Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

InReview: Destroying the Islamic State

On 10 September, President Obama delivered a speech generally outlining the administration’s 4-part strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS), including a campaign of airstrikes, increasing support to Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian opposition forces, preventing IS attacks through counterterrorism capabilities, and finally, by providing humanitarian assistance.

Expectedly, the announced strategy was met with a barrage of discussion and criticism. The list of opinions and alternative solutions is endless. Before providing a compilation of the different responses, it is critical to understand what IS is and what they are seeking. In an excellent background piece that emerged following President Obama’s striking admission that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in early September, Steve Coll writes “In Search of a Strategy”:

At the end of the eighth century, Harun al-Rashid, a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, built a palace in Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, in what is now Syria. His empire stretched from modern Tunisia to Pakistan. It was an age of Islamic discovery in science, music, and art; Rashid’s court of viziers inspired stories in “One Thousand and One Nights.”

In June, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared Raqqa the seat of a new caliphate, presided over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fierce preacher who was once an American prisoner in Iraq, and is now in hiding. The city has lost its splendor. Public executions are “a common spectacle” on Fridays in El Naim Square or at the Al Sa’a roundabout, a United Nations human-rights commission reported in August. ISIS fighters mount the dead on crucifixes, “as a warning to local residents.”

ISIS emerged a decade ago as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, one that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 amidst Iraq’s growing violence and the depravities of Syria’s civil war. This year, ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen . . . beyond anything we have seen.” The group has former military officers who can fly helicopters, spot artillery, and maneuver in battle. ISIS is increasingly a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah—part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.

President Obama has decided that the United States must now attack ISIS, if only from the air. The President vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, and golfed conspicuously, as his initial aerial campaign in Iraq unfolded. He has been less than forthright about why, after pledging to end America’s costly war in Iraq, he believed a return to battle there was necessary. But in interviews and other forums Obama has offered a casus belli, in three parts.

ISIS has massacred religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, and American air strikes can prevent more wanton killing, the President has said. A second imperative is the defense of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous, oil-endowed American ally in northern Iraq, which a few weeks ago was teetering under pressure from ISIS but has since recovered, with the aid of American air power. The third, and most resonant, reason that the President has given is self-defense: to disrupt ISIS before it tries to attack Americans in the region or inside the United States.

ISIS has beheaded one American journalist, James Foley, and threatened to execute a second. Yet some terrorism specialists point out that ISIS is consumed by the sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq, and has shown no intent to launch attacks in the West, or any ability to do so. Still, ISIS has attracted five hundred British volunteers, many scores of other European passport holders, and even some Americans to its fight; they might eventually turn toward London, Berlin, or New York. In early September, British authorities announced that the threat of a terrorist attack on its home soil was “severe,” given the rising number of British jihadis now among the militants in Iraq and Syria.

The question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead. Air strikes against a well-resourced guerrilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. It would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role. But what other professional force will dislodge the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate and then control the population? American policy assumes that Iraq’s squabbling politicians will rally a Shiite-led army to fight ISIS in the country’s Sunni heartland. On recent evidence, this assessment looks unrealistic.

In Syria, the options are worse. Obama has said repeatedly that he does not believe that Syria’s moderate rebels have the capacity to overthrow Assad or defeat jihadists. Yet the alternatives would allow Syria’s violence to fester at the cost of tens of thousands more civilian lives or would tacitly condone an alliance with the brutal Assad, who has been implicated in war crimes.

Obama and his advisers have at times taken refuge in a self-absolving logic: We can’t force people in other countries to unite around our agenda, so, if they don’t, whatever calamity unfolds is their responsibility. As a retreat from American hubris, this form of realism has appeal. As a contribution to a stable Middle East, it has failed utterly.

It is not yet clear that ISIS will endure as a menace. Fast-moving extremist conquerors sometimes have trouble holding their ground. ISIS has promised to govern as effectively as it intimidates, but its talent lies in extortion and ethnic cleansing, not in sanitation and job creation. It is vulnerable to revolt from within.

The group’s lightning rise is a symptom, however, of deeper instability; a cause of that instability is failed international policy in Iraq and Syria. If the United States is returning to war in the region, one might wish for a more considered vision than Whack-a-Mole against jihadists.

The restoration of human rights in the region first requires a renewed search for a tolerable—and, where possible, tolerant—path to stability. ISIS feasts above all on the suffering of Syria, and that appears to be unending. The war is in its fourth year, with almost two hundred thousand dead and nine million displaced, inside the country and out. The caliphate now seated in Raqqa is the sort of dark fantasy that can spring to life when people feel they are bereft of other plausible sources of security and justice.

