What To Do and To Don’t in Response
to the Paris Attacks
By Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
November 15, 2015
The ISIS attacks in Paris mark a step-change in the threat that
group poses to the West. The tactics employed came straight from the
battlefields of the Middle East into the heart of Europe. The group hit
multiple targets simultaneously without detection by French security services,
which are among the best in the world, despite a series of arrests aimed at
disrupting this operation. That capability demonstrates superior planning
ability, resilience, and operational security. The successful use of
multiple suicide vests shows that ISIS was able either to smuggle them all the
way to Paris or, more worrisome, build them from materials available in Europe
Europe’s proximity to the Middle East and relatively open
borders make it much more vulnerable to this sort of attack, but Americans
should be very concerned that a group with these capabilities could also
penetrate our homeland. We must draw the right conclusions from this
incident in the context of regional and world crises if we are to maintain our
security in the months and years to come. The following things to do and
things not to do are the correct next steps for ensuring our security.
DO take the gloves off against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Adjust the rules of engagement to accept the risk of collateral damage (civilian
casualties), hit every ISIS target on our lists, and do as much damage as
possible from the air quickly. This should be our immediate response.
- Restrictive rules of engagement have prevented
U.S. aircraft from attacking many targets in Iraq and Syria known to be ISIS
nodes. President Obama’s desire to avoid civilian casualties is laudable
from both a moral and a practical standpoint. Wantonly killing
civilians, as the Assad regime and the Russian bombing campaign is doing,
will alienate the Sunni Arab community in which ISIS and al Qaeda exist and
operate. But the president has gone too far in precluding all targets
with any risk of civilian casualties. The U.S. military has long
experience now in choosing targets carefully to minimize that risk while
still accomplishing its missions, and it should be allowed to operate as it
had been doing for the first six years of this presidency.
- We cannot defeat ISIS or al Qaeda with
airstrikes, but we can damage both groups much more significantly than we
have so far. We can force them to go to ground, to stop maneuvering
vehicles, and to stop massing forces. Doing so would degrade their
abilities to conduct offensive operations significantly and would facilitate
the formation of opposition groups that could ultimately recapture ground
they now hold.
DO put the necessary U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq to help
the Iraqis retake Ramadi and Fallujah rapidly and prepare them to retake Mosul
within six months.
- The Iraqi counter-offensive to retake Anbar and
Ninewah Provinces has stalled for a number of reasons, including struggles
between Iranian proxy militias and the Iraqi Security Forces over
prioritization of effort and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. But
American reluctance to engage fully in the campaign has been another
important factor. If the U.S. made available to Baghdad the resources needed
to retake Iraqi territory from ISIS rapidly and with limited losses, Prime
Minister Haider al Abadi would likely leap at the chance.
- The U.S. military footprint required is likely
around 10,000 troops. Iraq does not at this point need American combat
brigades leading the fight. It needs more U.S. Special Forces,
tactical air controllers to direct precision strikes in direct support of
Iraqis fighting on the ground, additional helicopter and artillery support,
and a variety of other technical capabilities that only the U.S. can
- Iranian-controlled militias and political
figures will oppose any such U.S. deployment, probably by attacking the U.S.
embassy and other American targets in Iraq. We must accept that likelihood
and prepare for it by maintaining the forces and capabilities necessary to
counter-attack against them within Iraq. The President must state
clearly that he has already authorized the U.S. military to respond
immediately and decisively in this scenario. The U.S. should seek to
avoid open confrontation with the Iranians in Iraq, but we must not be
deterred from defeating ISIS by the fear of what the Iranians might do to
us. What they are doing against ISIS in Iraq is also failing, after
all. It is, in fact, making things worse.
- The U.S. must also act to support Prime
Minister Abadi against his sectarian Shi’a political foes, particularly
former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki. It was the malign behavior of Maliki
and his allies, after all, that generated support for ISIS in Iraq after the
departure of U.S. forces. The U.S. should use all the diplomatic
leverage at its disposal to strengthen Abadi as his coalition fractures and
to help him plan and execute the reform agenda that is essential to Iraq’s
future and to his own political survival.
DON’T over-rely on Kurdish forces for rapid, decisive
operations beyond Kurdish ethnic boundaries.
- Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are among the
most competent and determined foes of ISIS. They must surely be a part of
any undertaking against ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, as well as a central part
of stable political resolutions in both countries. The U.S. is
well-advised to help them defend their own lands against the jihadis and to
integrate them as appropriate into the larger anti-ISIS effort.
- But it is also important to understand that
ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs have been high for decades and are
rising. Iraq’s Kurds have a vision for an expanded Kurdistan that includes
areas inhabited now by mixed populations of Arabs, Kurds, and
Turkmen—particularly the cities of Mosul, Sinjar, and Kirkuk. The
presence of heavily-Kurdish Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul was one of the
factors driving support for al Qaeda in Iraq into 2007, and the contest for
control of Kirkuk has caused repeated outbreaks of violence.
Encouraging the Kurds to seize Arab territory will generate a backlash among
local Arabs that can only benefit ISIS. The Kurds cannot clear and
hold Mosul or its environs to the south and west on their own without the
high risk of starting an ethnic war.
- Kurdish forces fighting in Syria are heavily
infiltrated by the PKK, which the U.S. Treasury has designated as a Foreign
Terrorist Organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.
