Defeat ISIS by Letting Syria Loose

August 27, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in Detroit News on August 27, 2014.

Obama administration officials proclaim that the Islamic State’s isolated experiment in 7th century Islam to pose a dire threat to America. After promising to strictly limit the military mission in Iraq, the president is preparing to expand the war to Syria, where the administration is working to overthrow the Assad government — which now blocks Islamic control over the entire country. Instead, the administration should encourage other nations, starting with Syria, to kill ISIS radicals.

Iraq is a catastrophic failure. Yet the Obama administration risks falling into war there again. The president originally undertook what he said would be a limited bombing campaign. Since then the campaign has broadened to general support for forces opposing ISIS.

Now Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to address the Islamic State “on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria.

However, Washington’s intelligence capabilities remain limited over the “nonexistent” border. More important, the Obama administration has spent three years attempting to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime, which possesses an air defense system.

Before putting U.S. personnel and material at risk, the administration should reconsider its policy in Syria. The Assad government is even more committed than Washington to eliminating the Islamic State as a geopolitical force.

Yet support for the opposition obviously has weakened the Assad government’s ability to fight ISIS. Washington’s preference for less radical groups also has discouraged Damascus from targeting the Islamic State, whose existence inhibits U.S. involvement.

Reaching a modus vivendi with Damascus would encourage Assad to focus on his most competent and dangerous enemy, ISIS. Assad is no friend of liberty, but Washington must set priorities.

The administration also should emphasize the responsibility of surrounding states to combat the group. Baghdad pursued a narrow sectarian course, crippling politics and the military.

Replacing Maliki is a good first step, but not nearly enough. Iraq must reach a broader understanding with Sunnis and Kurds to strengthen internal forces against ISIS.

Ankara, which claims a position of regional leadership, has much at stake as well. The group considers Turkish lands to be part of the “caliphate.” The Islamic State’s attacks on Kurdistan could spur Kurdish refugees into Turkey.

Jordan is far more vulnerable. The Gulf States are more distant, but Sunni radicals are unlikely to leave the Sunni royals in peace.

While these countries may not be willing to abandon their campaign to oust Assad, they could better target their efforts to support groups not dedicated to destabilizing the entire region.

Equally important, Jordan and Turkey, both on the Islamic State’s hit list, should deploy their air forces and ground forces, if necessary, against ISIS fighters. Kurdish forces have been pushing back against the Islamic State, but still need better and more weapons, which Turkey could provide. Ankara has improved its ties with Kurdistan in recent years.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have a different role to play. As Sunni states they might de‐​legitimize ISIS’s claim of a new “caliphate.”

ISIS’s rise has set in motion the very forces necessary for its defeat. Rather than hinder creation of a coalition by taking charge militarily, Washington should encourage it by stepping back. The U.S. already has gone to war twice in Iraq. There’s no reason to believe that the third time will be the charm.

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