.
WHAT IS THE U.S. STRATEGY?
Washington has not released a formal statement outlining its approach to confront IS. A broad strategy can be gleaned, however, from speeches and testimonies by senior officials, including President Barrack Obama, the secretaries of state and defense, and senior military commanders.
The emerging strategy is based on three pillars. The first aims to stop the expansion of IS and weaken it, with the goal of opening up space and time for the two other pillars. Its principal dimension is military: the United States leads a coalition regrouping five Arab states and a dozen Western ones that seek to stop the expansion of IS and roll it back, through a campaign of air strikes begun in 2014. At the same time, the United States, its allies and its regional partners have introduced initiatives to choke off the group's finances, notably by countering its ability to profit from the smuggling of historical artifacts.1 U.S. officials have clearly stated that this first pillar is far from sufficient to defeat IS, but that it is immediately necessary given the acute threat.2
The second pillar is based on the premise that the United States must refrain from sending ground troops and avoid long-term entanglement; local partners are instead expected to assume the bulk of combat responsibilities.3 Washington is therefore increasing its efforts to build up these local forces' capabilities. In Iraq, it has provided — along with some of its allies — material support, training and advice to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal militias. The United States is also slowly ramping up its support for selected Syrian opposition groups.
The third pillar rests on the understanding that IS is not the cause of Iraq's and Syria's problems but a symptom, the consequence of broken political processes and the latest expression of widespread Sunni alienation. Defeating IS militarily would, therefore, only temporarily mask the deep structural problems at the source of its emergence. Given that widespread Sunni perceptions of alienation would not disappear, the emergence of a new expression of Sunni anger would be inevitable, perhaps one worse than IS. That is why the United States is pressuring the Iraqi elite to launch a genuine process of national reconciliation, and why IS can only be comprehensively defeated following a viable peace process in Syria.4
THE LEAST-BAD OPTION
The two main alternatives to this approach — to do more or to do less — would be less satisfactory. The large-scale and prolonged deployment of Western troops would pour oil on an already dangerous fire, feeding the Sunni narrative of external occupation and provoking violent resistance. It would also rekindle Shia opposition to the United States and suck the oxygen out of the fledgling Iraqi political process. There would, moreover, be no guarantee that greater intervention, with its high financial and human costs, would allow the United States to achieve its objectives. A more isolationist approach, on the other hand, would avoid the risks of entanglement; however, it would open the door to further IS expansion and would be costly in terms of U.S. credibility with regional partners.
Because IS does not pose an existential threat to U.S. security and prosperity, this modest commitment of resources — not negligible, but nowhere near the levels of recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan — is appropriate. Unlike for Iraq's and Syria's neighbors, spillover in the form of massive refugee flows, border violence and large-scale infiltration by extremist elements are not direct concerns. IS does threaten U.S. interests, however, at two lesser but nonetheless real levels.
The first is homeland security: to protect against the possibility that Americans, having learned terrorist skills in Iraq or Syria, could return home and launch attacks or train others, or that lone actors inspired by IS information operations could launch attacks on American soil or against U.S. interests abroad. This threat, though real, should not be overstated. Only a few dozen Americans have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight or train with IS or other groups. Some of them have been or will be killed, while others will return home without malign intentions. This leaves a handful who could attempt attacks. This is not a large number, but assessing which ones harbor nefarious plans is hugely challenging for security agencies. However, the threat is far from an existential one that would warrant a massive commitment of resources.
Second, the rise of IS impacts regional U.S. interests, a combination of secondary priorities that are important but not vital. The most prominent is the stability of America's only regional ally, Turkey, and its regional partners, especially Israel and Jordan. The United States also has an interest in the emergence of a stable Syria and Iraq. The latter sits on massive oil reserves, and potentially fields one of the largest armed forces in the region. Washington, therefore, has an interest in expanding its diplomatic, security and commercial presence. Moreover, a strong Iraq will eventually emerge as a bulwark against Iran; a resurgent Iraq will not be an ally of Iran, and will likely return to its pre-2003 rivalry with its eastern neighbor.5 Similarly, a post-Assad Syria, whatever its nature, is highly unlikely to be as close to Tehran.
IS THE STRATEGY WORKING?
There has been much criticism of the U.S. strategy: the mission is running out of targets, and there have been few tangible gains so far, while IS has continued to expand. Others emphasize the weakness of local partners: there is no clear path towards reconciliation in either Iraq or Syria, the ultimate condition for defeating IS. Some of these critics raise valid points concerning the way ahead. Nevertheless, it is possible to cautiously conclude that the strategy is moving in the right direction. That said, the hardest challenges are still to come.