“We don’t have a strategy yet,” the President remarked last week, infelicitously, about Syria. He does have a coalition of allies in the region that are willing to challenge ISIS’s ambition, including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries patronize disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, and some of their support certainly reaches jihadists, including ISIS. Yet they share an interest in reducing Syria’s violence and in promoting regional and local Sunni self-governance that is less threatening and more sustainable than what ISIS has created. Ultimately, Sunnis will need the kind of autonomy that Kurds presently enjoy.

Leading a coalition of this character is hard, uncertain work. George H. W. Bush, the President whose foreign policy Obama seems to admire most, did it successfully in the runup to the Gulf War of 1991, by intensive personal engagement. Obama has more than two years left in the White House. To defeat ISIS, but also to reduce its source of strength, will require the President to risk his credibility on more than just air strikes.

(New Yorker, emphasis added)

Topic Debate: How serious is the threat posed by IS? With this brief background of the IS’s rise, the following articles and reports demonstrate the range of reactions to the announced strategy. First, scholars responding to the strategy not only disagree on how to deal with ISIS but what kind of threat the group poses.

Danielle Pletka, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute writing for CNN, explains “To Beat ISIS, First Understand It”:

Any strategy embraced by the Obama administration must begin and end with an understanding of the nature of the threat at hand. Too many have reduced the challenge to ISIS alone, failing to understand that the group is merely a more venomous outgrowth of a cancer now sweeping across the Muslim world, from South to East Asia, from Africa to the Middle East.

Al Qaeda, its sworn affiliates, wannabes and groups such as ISIS are taking territory as never before. We are rightly paying attention to the brutal beheading of two Americans. But we cannot ignore the forest for the trees.

First, ISIS itself now occupies a swath of territory across both Syria and Iraq, and so the notion of a military strategy that hits Iraq without Syria, helps Kurds without Sunnis, or rescues Yazidis without Muslims is mindless. To cripple ISIS, the group must be targeted in Iraq and Syria — everywhere that it holds land.

Second, we will need allies, and those allies will need support from the United States, both on the ground in the form of special operations forces and advisers, and from the air. They will need weapons, now. We can continue to parse the many faults of these groups — the Kurds, the Iraqi armed forces, the Free Syrian Army and Sunni tribes — and simply go and fight ourselves. We are better; we are more trustworthy; we will win. But do we want to fight, or do we wish to empower locals on the ground to fight? It seems an easy choice.

Third, we need to crush the Qatari lifeline to Muslim extremists of all stripes, highlighted just in early September in The New York Times. The Saudis know it and the Emiratis know it. Indeed, everyone but the United States (and perhaps those in the pay of Qatar) seems well aware that the tiny tyranny has effectively been waging war on the moderates of the Middle East for years. Like their alleged clients in ISIS and Hamas, the Qataris are small, but nastier when unopposed. It’s time to oppose them, and to unite the Arab League in so doing.

Fourth, we need to kill ISIS’ leaders. Yes, it’s true, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the fourth leader of what was once al Qaeda in Iraq. When he dies, another will rise in his place. So what? Killing terrorist leaders is not a strategy to defeat terrorism, but it is a useful tactic to slow down momentum, reduce recruiting appeal and otherwise warn the group that it is in our sights. Throughout the Middle East, many are wondering why it is that U.S. drones target terrorist leaders from Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan, but both Iraq and Syria are no-fly zones for American terrorist-killers. Good question.

Fifth, we need to remember that ISIS may not technically be part of al Qaeda, but it is part of a larger movement that encompasses al Qaeda. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman points out, if ISIS is defeated, “al Qaeda is right on its heels and would be happy to fill in any vacancies left by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”

Finally, we must remember — and that goes double for this President of the United States — that a strategy to defeat ISIS and all those like it cannot be part of the usual hide-the-ball game to get bad news off the front pages and then forget about the problem. This hasn’t worked well in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine or anywhere else. Any strategy will require sustained commitment and a willingness to speak to the American people about the threat more than a few times a year.


As an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, it might seem prudent to analyze the Islamic State through the paradigm of Al Qaeda. However, some argue against this strategic comparison. For example, NBC News reported on a statement by Gen. David Petraeus’: “ISIL in Iraq Should Not Be Overestimated. In many respects it has nowhere near the roots, the numbers, and the structure that Al Qaeda in Iraq and the associated Sunni insurgents had when we launched the surge.”

