Paris, ISIS, and the Rush to "War"

It is all too easy to call for dramatic new military action, and draconian new security measures, as part of a natural human reaction to the horrifying events in Paris. It is equally inevitable that such calls have already come in the form of political opportunism and as part of a search for status and media visibility. Every major attack tends to produce the same pattern of calls for instant action, dramatic new steps in counterterrorism and warfighting, throwing more money at the threat regardless of its effectiveness, and assigning blame to given political leaders or the intelligence community in general for not preventing the attack.

There is, however, good reason for caution, for careful planning and analysis, for taking the time to build on previous efforts and ongoing improvements in counterterrorism, and for not leaping into massive military escalation. More needs to be done where more can actually be effective. But, more only needs to be done with great care and done in ways that reflect expert judgment at both the level of the counterterrorism and intelligence experts that have real world experience and the military actually fighting ISIS in the field.

Build Carefully and Systematically on a Decade and a Half of Previous Counterterrorism Efforts

Nothing about Paris should come as a shock. Open societies are inherently vulnerable, and all too many other attacks preceded Paris. At the same time, far more were deterred or attempted and blocked. This occurred between the United States, its allies, and other nations that have been steadily improving their counterterrorism efforts since 9/11. There also are ongoing efforts to make further improvements at virtually every level in every country, as well as on an international level.

Throwing more resources at ill-planned and poorly analyzed aspects of counterterrorism will not help and can actually disrupt the existing counterterrorism effort. This is particularly true of the kind of instant solutions advocated by some outside experts who ride a personal hobbyhorse in advocating such action, search for visibility, and do not have working experience with what is already underway.

Implementing useful action will also often take time. The kind of massive increase in security activity now going on in France focuses on a proven threat and has already shown it can pay off. However, acting to attack the broader structure of extremism, terrorism, and violence, increasing deterrence on a wide international or national level, radically altering the level of security procedures, requires great care.

The wrong kind of action can take the form of repression that will increase the alienation of the small number of Muslims outside the Islamic world who have been vulnerable to recruiting and action as extremists. It can actually create more terrorists rather than reduce the numbers. We need to remember what the very word “terrorism” means: to create a state of fear that serves the interest of the attacker.

Pushing hard in ineffective ways will simply create an incentive to terrorists to attack while they still can. Overreaction and a failure to make it clear that the vast major of Muslims in Europe and the United States oppose terrorism can lead to forms of prejudice and anger that further alienate the Muslim population rather than make it a partner, and deprive efforts to counter the extremist message that all of Islam is under siege of their effectiveness. Repression will support one of the key reasons for such terrorist attacks: the effort by ISIS and Al Qaeda to divide the Islamic world from other faiths and countries, and attack the legitimacy of mainstream and moderate governments and clerics in the Islamic world.

This does not mean that proven measures cannot be reinforced, that ongoing plans to improve counterterrorism cannot be accelerated, and that more resources cannot be provided where there are clear shortfalls. But, panicking, rushing to action without planning, halting efforts to deal with refugees, and alienating Muslims inside and outside the Muslim world is scarcely the answer. Careful expert planning, taking the time to plan properly and produce effective results, and understanding that “simple, quick, and wrong” can only produce the wrong results is critical.

Similarly, if there are more attacks, efforts to improve counterterrorism need to remain equally careful. No combination of military measures and counterattacks can suddenly improve the level of defense and deterrence against existing covert groups and networks – all of which now have a growing incentive to act before they are detected. Defeating ISIS will at best remove one key player from a global board of constantly evolving extremist groups, and it has every incentive now to strike while - and if - it can.

Think Carefully About a “War on ISIS”

It is all too easy to call for “war” against ISIS. There are, however, several reasons to be very cautious about doing so. First, ISIS is only one Islamic extremist threat, and ISIS operates in the incredibly volatile mix of other sectarian tensions within Islam such as those between Sunni and Shi’ite, and in the broad regional environment of failed secular politics, governance, and economics that gave birth to the broad upheavals that began in 2011. The terrorist and extremist threat is far broader than ISIS and focusing on one group – rather than the broader threat – ignores the reality that it will remain and resurface regardless of what happens to ISIS.

