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A New Approach to ISIS? Elliott School Events Assess Administration Strategy

photo: Frank Sesno and Amb. Robert Ford
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, right, discusses the threat of ISIS in the Middle East
December 11, 2014

In November, as the Obama administration reviewed its strategy toward ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, two back-to-back Elliott School events examined the options available to the United States and its allies as well as the path forward in the region.

U.S. airstrikes against ISIS have hurt the American-backed moderate Syrian rebels—currently fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime—said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication’s fourth annual Walter Roberts Lecture on November 12. Bombings around the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, he said, have caused ISIS to withdraw from that area, enabling the Assad regime to move air assets they were using to bomb ISIS to now bomb the moderates.

“They no longer had to defend their people in Deir Ezzor—we were doing it for them,” Amb. Ford said. “We were Assad’s air force in Deir Ezzor.”

Furthermore, ISIS has a wealth of resources.

“The Islamic state has more money than any terror group we’ve ever seen,” Amb. Ford said in a discussion with School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno. “They earn somewhere between $250,000 and $3 million a day in black market oil sales. That’s a lot of money. Osama bin Laden never had access to that kind of cash.”

Amb. Ford cited the Obama administration’s policy in Syria as a reason he resigned his post in February. The U.S. strategy—creating a unity government through negotiation between the Assad regime and the opposition, setting up a cease-fire and then fighting the Islamic State together—is a good idea, he said, but isn’t possible unless the regime, backed strongly by Russia and Iran, feels the pressure to negotiate. Meetings in Geneva in February fell apart, Amb. Ford said, when the Assad regime refused to talk.

photo: Stephen Biddle. Patricia Kabra, and Marc Lynch

Stephen Biddle (left), Patricia Kabra, and Marc Lynch discuss ISIS at the Elliott School.

In a Security Policy Forum event on November 13, Professors Stephen Biddle and Marc Lynch discussed obstacles the administration will need to overcome to strengthen its approach.

Dr. Biddle said that although the United States had announced its goal was to destroy ISIS, the strategy it has pursued is incapable of doing that. It has stakes in the fight against ISIS, including keeping terrorism threats at bay, solving humanitarian crises and preventing damage to the U.S. economy. But these factors are “limited” in that they aren’t interrupting the American way of life. Therefore, the United States has crafted a restrained campaign that isn’t committed enough to truly defeat the organization, he said.

Some officials in the White House have also questioned the value of investing in the Middle East when the United States faces other challenges to American security, including China and issues in the Pacific, Dr. Biddle said.

“It doesn’t mean they want to abandon the region. It means they don’t want to wage wars there, but they find themselves unable to do so,” he said.

The risk of ISIS spilling over into neighboring countries makes the situation more difficult, Dr. Lynch added, calling Syria “a black hole at the heart of the region, dragging everyone down into it.”

The complexity of the conflict and the limited approach from the United States offer little hope for a solution.

“The policy options have been reviewed hundreds of times, and they always end up in the same place. None of the limited options—fly zones, air strikes, anything—can succeed. All they can do is drive the U.S. deeper into a conflict, which brings us toward overinvestment,” Dr. Lynch said.

The best way to move forward, Dr. Lynch continued, might be a “strategic pause,” or a de facto cease fire that ameliorates human suffering and de-escalates war. Any proposal to create an effective, moderate Syrian rebel army is likely to fail, he said.

While the panelists agreed the situation in Iraq is slightly more positive than Syria, it doesn’t look promising. The strategy in Iraq would benefit from allies supporting a broader military campaign and more boots on the ground. However, Dr. Biddle said, allies would need greater incentives to fill the front lines, especially if the United States continues to keep its engagement limited.

“We’re going to have to engage in a much more conditional set of policies that offer bigger sticks and bigger carrots,” Dr. Biddle said.

This article was adapted from a GW Today story by Julyssa Lopez and James Irwin. The article originally appeared on November 13, 2014.