In a similar vein, Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, characterizes the plan to degrade and destroy ISIS as a potentially “Dumb War” in Foreign Policy:

“How is it dumb? Let me count the ways. First: the Islamic State (IS) is an undeniably nasty group, but even the president admits that IS poses no immediate threat to the United States. Second, other actors may be better suited than the United States to combating the regional threat IS poses. Third, U.S. military strikes against IS in Syria risk inspiring more new violent extremists than they kill, undermining long-term U.S. security interests. Fourth, our current fixation on IS also carries opportunity costs. Fifth, Obama’s willingness to embrace and expand George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateral preventive self-defense is one more nail in the coffin of the fragile post-World War II collective security system.”

(Foreign Policy)

Topic Debate: Responses to the Obama administration’s announced strategy. Just as there is a range of viewpoints concerning the threat posed by IS, there is a similar and much more heated discourse on alternative strategies. Below are just a few of the many responsive strategies.

Obama’s ISIS Speech: AEI Scholars React

Michael RubinResident Scholar and author of the book “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes”

Let’s get one thing clear: it’s not the job of the president of the United States to determine what Islam is or is not, what Christianity is or is not, and what Judaism is or is not. Religion is what its practitioners believe it to be. That President Obama begins with a politically correct paean and only addresses the Islamic State’s ideology as a passing thought later on undercuts the seriousness of a very good speech, one that calls for the Islamic State’s defeat without any artificial timeline and recognizes that a return to Bashar Assad’s rule is no option.

The problem lies with Obama’s inability to separate theory from reality. Alliances may sound good on paper, but they can also be an Achilles’ heel: Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med, saying one thing to our diplomats while coddling the adversaries we fight behind our backs. Most jihadis transit Turkey and cross the Turkish border for the cost of a $40 bribe. Trust Saudi Arabia with running counter radicalization programs? That’s like having Bernie Madoff teach accounting.

Nor does Obama realize that pinprick strikes are never enough. My colleague Katie Zimmerman has talked about the fallacy of the Yemen model. Somalia, too, is no example. That country is stabilizing not because of limited airstrikes, but rather because the African Union occupied the country to fight Al-Shabaab where they ate and slept.
It’s good to have a strategy. But national security should never be sacrificed upon the altar of diplomatic whimsy, political correctness, or twisted history.

Thomas Donnelly, Resident Scholar and Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies

1.) The president announced a strategy that is merely an extension of his preferred “counter-terrorism” methods. To claim Yemen and Somalia as smashing successes to be emulated — particularly in the face of a much tougher and brutal enemy — in Iraq and Syria is a very uncertain recipe, if not a recipe for certain failure.

2.) The president did not make any attempt to rally the nation for war — quite the opposite. Moreover, the paean to his domestic programs that concluded the speech further muddled his message.

3.) Our allies and our enemies alike have taken the measure of President Obama over six years, to the point where no speech, not even a fire-breathing follow-them-to-the-gates-of-hell speech, could undo the damage. They will see the strategy of airstrikes-plus-indigenous-forces plan for what it is: a statement of American limits rather than a declaration of American commitment. Interestingly, he had nothing to say about the Turks — mentioning only Arab and Kurdish partners — who are certainly key to pursuing ISIS in Syria.

4.) I was surprised by the economic and domestic policy notes he hit, which were out of place in a way that was not only discordant but undercut the attempt to show resolve against ISIS.

Phillip Lohaus: Research Fellow, Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and author of a new paper titled “A Precarious Balance: Preserving the Right Mix of Conventional and Special Operations Forces”

As we have seen before, the president tonight carefully weaved together a speech that outlined many important themes in a way that sounds cogent when delivered. But upon further inspection, the cracks begin to show.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the president’s speech tonight was its emphasis on the importance of American leadership in world affairs. But beyond the lofty rhetoric, America has done little in the way of leadership as of late. Take the pivot to Asia, which has left many of our Pacific allies wondering whether they can rely on the protection of the United States. Take the administration’s “red line” in Syria. Or take the situation in Ukraine. Standing by and watching as Putin seized Crimea and then sponsored rebels inside Ukrainian territory wasn’t exactly leadership–or support for that matter.

The current situation in Iraq and Syria was, in fact, facilitated by America’s lack of leadership. By exiting Iraq before its army was adequately prepared to defend itself and by ignoring the tempestuous collapse of Syria, America is playing catch up to a terrorist organization that is much stronger than it might have been. If leadership is measured in results, America’s recent track record hasn’t been the best.