Air strikes, the first pillar, have hurt IS. The group has suffered tactical losses, and its momentum of 2014 has mostly stalled.6 Until it took Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria in May 2015, IS had not seized any town or city of more than marginal size since the air strikes started. Given the nature of IS — partly an insurgency led by highly skilled and experienced individuals — it is also normal for targets to be rare and progress to be slow. Another function of air strikes, often neglected by critics, is deterrence. By flying over Iraq and Syria, coalition air forces have compelled IS to stop acting like a conventional military force, as it did before mid-2014 when it invaded swaths of territory by moving in convoys of dozens of vehicles.7 IS finances are also being slowly eroded.8
Efforts to boost the capacities of Iraqi forces and Kurdish and Sunni militias are slowly progressing, but much remains to be done. The strategy is reliant on these local partners: it is they, not U.S. troops, who are to defeat IS militarily. The partial collapse of the ISF in the face of the IS advance in 2014, therefore, marked a major setback. The United States has since launched a new program to rebuild the ISF, but the needs are massive. As of August 2015, there is limited ground for very cautious, long-term optimism. There is an existing foundation to build on, while the Iraqi government has access to its massive oil wealth to finance the ISF's reconstruction. Nevertheless, it cannot be overemphasized how challenging the path ahead remains, as the fall of Ramadi in May 2015 illustrated. Efforts to support Kurdish militias have strengthened their capabilities, though this only strengthens the northern front. It is important but of limited use to the rest of the country.
If the glass is (barely) half-full in Iraq, it is largely empty in Syria. Efforts to build a Western-backed armed opposition have not been promising.9 Earlier initiatives largely failed, as some groups supported by the United States collapsed, abandoning some of their weapons to IS. Washington launched new programs in 2015, but it will be months before hundreds of fighters reach the battlefield and, in the best of cases, one to two years before thousands do. As a result, an eventual military victory against IS in Iraq — an ambitious but eventually realistic objective — would merely push the group into Syria, where it would maintain a haven for the foreseeable future.
Despite these important flaws, the third pillar is even more problematic. Its collapse would undo any success achieved under the first two: in the absence of a viable political process in both Iraq and Syria, the military defeat of IS would not eliminate widespread Sunni discontent. There have been some limited positive signs in Iraq. In 2014, a new prime minister, Hayder al-Abadi, replaced Nouri al-Maliki, whose authoritarian tendencies and Shia-centric policies had done much to feed the IS narrative of Sunni marginalization. Abadi has taken some encouraging decisions, forming a more inclusive government and purging corrupt and incompetent officials. These are at best tentative first steps, however; little has been done to reverse Sunni alienation.10 Cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds is improving, but major political differences remain unresolved. Far more damaging, there is no prospect for a viable political process in Syria. This is the most glaring weakness in the strategy, though not reason enough to abandon it, given the stakes involved. It does highlight the critical importance of renewing efforts to launch a peace process, as unlikely as success is in the short to medium term.
MORPHING INTO CONTAINMENT
The implementation of this strategy has led to some limited progress, but the most difficult challenges remain ahead.11 The air strikes have succeeded in increasing the costs of IS operations and in blunting the group's expansion. As they will continue hitting IS in coming years, strikes will further erode its capabilities. Yet militarily defeating IS will require local partners to do most of the ground combat. Efforts to train them and build their capacities are progressing slowly in Iraq, but not in Syria. Furthermore, IS is a symptom, not a cause, of the deeply dysfunctional politics in Iraq and Syria; its physical elimination would be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a wound. A political solution is necessary, but this is, at best, a distant prospect.
In the short to medium term, as long as the strategy's first pillar is successful, its second pillar meets with only partial success and the third sputters, the IS insurgency is a problem that the United States and its allies can mitigate through consequence management but not one they can solve. The chief elements of the three-pillared strategy that are achieving their objectives are the air strikes and measures aimed at cutting off IS finances. This, in combination with the insufficient military pressure exerted against IS by local partners, amounts, for now, to a de facto policy of containment.
Containment, in its original form, was the policy adopted by the United States after World War II to prevent the spread of communism. As George Kennan, an American diplomat based in Moscow, argued in 1946, the term "containment" described a political strategy that aimed to build a cordon sanitaire around a perceived threat. It implies the use of a range of tools of national power — diplomatic, military and economic.12 Containing a hostile power, as in the Cold War, implies attempting to roll back, stop or slow down its efforts to expand its influence.13 Containing a conflict consists of efforts to "put a lid" on a problem because of an inability or an unwillingness to solve it. It involves building a protective perimeter around an area to box in the protagonists and prevent them from exporting instability. Containing a conflict is never ideal; it is a policy of consequence management, not problem solving.
