Brookings Experts on the U.S.-led Strikes on ISIS and Targets in Syria and Iraq

As U.S.-led air strikes proceed against ISIS and other targets in Syria and Iraq, Brookings experts continue to offer their insight on and recommendations for the path forward.

Assessing U.S. Strategy

In a post on the Iran@Brookings blog, Kenneth Pollack analyzes the Obama administration’s strategy toward Iraq and Syria, stating that it is “a work in progress” yet “overall, what is emerging is a smart, coherent approach that is checking off any number of key military and diplomatic boxes.” The most important element, Pollack argues, is that the emerging strategy is meant to defeat ISIS as well as “address the wider circumstances of Iraq and Syria”:

That is critical because ISIS and its ilk are not the problem in the region; they are the symptom of the problem. The problem is the intercommunal civil wars burning in both Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, that’s also where the missing pieces of the strategy remain.

Read the full piece here.

Does ISIS Have a Strategy?

Bruce Riedel explained that ISIS poses many challenges to the U.S., including “potential threats to the homeland in the future, an immediate regional and ideological threat and an insurgent threat.” But Riedel added that the group also poses what he calls “a hostage challenge.” The group, he says, will keep taking hostages to either keep potential action against them at bay, or to exact revenge. “Obama could face two-plus years of hostage-taking and executions that seem to underscore the limits of American power,” argued Riedel. “It will be easy for critics to charge him as weak and ineffective without, of course, providing a policy that stops hostage-taking. He says we need to fight smarter against our enemy. The president has that right.”

Read more of Riedel’s take on the hostage problem on Politico Magazine.

A group of experts in Foreign Policy at Brookings recently held a discussion to explore ISIS’ strategy.

  • Shadi Hamid discussed whether ISIS’ strategy is to “goad the United States into greater involvement” in the Middle East or if the group “is focused primarily on issues of statehood, capturing and holding territory and governance, which makes it less likely to want to goad” the U.S.
  • William McCants offered his perspective that perhaps ISIS’ actions—e.g., beheadings and threats of lone wolf terrorist attacks—are part of a “paying the price” strategy in which jihadists commit gruesome acts to stop attacks on them. (McCants explained this in more detail here.)
  • Daniel Byman said that “At times we overstate the strategic coherence of groups like ISIS or even al-Qaida.” For ISIS, Byman was “not sure they (yet) have a coherent approach toward the United States.”
  • Jeremy Shapiro argued that the “better analogue to ISIS might be the Taliban rather than al-Qaida,” since the group is holding territory that it aspires to govern.
  • Charles Lister brought up another facet of ISIS’ potential strategy: “we should not disregard,” he wrote, “the intense millenarianism expounded within ISIS’ foundational ideology, which continues intensely to this day.” Lister also commented on the “Khorasan Group” and intra-rebel dynamics in Syria.

Read their entire exchange on the Iran@Brookings blog here.

Is ISIS a Threat to Asia?

Joseph Chinyong Liow explained in Foreign Affairs why Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, is anxious about ISIS. Like McCants, he also called attention to “anecdotal evidence … that the millenarian perspective is growing in Indonesia and Malaysia.” However, Liow cited a number of reasons why there are “limits to the effectiveness of [ISIS’] recruitment in the region,” including a language barrier, better economic conditions, and better security.

Read his entire piece.

Boots on the Ground

Michael O’Hanlon, writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, says that we are not on a “slippery slope” to “another major involvement in a civil war in Iraq.” Still, reflecting on Gen. Martin Dempsey’s recent comments that American military ground personnel might be needed, O’Hanlon suggested that for a proposed Iraqi national guard force to succeed, U.S. advisers “do not need to do the fighting,” but:

they will have to walk the key neighborhoods of Iraqi’s major Sunni cities, study the intelligence and live with the units they are helping. Up to several thousand Americans could be needed for this purpose.

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Kagan participated in a panel discussion on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” during which he recognized the importance of “soft power,” but then added that: “we are kidding ourselves if we don’t understand at the end of the day the people we’re fighting about don’t care about soft power, they don’t care about an international economy.”


Get the show transcript here.

What about Syria and the anti-Assad Rebels?

Salman Shaikh averred that the “success of the ‘broad coalition’ to fight ISIS that President Barack Obama announced … rests on what happens in Syria.” He argued that:

Destroying ISIS and its barbaric practices will need to be accompanied by broader, lasting change in Iraq and Syria. That means the triumph of universal human values, better governance and political inclusivity over ISIS’s primitiveness and elevating these goals over narrower national (even U.S. national) interests.

Read more here.

In the multi-expert dialogue above, Shadi Hamid also mentioned the importance of Syria, stating that “I also worry [President Obama] underestimates the ways in which U.S. involvement, if not tied to a broader, long-term strategy in Syria, could prove less beneficial to our stated aims than we’d all like to think.”

Hamid, commenting on a recent congressional hearing featuring Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “there is, and will continue to be, a gaping hole at the heart of our ISIS strategy. That hole is Syria.” Find out more in his commentary here. He also expressed similar concerns on a recent edition of “The Diane Rehm Show,” stating that “we can’t just be obsessed about ISIS. And we also have to look at the threat of the Assad regime.” Continuing, he said:

This is why Gen Dempsey’s remarks in the congressional hearing last week were so troubling. He said the U.S. is going to be training 5,000 fighters to fight ISIS and not necessarily the Assad regime. And God knows how you’re going to convince Syrian rebels to hold their fire against what they consider to be their primary enemy, the Assad regime.

Listen to the full program here.

Kenneth Pollack argued that a vital piece of the Obama administration’s strategy for combating ISIS is that we must “start gearing up for nation-building, particularly in Syria.” But also Iraq: “And unless we stabilize both countries and end the civil wars there,” Pollack wrote, “we will never be rid of ISIS or the other threats to our interests in Syria and Iraq.”

Read Pollack’s piece in the New Republic here.

Is Iran Part of the Anti-ISIS Coalition?

There had been some speculation a couple of weeks ago that Iran would somehow be part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. However, Suzanne Maloney has noted that:

The fact that the Islamic State group represents a common threat to both Iran and the United States is not sufficient to overcome the decades of ideological antagonism as well as the institutional obstacles in both countries to any explicit partnership.

She has also pointed out that the U.S. and Iran are on opposing sides when it comes to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Maloney more recently analyzed Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s denouncement of U.S. actions against ISIS, which, she said, “conformed to his unswerving hostility toward the United States and every aspect of its security policies in the Middle East, and further underscored the improbability of even tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran on the regional crisis.”

Read her analysis here and here.

Can the U.S. Strike at ISIS’s Oil Resources?

Luay al-Khatteeb spoke to CNN about how U.S. air strikes might affect the oil production facilities that ISIS captured. He said the impacts on the refineries under ISIS control “are going to be immense and grave” and “will impact the energy supply and deny ISIS much-needed fuel for their mobility and the servicing of the communities under their rule.”

Read his interview here.

To get a continually updated compendium of all Brookings research and commentary on ISIS and related issues, visit this page.

This piece has been updated since it was first published.