One could detect a palpable lack of conviction in tonight’s speech; a rallying cry it was not. Yes, we will lead a coalition. Yes, we will conduct more airstrikes, and send in more advisers. But the Iraqi troops upon which we will be relying for combat and for ground truth have not yet proven that they can reliably perform these functions. By likening Iraq to Yemen or Somalia, the president continues to gloss over just how powerful and pervasive ISIL has become. Less than 10 years ago, It took the mass and logistical capabilities of thousands of conventional troops to oust militants from Iraq’s urban centers. The president has yet to explain how his current plans might affect the same result.

The president stated on 10 September that “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.” This can and should be the case. But by continuing to “lead from behind,” by continuing to say things that might soothe the American public but that do little to actually “dismantle” ISIL, and by continuing to act timidly in situations that require decisiveness and resoluteness, the president has again drawn the willingness of America to lead into doubt. The president said that “as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.” Let’s hope that this time around he’s willing to do what it takes to back up his rhetoric with results. (American Enterprise Institute)

President Obama Lays Out His Strategy to Destroy ISIS On Eve of 9/11

While President Obama weathered a storm of criticism for expressing just days ago that the US “doesn’t have a strategy”, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11 he told Americans not only what our clear objective was in the fight against ISIS, but also how we would accomplish our goals.

The President laid out a four pronged strategy that included a request for money from Congress to arm and train opposition forces in Syria, to authorize more airstrikes in Iraq and potentially in Syria, a commitment to continuing our counterterrorism efforts as well as continuing to offer humanitarian assistance.

Indeed, these are all important components of an effective strategy to counteract ISIS and considering the President’s fierce opposition to boots on the ground, this is surely a step in the right direction considering a lack of ground forces.

But there is more President Obama needs to do.

The President needs to follow up and show that his ideas are actually going to work. In the past, we’ve had the manpower on the ground to guarantee American victories. This is a nuanced approach that harkens back to President Clinton using a coalition in the air campaign in Bosnia.

Further, another risk of the strategy is that we are going to be heavily investing in the Iraqi political infrastructure, a move that may come back to haunt us. The newly formed Iraqi government is not as inclusive as it should be and we’ve demonstrated little ability to inform the government machinery thus far in this campaign.

And given the less than clear view of who exactly is best suited to fight ISIS in Syria, do we risk arming our future – and potentially current – enemies, as was our experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The fundamental question that remains is whether this strategy, that is one primarily of funding ISIS’s opposition and the use American airpower, can actually destroy and not just degrade this terrorist movement.

Americans need to consider whether airpower alone can achieve this goal when boots on the ground has provided American victories for decades. (Forbes)

For U.S., Finding Right Allies in Syria Will Be Tough

In an effort to map out the ideological spectrum of Syria’s various rebel groups, Turkish and American officials used a color-coded scheme: green for trusted friends, red for clear-cut enemies and yellow for those in the middle.

That middle section turned into a point of contention when it became clear that the Turks were willing to work with groups that were anathema to the United States, including al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the hard-line Ahrar al Sham. Turkish officials seemed to be gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category.

(…) Now the schism with Turkey, never resolved, is resurfacing in a more public way with President Barack Obama’s pledge to build a “moderate” Syrian rebel force as he wades deeper into the Middle East’s turmoil. When the United States and Muslim partners such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia clash over the very definition of “moderate,” who gets to decide the makeup of a coalition-backed rebel force? And no matter what it’s called, is Obama ready to accept the risk of backing a movement that’s widely viewed as too small, too weak and too untrustworthy to win?

(…) “If you really want to defeat them and get them out of territory, you’re going to need partners on the ground, and it’s unclear whether we will ever find one in Syria,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy for the Virginia-based RAND Corp. research institute.

The Obama administration has followed a long arc in its search for a Syrian partner, first in the effort to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad and, now, in the more pressing campaign to defeat the Islamic State. As recently as last month, Obama was quoted as disparaging the Syrian rebels as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” and saying it was a “fantasy” that they could overthrow Assad.

(…) As if to underscore the complexities of the U.S. task in building a “moderate” Syrian rebel force, the opposition coalition that the United States recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people put out a statement this week mourning the deaths of dozens of key figures in Ahrar al Sham, an ultraconservative Islamist rebel force that the State Department has considered designating a terrorist organization because of its al Qaida-like ideology. The men died in a mysterious explosion during a high-level meeting. (McClatchy DC)

Experts: Obama’s Legal Justification for the War on ISIS is “A Stretch”

In his speech on September 10, President Obama laid out a new strategy for dealing with the terrorist group ISIS (also known as ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. The most notable element of the newly announced plan is expanded military action: The US will conduct a “systematic campaign” of airstrikes against ISIS in both countries.

