Panel: Tackling ISIS Requires A Mix of Diplomacy and Military Action

September 23, 2014 7:58 AM - Updated: September 24, 2014 6:53 AM
ISIS fighters in Iraq. Reuters Photo
ISIS fighters in Iraq. Reuters Photo

Shortly before the United States and some Sunni Arab nations attacked targets with aircraft and cruise missiles against targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) late Monday in Syria, a former National Security Council adviser to the Bush administration said that air strikes had value in taking on ISIS.

Juan Zarate — the former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — said, “air strikes are very effective” in degrading ISIS forces in Iraq and could be effective in Syria.

“What does it look like when [military action] crosses the Syrian border?” Having Arab Sunni partners would give these operations, “a patina of legitimacy” if Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni states were involved, he said.

In the long-term fight against ISIS, he saw, “The United States serving as a quarterback” in these operations.

How much, if any information about the pending attack to include de-confliction of targeting, was shared with the Syrians was unclear late Monday.

Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at CSIS and Juliana Goldman, a CBS News Washington correspondent, addressed the changes Islamic fundamentalist “jihad” has taken in light of ISIS’ recent successes in Iraq and Syria and how the administration has adapted to those shifts and growing threats.

“The changing situation on the ground makes it more complex,” requiring military action, diplomacy and economic efforts to shut down the flow of cash, materiel and fighters to ISIS, Alterman said, speaking before the air strikes were known.

To Zarate, it meant attracting coalition partners from the Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in those efforts.

ISIS — which also calls itself the Islamic State and the administration often calls ISIL — is a Sunni fundamentalist movement.

Even militarily “there are roles that [different nations] can be — the logistics guy, the refueling guy” in confronting ISIS. “How do you make [a coalition] up to mean something” that means a long commitment of time and resources in the fight.

Tuesday’s operations demonstrated how dramatically the administration’s position has shifted on military operations in Syria.

“A year ago, [President Barack Obama] backed off” from attacking Syria after the regime of Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons in attacking its opponents and civilians who were caught in the fighting. Speaking at CSIS, Alterman added the reason then was the administration’s, “keen desire to keep from being too sucked into the fighting.”

But now with ISIS controlling so much territory, flush with oil money, captured arms and successful recruiting in the region, the West and the United States, the situation has changed.

Zarate asked, “What is the regional strategy” that can go beyond the immediate situation in Iraq and Syria? The danger is to be too reactive which “lends itself to a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach.”

“[ISIS] is not stopping,” he said.

Goldman pointed to the success ISIS has had in using new and old media for propaganda, recruiting and to terrorize. “French to French, German to German, Brits” to Brits, the group is using all the languages of the groups it is trying to influence. It also is showing how it is trying to govern and not just beheadings of Western hostages.

“[ISIS] is really reaching out to you in your own language,” Alterman added.

The strategy cannot solely be airstrikes or even larger military action, Alterman, who served as a member of the Iraq Study Group to advise the Bush administration when its strategy was failing, said. This is true even in Iraq “where you have a government welcoming the military” to support is forces and the forces of Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the fight.

For the new Iraq government it also means being more inclusive of Sunnis to overcome years of indifference and hostility from the Nouri al Maliki, Shi’ite-dominated administration. “Can there be a rejuvenation of the Sons of Iraq,” the Sunnis who turned on ISIS’ predecessor organization — al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarate asked. The Sunni uprising greatly assisted United States and coalition efforts in putting down the sectarian violence that had sent Iraq into civil war.

As for Iran, Alterman said, “They hate these guys as much as anybody,” but “Iran also fear the United States plans for the region.”

Zarate added, the “Iranians over time learned to play a great game of duality” of appearing to cooperate with the United States in some areas but capable of working against it in others.

Again before the Pentagon confirmed the strikes, Goldman noted the shift in language from the administration’s “cautious, more deliberative approach” in months past to sending a clear signal to allies, partners and the American people that ISIS was a major threat.

Yet because decision-making in the White House is so closely held, Zarate said there has been “an erosion of trust and confidence” among senior officials.

He mentioned former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser James Jones who saw “policy does not always follow through” even when the language is strong,

While most of the discussion was spent on the ISIS, Zarate said Khorosan with its roots in the original al Qaeda and focused on attacking the West is working largely unseen from its safe haven in Syria.

He said its goal “is linking parts of the [al Qaeda affiliates] together” to carry out these attacks, posing more immediate danger to the West and the United States.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox