What should the U.S. do about ISIS? Show Sunnis we care

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared as part of an experts’ discussion published in the National Journal.

National Journal Staff: The past few years have seen the official conclusions of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the United States had no time to breathe a collective sigh of relief before the rapid advances of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) were presenting us with another political, ideological, possibly military quandary in the Middle East. How should the United States respond? We asked leading foreign policy intellectuals to propose their best answers.

Charles Lister: The United States cannot “degrade,” let alone defeat, ISIS through military means alone. Instead, it should place a far greater emphasis on ameliorating sociopolitical failures in Iraq and Syria—failures that ISIS seeks to sustain and feed upon in order to survive into the long term.

In addition to its globally visible and self-declared image as an apocalyptic jihadi movement, ISIS also presents itself on a local level as the only reliable defender of repressed Sunni Muslims. The former image attracts a steady stream of foreign fighters; the latter has been critically valuable in unstable and often chaotic sociopolitical conditions that are ripe for exploitation. By further exacerbating societal divisions and political instability, ISIS has grown and consolidated roots in Sunni communities that cannot be defeated militarily.

In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s often-sectarian-influenced policies led to a near-total breakdown in Sunni-Shia relations in 2013 and 2014. By early 2014, ISIS effectively controlled Mosul by night and had freedom of movement throughout much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland in Anbar Province. While a more inclusive government may now be in place in Baghdad, it is fragile and has thus far done little to address Sunni disenfranchisement nationwide. The loss of Ramadi raised the question of whether Sunnis in the armed forces were even willing to fight for something called “Iraq,” or whether that name as a concept has now lost any capacity to unite.

While the nationalist Iraqi image of unity may be weakening, it is not too late. The Iraqi state has to try to rescue the image of a strong, united, multiethnic, and multiconfessional society. Bolstering credible Sunni voices who call for Iraqi unity should be the first step. The United States and international allies can play a crucial role as guarantors of that vision, partly by making financial and military aid conditional on proven success in this regard. The United States should also rebuild its Sunni contacts from the Sahwa uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq, bolstering the voices of important Sunnis so that Baghdad has no choice but to hear them.

In Syria, the Assad regime’s extraordinary brutality remains one of ISIS’s most effective recruitment tools. Assad has also been clearly duplicitous in facilitating ISIS expansion, thereby harming the more moderate opposition. The United States has consistently failed to resolutely confront the Assad regime. Such indecision serves only to further embolden the jihadi view that the West cares little for the Sunni Muslim world.