“War” also comes too close to “crusade” and to the propaganda line that some Islamic extremists use in saying that the United States, the West, and secular states, are at war with Islam. Words matter, and terms like “counterterrorism,” “liberating” ISIS occupied areas, and “defeating” ISIS set the same goal without the same semantic baggage. Placing a constant emphasis on the fact that most Muslim and Arab governments are our allies in the fight against ISIS and terrorist extremism is equally important.

This is not an “us versus them” struggle – and it must never even hint at being a struggle between a “Christian” West and a “Muslim” Middle East and North Africa. It is, and must visibly remain a partnership between governments and the vast majority of the population in both regions. It is a struggle between the “peoples of the book” and the marginal extremists that attack their own faith in its very name.

The United States in particular also needs to be very careful about any formal declaration of war. Such action raises serious issues about the rights of combatants, how you legally define ISIS as an opponent, and other problems in international law. Political rhetoric about “war” is inevitable, but we should back away from it as much as we can. A formal declaration of war against a claimed state with international networks is a potential legal nightmare.

Think Equally Carefully About Military Escalation

There are good reasons for stronger military action. The current process of creeping U.S. escalation, failed Iraqi efforts to rebuild effective forces on the ground, divided Arab rebel movements in Syria, and growing ethnic tension between Kurd and Arab, and Sunnis versus Shi’ites and Alawites has not been effective in defeating ISIS at anything like the pace required and has produced a massive human tragedy in Syria and Iraq that may take a decade to correct even if some form of peace is reached.

The failures in past U.S. efforts are analyzed in detail in a Burke Chair study called Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015 ( ). This study warns, however, that suddenly rushing into steps like deploying major U.S. ground troops in either Iraq or Syria is likely to be a disaster even if the United States could somehow suddenly rush in all of the equipment and support necessary, and create bases in Turkey or Iraq.

U.S. support of local forces is one thing. Thrusting U.S. combat units into the middle of a massive civil war in Syria, amid the tensions between Arab and Kurd, as well as between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq will trigger forces the United States can neither predict nor control. It will see the United States caught up in each country’s internal power struggles, it will raise the specter of U.S. mistakes after 2003, it will allow the United States to be seen as both an imperialist and as responsible for the future of each state by different elements in each country, and forced to fight in urban battles against an opponent that cares nothing about civilian life.

And , this ignores the minor problems of Russia, Iran, and Turkish hostility towards any strengthening of the Kurds - as well as how our Arab allies will view such U.S. action if it does not back the Sunni elements in each country.

There are, however, steps the United States and its allies can take to increase their efforts that will have a significant effect, which many U.S. military officers on the scene have recommended, and where the United States has already made a beginning – as has France in broadening its range of air strikes against ISIS following the tragedy in Paris.

Shaping a Security Strategy for Air-land Operations

The earlier Burke Chair study concluded that the Obama administration did not need to deploy major combat forces, but did need to publically articulate a meaningful overall security strategy for air-land operations for both Iraq and Syria, and for dealing with its European allies and Arab allies in the region. The United States now needs to examine how it can best work in partnership with France and a Europe that has had all too much reason to see the need for joint action, as well as key Arab allies.

This means creating a clearly defined strategy to help defeat ISIS and bring security to Iraq and Syria. It also means communicating it in both joint efforts with European and Arab allies and in the form of U.S. reports. As is said of Justice in a different context, action must not only be taken, it must been seen to be taken. More than that, it must be shown to be effective over time.

There needs to be an emphasis on strategic communications to explain such a strategy credibly and publically. The United States and other outside powers need to establish clear levels of conditionality for the military and aid efforts, but also to treat the Iraqi government, key Arab rebel movements in Syria, and the Kurds as allies and as real partners. At the same time, such an effort will need to accept the fact that the most that the United States and its allies can hope for in dealing with Russia and Iran is a troubled coexistence and that it may be necessary to confront them.

