How to Destroy Islamic State (and How Not To)

Why has a ragtag force been able to hold out against the most powerful country in the world? Because America’s regional strategy is based on false precepts.

September 3, 2015 | Michael Doran, Michael Pregent, Eric Brown, Peter Rough
About the author: Michael Doran is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute. The author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), he is also a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated. Michael Pregent, a retired intelligence officer, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He tweets @MPPregent. Eric Brown is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute specializing in Middle East and Asian affairs. Peter Rough is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in national security and international relations.

Islamic State fighters parade in a commandeered Iraqi armored vehicle in Mosul in 2014. AP.

On June 10, 2014, a little over a year ago, the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) shocked the world by seizing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The government in Baghdad watched helplessly as its security forces crumbled and tens of thousands of residents fled their homes. Less than three weeks later, IS proclaimed itself the caliphate—that is, the legitimate successor to the state led by the Prophet Muhammad—thus casting its victory as the start of a new era of Islamic ascendancy.

The rise of IS electrified Islamist extremists around the world. It also embarrassed President Barack Obama, who only months before had jauntily dismissed it as the “jayvee [junior varsity] team” and had repeatedly promised the American people an end altogether to conflict in the Middle East. “I said I’d end the war in Iraq, and I ended it” he boasted during the 2012 election. But now, although the president may not have been interested in war, war, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, was decidedly interested in him. Soon a rising chorus of voices at home would be demanding decisive military action to roll back IS.

The president temporized for as long as he could. But when IS released videos of its beheadings of the American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, outraged public opinion forced his hand. On September 10, 2014, three months to the day after the fall of Mosul, he announced a policy “to degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. In pursuit of that goal, he quickly assembled a vast military coalition numbering some 60 nations.

Over the last year, the U.S.-led coalition has prosecuted an expansive air campaign—launched mostly from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf—that has included more than 10,000 airstrikes against IS personnel, equipment, and infrastructure. The campaign has scored a few notable successes: in March of this year, for example, Iraqi security forces coordinated with U.S. air power to reclaim the city of Tikrit; in June, the U.S. provided critical air support for Kurdish units on the ground as they disrupted a major IS supply route in Syria.

But the campaign has also suffered setbacks. Most spectacularly, on May 17, IS forces sacked Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq. Three days later, it took the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Today, while remaining firmly in control of Mosul, it sits astride the crucially important Ramadi-Fallujah-Abu Ghraib corridor leading to western Baghdad. The net result is that, a year after the president ordered military action “to degrade and ultimately destroy” IS, victory seems more distant than ever. Prior to his recent retirement, General Ray Odierno, the former Army chief of staff, spoke of a campaign that could last “ten to twenty years.”

Why has a ragtag force of no more than 30,000 poorly trained jihadists been able to hold out against a coalition made up of the most powerful countries in the world?

Many among the president’s critics point to his reluctance to use sufficient force. If the U.S. would just put 10,000 more troops in the field, or permit less restrictive rules of engagement, it could rout IS in no time. So the argument goes, and there is much to be said for it. At the same time, however, to focus solely on military tactics is to obscure the most fundamental, and most crippling, problem of all: America’s strategic misalignment.

Simply put, the Obama administration has adopted a regional strategy for the Middle East that is based on false precepts, thus ensuring American failure regardless of the tactics adopted in its pursuit. In order to replace failure with success, a new anti-IS strategy needs to be adopted, along with the tactics appropriate to it.

In what follows, we lay out five rules that, if adhered to, can supplant Obama’s fallacies with a deeper understanding of Middle East realities and lead not only to the destruction of IS but to a safer future for us and for our allies and friends. The first rule is the most critical, and upon it much else depends.


Rule #1: Recruit Sunni Arab allies.


