Brookings Experts on Iraq, the Islamic State, and the U.S. Policy Response

As the crisis in Iraq continues to escalate, Brookings scholars have provided analysis of the situation and recommendations for United States policy options. Below is a roundup of their work as they continue to elaborate on the rise of the Islamic State, its implications for Iraq, and the U.S. response.

“This is not just an Iraq situation; this is not just a Syria situation. … The problem is that this is a single problem, it is a single civil war now that is stretching from the Mediterranean all the way to the banks of the Tigris and we need to develop a wider approach to it,” said Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, in an interview on KCRW discussing the current crisis in Iraq. While he believes that “the president and his team are playing what’s left of their hand about as well as they can,” he stressed that the United States government has a habit of “compartmentalizing these problems.”

Need to Restart and Unify the Political Process

While the Obama administration’s current, short-term strategy for Iraq involves achieving a new national unity government and “trying to parlay that into a wider national effort which the U.S. could then support against ISIS and other Iraqi militants,” Pollack argues that the U.S. needs a fall back strategy that could allow for a peaceful partition should the attempt to unify Iraq fail. The current effort to “bring moderate Sunnis back and help resurrect the notion of a unified Iraq that would then make it possible for the United States to provide military support.”

Pollack maintains that “Iraq right now is partitioned and unless we can get this political process restarted and bring the Sunnis back in and keep the Kurds involved in some way, the most likely scenario unfortunately is continued protracted civil war in Iraq and continued very bloody de facto partition.”

Situation on the Ground and U.S. Air Campaign

Pollack, reviewing the situation on the ground, stresses that “ISIS is the lead dog in a larger coalition of Sunni groups.” These groups support the “pretty maniacal and certainly fanatical” ISIS “not necessarily because they like ISIS or any other Sunni militants,” But rather because, many moderate Sunni groups are “more afraid and angry at Prime Minister Maliki and the Shia dominated government he’s run for the last three or four years than they are in favor of ISIS.”

Commenting on the recent U.S. air campaign against ISIS targets and for the benefit of the Yazidis, Pollack explained that the U.S. has been pursuing “opportunity strikes” in which a “target presents itself whether it be an ISIS convoy or a heavy weapon of some kind and the US goes in and takes it out.” This has led to the regrouping of the Kurdish Peshmerga who have “been able to push back on ISIS and retake a number of the villages they’ve lost,” giving “confidence that the Kurds will be able to hold their own territory against ISIS.”

Supporting Kurdistan, Saving the Yazidis

Pollack supports the U.S. government’s view that “the U.S. does need to commit airpower and other military resources to defend Kurdistan; we have a strategic interest in doing so; we have a humanitarian interest.” He also thinks “it’s absolutely right to be supporting the Yazidis. That is a clear and imminent humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen,” suggesting that “a plan needs to be developed to get [the Yazidis] off of that mountain … either to negotiate safe passage through the ISIS lines or to have a ground force, probably the Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by Western airpower.” Moreover, he argues that President Obama “is right that there is not going to be a military solution in Iraq without a dramatic change in political events, and that is why the political circumstances are so critically important.”

Pollack has also elaborated upon the ISIS offensive against the Kurdish Pashmerga in an Iran@Brookings post. He reviews the basic military factors on the ground, the use of U.S. airpower, some problems with the Peshmerga, and how to save the Yazidis. If rescuing the tens of thousands of trapped Yazidis requires ground forces, such as from Turkey or the Iraqi army, Pollack stresses that “it will be a major logistical operation, very vulnerable to attack, and therefore requiring U.S. air power to keep the bad guys at bay.”

The Responsibility to Protect

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for Foreign Policy at Brookings, also supports what the “administration is doing so far, but [thinks] it’s the easier part of the looming decisions ahead.” In an interview with Secure Freedom Radio, O’Hanlon explains that “part of what’s going on here, especially with that Yazidi ethnic minority in the mountains up north is the Responsibility to Protect, in other words a humanitarian mission,” but he also sees “strategic implications and imperatives.” In light of what he sees as further division of Iraq under current Prime Minister Maliki, O’Hanlon argues that “holding on to our Kurdish allies is a strategic interest as well” because “our only real regional allies pretty soon are going to be the Kurds and the Jordanians and the Turks, and we’re going to have to keep an eye on this terrible, brutal ISIS group from those peripheral areas.”

O’Hanlon finds difficulty in the administration’s need “to frame these issues fundamentally in terms of exit strategy. It would be nice if we had that luxury of just declaring these kinds of wars over, but I see them as ongoing challenges.” Listen to the interview:

Obama Can’t Be Complacent against ISIS

In an article in Foreign Affairs, O’Hanlon argues that “Obama’s strategy has been well calibrated and at least partly successful; the Yezidis’ [sic] plight appears less dire than a few days ago, and ISIS’ forays into Kurdistan have been stymied for the moment, perhaps even partly reversed in some places,” but suggests that “[Obama] needs to avoid any sense of complacency that he can limit the United States’ role to modest actions taken several thousand feet up in the air.” He explains that:

For now, the United States’ only realistic goal in Iraq is to prevent further ISIS advances. But ultimately, the collective aim of the United States, Iraq, and others in the region should be to fully push back the radical and brutal group, which is committed to the creation of a caliphate throughout much of the broader Middle East and even parts of Europe, and is willing to employ brutal tactics to achieve its aims. This group simply cannot be allowed to remain in power in large sections of Iraq and Syria indefinitely.

Inside ISIS’ Relationships and Structure

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, explained the rise of ISIS on PBS’ Frontline. Lister describes the series of pragmatic relationships formed between ISIS and “other Sunni armed groups, and with tribes—crucially with tribes—so as to acquire a wider Sunni standing within society, and also, by extension, to be able to present some element of legitimacy.” He suggests that these alliances could ultimately erode if ISIS “begins to assert itself more unilaterally” within this coalition, leaving “an opportunity for the Iraqi government or … the United States to begin leveraging old relationships with some of these tribal groups.”

In the interview, Lister explains the command hierarchy of the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and also describes how ISIS has “established a fairly broad-based structure for providing social services” due to the “extensive financial assets under its control and its ability to earn money through the sale of natural resources and through various other illicit means.” Without money, he says, “those services would stop fairly quickly, and then I think we would start to see a fairly dramatic reversal in terms of the level of acceptance or support for its presence.”

Will ISIS Attack the West?

Lister feels that “in the immediate future, the only thing the Islamic State will be focused on is maintaining its military momentum, acquiring control of more territory, and most importantly of all, consolidating control and introducing Sharia governance in those areas” but that “in its perspective, targeting the West would certainly be a future option.”

The Islamic State has so far succeeded in doing essentially everything that Al Qaeda had previously done, and done it better, except for carrying out a foreign attack. And it’s really for that reason that I expect it is an inevitability that one day it will try to do this. Exactly when that takes place, it’s fairly difficult to say, but I would imagine that the Islamic State’s senior leadership would make the decision only once they feel comfortable and consolidated enough across Syria and Iraq to be able to risk the wrath of retaliation that would inevitably come if they did carry out a foreign attack.

Get more on what Brookings scholars are saying about Iraq here.