As for the United States, the Obama administration’s failure to develop any credible path of reporting must stop. Providing systematic classified and unclassified monthly or quarterly reports to Congress that really addressed the security situation in net assessment terms, provided a realistic picture of the size of the U.S. effort, provided realistic costs, and discussed U.S. and allied military progress in terms of realistic metrics would be a beginning. It would also show whether or not the United States really had a meaningful strategy and one that relied on proven experience rather than future hope.

The United States needs to use its reporting and public statements to both reassure and pressure its allies: in Iraq, among Syrian rebels, and in neighboring states. Failing to openly address the problems in dealing with host country governments and factions, and in dealing with allies may be “diplomatic” but it also deprives the United States of leverage and makes it the target of blame.

A failure to openly set conditions for U.S. support so far has failed to put the necessary degree of pressure on the states and factions the United States is seeking to aid, and highlights the degree to which their failures to act are responsible for failure. Openly addressing the negative roles of Iran and Russia are equally important. They are not going to drift into becoming strategic partners, they are going to continue to exploit every weakness the can find.

Creating A Meaningful Train and Assist Mission

More tangibly, the United States needs to size and structure a mix of train and assist efforts that have a chance of real success. The good news is that ISIS is not a particularly strong military force, and has only some 20,000 to 33,000 fighters – many with little training and only light weapons. The bad news is that its opposition remains so weak.

Far too many Iraqi forces remain weak and divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, and need far better train and assist efforts at the combat unit level. Iraqi central government forces are making remarkably slow progress and are still largely Sunni. Iraqi Kurdish forces now face massive financing problems, occupy new disputed areas like Kirkuk that create a legacy of future tension with the Arabs, and cannot lead an effort to liberate Ninewa. Reports of 5,000 effective Sunni tribal forces in Anbar seem grossly exaggerated.

The U.S. efforts to create separate “moderate” Syrian Arab forces to only fight ISIS have imploded, and the other Arab rebel forces are deeply divided, include extremist elements as bad as ISIS, and focus on Assad. The coordination of U.S. efforts to build up Syrian Arab forces with the efforts of Turkey and Arab allies still seems poor and uncertain, and the United States is forced to rely on Syrian Kurds in ways that could leave another legacy of Arab-Kurdish tension or fighting.

While the details are unclear, the assessment of Iraqi forces made for General Dunford during his October visit to Iraq seem to have cut the number of divisions the United States hoped to rebuild in the short to medium term, and raised even more questions about the need for a more effective Iraqi command structure, better intelligence coordination, more timely and effective resupply and reinforcement, and eliminating Iraqi political and Iranian interference in the chain of command.

These assessments also seem to have raised serious questions about the effectiveness ands restraint of Iraqi Shi’ite militias when operating outside Shi’ite areas, the pace of the build-up of credible Sunni tribal forces, and the ability to finance and sustain Pesh Merga forces in the face of massive funding problems and internal political struggles in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Deploying a limited number of special forces forward in Syria is only a faltering start in making either set of forces effective against ISIS, and does nothing to address the sectarian and ethnic problems in both Iraq and Syria. If the United States is to have an effective train and assist mission, however, it must do more than risk 50 special forces. It must deploy train and assist teams forward with the combat elements in the Iraqi government forces, in the Sunni militias it is trying to create, with the Iraqi Pesh Merga, and with key Arab rebel elements in Syria as well as Syrian Kurds.

Creating effective combat units requires forward-deployed U.S. combat trainers and support with actual combat experience and ones that focus on creating effective fighting leaders and units, not simply generating forces. It means providing on the scene expertise that can evaluate who can and cannot lead, to provide meaningful intelligence on combat capability, to provide credible expertise in calling for and targeting air support, and making requests for resupply and reinforcement. The numbers of such advisors deployed with each major combat unit can be relatively small. The issue is quality and not quantity.