Many of the actions taken by the United States and its allies and partners so far have been consistent with a containment policy; it is the de facto U.S. approach as long as the three-pillared strategy does not fully achieve its objectives. Air strikes and measures to choke off IS finances and crack down on the smuggling routes it relies on for weapons, foreign fighters and cash, in particular, aim to stop its expansion and weaken it but they cannot defeat it. This is not inherently bad; containing IS in the short term is necessary to provide space and time for capacity-building efforts to ramp up and, eventually, for political solutions to be found. The greater problem, however, lies in the risk that the United States could gradually become locked into a long-term containment strategy, even if that is not its intention, given the strong possibility that efforts to build up local partners will prove insufficient to defeat IS militarily and that political solutions will prove elusive.
IMPLICATIONS OF CONTAINMENT
A containment policy offers a number of advantages. It is a relatively cost-effective approach to prevent IS from achieving its objectives without engaging it in a full-blown war. It allows the United States to avoid a costly and unpredictable entanglement. The affordability of containment is especially appropriate given the limited U.S. interests at stake. Containment also allows for the protection of regional partners by shoring up their capacities to defend themselves and by limiting the negative effects of spillover.
That said, containment also features many flaws. It fails to address the causes of the emergence of IS. It does not allow for the promotion of democracy and human rights. It does not inherently oppose these goals and is not inconsistent with their future inclusion; it is agnostic about them. Containment also requires a clear and constantly re-evaluated definition of the threat to ensure that specific initiatives are well targeted. When faced with an unpredictable enemy such as IS, however, it is easy to misallocate resources. A sound containment policy must, in addition, include a careful effort of message management, to avoid the perception that the United States de facto accepts the presence of IS.
In addition, even with the best efforts, it is impossible to fully contain spillover from wars as brutal as Iraq's and Syria's. Borders are long and porous, while the nature of IS — a mix of terrorist group, insurgency and proto-state — makes it more difficult than containing a conventional conflict. This is compounded by the presence of IS sympathizers in areas outside its control. The takeover of Ramadi in May 2015, for example, was facilitated by its longstanding infiltration of the city. Even the successful containment of IS, moreover, would imply tolerating a safe haven and magnet for terrorists, destabilizing the region and perpetuating the risk of the export of terrorism. In this context, there must be an effort to manage public expectations and clearly define success. Otherwise, the inevitable consequences of spillover will be perceived as failure.
One of the objectives of a containment policy is to limit direct engagement. Yet the likelihood that instability in Iraq and Syria will last for years ensures that the prospect of entanglement will remain. Support for local actors, in particular, puts external patrons at risk of being drawn in. There is also an associated risk that containment fatigue will set in, leading some coalition members to let their commitment drift, as their will erodes and their attention shifts elsewhere. This can leave local partners exposed and create tension among allies, who have to increase their commitment to compensate. With time, containment incentivizes free riding by local partners and reduces U.S. leverage. A containment approach also leaves open the possibility that pressure to do more could build. If, for example, an attack on American interests is linked to IS, or if containment fatigue grows domestically, pressure could quickly build for the United States to increase its involvement. There is, finally, an inherent paradox in pursuing long-term air campaigns against insurgent or terrorist groups: they can offer diminishing returns but increasing costs. As military targets become more difficult to identify, the risk of collateral damage increases. This would be self-defeating, as long-term success against IS is inconceivable without hiving it off from Sunni populations.
A successful containment approach requires cooperation between the United States and its regional partners. Yet even though the latter all share a common goal — defeating IS — they often diverge on means. This limits the potential gains from working together. Turkey, for example, is essential to any concerted effort to contain and eventually defeat IS. Yet it has clearly stated that its primary goals are to oppose Kurdish ambitions and defeat Assad. Washington does not share the first objective and shares the second, but has relegated it to the background, leading to friction with Ankara. Containing IS also requires close collaboration with non-traditional local partners, most of which are, from the U.S. point of view, either weak, unreliable or both. Cooperation, even if indirect, with some of them, such as Shia militias in Iraq, raises costs, for example by feeding the alienation of many Sunnis.
The de facto emergence of a containment policy raises important questions that should be debated more openly. At a general level, what is the desired outcome? What are the anticipated military and diplomatic costs? What are the implications for regional security? Containment, in theory at least, should be a stopgap approach before the three-pillared strategy succeeds. At a more specific level, where does the United States draw the line? What exactly is the target of the containment approach, and what falls outside its scope? Finally, how should success be measured? This requires quantifiable indicators such as the number of incoming or returning foreign fighters, the number of attacks linked to IS outside its area of control, the size of territory under its control, and its ability to administer it.
The United States should follow two tracks, one focusing on ensuring the success of the three-pronged strategy, the other preparing for what may be the inevitable implementation of a long-term containment policy, should the three-pillared strategy fail.
Washington should continue to lead coalition air strikes. It has clearly stated that patience is required; it should continue emphasizing this, both domestically and to its allies and regional partners. Air strikes have been a success so far, provided that one's expectations are modest: they have not defeated IS but have helped to stop its expansion and raise the costs of its operations. Much also remains to be done to block the many smuggling routes that IS uses to bring in fighters, weapons and money and export oil and historical artifacts, notably by building on increasingly successful efforts to choke IS's finances. The United States, moreover, should continue opposing the large-scale deployment of ground forces.