One problem: The president doesn’t have unlimited power to wage war as he pleases. He needs to have authority from the Constitution, Congress, or both in order for military action to be legal. The Obama administration claims that its actions against ISIS are within the bounds of the law — but the rationale is shaky at best.

On a press call prior to Obama’s speech, a senior administration official said that the president has “constitutional and statutory authority to deal with the threat posed by ISIL” and that the administration believes that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, gives the president the authority to conduct military operations against ISIS without further congressional approval.

(…) The Obama administration has long argued that the AUMF extends beyond al-Qaeda and the Taliban to also cover “associated groups,” but including ISIS within that category seems to be a dramatic expansion of even the administration’s own definition.

Former State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh explained the administration’s theory of “associated groups” in a May 2013 speech at Oxford University. He said an “associated force” is an “organized, armed group” that has “actually entered the fight alongside al-Qaeda” against the US and is therefore “a co-belligerent with al-Qaeda in its hostilities against America.”

Pearlstein pointed out that ISIS doesn’t seem to meet those criteria. “Is ISIL organized? Surely,” she wrote. “Has it ‘entered the fight alongside al-Qaeda’? Absolutely not. Al-Qaeda and ISIL are fighting each other.” American University’s Jennifer Daskal, writing in Just Security, likewise took issue with the inclusion of ISIS within the “associated forces” category, declaring it “to say it mildly, a stretch.” (Vox)

Confronting the Islamic State

The Syrian opposition is in a rare position of power, at least internationally. In his September 10 address, President Barack Obama extended the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into Syria. He said that the United States will lead a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. There is a wide recognition that the opposition will be key in the fight against the radical group. But the opposition does not have a strategy to seize this opportunity. And at this critical juncture Syrian rebels have even alienated some of their allies.

Until Obama’s speech, the opposition was suspicious that U.S. strikes in Syria would be carried out in collaboration with the Assad regime, despite repeated statements from Western capitals to the contrary. On 10 September, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood rejected the international coalition against ISIS “unless the first bullet is directed at [Bashar] al-Assad’s head.” Even though the opposition’s National Coalition welcomed the American move against ISIS, the political opposition is still waiting for an invitation to play a role, rather than proactively presenting a vision for a way out for the Syrian crisis.

Away from politics, however, a fairly different situation exists among opposition fighters. Significant rebel coalitions have already been formed to help in the fight against ISIS, and preparations for the zero hour seem to be in full swing. On September 10, seven groups affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, among them Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced a small yet symbolically significant coalition to fight ISIS in eastern Syria. On 8 September, five sizable fighting groups in Idlib announced a merger, named al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion), saying they would adhere to strict military discipline and use the Syrian revolutionary flag, which indicates a rejection of Islamist ideology. The Syrian Revolutionary Front, which was key to the expulsion of ISIS from much of the north earlier this year, also announced that it would send “convoys after convoys” to areas under ISIS control to defeat the jihadi group.

But even though rebels on the ground are willing and prepared to fight ISIS, the political opposition has a critical role to play. The areas tightly controlled by ISIS will require an assiduous effort to organize groups that could fill any vacuum left by ISIS as a result of the potential airstrikes. ISIS has made it much harder for armed groups from these areas, particularly Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, to regroup and make a comeback or for local forces to stage an insurrection against the jihadi group. Rebel groups from outside these areas will also find it quite difficult to navigate, much less be welcomed in, these territories.

Rebel forces from the north can help fight ISIS from the ground, under air cover and intelligence and with logistical assistance, but local forces will be vital in retaking areas currently under ISIS control. Many of the fighters from Deir ez-Zor, for example, left the province to fight near Damascus after ISIS entered their areas in June. Local forces who have surrendered to ISIS have little appetite to rise up against the group unless they know that it will be too weakened to return to their areas and retaliate against them, as it did to several villages and towns in recent weeks.

These complexities will make the fight against ISIS that much more difficult. The dilemma is obvious: in areas currently ruled by ISIS, local forces are unwilling to initiate a ground-up uprising against ISIS unless the group is weakened, and it cannot be seriously weakened without help from local forces. The U.S.-led coalition will have to consider aligning with rebel groups from adjacent areas outside ISIS control, combined with effective air operations, before expecting a popular impetus against the group. A leadership role for the political opposition will be needed to make that happen.