The United States will also need to decide which factions it can work with, make it clear that it is not choosing sides on a sectarian or ethnic basis, and put real pressure on its Arab allies and Turkey as to how they fund, arm, and assist the various factions in Iraq and Syria. In the process, the United States will also have to be more realistic about such factions.

Most of key fighters and factions in both Syria and Iraq have been involved in civil power struggles or open civil warfare long enough to be polarized along sectarian and ethnic lines, have a questionable past or clear history of humanitarian abuses, and/or have ties to other states and movements that the United States has good reason to dislike or distrust. By and large, the innocent are the ineffective. The problem is not to find a small minority that can be vetted and controlled; it is to make hard choices among those who can actually fight. This means the United States must often support the almost good, rather than the clearly bad.

The United States does not need to openly confront Iran, but it needs to make it clear that it will take action if Iran interferes, support the action of Iraq’s more extreme militias, or puts its advisors, volunteers, and Hezbollah forces where they further divide Iraq and Syria or interfere with U.S. military action. Quietly targeting is better than either noisy diplomatic objections or passive inaction.

Using Air Power Effectively

If the United States is to use combat air power effectively, it cannot be on the basis of waiting for Godot. The United States now seems to be waiting for the mysterious appearance of effective Iraq ground forces that can help create Iraqi unity as well as defeat ISIS to try to use air power decisively in Iraq, and it is simply unclear what the goal is in using U.S. airpower in Syria – particularly now that the United States faces a Russian effort that largely attacks every rebel element other than ISIS and backs Assad.

The United States needs to examine the best ways to make several major changes in the way it uses airpower:

  • Create an effective, precision strategic bombing campaign against ISIS and other extremist factions like the Al Nusra Front. Scale up the target numbers and mix to make it far more difficult for ISIS to survive and function.
  • Provide a mix of forward air controllers, train and assist personnel, and IS&R assets, that allows the United States to fly major increases in the close air support and interdiction missions it flies in support of all the government, Sunni, and Kurdish elements Iraqi ground forces. Provide the same support to Syrian Arab and Kurdish rebels in ISIS-dominated areas where Assad forces are not present.
  • Develop a clearly defined set of air tactics to attack urban and built-up areas that make better trade-offs between military effectiveness and the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage, and allow better close air support to advancing Iraqi and Syrian forces in attacking built-up areas occupied by ISIS.
  • Confront both the Assad regime and Russia by flying such missions in support of key ”moderate” rebel factions in the areas where Assad forces are present. Provide them with a carefully forward-controlled number of short-range air defenses to fire at Syrian combat aircraft and helicopters, and low flying Russian aircraft.
  • Consider setting a “red line” for Syrian helicopters and combat aircraft that attack civilian targets. Creating a threat to create a limited “no fly” zone like the threat to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons that will not be enforced if Assad stops air attacks on civilians.
  • Create a joint air security area along the Turkish border that would strike at ISIS or other extremist movement across the border and create a “safe zone” on the Syrian side that would be used to attack incoming aircraft or drones before they reached Turkish territory.
  • Fully reevaluate real world options for a broader “no fly” zone that does not rely somehow transforming a massively combat damaged area in a narrow band along Syria’s border with Turkey to somehow provide a secure area for rebels and/or refugees. Examines option for limiting all Syrian air activity to limited airspace over the areas directly under Assad regime control.
  • As for Russia, incidents happen. Russian strikes on ISIS are acceptable. So is the loss of Russian aircraft flying against the Syrian rebels the U.S. supports.

In the process, the United States may need to change its present restrictions on targeting and explain to the world that war is war – although some reports indicate it may have sharply increased the ratio of strikes that actually deliver munitions in 2015. The United States cannot continue to put so many restrictions on actual strikes that it minimizes short-term civilian casualties in ways that sharply raise the number of civilians who die or suffer from a prolonged conflict over time.