The United States needs to significantly enhance its efforts to boost the capabilities of local partners. Without some success at this level, neither the three-pronged strategy nor even containment will succeed. A partially successful strategy to support local partners will not only be insufficient to defeat IS militarily; it will entrench the status quo and steadily lock the United States into containment. It is thus imperative to significantly ramp up efforts with the ISF, Iraqi Sunni militias, Iraqi Kurdish forces and, most crucially because efforts have been so underwhelming, palatable elements in the armed Syrian opposition. Washington should do so cautiously in the case of Iraqi Kurds. One of its objectives is the unity of the Iraqi state; by boosting the military capabilities of the Kurds — a sub-state actor poorly integrated into national structures — short-term gains are likely to hamper the achievement of longer-term objectives.
Supporting local partners involves building up their offensive capabilities, but also shoring up their defenses. The United States and its allies are already helping vulnerable frontline states to build a protective ring around territories held by IS. The United States has supported the deployment of Patriot batteries to Turkey, for example, and has provided significant assistance to Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon, in areas such as border security, counterterrorism and intelligence sharing. This assistance has had a positive impact, but gaps remain.
The first two pillars are essential, but it is the third that will most clearly allow the United States to move away from containment and seriously tackle the conditions that have allowed IS to thrive. Washington therefore needs to develop and implement a more coherent and sustained diplomatic-engagement strategy. This approach would push for reconciliation in Iraq and for a peace process in Syria but would recognize that the United States has limited leverage. Solutions must come primarily from local actors.
Finally, this raises the question of an exit strategy. When, and on the basis of which criteria, should Washington reduce its commitment and eventually withdraw? Ideally, it would decrease its efforts as three conditions are progressively met: IS is increasingly weakened through air strikes and economic measures; local partners gain strength; and political developments in Iraq and Syria progress. Under this optimal scenario, which in the best of cases will take years, withdrawal should be in stages: the United States and its allies and partners would first cease their airstrikes but continue their training missions, possibly for a prolonged period, and then steadily downsize them.
Under a more pessimistic scenario, if capacity-building efforts with local partners are not progressing satisfactorily and political development stalls, the United States and the coalition will eventually be faced with difficult choices within perhaps two to three years. That is, if it becomes clear that the second and third pillars of the strategy are failing, Washington should reconsider whether the investment in containment is worth the cost. The United States has strong interests in contributing to the defeat of IS, but it has little to gain from committing to a long-term quagmire. The alternative to the ideal three-pronged strategy — long-term containment based on air strikes and faltering capacity-building initiatives — should not be dismissed out of hand, but it does raise difficult questions.
1 The United States, alongside Italy and Saudi Arabia, announced on March 20, 2015, the creation of the Counter-ISIL Finance Group; see http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl10004.aspx.
2 For an overview of the U.S. military strategy against IS, see "Statement of General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander U.S. Central Command before the House Armed Services Committee," March 3, 2015, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20150303/103076/HHRG-114-AS00-Ws….
3 See "Testimony of Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth, U.S. Department of Defense, before the House Armed Services Committee," March 3, 2015, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20150303/103076/HHRG-114-AS00-Ws….
4 U.S. officials regularly emphasize this point. See, for example, "Remarks at Syria Ministerial by Secretary of State John Kerry," September 24, 2014, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/09/232086.htm.
5 Thomas Juneau, "Iran under Rouhani: Still Alone in the World," Middle East Policy 118, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 92-104.
6 Michael Pregent and Robin Simcox, "ISIS on the Run: The Terrorist Group Struggles to Hold On," Foreign Affairs, February 9, 2015, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143022/michael-pregent-and-robin….
7 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, "ISIS Is Losing Its Greatest Weapon: Momentum," The Atlantic, January 6, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/01/the-decline-of….
8 A report by the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body designed to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, provides details on the partial successes of actions taken to squeeze IS finances; "Financing of the Terrorist Organization Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," February 28, 2015, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/documents/news/financing-of-terrorist-organisa….
9 Yezid Sayigh, "The Syrian Opposition's Bleak Outlook," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 1, 2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=55332.
10 Raed El-Hamed, "The Challenges of Mobilizing Sunni Tribes in Iraq," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 17, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2015/03/17/challenges-of-mobilizing-s….
11 Aron Lund, "The Islamic State Is Losing, But No One Is Winning," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 13, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59367&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF….
12 John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford University Press, 1982).
13 For an analysis of the content and consequences of a U.S. containment policy against Iran, see James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, "After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its Complications," Foreign Affairs 89, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 33–49.