(…) The dwindling trust in the opposition, even from its most committed allies, drives them to do more to win back that trust. Airstrikes against ISIS will provide the opposition with an opportunity to work alongside countries that long doubted its ability to rule a post-Assad Syria. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.  (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Defeating ISIS: An Integrated Strategy to Advance Middle East Stability

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, have been an important step to contain the rise of the extremist group, respond to immediate threats to U.S. citizens in Iraq, and prevent possible acts of genocide. These airstrikes enabled Iraqis to resist ISIS and bought time for the Iraqi government to begin building a more inclusive administration under a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. But as the Center for American Progress noted in a June report, U.S. military action needs to be just one part of a long-term multinational political and security strategy in the region.

The new strategy should aim to contain and degrade ISIS and enable regional partners to continue to build the tools needed to defeat ISIS’s movement with international support. This report outlines actions to advance three core strategic goals:

  1. Contain and degrade the threat ISIS poses to the Middle East region and global security
  2. Alleviate the humanitarian crisis affecting millions of Syrians and Iraqis
  3. Restore the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria

The ISIS threat is eroding the borders of both Iraq and Syria, and it represents an immediate and significant threat to the surrounding region. ISIS also represents an evolving threat to the United States, Europe, and global security in the form of international terrorism enabled by the group’s thousands of foreign fighters and its abundance of cash and military resources. An environment of chaos and great suffering has allowed ISIS to emerge. The conflict in Syria alone has created the largest humanitarian crisis the world has faced in decades. Some 9 million Syrians have fled their homes, and 3 million Syrians are now refugees, making them the world’s largest refugee population and placing a tremendous burden on neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

As with efforts to counter extremism elsewhere, defeating ISIS will require a concentrated effort over time. Any successful U.S. strategy must be built on a foundation of regional cooperation that requires coordinated action from U.S. partners—a central concept of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund that President Barack Obama proposed earlier this year. The strategy will be multifaceted, involving intelligence cooperation, security support, vigorous regional and international diplomacy, strategic communications and public diplomacy, and political engagement.

(…) Focusing too much on direct U.S. military action in the fight against ISIS ignores the equally important diplomatic and economic steps that will be required to defeat this extremist group. U.S. military strikes or even boots on the ground cannot defeat ISIS alone and could become a rallying cry and recruitment tool for extremists, repeating one of the most costly strategic errors of the 2003 Iraq War. At the same time, building a unified, committed coalition to effectively degrade ISIS will require intense diplomatic and military leadership from the United States to mobilize and coordinate partners. The United States must leverage its unique capabilities in the military, security assistance, and intelligence arenas. Working together, nations committed to defeating ISIS should take concerted action to empower regional and local forces to fight back against ISIS terrorism.

A successful U.S. strategy will require reinvigorated support for Syrian opposition forces to establish a third way that is opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on one side and ISIS on the other. This reinvigorated support should include the $500 million of additional assistance that President Obama proposed in June. With 10 nations agreeing to work together against ISIS during the NATO summit in Wales and the Arab League announcing a joint commitment to fight ISIS, the foundation for such international cooperation is taking shape. These countries—including the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—should match their commitment on paper with financial and material resources to complement the resources committed by the United States in the fight against ISIS. (Center for American Progress)

America Cannot Defeat ISIS by Aligning with Dictators Because the Two Exist in Symbiosis

The old Arabic proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” appears to have just arrived in the U.S. Serious American analysts have been promoting Egyptian President el-Sisi as a “moderate” leader who can defeat the threat to the region posed by ISIS. These same analysts are also seriously proposing cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has fueled the growth of ISIS in Syria and emboldened it in Iraq.

If the U.S. decides to partner with Assad to defeat ISIS, they will be embracing a policy that legitimizes a war criminal who gassed his own people, and — so far — is the primary culprit in a conflict that has killed some 200,000 Syrians. Clearly, Assad has seen the opportunity to exploit the ISIS threat as his latest means to cling ruthlessly to power.

(…) America’s goals are shifting towards supporting authoritarian stability rather than restoring democratic legitimacy. Al-Malaki’s abusive sectarian rule has helped to fuel and engender the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Thus, how can we imagine that an abusive sectarian Assad can be any part of a solution to root out ISIS in Syria? The very seeds of ISIS’s creation are directly linked to the international community’s inability to prevent Assad’s mass slaughters and the resulting loss of hope for Arab democracy.

Extremists and dictators exist in symbiosis — they are often viable only by virtue of each other’s presence. Together, they form an ecosystem of oppression — a codependent existence. Even secular regimes rely on their tribes to fortify their power. They use tactics of fear, intimidation and humiliation to enforce ruthless control over their populace. Dissent is met with immediate harsh punishment: torture, death and starvation — even children are not spared.