Even as the president authorized anti-IS military operations in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Syria, he has continued to invoke the mantra that “there are no military solutions,” and has remained steadfastly opposed to placing combat troops on the ground. But the only way to defeat IS without sending 100,000 American soldiers into harm’s way is to convince regional actors to help shoulder the burden. Acknowledging this obvious fact, the president instructed his national-security team to identify partners. “It will take time to root [IS] out,” he recently counseled, “and doing so must be the job of local forces on the ground, with training and air support from our coalition.”

The trouble is this: the unwillingness to employ American troops has in turn limited the pool of those same “local forces on the ground,” leaving only the parties who were already armed and ready to fight. In Iraq, these were limited to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces (made up of both military and police units), and Iran-backed militias; in Syria, the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party). These forces suffer from any number of inherent disabilities, but one deserves special note: they belong either to the wrong ethnic group or to the wrong religious group.

The population in IS’s main area of operation—a huge swath of territory stretching from Baghdad to Damascus—is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. In order to drive a permanent wedge between that population and IS, it is necessary to build a new order run by Sunni Arab leaders who are respected by the locals. Kurdish and Shiite forces can and should play a role in that effort, but they cannot play the main role.

Most detrimental of all has been the decision by the Obama administration to coordinate, indirectly, with Shiite militias backed by Iran. During the campaign to retake Tikrit in March, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sheepishly made the case for this policy. “If [the militias] perform in a credible way, rid the city of Tikrit, turn it back over to its inhabitants,” he said, “then it will, in the main, have been a positive thing in terms of the counter- IS campaign.” This made little sense. By definition, the Shiite militias cannot be relied upon to return conquered lands to their non-Shiite inhabitants. When American officials talk this way, they lose all credibility in the eyes of America’s traditional Sunni allies, who fear those militias more than any other actor, IS included.

In sum, the near-total dependence of the U.S. on Kurds and Shiites hobbles the effort not only to enlist fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria but also to generate enthusiastic support from the surrounding Sunni states. If the U.S. fails to mobilize these Sunni Arab allies, it will never succeed in holding territory taken from IS. This elementary fact constitutes the Achilles heel of the Obama policy.


Rule #2: Embed American troops with Iraqi forces.


How then, practically speaking, to accomplish the goal laid out in rule #1? Here we start by focusing on the scene in Iraq.

During the 2007-08 “surge” of American troops in the Iraq war—the pinnacle of American leadership in that conflict—the U.S. military learned how to negotiate the country’s complex sectarian and ethnic landscape. American forces became a trusted intermediary between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites, and among neighboring tribes and clans.

This approach generated a force of some 90,000 Sunnis, known as the Sons of Iraq, whose support led to the rapid defeat of al-Qaeda. The foundation of the success was a simple deal between the tribes and the U.S. military. In addition to equipping and training the tribes, the Americans intervened on their behalf with the central government, which had fallen under the control of sectarian Shiite actors. In return, the tribes helped stabilize the Sunni areas.

Crucial aspects of this method could be replicated today, but doing so would require a U.S. combat presence backed by guarantees for a sovereign and independent Iraq. It would also require freer rules of engagement for U.S. troops and a readiness on the part of Washington to conduct tireless diplomacy designed to assuage local fears—Shiite fears of an armed Sunni restoration, Sunni fears of Iranian-Shiite domination, and Kurdish fears of revanchist Arab nationalism.

How many American troops would be required to play such a role, and how long would they need to remain in Iraq? Experience suggests that for every 500 Iraqi soldiers, the U.S. would need to provide 20 advisers and a 100-man company. To assist a force of 30,000 Iraqis, 7,000-10,000 American troops would be called for. The ultimate goal would be to build a cross-sectarian Iraqi national force capable of acting independently of American help, but thanks to the sectarianism of the former Nouri al-Maliki government, and the prevailing atmosphere of Sunni-Shiite conflict, this is a very tall order. The immediate goal, therefore, would be simply to mobilize and motivate Sunnis willing to fight IS and to work toward building a more inclusive Iraq. Even so, the Iraqi troops would require active U.S. guidance for an indefinite period of time.

Nevertheless, the goal is achievable, and here are a few practical steps toward achieving it.