The United States cannot let ISIS or any other faction use human shields to the point where effective strikes become difficult to impossible. These are some of the grimmest trade-offs imaginable. But, war is an inherently horrifying business. Constraining individual strikes to an unrealistic degree does not serve any broader humanitarian goal.

Looking Beyond Security to Grand Strategy

Finally, the United States and its allies must look beyond ISIS and look beyond the narrow goal of destroying one source of extremism and terrorism. Defeating ISIS will do little to bring regional security and stability if it is not tied to efforts to deal with the broader sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq and Syria, and to efforts to help the leaders in both states make reforms in politics, governance, and economics that can bring recovery and broader development.

Many aspects of the sectarian and ethnic tensions within Iraq and Syria have grown far worse during the course of the fighting in each country since 2011, and make any lasting form of stability and security even harder to achieve. If these issues are not addressed now, there is a serious risk that ISIS may only be the prelude to far worse problems.

In Iraq’s case, prolonged fighting may end in dividing Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites to the point where unity is impossible. It has already left a legacy of tension and conflicting territorial goals between Arabs and Kurds that will divide Iraq along ethnic lines as well as sectarian ones. Sectarian segregation is a growing problem in Arab areas, and the country is increasingly divided into separate economies: the Sunni, ISIS areas in the West, the Kurdish economy in the KRG, the mixed agricultural economy in the East and north of Baghdad, the mixed urban economy around Baghdad, and the largely Shi’ite petroleum economy in the Southeast.

Iraq needs far more than military assistance, anti-corruption measures, or some simplistic approach to federalism. It needs a central government that responds to its sectarian and ethnic divisions in a functional way, and whose leaders and legislators actually represent given constituencies rather than party lists. It needs to agree on a meaningful way of sharing the nation’s oil wealth, and to agree on reforms of its government, state-owned enterprise sectors, and agricultural sectors that will be paced at rates that encourage job creation and stability

Only Iraqis can ultimately shape and agree on such plans, but they need help in forming them and they need it as soon as possible. Here, the United States has already shown it lacks core competence within USAID to conduct such planning, just as the UN and UNAMA have failed in Afghanistan. The World Bank, however, does seem to have such capabilities and a major U.S. effort to support such an aid effort in support of Iraq could help Iraqi political leaders without imposing an uncertain U.S. effort.

In Syria’s case, the problem is vastly complicated by the fact more than half the population is either internally displaced persons or refugees and the massive levels of damage done by the civil war. It is also the sheer lack of any credible moderate political center or faction that is a credible source of effective governance and economic reconstruction and recovery. Syria is now so divided and so lacking in unity and effective leadership that its only options now seem to be a paralyzing form of ceasefire, negotiations that cannot produce a stable lasting outcome even if the principals agree, or a form of burnout that can only lead to a “peace” of the vanished and the dead. Defeating ISIS cannot do deal with these problems.

Real progress depends on a level of Syrian initiative, leadership, and cooperation from within – problems even more serious than in Iraq. It cannot take place under Assad, but it is unclear how Syria’s factions can agree or who in any faction has the political ability, capability for governance, and economic planning capability to propose a program that even offers real hope. Unlike Iraq, Syria has no real petroleum wealth to fall back upon, and this means it will need both more help in planning than Iraq and far more aid.

The United States and its allies cannot succeed in “nation building” or “nation rebuilding” when the leaders and peoples of a given state fail to unify around such goals. Moreover, Iraq and Syria’s Arab neighbors have as much – or more – responsibility to help both countries as the United States. The West cannot, however, simply stand by or focus on the refugee problem in what now is the context of counterterrorism mixed with increasing European right wing hostility to “outsiders” with a different culture and faith. Counterterrorism and military action are necessary, but a denial that aid to civil action and “nation building” is equally necessary can make both counterterrorism and military action ineffective.

Other Key Reports


Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy