POLICY BRIEF: ISIS and U.S. National Security

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 83rd Capitol Hill Conference on Thursday, January 21. “ISIS and U.S. National Security: Policy Choices” offered four viewpoints on the nature of the threat and efforts underway by the U.S. and its allies to counter it. The conference was conceived in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which raised concerns about ISIS’ ability to mount more attacks globally. The subsequent shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California put U.S. policy makers under increasing pressure to understand the nature of the ISIS threat and define a coherent response. While the heated rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign has produced a range of provocative statements about “destroying” ISIS, specific policy proposals remain limited.

The four-person panel was selected with an eye towards informing more specific policy proposals. William Wechsler (Center for American Progress) offered his experience working at the U.S. Department of Defense on counterterrorism and special operations. Mark Katz (George Mason University) shared expertise on Russia and the motivations for more Russian engagement backing the Assad government. Charles Lister (Middle East Institute) assessed the status of the various opposition groups in Syria and the feasibility of U.S. partnership with them. And Audrey Kurth Cronin (George Mason University) highlighted the reasons why the approach designed to counter Al-Qaeda may not work against ISIS. The event – moderated by Patrick Theros and Thomas Mattair of the Middle East Policy Council as a discussant – can be viewed in its entirety here.

Dr. Wechsler underlined how no nation, including the United States, has as its highest priority to seriously disrupt ISIS and regain the significant territory it controls. For most U.S. partners in the region, focus has been squarely on removing Assad from power, and this remains the case today despite ISIS’ emergence. But ISIS is increasingly turning to external attacks, showing that it is a threat beyond the territory it controls. This demands that the U.S. formulate a coherent response, one which Dr. Wechsler would like to see organized around “indirect action,” where regional and local actors take the fight directly to ISIS with some U.S. support, particularly in the form of air strikes. To illustrate tangible gains from this approach, Dr. Wechsler pointed to evidence that salaries for ISIS fighters were being reduced and that large cash stockpiles were destroyed by a U.S. air strike. Amidst this continued U.S. tactical support, Dr. Wechsler emphasized keeping an eye on the bigger picture: managing relationships in the region to avoid a sustained war along sectarian lines, fueled by a master narrative of Shia versus Sunni.

Dr. Katz gave his latest assessment of the role of Russia, a new variable in Syria after the beginning of Russian air strikes in support of the Assad regime in the fall of 2015. Dr. Katz conveyed both the domestic political realities driving Putin’s foray into Syria, and the numerous examples of Russia’s ability to act pragmatically in the Middle East. These include Russia’s productive relationship with the internationally recognized government of Libya (despite strong opposition to NATO involvement in overthrowing Qaddafi) and Putin’s openness to working with the Morsi government in Egypt in 2012-13 (despite Russia’s disfavoring Islamists). Stressing their pragmatic approach to the region, Dr. Katz suggested that there may be some potential for cooperation with Russia in Syria. He expressed surprise that Putin has allowed relations with Turkey to sour significantly, given the efforts over the past several years to bolster trade and cooperation between the two countries.

Dr. Lister took a deeper look at the reality of “indirect action,” given his extensive experience on the ground studying Syria’s numerous opposition groups. Reinforcing Dr. Wechsler’s point about supporting regional actors, he gave examples of successes by the Kurds and how tactical and financial support made them possible. If other groups receive similar levels of support, he reasoned, they might achieve similar gains against ISIS. He went on to give credit to the CIA’s “vet and equip” program, suggesting it could be a model for future engagement with larger numbers of opposition groups. He disagreed that many opposition groups are in fact allied with Al-Qaeda, stressing how Syrians are in a fight for daily survival; and most of these loose alliances are born out of necessity rather than deep loyalty or adherence to Al-Qaeda ideology.

Dr. Cronin urged decision makers to separate out approaches to Al-Qaeda and ISIS as they are very different organizations and threats. The counterterrorism model built up in the years following 9/11 will not work against ISIS. They control territory and hide in civilian-populated urban areas, so their leadership can’t be killed through drone strikes. Further, they have varied methods for raising revenues (e.g. taxation, oil sales, looting and black markets); traditional tools used to stymie Al-Qaeda’s financing will not work as effectively against ISIS.  Dr. Cronin sees no good options except for offensive containment, which reinforces indirect action with air power, alliance building and targeted financial sanctions.

In summary, the conference revealed three main takeaways for U.S. policy makers:

• Indirect action, where the U.S. provides logistical and financial support to regional and local actors, should be developed further in countering ISIS. Areas to consider include more extensive support for Syrian opposition groups, greater efforts to strangle ISIS’ ability to raise revenues, and a more concerted effort to counter ISIS globally, not just in Iraq and Syria.

• The U.S. could benefit from exploring greater cooperation with Russia, despite the mistrust and divergent interests on some issues between the two countries. The Russians have shown an ability to be pragmatic in the region, and this could be a basis for greater cooperation.

• ISIS is not Al-Qaeda, so the strategy for countering it must be different. A policy of offensive containment may be the best option the U.S. has at its disposal, as a traditional military confrontation with ground troops could fuel ISIS’ recruitment narrative.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email mepc.press@gmail.com.

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