The first order of business would be to secure Baghdad. In the protected environment of Camp Victory at Baghdad’s airport, the American-led training effort could recruit and train 10,000 local Sunnis. In order to accelerate the process, vetting of individual soldiers could be left to trusted tribal sheikhs drawn from former members of the Sons of Iraq. In particular, Sunni tribal elders from the mixed Sunni-Shiite belt surrounding Baghdad could rapidly provide the manpower for such a force. Thanks to the cross-sectarian bloodlines of these tribes, their mobilization would be somewhat less threatening to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Once trained, such forces could fill the ranks of the Iraqi army divisions that disintegrated in the face of the IS threat. As new territory is liberated from IS, local Sunnis could be recruited and integrated into the force, with care taken to deploy them as close as possible to their homes. In the end, in order to sweep IS from the major cities of Anbar province and their connecting corridors, the force would likely need to number at least 50,000 men. And in order to prevent the rise of an IS-successor organization in the future, the force would need to become permanent, forming the nucleus of the national guard that the Iraqi government has repeatedly promised to build.

A parallel process could proceed in the Kurdish north. Existing installations like Joint Base Balad and the Erbil airbase could function as training centers for police and national-guard forces jointly run by the government of Iraq, the U.S., and local Sunni and Kurdish regional authorities. These modernized Peshmerga forces and Sunni battalions would be responsible for security in their respective areas, partnering when necessary with existing Iraqi security forces. The joint training centers could also create and provide advanced training for constabulary forces that would ultimately take primary responsibility for maintaining the sovereignty of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions as part of a federal Iraq.

While all this is happening in the field, the U.S. would also need to convince Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to work with Sunnis and Kurds to build a more inclusive Iraq with strong institutions of self-government at the regional level. Needless to say, any such effort would alarm Tehran, which has been striving to take control of the Iraqi security sector and turn the government in Baghdad into a satellite. Countering Iranian designs is no small task, but the U.S., once it took the initiative, would likely discover allies in unexpected places. The Shiites of Iraq share a faith with the people of Iran, but they do not relish the idea of becoming a province in an Iranian empire.

And this is a key point. In the fight against IS, Shiite forces in Iraq have an important role to play, which should not be overlooked in the drive to mobilize Sunnis. In the past, al-Qaeda in Iraq successfully followed a strategy of provoking sectarian reprisals and thereby creating a spiral of intra-Iraqi violence; IS and Iran may try to do the same. Preventing this will require the active engagement of Shiite security forces.


Rule #3: Push Assad out the door.


Defeating IS requires driving it not only from Iraq but also from Syria. As long as it enjoys a safe haven there, the gates of western Iraq will remain wide open. Moreover, failure to stabilize Syria also entails the risk of further advances by IS—into, for example, Jordan and possibly even Saudi Arabia. The destabilization of either of those countries could embroil the U.S. in an open-ended military conflict with no allies at all to help shoulder the burden.

And Syria is much more than just strategically significant territory. Today the civil war there is the focal point of Middle Eastern international politics, its horrific toll of mainly Sunni civilian lives gripping the minds of Sunni Muslims more than does any other regional issue. Correlatively, American action or inaction in Syria influences perceptions of American intentions more broadly. If the U.S. is to mobilize the surrounding Sunni states against IS, it must be seen to be implementing an effective anti-Assad policy in Syria.

In the early days of the conflict, it would have been relatively easy for Washington to organize the moderate Syrian rebels into a fighting force. Today, a moderate force will emerge only if the U.S. builds it from scratch. The task is formidable. The Syrian landscape now includes hundreds of local militias, the largest and most effective of which are Islamic extremist groups. Any force put together by the U.S. will be in direct competition with these groups, with the Assad regime, and, of course, with Islamic State. But if we are actually sincere and not just pretending in our stated goal of defeating IS, there is no escape from such a conflict.

