Four Taboos to Break in the Fight against ISIS

By Aaron David Miller

Wall Street Journal

December 16, 2015

It is not clear from U.S. actions whether its primary goal in Syria is to get rid of Islamic State, check Russian influence, support moderate Syrians over extremists, avoid a serious deployment of ground forces, or rebuild the new Syria if and when a change in leadership occurs, or all of the above.

But the U.S. president’s supreme responsibility is to protect the homeland, making the most urgent objective crushing ISIS or bringing the greatest possible amount of power to bear in an effort to do so.

Doing this, or at least developing a more effective policy to counter ISIS, would involve considering breaking four taboos all of which have downsides as well as advantages:

1. Working closely with Russia. Want to counter, degrade, or destroy ISIS militarily? Then the U.S. has to make common cause with the Russians–and not just on the diplomatic front. Vladimir Putin is neither our friend nor enemy in Syria. But the Russians are there on the ground with political influence and military resources. This is not about Ukraine or any other sore point; the issue is whether Russian military power can be joined with the U.S. to more effectively deal with ISIS. The price for cooperation and getting Mr. Putin to redirect his military efforts from defending embattled Syrian leader (and longtime Russian client) Bashar al-Assad to attacking ISIS is a change in U.S. policy on Mr. Assad’s removal. This brings us to the second taboo:

2. U.S. policy, at least rhetorically, has been focused on getting rid of the Assad regime. The logic seems sound: With Mr. Assad stoking sectarian divisions that ultimately drive Sunnis toward Islamic State, ISIS will continue to thrive, so Washington must try to destroy both. But there is no clear successor for the Syrian president. Should anyone succeed at removing Mr. Assad, a vacuum is likely to be created–and jihadis will seek to take advantage of the opening.

Conventional wisdom holds that Sunni Arabs are needed to defeat ISIS and that allying with the minority Alawites or Shiites will so alienate Sunnis that ISIS will be strengthened further. Maybe. But if the goal is to kill the organization that is inspiring and directing attacks against the U.S. homeland and to accelerate the demise of its “Caliphate,” then deferring Mr. Assad’s ouster or even accepting his presence is worth considering. Secretary of State John Kerry‘s recent discussions with Mr. Putin in Moscow suggest that, at a minimum, the U.S. isn’t trying to push Mr. Assad out now and perhaps not for a good long while. The question is: Would we get enough help against ISIS from the Russians, Iranians and Mr. Assad to justify the downsides of letting him stay?

3. Boots on the ground. Could more U.S. ground forces, mostly special forces, help to accelerate the struggle against ISIS? And could some number of troops be deployed without creating a slippery slope toward continued escalation or too much political opposition at home? As to the first question, a recent poll suggested that the public is willing to support more ground forces.

Of course, should any U.S. troops be killed or, worse, captured and tortured by ISIS, public support for the fight would plummet. The appearance of an open-ended deployment would also drive down support. Look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can deploy more forces, but getting out is a lot harder than getting in, and there is no point so long as we lack a political end game that prevents the jihadis’ return. Here the question is whether we might find a better balance between the limited numbers deployed now and an increase–Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain call for 10,000–that might enhance the military campaign against ISIS without breaking a psychological or political barrier. Form follows function, so careful thought needs to be given to how these additional forces would increase the odds of success.

4. Saudi Arabia is neither an ally nor an enemy. First, we to stop being guided by Saudi thinking. Their campaign in Yemen has been a disaster in terms of casualties the Saudis have caused and the way they’ve empowered Sunni jihadis because of their campaign to check Iran. The Saudi approach to Syria has similar problems. Riyadh is supporting groups one degree of separation away from ISIS, and the Saudi government has been exporting radical Islamist ideology for decades. One test of the Saudis’ bona fides in the fight against ISIS is whether they will deploy their own forces in Syria and Iraq. The news that the Saudis are forming an Arab/Muslim coalition to counter ISIS appears promising–but what will it actually contribute? Saudi Arabia has been a victim of jihadi terror, but the bottom line is that its leaders are concerned first with countering the rise of Shiite Iran and then fighting ISIS, not the other way around.

Breaking any of these taboos would pose difficult political choices for the Obama administration. Bashar Assad is a mass murderer, and cozying up to the Russians is a political nightmare. But neither of those is the central issue. We can deal with Mr. Assad later, and Mr. Putin is a party to the end game on Syria, whether we like it or not. We need to accept that fact.

What matters in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks is finding the most effective means to crush ISIS and protect the homeland. And if breaking taboos lead us in new directions, so be it.