As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, sits on the outskirts of Baghdad, it poses a fundamental question to the United States. More than a state in name, ISIS now controls significant territory in both Syria and Iraq, and threatens to destabilize the region. Arguably, ISIS presents an even more vibrant incubator for international terrorism than did pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

We asked six experts: What should the United States do – if anything – to counter the growing influence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow, New America Foundation (@brianfishman )

ISIS represents a new kind of jihadi threat: it controls territory, shares al-Qaeda’s vision of global revolution, and has an army capable of displacing the Iraqi state from Mosul. But it is important to understand that the success ISIS enjoys today is consistent with its founding aspirations. After ISIS’ predecessor organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, was created in October 2006, the group attempted to establish state-like control over a swath of western Iraq from Mosul in the north, south to Fallujah and east to Tikrit and Baiji. But the ISI’s imposition of an extremely harsh version of Islamic Law alienated once-allied tribal groups and paved the way for their decline at the hands of U.S. forces and Iraqi tribal groups.

While there are numerous reasons for ISIS’ recent gains in Iraq, the  most critical question is how ISIS has engaged with local actors, both tribal and political. It is implausible that ISIS has advanced with such strength without rebuilding alliances with tribal groups and other Sunni networks.

U.S. policy, which largely ignored the ISI after the Surge and Awakening, must adapt. A short-term effort to split ISIS from Iraqi allies is necessary, but a long-term strategy is more important. Training of Iraqi Army officers, re-engaging former tribal leader allies in western Iraq, and strengthening Kurdish factions in Northern Iraq are all crucial. It means prioritizing international cooperation against funding ISIS and reallocating intelligence resources toward Iraq. It means building the infrastructure to use airstrikes against ISIS and making clear that attacks against the west originating from ISIS-held territory will generate a major response.


Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO and President, New America Foundation (@SlaughterAM)

Experts have predicted for over a year that unless we acted in Syria, ISIS would establish an Islamic state in eastern Syria and western Iraq, exactly what we are watching.

Suddenly, however, in the space of a week, the administration has begun considering the use of force in Iraq, including drones, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has been occupying city after city and moving ever closer to Baghdad. Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria?

Why not take on ISIS directly in Syria, where their demise would strengthen the moderate opposition? If we are prepared to use force against them in Iraq, then we should attack them in both Iraq and Syria. The problem then becomes that we would be attacking ISIS in Syria, while allowing the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda. ISIS has gained support in Syria precisely because it and another Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Al-Nusra, have been the most effective opponents of the government. So unless we simultaneously take action against ISIS and the government, we are just making matters worse in Syria, which will continue to spill over into Iraq.

Americans have no stomach for renewed war in the Middle East, until we are once again attacked, either at home or in other countries, by Jihadists trained in which essentially will become an Al-Qaeda state right in the middle of the Middle East. That is what is at stake here. Nor can we reach a purely military solution to this problem. We must use force as part of a larger political strategy to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating tabel, and create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.


Douglas Olivant, Senior National Security Fellow, New America Foundation (@DouglasOllivant)

ISIS does appear to be a new chapter in jihadi extremism.  ISIS has roots in both the Iraqi insurgency and its earlier (now lapsed) affiliation with Al Qaeda, but the cauldron of Syria appears to have morphed it into something completely novel.   ISIS aspires not simply to use terror to extract concessions, but actually to govern territory and control citizens, willing or not.  And as Brian Fishman and I wrote some weeks ago, this goal is now not just aspirational, but a reality on the ground.  From Raqaa to Fallujah to now Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State has taken a real form that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

How the U.S. will adapt to this new reality remains unclear, and policy is clearly muddled.  ISIS is (currently) fighting in two traditional countries–Iraq and Syria (though it also aspires to a “greater Syria” that includes at least Jordan and Lebanon, if not also Israel and parts of Saudi Arabia and Turkey).  In both of these countries, elite Iranian units are at least advising ISIS opponents, if not fighting against it directly.  Yet in one case (Iraq) the United States appears about to ally, at least de facto, with Iran and the government against ISIS, while in the other (Syria) it is de facto aligned with ISIS against Iran and the government.  This is madness–or at least incredibly incoherent.