The PKK continues to conduct terrorist attacks in Turkey, and U.S. de facto
support for the group in Syria seriously damages any prospect for a real
partnership with our NATO ally. Syrian Kurdish forces also face
problems similar to those described above in Iraq—any attempt by Kurdish
forces to seize and hold Raqqa, for example, will ultimately generate Arab
backlash and increase opportunistic support for ISIS or for al Qaeda
affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. The U.S. must act to exclude the PKK from
participation in anti-ISIS efforts.
DON’T drop into a defensive crouch
- Some candidates and political leaders are
already demanding that the U.S. and Europe stop taking in Syrian refugees,
close our borders, and focus on monitoring our Muslim populations. President
Obama continues to discuss possible American responses in terms of the law
enforcement paradigm he believes will be effective against these groups.
These defensive measures will fail. We cannot close our borders so
tightly that determined and skillful adversaries cannot penetrate them, nor
can we monitor our own Muslim communities so carefully that no plots could
escape our attention.
- Attempts to rely on these defensive measures
will also do the greatest harm to our own way of life and values as free
peoples, moreover. Reliably detecting all such plots from among our own
populations will turn our countries into police states. Closing our
borders as completely as necessary to prevent any penetrations will disrupt
the free flow of goods and people on which we rely and that marks one of our
most important liberties. This defensive path is the quickest route to
the erosion of everything we hold most dear.
DON’T line up with the Russians, Iranians, and Assad against
the Sunni Arabs
- The Russian-Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah military
coalition is not fighting to defeat ISIS. It has conducted few major
operations or airstrikes against ISIS targets. It is fighting, rather,
to maintain the Assad regime, if not necessarily Assad himself, as the
minoritarian dictator of as much of Syria as he can hold. Its military
operations have focused on U.S.-backed opposition groups and Islamist groups
not affiliated with ISIS because they pose the greatest threat to the
regime. Its objectives are incongruent with ours.
- Assad himself has been the principal driver of
the radicalization of the Syrian conflict. His violent attacks against
peaceful, secular protesters in 2011 began this war. His steady
escalation through artillery, air, barrel bombing, and chemical weapons
attacks against civilian populations has driven Syrians into the arms of
ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra and created the massive refugee flows we now see.
He cannot re-establish control of Syria except by the most brutal methods,
and he almost certainly lacks the military power he would need even to try.
Supporting him is supporting a continually expanding endless war.
DO take action to drive the Assad regime—not just Assad—from
- U.S. policy has become excessively focused on
getting Bashar al Assad himself to step down, but more is needed to achieve
peace. His departure is essential. He is the symbol of atrocity and violence
in Syria, to be sure, but the majority Sunni Arab population of Syria will
not accept the continued rule of Assad’s lieutenants either. They will not
accept continued domination by a minoritarian ‘Alawite government, in
fact, while any representative system in Syria would drive the ‘Alawites
from power. The only political solution in Syria is an inclusive,
multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian government, which will not be achieved by
simply removing Assad himself. It will also not be achieved through
the political opposition to Assad alone. The armed opposition must have a
place at the peace talks and in the new political order.
DO get the Russians out of Syria
- Vladimir Putin intervened in Syria to establish
a Russian air and naval base on the Mediterranean and to solidify a regional
alliance with Iran aimed at expelling the United States from the region. He
has also used his base to press on NATO’s southern flank by violating
Turkish airspace. To the extent that he has clear objectives in Syria,
they are antithetical to ours—he is interested in solidifying the control
of an ‘Alawite government friendly to Russia on the Syrian coast.
- Putin will therefore likely use his military
operations in Syria to deter the U.S. from attacking Assad and to interfere
with any such American efforts. He will oppose the establishment of a no-fly
zone and try to undermine it. The U.S. must work to drive Russia out
of Syria even as we move against ISIS and Assad.
- The U.S. should not pursue immediate military
action against Russian forces in Syria and should seek to avoid direct
conflict with the Russians. We should, however, refer back to the Cold War
playbook for dancing with MiGs that we used for decades to raise the cost of
Russian adventurism. We can take many actions to make it harder for
Russian aircraft to operate over Syria while deterring any thought they
might have about shooting at our airframes. A single American aircraft
carrier, after all, has nearly three times as many combat aircraft as the
Russians now have in Syria. If Putin chose to shoot, it would not be a
fair fight. The U.S. should use that fact to lever him out of
- Radical groups such as the Islamic State and
Jabhat al-Nusra are using Russia’s intervention to stoke their false but
resonant narrative that the U.S. is complicit with Russia and Assad in
killing Syrian civilians. America’s failure to challenge the Russians and
the Syrian regime stokes this false narrative.
DON’T imagine that they couldn’t do that in the U.S.
- The French police and security forces are among
the most competent and determined in the world. They have been on alert for
precisely this kind of attack since the Charlie Hebdo murders and the attack
on the kosher supermarket. They generally have fewer restrictions on
their abilities to collect information within their own country than do
their American counterparts. If ISIS can beat the French in Paris,
they can beat us here.
- France’s proximity to the Middle East and
membership in the European Union certainly made it easier for ISIS fighters
to enter and operate. But it took only eight fighters to kill more than 120
people and wound hundreds more. There is nothing U.S. law enforcement
and border security could do to guarantee that a group that small could
never enter our country or, once here, plan and conduct an attack like this.
If the enemy is allowed to try as hard and as often as they like from safe
havens abroad, they will eventually get through our defenses.