How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The October bombing of a Russian airliner above Sinai, followed quickly by the November Paris attacks, created a broad international consensus that the Islamic State (ISIS) is on the march and must be stopped. The United States had acknowledged as much—at least rhetorically—over a year ago. In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States would seek to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, but cautioned that the campaign would be long and difficult. Indeed.
Unwilling to commit ground forces to topple the jihadist state, Washington settled on a gradual approach that involved a very limited application of force. In fact, the pace of the U.S. strikes on ISIS was so slow that the attacks amounted to a strategy of containment. The limitations of such containment became all too clear in October and November. The strategy had given ISIS time to consolidate its control, train terrorists, and embed operatives in Western countries. From the ruins of this failed strategy, the United States must craft something new and bold.
The United States’ initial response to ISIS was shaped by its bitter experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama believed that his election gave him a clear mandate to extract the United States from the Middle East and, more generally, to reduce Washington’s reliance on force in foreign policy. Notwithstanding his tepid participation in the intervention in Libya, the president has remained committed to retrenchment.
Containment of the violence worked for a while, even as refugees put enormous strain on Syria’s neighboring states. But after ISIS entered the picture, the strategy was no longer viable. American hopes of staying away from Middle Eastern conflicts faded; the plight of the Kurds and the genocide of the Yezidis led to a gradual increase in U.S. involvement in Iraq. And then ISIS’ beheading of American journalists forced a reluctant president to expand the U.S. bombing campaign to Syria.
Washington’s main problem is that despite its commitment to defeating ISIS, such an outcome requires ground forces, which the United States has refused to provide. Instead, Obama wants to limit the direct application of U.S. power, and empower allies to assume a greater share of the burden. In some locations, this strategy worked well. The United States found the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria to be reliable and highly capable allies. They courageously blocked ISIS’ advance toward Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, rolled back ISIS forces from Kobani in Syria, and recently recaptured Sinjar in Iraq, thus cutting ISIS’ main supply line between its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa.
But there is a limit to the usefulness of the Kurdish fighters. Operationally, they perform better in the highlands, but tend to be less effective the farther they get from their home turf. In addition, they are already stretched thin, manning frontlines extending for hundreds of miles. The bigger problem is that the Sunni Arabs who live in ISIS-controlled territory do not welcome Kurdish forces as liberators. Even those who object to ISIS are likely to fear Kurdish expansionism and may join hands with ISIS to resist their advance. Indeed, Kurdish victories in the Arab territories have already been met with accusations that the Kurds are trying to expand their control at the expense of the locals. Meanwhile, sectarian tensions would make relying on Shia forces in Iraq to capture ISIS land even more problematic.
The solution, former U.S. Secretary of States Hillary Clinton; former U.S. Ambassador in Iraq James Jeffrey; Hassan Hassan, the co-author of a bestselling book about ISIS, and many others have argued, must therefore be an indigenous Sunni force, similar to the Awakening Councils with which the United States partnered during the “surge” to beat the Islamic State of Iraq (before the group resurged to become ISIS). This is an attractive yet untenable solution. In 2006, the United States had over 100,000 forces in Iraq that provided the Awakening Councils with direct assistance. But today the United States has very little political clout in Iraq and not much muscle there either—only 3000 forces, most of whom are in training roles. Moreover, the Shia-dominated regime in Iraq is not going to relinquish control to allow an American–Sunni partnership. It has insisted that any assistance to the Sunnis must be channeled through Baghdad.
A more significant obstacle is that the Sunnis’ experience of the previous decade has taught them that American promises cannot be trusted. Washington’s promises for a more inclusive Iraq and the incorporation of the Awakening Councils’ members into Iraqi security forces were so blatantly ignored by the Iraqi government that the Sunnis’ distrust is fully justified. The assassination of numerous former Awakening members by the resurging ISIS in the years leading to the group’s 2014 blitzkrieg made the dangers of repeating the Awakening experience all too clear. And even if Washington genuinely wanted to reward the Sunnis for their cooperation, it could not guarantee the fulfillment of its promises—particularly while remaining committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria.