The United States needs to recognize that it faces a new and unique challenge in ISIS, that this proto-political form is far more capable of projecting power than any of its predecessors, and that it will require clear and consistent attention from the U.S. government, and not just the various counter-terrorism offices.


Tom Sanderson, Co-director of  the Transnational Threats Project, CSIS (@CSIS)

Remaining on the sidelines as Syria and Iraq descend into civil war may have prevented flag-draped coffins from arriving on America’s shores, but it leaves the United States with few options for a now an unavoidable task: halting and reversing the destructive actions and impact of ISIS, which if left unchecked could launch a much wider regional battle.

A sense of empowerment grows among ISIS members and those young men who seek to join them, with momentum and divine backing they believe will carry them to battle in Israel, Europe and America.

At the same time, a denuded al-Qaeda Core in Pakistan—and perhaps some AQ affiliates—may seek to execute their own spectacular attacks in an effort to refocus the media and donors on their cause.

Controlling and operating between the borders of two failing, civil-war engulfed states—where precious few U.S. intelligence assets are in place—ISIS is positioned to pursue its goals and engulf the region in a wider civil war that may include Saudi Arabia, Iran and inevitably the West.

At a very minimum the U.S. needs to pursue three goals: unabashedly confront the Iraq regime over its treatment of the Sunni minority; immediately launch or increase all appropriate support to local partners (including Iraq); and, intensify America’s own intelligence activities focused on ISIS.

It is time to stop pretending that we can avoid being injured by the shrapnel coming out of the region. Our energy, financial support, pressure and commitment are needed before a multi-state civil war ensues.


Katherine Wilkens, Deputy Director of the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment  (@CarnegieEndow)

The growing strength and influence of the ISIS is rooted in a deep-seated regional disagreement over the nature of the threat posed by jihadist extremists. Until the fight against the ISIS is decoupled from the sectarian fires engulfing the region, efforts to make progress against the group will flounder.

Despite US efforts over the last two years, recruits and resources have continued to make their way to the ISIS across a porous Turkish border and from the Gulf.  While this situation is slowly changing, much more needs to be done to get full cooperation from regional allies in this effort.

The ISIS has now become a self-sustaining and well-established force that poses a serious threat to Iraq and the broader region. US assistance alone will not be enough to save Iraq.  A broader process towards national unity is needed to give Sunnis and Kurds a greater stake in the country’s future and undermine the sectarian narrative of ISIS and former Baathist forces now occupying large swaths of Iraqi territory.

In Syria the US needs to urgently refocus its efforts on jihadist extremists. We should be open to talks with the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which has been at the center of the battle against ISIS. In addition, we need to recognize that groups combating the Assad regime will be focused first on that priority. US decisions to aid the moderate armed opposition in Syria should be assessed on their own merits, not as a key component of a comprehensive strategy against the jihadist threat in Syria and Iraq.


Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research, Middle East Institute (@paul_salem)

The Obama administration must recognize that the policy of disengagement both in Iraq and Syria, has failed terribly, and that the rise of a terrorist state in the Levant poses a direct threat to US security and will necessitate American action sooner or later.

The President must reclassify the crisis in Syria and Iraq as one of his top foreign policy priorities.

In Iraq, his administration should use all its influence to urge Iraq’s leaders to quickly form an inclusive government with strong Sunni and Kurdish representation; after that, the US can and should redouble its efforts to help the Iraqi national army confront ISIS and retake lost territory.

In Syria, the administration must immediately ensure dramatically increased military and financial support for the national opposition to enable it to push back against ISIS and to put pressure on the intransigent Assad regime.  Only under serious military pressure will the Assad regime negotiate an end to the Syrian war, which opened this Pandora’s box in the first place.

With Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, Washington should work closely to dry up the funding and arming sources of ISIS and to strengthen nationalist Sunni leaders and movements in the two countries.

With Iran, the US cannot wait for the nuclear talks to conclude, but must make clear that Iran needs to use its influence in Baghdad and Damascus to bring about inclusive political arrangements in both countries.


If you are in Washington D.C. on Friday, June 20th, be sure to come to our event “Crisis in Iraq; What Role Should the U.S. Play?”  


About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at New America.