Waging another war that strikes at the symptoms and not the cause is destined to fail in the long run. Even if ISIS leader Abu baker al-Baghdadi is assassinated, ISIS will likely morph into another entity. This is especially probable given the dire economic situation of many Arab counties, where only about half the population works and nearly two-thirds of the population is under age 30. (Huffington Post)

In his speech announcing the strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS, President Obama stated: “We’ve targeted al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer. (…)Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and -women who carry out these missions. But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years, and it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”

As the definition of success is up to interpretation, many criticized the use of Yemen and Somalia as a model in combating terrorism to be a stretch. Coincidentally, observers of Yemen in particular will note that the country is going through a uniquely volatile period.

Al Qaeda Militants Flow into Yemen’s Capital

Scores of al Qaeda militants have moved into Yemen’s capital San’a in an attempt to exploit swelling political unrest and destabilize the government, officials said. While President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government is bogged down with protests in the capital by the Houthis—a Shiite Muslim political and militant group—at least 60 al Qaeda militants have slipped in over the past few weeks and joined sleeper cells, according to Yemeni officials. Although Yemeni officials said al Qaeda’s strength in Yemen is growing, the U.S. administration is holding up its counterterrorism strategy in the country as a model for the campaign against the extremist group Islamic State, which operates in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. provides funding and training for Yemeni counterterror forces and conducts drone strikes targeting the militants. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered the terror network’s most capable offshoot in terms of ability to launch international attacks, and is one of a number of challenges facing the central government of the impoverished country, which has long struggled to extend its authority beyond the capital. As al Qaeda militants in the south move north, Houthis are extending their authority across the north, where they have taken over two provinces and broadened their military presence in five others. The country is also dealing with a powerful secession movement in the south. The Houthis have been protesting over the past month to demand the renewal of fuel subsidies and the formation of a new government. In two separate protests in early September, government forces killed at least eight Houthi demonstrators and an ambulance driver, and wounded at least 67 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands poured into the streets of San’a this weekend to protest those deaths, and have been camping outside of ministries. Jalal BelEidi, an al Qaeda leader, complained in a video released in early September that the government had given Houthis free rein over much of northern Yemen in exchange for their political support at the expense of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. (…) Al Qaeda and the Houthis have been clashing for the past month in two northern provinces, Jawf and Amran. In July, Houthis took control of Amran province, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of San’a.

(…) However, the State Department’s 2013 assessment of antiterrorism efforts in Yemen—its last available report—concluded that the Yemeni government “struggled to maintain momentum against a resilient AQAP” whose attacks “increased in complexity and brazenness.” “The Yemeni military did not undertake major counterterrorism operations through most of 2013; instead they primarily assumed a defensive posture,” heavily relying on U.S. airstrikes against AQAP, the report added. U.S. officials say their counterterrorism program in Yemen is effective, pointing to the 2011 battle of Zinjibar, a city AQAP controlled with affiliates until Yemeni forces, backed by the U.S., broke their hold in the monthslong battle. The U.S. counterterrorism program is shrouded in secrecy and officials aren’t allowed to discuss details of the strikes. (Wall Street Journal)

Who’s Houthi?

An Insurgent shia militia threatens the country’s fragile peace deal

IF YOU were a tribe in Yemen and fancied a road or a school or the release of someone from prison, the tried and tested method in the past was to snatch a hostage or two. Usually the government gave in, and everyone went home happy. So it is perhaps natural that the Houthis, a revivalist movement for the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that has lately grown in strength from its base in the north of the country, should squeeze the government by holding Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to ransom. This is in effect what the Houthis, who prefer to call themselves Ansar Allah or the Partisans of God, have done since mid-August. They have brought in supporters and mounted an escalating series of sit-ins and crippling roadblocks to force concessions from the beleaguered president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The trouble is that the feeble Yemeni state is bankrupt. Mr Hadi, who must juggle demands from other factions, including Sunni Islamists, while also pursuing a war against al-Qaeda terrorists in the south, cannot afford to appear weak. More pressingly, the Houthis’ tactic risks sparking clashes in the capital, and perhaps all-out mayhem on a scale not seen since Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of three decades, stepped down in November 2011 after a year of mass protests and street battles (and the near-assassination of Mr Saleh). This in turn could derail a political transition plan, in place since late 2011, which last January produced an agreement that is meant to lead to a fresh constitution that devolves federal power and lays the ground for elections.

The risk of chaos drew perilously close on September 9th when security forces opened fire on protesters gathered in front of the prime minister’s office, killing at least seven people. Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader, says his people come in peace and that they will leave as soon as their demands have been met. These include a return of generous government fuel subsidies, which were slashed in July as a desperate austerity measure. Such populist demands, as well as widespread resentment against the political class that still dominates the state, have broadened the insurgents’ support far beyond their religious and regional roots. But Mr Hadi fears that the Houthis, once the underdogs in a stop-start civil war with Mr Saleh, but lately empowered by successive military victories against tribal and Islamist militias, will resort to violence if their demands are not met. He has bolstered security in Sana’a since the protests began. But after a spate of attacks this month by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the extremist movement, which left as many as 20 people dead, the president needs all the men he can muster to fight terrorism. Arguing that stability is paramount, Mr Hadi has offered to replace the government with a cabinet more to the Houthis’ liking and to cut the fuel price by about 13%. But Mr Houthi is holding out for the full subsidy and a bigger role in the new government. He hints at new, “more painful” measures, and has warned that his patience is running out. The shooting of his supporters will have steeled his resolve. (The Economist)

Video – Yemen: A Failed State

Since 2011, when Yemeni youths took to the streets and sparked the eventual demise of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, the country has fallen to pieces. The new embattled government is now struggling to cope with a bevy of issues, including sectarian rivalries, CIA drone strikes, and one of al Qaeda’s most sophisticated branches. It now risks presiding over the failure of one of the world’s most fragile countries. VICE News visits some of Yemen’s most dangerous and hard-to-reach places and groups, including the national Army in the country’s lawless East, the Houthis in Sana’a, and the Popular Committee in the South, to find out how both the government and the West’s policy toward Yemen have gone wrong. (Vice)

Video – Yemen: Heading for More Conflict?

The Houthis, who are demanding that the government resign and subsidies be fully restored, have been fighting for years for more power for their Zaydi Shia sect in northern Yemen. Now they have moved to the capital Sanaa, threatening to block roads and occupy government buildings to achieve their goals. As the turmoil in Yemen intensifies, president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has accused Iran of interfering in his country’s internal affairs – an accusation Tehran denies, with a foreign ministry spokeswoman saying Iran supports unity, security and stability in Yemen. Also, the current unrest throws efforts for a peaceful transition in doubt. (Al Jazeera)

Yemen Clashes Between Rebels, Tribesmen Kill 40

Clashes in Yemen between Shiite rebels and Islamist tribesmen killed 40 people over two days in the country’s north, local security officials and tribal leaders said on 6 September. The combat took place in al-Jawf province, where Hawthi [AKA Houthi] rebels fought tribesmen who are backed by an army unit and allied with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah party. The officials said 18 of the Hawthis and 22 of the tribesmen were killed in the battle and dozens on both sides were wounded. Tribesmen have managed to take control of Hawthi positions some 175 kilometers (109 miles) east of the capital Sanaa, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters. The Hawthis have been camping for nearly three weeks in the capital near key installations, calling for the government’s removal and the reinstatement of fuel subsidies. In a bid to end the standoff between the government and Hawthis, the Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi dismissed his Cabinet on 2 September and said he would appoint a new prime minister within a week. The move did not stop the rebels’ escalation, however. Demonstrations continued on 3 September and protesters blocked major roads.

The Hawthis had waged a six-year insurgency in the north against Saleh which officially ended in 2010. After Saleh’s ouster, they fought ultraconservative Islamists in several northern cities and towns, accusing them of turning their strongholds into incubators of extremism. (ABC News, Associated Press)

Slavery in Yemen

Slavery is illegal throughout the world, banned by international convention and treaty. But there is at least one country where it is alleged still to exist: Yemen. In June 2010, a local Yemeni newspaper, Al-Masdar, reported that slavery not only existed but was growing in Yemen. It published the story of 500 alleged slaves in the country.

The government dismissed the Al-Masdar reports and insisted they were entirely unfounded. But when a Yemeni judge approved the transfer of a slave from one owner to another, it triggered a campaign by a local journalist, human rights activists, and the wider press. With the help of these campaigners and using hidden cameras, the makers of this Al Jazeera film investigate political figures allegedly involved in modern slavery. They follow up several cases, hear from current and former slaves and their owners, and are able to intervene on behalf of some of the victims. (Al Jazeera)

Yemen, Houthis Yet to Reach Deal to End Crisis

Yemen’s government and Shi’ite Muslim Houthi rebels pursued talks on 11 September to end a crisis that has seen weeks of sometimes bloody protests in the capital, after the two sides gave conflicting accounts of progress in the negotiations. The Houthis, who follow the small Zaidi branch of Shi’ite Islam, have been embroiled in a decade-old conflict with the central government in Sunni-dominated Sanaa, fighting for more territory and control in the north. (Reuters)


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