The situation is not much different in Syria. Sunni Arabs view Assad’s Alawite regime to be at least as threatening as ISIS, and watch Kurdish gains in previously Sunni-majority areas with apprehension. Yet the United States continues to resist pressures to escalate its involvement in stopping Assad’s killing machine. U.S. insistence that the weapons it provides the rebels be directed only at ISIS is unacceptable to most Sunni fighters and has resulted in the resounding failure of the Pentagon’s “train and equip” program. The few individuals that enrolled in the program and were sent back to Syria upon its completion were attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra. Some were killed; others were forced to relinquish their weapons.
The United States must accept that its current strategy is not working, despite Obama’s insistence, even after the Paris attacks that “We have the right strategy and we’re going to see it through.” The ISIS threat is too urgent to simply wait for the proto-state to collapse from within. Slow progress in Iraq and Syria only increases the threat of terrorism abroad. Washington must also recognize that ever-greater burden sharing cannot substitute for deeper U.S. involvement. Although members of the international community can be expected to strengthen their ability to thwart terrorist threats through more robust internal security and better international cooperation, the key to dealing with the threat is to quickly and effectively face ISIS in its strongholds in the Middle East. A new U.S. strategy must therefore focus on direct military intervention, while also creating conditions that will push Sunnis to support it and allow the United States to rapidly scale back its role.
U.S. willingness to contribute ground forces will encourage other Western states, primarily France, to contribute forces of their own. France’s willingness to considerably increase its involvement is important, but its added value is limited as long as it is restricted to airstrikes. On the ground however, American, French and other Western forces, with their superior skills and armament, could quickly overwhelm ISIS forces. Working with indigenous Sunni forces will also be necessary because they possess greater knowledge of the enemy than their Western counterparts. Sunni troops will be even more important once ISIS forces are defeated and the emphasis shifts to peacekeeping operations.
The only way to elicit indigenous support is by offering the Sunnis greater stakes in the outcome. That means proposing an independent Sunni state that would link Sunni-dominated territories on both sides of the border. Washington’s attachment to the artificial Sykes–Picots borders demarcated by France and Britain a century ago no longer makes sense. Few people truly believe that Syria and Iraq could each be put back together after so much blood has been spilled. A better alternative would be to separate the warring sides. Although the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias was not inevitable—it was, to some extent, the result of manipulation by self-interested elites—it is now a reality.
Offering Sunnis their own state could be the commitment they need to rise up against ISIS. And although it would not be welcomed by all actors—primarily the Iraqi government in Baghdad—they could be persuaded that it is a better alternative than a never-ending war, and an ISIS threat that would continue to destabilize the region. The proposal has other advantages: First, a Sunni state also means a state for Syria’s minorities—primarily the Alawites—alongside it, thus assuring their survival, while also allowing greater flexibility in addressing the sticking point of Assad’s future. Second, it would prompt greater involvement from Sunni states. The sectarian polarization throughout the Middle East makes it very difficult for the Sunni states to be seen as collaborating with Iran, the Shia regime in Iraq, and the Alawites in Syria. Those fears play into ISIS’ narrative that it is the only true defender of Sunnis and increase its threat to these regimes. If, however, fighting against ISIS could be decoupled from the Sunni–Shia sectarian conflict, Sunni states might be persuaded to send ground forces to help dislodge ISIS from Raqqa and Mosul, which could replace Western troops after the initial battles and help local Sunnis build their new state.
Participating actors would still need to work out contentious details, such as boundaries, population transfer, division of natural resources, and rights of the minorities who remain in each of the states that would replace Syria and Iraq. But the proposed solution provides a blueprint that could at last move the region and the West beyond the logjam that has prolonged the wars in both countries, increased the threat of terrorism worldwide, contributed to a refugee crisis, and intensified the rivalry between the United States and Russia. For the sake of international order and the interests of the United States, it is time for Washington to assume responsibility and realize Obama’s promise to destroy ISIS.