And here, too, though it’s late in the day, the goal is achievable—and the immediate next steps are obvious. First, the president must forge a regional coalition committed to his stated demand that Bashar al-Assad has to “step aside.” That coalition should include, but need not be limited to, America’s traditional regional partners as well as the British and French. In addition to the active involvement of the Iraqi central government, the U.S. should also seek closer coordination with its nontraditional ally, the Kurdistan regional government. Israel, too, has a significant role to play in this effort as an informal member of the coalition. Turkish participation is, of course, a prerequisite for success. But the coalition’s most prominent regional face must be the Sunni Arab one.

Second, just as in Iraq, the U.S. would allow trusted tribal and local leaders to vet their own men, thereby accelerating the training effort and building relationships with key actors. The current vetting process is a joke, yielding, after a year’s effort, a paltry 60 troops from whom we have required a pledge that they will not fight the forces of Assad or his allies, like Hizballah. Given these conditions, it is no wonder that Syrians are hesitant to join.

Third, the U.S. should undertake to destroy Assad’s air force and impose no-fly zones over areas liberated from him and IS. Doing so would prevent the Syrian government from terrorizing its own civilian population from the air, as it does now whenever the rebels take a village or a neighborhood. By means of this gruesome form of collective punishment, the regime means to prevent the rebels from building the foundations of a stable post-Assad order.

Fourth, the U.S. should begin implementing what Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has referred to as an “inkspot strategy” reminiscent of the one implemented by General David Petraeus in the Iraqi surge. That is, it should embed small numbers of American and allied special-forces personnel within Syrian units to begin the slow and steady work of clearing and holding Syrian territory, thus working simultaneously against Assad and IS. The inkspot approach could build up centers of power that the U.S. could then rely upon in the hard, multiyear labor of reconstructing a post-Assad Syria.

As unattractive as this project sounds, it is the only one that holds out any possibility of success.

Experience has already taught that the Syria problem will not get better with age. The stark choice before us is either to start dislodging al-Qaeda and IS from Syria now or wait till later when those groups will be much stronger, the region even more chaotic, and traditional friends of the U.S. weaker and ever more distrustful of Washington’s intentions.


Rule #4: Roll back Iranian power.


The first three rules for defeating IS are necessary for success; but they are not sufficient. Forming a regional coalition and building up Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria will not, by themselves, solve the strategic dilemma that Obama’s policy has created. Our Sunni allies will not fight alongside us with conviction unless we offer them a future vision of Iraq and Syria that is more attractive than the status quo. Even as we start defining specific military solutions, therefore, we must grapple with more fundamental questions. What new order are we seeking to build? In that project, which states will be our most reliable partners?

In answering these questions, President Obama has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the central fact of Middle Eastern international politics, namely, the chasm that separates the traditional allies of the United States from Iran and its allies—the latter of whom include, among others, the Assad regime in Syria, Hizballah, and a number of Iraqi Shiite militias. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon recently spoke for all of America’s friends in explaining that, whereas the U.S. regards Iran as a solution to its problems, the allies see Iran as the source of their problems.

Ya’alon’s words came at a moment when the White House was facing accusations that its newly struck nuclear deal with Iran would make that regime more, not less, aggressive in the Middle East. In response, the administration has been at pains to insist that it is working on a plan to contain Iranian power. “We will push back against [Iran],” Secretary of State John Kerry assured the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “We’ve laid out a very detailed policy for working with the Gulf States and others, and we look forward to working with Israel in the effort to do that.”

This statement was consciously misleading. In fact, the plan that President Obama laid before the Gulf Arab states at Camp David last May failed to address the Iranian threat as that threat is actually understood by America’s friends. The president offered to sell the allies new weapons, to strengthen their conventional defenses, and to improve their counterterrorism programs. He refused, however, to counter the activities of the Qods Force, the subversive arm by which Tehran projects its power into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—the four countries that are current focus of Iranian aggression and therefore the source of greatest concern to the allies. With regard to that threat, Obama proposed not “pushback” against Tehran but, to the contrary, diplomatic engagement with it.

Obama signaled his true intentions toward Iran in a press conference after the Camp David summit. “The purpose of security cooperation” with the Gulf states, he said, “is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran.” Two months later, he elaborated further when asked about his vision of Tehran as a potential partner and its role in his Syria policy. “There’s going to have to be agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria that this [conflict] is not going to be won on the battlefield,” he stated. “So Iran is one of those players, and I think that it’s important for them to be part of that conversation.”

Syria, to repeat, is the major hub through which Tehran projects its hegemonic ambitions into the Arab world. As the primary external supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran has actively abetted his Alawite minority regime in systematically terrorizing the Syrian Sunni majority, leveling large swaths of major cities, driving more than 10 million people from their homes, and engineering the deaths of a quarter-million people so far. From the earliest days of the anti-Assad rebellion four years ago, Tehran has trained and equipped the regime’s death squads. As the capabilities of Assad’s forces have dwindled, Iranian officers have played an ever increasing role in directly guiding the counterinsurgency on the ground.

America’s allies thus rightly see Iran not as a partner for stability but as an accomplice to one of the worst atrocities in modern Middle Eastern history. With considerable justification, they also argue that Assad’s murder machine is the single greatest recruiting vehicle for IS. And they note, again correctly, that Iran’s (and Assad’s) opposition to IS is itself hardly full-throated. In fact, there is a considerable overlap of interests since IS, a Sunni revolutionary organization, has focused not on fighting Shiite Iran but primarily on seizing and holding Sunni areas.

Nevertheless, the president insists on speaking as if he believes that Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states will eventually be corralled into a unified anti-IS coalition. In a recent interview, for example, he expressed the hope “that [both] Saudi Arabia and Iran . . . [will] begin to recognize that their enemy is chaos as much as anything else. And what [IS] represents and what the collapse of Syria or Yemen or others represent is far more dangerous than whatever rivalries that may exist between those two nation-states.”

This is either wishful thinking or blatantly disingenuous. Syria is the spot where rival visions of regional order collide. For a sense of its importance to Tehran, one need only listen to Mehdi Taeb, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Taeb’s words, Syria is nothing less than a part of Iran itself, “the 35th province and a strategic province for us.” If, he elaborated, “the enemy attacks us and seeks to take over [either] Syria or Khuzestan [an Arab-speaking province of Iran bordering Iraq], the priority lies in maintaining Syria because if we maintain Syria, we can take back Khuzestan. However, if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.”

In thus stressing the depth of Iran’s commitment to the Assad regime, Taeb has also offered a roadmap to all those for whom, unlike for John Kerry and Barack Obama, pushback against Iran is no mere pretense but an urgent necessity. If the job of the U.S. is indeed to push back against Iran, that job begins in Syria.


Rule #5: Get real about linkage.


The Obama administration has consistently denied any linkage between the nuclear negotiations with Tehran that led to the July 14 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and other aspects of American policy toward the Middle East. Secretary of State Kerry first made that point categorically in a press conference in November 2014, stating, “There is no linkage whatsoever of the nuclear discussions with any other issue. And I want to make that absolutely clear. The nuclear negotiations are on their own. They’re standing separate from anything else. And no discussion has ever taken place about linking one thing to another.”

A mountain of evidence contradicts this statement. During the negotiations, for example, Obama conducted a secret correspondence with Ayatollah Khamenei in which he depicted the nuclear deal as the first step toward a partnership on allegedly common problems like IS. The letter also promised Khamenei that the U.S. would do nothing to harm Bashar al-Assad, thus establishing another clear linkage: between the nuclear negotiations and America’s Syria policy. In recent days, Obama has openly expressed his hope that the nuclear deal will “incentivize” Iran “to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative.”

It’s only to be expected, then, that America’s allies are unpersuaded by the administration’s denials of linkage between the negotiations and regional policy. To the contrary, the Iran talks have served only to convince them of Obama’s intention to shift American regional strategy in favor of Iran.

And who can blame them? The administration launched its nuclear initiative with Tehran through secret backchannels, which it hid from its traditional friends. Once the negotiations became public, U.S. officials briefed the allies only after having unilaterally made consequential concessions. The final stages of the negotiations then presented the allies with the spectacle of the American secretary of state holed up in a posh hotel with the Iran’s foreign minister, conducting private talks in a friendly atmosphere described in media reports as the “new normal.”

Finally on July 14 there came the final text of the Iran deal itself, confirming the allies’ worst fears. In return for a temporary slowdown in Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. had agreed to dismantle the international sanctions regime, the primary non-military instrument for containing and rolling back Iranian power. President Obama has characterized this tradeoff as a no-brainer whose strengths so far outweigh its weaknesses that “it’s not even close.”

Allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia know better. For them, the end of the sanctions regime spells the ascendancy of a reinvigorated and even more aggressive Iran—and this, in a dawning era of American solicitude toward Tehran. If, before the nuclear deal, the president was reluctant to roll back Iranian power, he will be all the more reluctant when, at the slightest provocation, Tehran can now simply threaten to scuttle the nuclear deal: the crowning foreign-policy achievement of the Obama administration. In the allies’ perspective, the JCPOA is a Damoclean sword looming over American freedom of action—and they are right.

Allaying the fears of our allies is thus a crucial step toward building a regional coalition that might truly stabilize the Middle East, rid it of the poison of IS, and roll back Iranian power. Linkage again—yes, indeed, but in the right cause and the right direction. And that is one more reason why, in the coming weeks, when Congress votes on the Iran nuclear deal, it should disapprove it.

To be sure, such a vote may not survive the president’s veto, meaning that the JCPOA will survive at least until the end of the Obama administration and possibly even longer. Either way, however, it is urgently imperative for the U.S. Congress to prove to our allies that Congress’s own opposition to Iranian policies in the region is rock solid, and that it will legislate swift and painful penalties against Iran for its efforts to subvert neighboring countries and its continued support for terrorism more broadly. Congress should also move quickly and decisively to punish Iran in the event that it uses the nuclear deal as a screen for regional aggression. Instead of ignoring our friends, or fighting with them, we should be fighting Iranian expansionism throughout the region—and opposing American complicity with that expansionism.




We began by asking how and why IS’s ragtag army has managed to hold out for over a year against a U.S.-led coalition comprising some of the most powerful states in the world. An answer of sorts may be found in Vice-President Joseph Biden’s observation, while speaking to Harvard students in October 2014, that “Our allies in the region [have been] our largest problem.”

Biden’s suggestion that America’s Sunni allies have somehow been in cahoots with IS was a slur, but a revealing one. In truth, if the allies have been less than enthusiastic about fighting IS, it is because they believe that Obama will not work to safeguard their vital interests. In the war against IS, they correctly note, America has agreed to play only a limited role, and is doing so in pursuit of vague objectives. Therefore, should they themselves become active participants in the conflict, they may quickly find themselves alone on the battlefield, facing an enraged IS that they cannot defeat. Even more daunting to them, Obama’s phony war may well abet Iran’s drive to achieve hegemonic dominance in the region. If the choice becomes one of living under the Iranian boot or learning to accommodate IS, it is little wonder that some might decide to take their chances with the latter.

The president claims to have charted a path to a stable Middle East that, by turning enemies into friends, will have the added advantage of not requiring a significant exertion of American hard power in order to defeat the insurgent Islamic State. As is plain to see by now, not only are our enemies adamantly disinclined to become our friends, but his strategy has contributed to significantly greater polarization and instability, generating the chaos it pretends to contain and provoking a maelstrom that may soon engulf Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This hands-off approach simply ensures that we will face more formidable challenges than IS in the future, with fewer allies at our side.

We need to reassert American leadership—leadership from in front—and in so doing we need to ask ourselves whether we are better off managing Middle Eastern conflicts on our own or with others who share our interests. The president’s path amounts to the path of isolation and open invitation to aggression. The longer we wait, the harder will be the job of revitalizing our traditional alliances—or, much harder, reinventing them.