How Not to Defeat ISIS


Lo and behold, the “Presidential ritual” continues; as journalist Glenn Greenwald points out, every President in the last 30 years has bombed Iraq. Like with the Iraq War in 2003, the mainstream US media has largely featured pro-war voices in its coverage of the conflict against ISIS. Opposition to US foreign policy in Iraq and Syria based on moral grounds has always been too easy – we helped install Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in 1963, helped him acquire chemical weapons to use against Iran in the 1980s, then placed sanctions on Iraq that killed thousands of children, and finally killed hundreds of thousands more in a war based on a false pretext.

Looking at the issue purely from a strategic and security-minded vantage point, US policy in Iraq and Syria has been disastrous. As former CIA operative Graham Fuller puts it, “the United States is one of the key creators” of ISIS. We may become locked into a perpetual war in that region, which would of course be a profitable scenario for military contractors, which made $138 billion off the last war. Unless we want to keep fighting ISIS, which US military officials say doesn’t even pose a security threat to the homeland, we have to radically rethink our strategy. Here’s a manual on how not to defeat ISIS.

  1. Install Friendly Dictators

This has been the go-to option to maintain US hegemony in the past. Now, it’s leading to dangerous consequences, with the US globally regarded as the biggest threat to world peace, according to a Gallup poll. This hostility engenders violence. In Iraq, a number of US-allied strongmen have been unable to restore order, with the most recent failed attempt by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Former members of Maliki’s government blame his brutal suppression of Sunni dissent for fueling the sectarian tensions that ISIS has exploited.

  1. Prop Them Up With Arms Flow

Generally, you don’t want to send more arms to a volatile region wracked by anarchic violence, but that’s been the American policy. We’ve been covertly sending arms to “moderate Syrian opposition forces” since March 2013. Now, groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (the main forces opposing Assad), like the al-Nusra Front, have allied with ISIS. Meanwhile in Iraq, ISIS has largely been fighting with American weapons seized from the Iraqi army, which has repeatedly deserted the battlefield against ISIS while leaving its own weapons behind. It should give pause to any rational person that we’re now trying to destroy our own weapons, given to ISIS by our own allies.

  1. Ally With Unhelpful Authoritarian Regimes

We’ve cooperated with a number of dictators post-WWII to further our interests in the Middle East. This approach was never morally justifiable, and it’s not even strategically sound. The Saudi monarchy, a key US ally, is an Islamic fundamentalist regime that has beheaded more people than ISIS. Patrick Cockburn, a reputed Middle East correspondent, reports that Saudi Arabian elites have donated substantial funds to ISIS with their government’s tacit approval.

Turkey, another authoritarian Islamist US ally, has bombed Kurdish forces in Iraq instead of ISIS. Turkey has failed to secure its border with Syria, allowing ISIS to gain from an influx of foreign fighters and oil. It recently refused to let the US use its bases to conduct strikes on ISIS. How are Turkey and Saudi Arabia strategic assets for the US in any way? In order to defeat ISIS, we must cut off diplomatic ties and military aid to uncooperative regimes.

  1. Bomb Populated Areas

Air strikes might work if ISIS had a single headquarters separate from civilian areas. Unfortunately, ISIS is a decentralized guerrilla group that has placed its bases in densely populated areas. Military strategists assert that air strikes haven’t “prevented the movement or offensive of ISIS,” partly because ISIS doesn’t have much infrastructure to bomb; American intelligence officials concur with this assessment.

Air strikes cause civilian deaths that are disastrous not only for Iraqi and Syrian families, but also for American strategy; FBI director James Comey testified to Congress that US air strikes have boosted ISIS’ ranks. This makes sense, in light of discoveries like that of the anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which found that a US bombing of a grain silo in Aleppo, Syria, resulted in only civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch similarly denounces “possibly unlawful” US air strikes. On the ground, this breeds resentment; a Syrian resident explains, “People don’t want some outside power to attack.” We should appreciate the general truism that people don’t like it when their villages get bombed any more than when ISIS takes them over.

  1. Pretend ISIS and Assad Can Be Removed Simultaneously

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that the US must get rid of Assad to defeat ISIS. While Assad is a tyrant, cooperating with him is likely our best chance of defeating ISIS (we can take him to the International Criminal Court afterwards). As Rand Corporation policy analyst William Young advises, the US must “acknowledge the political and geographical realities” and come to a settlement with not only Assad, but also Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

You may be wondering how a leftist could advocate for the appeasement of a bloodthirsty despot. But is the alternative – an ongoing civil war that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people while terrorists brutally occupy cities – more morally acceptable? As for the American government, we deal with dictators routinely (think Saudi Arabia), so why do we insist upon retaining this faux moral high ground? At this point, the only thing preventing cooperation is the US’ undue focus on its “prestige” and its “red lines.” It might look better if we act tough and refuse to negotiate with Iran, Russia, or Assad. But would the US be safer with more “prestige” or with a more effective policy against ISIS?


Our remarkably ineffective and immoral foreign policy has created a mess that only leaves room for a few alternatives. First, increase humanitarian aid – this improves the US’ standing among ordinary Iraqis and makes ISIS’ recruiting efforts more difficult. Second, as policy analyst Phyllis Bennis suggests, we must push for an arms embargo from all sides. This will require diplomacy; in the past, negotiations led to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and now, it could lead to a quicker end to the brutal civil war. Finally, we must promote real democracy in Iraq, not the sham banana republics typical of US satellites, to ease sectarian tensions. The battle against ISIS will not be won through the use of cruise missiles, but through uprisings from the people they oppress.

Changing entrenched US foreign policy doctrine would be nothing short of a revolution, but if we truly care more about our security and international peace than some abstract notion of “prestige,” we won’t be deterred from pressing for change.


Author: Edwin Jain

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