Best Defense

Fighting ISIS (II): To work, this must be more than just a military operation

By Jim Sisco Best Defense guest columnist The current strategy to "defeat" ISIS will not work and will eventually evolve into a protracted campaign similar to the wars against terrorism, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. As Chris Holshek explained on the Peace Channel, military means alone, delivered through air strikes and training Iraqi, Syrian, and ...

via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons


By Jim Sisco

Best Defense guest columnist

The current strategy to "defeat" ISIS will not work and will eventually evolve into a protracted campaign similar to the wars against terrorism, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. As Chris Holshek explained on the Peace Channel, military means alone, delivered through air strikes and training Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish forces, cannot dislodge an ideology that is attempting to entrench itself into the social fabric of these societies.

In order to defeat ISIS, a unified plan that leverages the full spectrum of diplomatic, military, economic, and social means is required. Unfortunately, the military option is the only one currently being applied and after two months, the U.S.-led aerial campaign has had hardly any impact on the Islamic State’s territory or capabilities. At the same time, ISIS continues to build momentum and gain territory and control through intimidation, a mafia-style tax system, and revenues from oil sales. Moreover, the latest coalition fails to deliver a codified, coherent political message, with each country supporting its own interests and agendas. Compounding these problems, the preponderance of humanitarian assistance in Syria continues to be directed toward communities under Assad’s control.

The success of ISIS in Syria is directly attributed to the void of governance and security left by over two years of civil war. In Iraq, ISIS exploited deep sectarian resentment between Sunni tribes and the Shiite-led government. But most importantly, its success is attributable to poor U.S. policy decisions that created an environment within Syria for radical Islam to flourish and ignored ethnic, tribal, and religious structures and beliefs that counter Islamist extremism in Iraq. Unfortunately, political leaders continue to ignore these factors and rely on military solutions, which legitimize ISIS by recognizing them as a national security threat.

ISIS can be defeated and its ideology effectively countered. Most importantly, this can be achieved without committing U.S. ground combat forces, within existing authorities and permissions, and funded through existing resources. However, this requires political and military leaders to design and implement a long-term, population-centric strategy. This approach is designed to empower local communities by supporting existing governance and judicial structures, delivering basic goods and services to the people, and supporting Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces that support the civil societies where they operate.

This approach is not new — in fact, the Obama administration, including the State and Defense Departments, were briefed on an unconventional warfare campaign plan to defeat the Assad regime in the summer of 2013, but it died on the vine. This was partly because such an approach requires a significant investment in time and resources, which is oftentimes not palatable with politicians looking for a quick win or military planners designing options around military-only solutions.  

There is a solution. Idlib province, Syria is a microcosm of the region and provides an example of how a population-centric, unconventional warfare approach can succeed. Within the liberated territories of Idlib, nascent governance structures called civil administrative councils (CAC) operate. CACs are locally elected and networked organizations that delivery basic goods and services, administer justice, and provide security through local police forces to Syrian communities. The CACs oftentimes control Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, with some unit leaders subordinating themselves to civilian authorities. CACs are the mechanism by which the Syrian Opposition Council can gain legitimacy within Syrian society and the international community, create the foundation for a transitional government, and provide a viable option and credible counter to ISIS.   

Empowering CACs through a pipeline of humanitarian assistance, coordinated by non-government and private sector partners, links the Syrian Opposition Council to the people through the CACs and moderate FSA units. This direct connection between the Syrian Opposition Council and the people shapes the environment and presents a viable alternative to ISIS and future radical Islamist groups. More importantly, it also allows the U.S. to help reset the narrative to a multi-sectarian civil uprising for political reform and economic opportunity, rather than the sectarian conflict narrative exploited by ISIS and the Assad regime.

An ideology cannot be defeated by guns and bombs alone. If political and military decision makers continue to remain focused on "degrading" and "destroying" ISIS through military actions, instead of attacking it at its real centers of gravity, they will once again miss the mark. ISIS can be defeated but only after winning back the populations who chose ISIS as an option, or feel they have no other. However, until the Syrian and Iraqi populations are presented a viable alternative, they will continue to tolerate ISIS and its evils. Unfortunately, this will allow ISIS to metastasize into a broader, universal identity stream that will continue to legitimize its claim for an Islamic caliphate. If this occurs, ISIS may indeed become a credible threat to U.S. national security.

Jim Sisco is a former recon Marine and naval intelligence officer and is currently the president of ENODO Global, a business intelligence firm that focuses on population-centric analysis to solve complex social problems in dynamic cultural environments.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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