How do you deal with a hideous terrorist group that has morphed into a Mideast state with a huge war chest and an aggressive army — and beheads an American journalist?
Since the gruesome slaughter of James Foley, U.S. officials are debating whether the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria can be contained or must be rolled back in the near term. President Barack Obama appears wedded to a strategy of containment — so far.
But I’ve been struck by the intensity with which current and former government and military officials have described the threats posed to core U.S. interests by the Islamic State. There is a glaring disconnect between the urgent threat they describe and the administration’s response.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chief. Last month, Dempsey told a security conference that the U.S. military was preparing options to “contain, disrupt and finally defeat (the Islamic State).” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called the Islamic State “some of the most brutal, barbaric forces we’ve seen in the world today.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, an Arabic speaker with deep knowledge of the Mideast, told me, “ISIS (another name widely used for the group) is our strategic enemy. They are al-Qaida on steroids. They present an existential threat to us.”
The Islamic State won’t stop with Iraq. Having taken over at least one third of Syria and an adjacent third of Iraq, and erased the border between them, it will try to expand the territory of its self-declared caliphate. Crocker believes its next targets will be U.S. allies Jordan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia. He thinks the jihadi group might even try to attack the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina.
In the meantime, it will keep targeting minority Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, and try to solidify its hold on the Sunni areas of the country.
And the threat doesn’t end there.
Its leaders have made clear that they will focus on Western and American targets once they consolidate their territorial gains. The Islamic State is training thousands of Europeans and scores of Americans at bases in Syria who could return home and wreak havoc.
A containment strategy is too passive to halt the advance of a jihadi state with such aggressive aims. The plans, and lives, of its leaders and fighters must be disrupted, and soon.
Until now, Obama has been betting that Iraqis can contain the Islamic State over time, with limited American assistance. He is waiting for a new Shiite-led Iraqi government to form that will, hopefully, be more inclusive of Sunnis, so as to undercut their support for the Islamic State. And he is betting that the collapsed Iraqi security forces can be revived.
In the best of all possible worlds, the Islamic State will be checked by revamped Iraqi troops — along with Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribes that have turned against the Islamic State — with help from occasional U.S. airstrikes. Here’s hoping.
But U.S. policy can’t rest on hopes.
Any strategy to disrupt the Islamic State in the short term must focus on both Iraq and Syria, as well as on other Arab states.
On the Iraq front, Obama can’t wait for a government to form in Baghdad. The United States must start supplying the Kurds directly with heavy weaponry to match the U.S. arsenal that the Islamic State acquired when it took over Iraqi military bases.
It must start helping Iraqi Sunni tribes that have the courage to stand up against the Islamic State; those who have done so in recent weeks are being slaughtered. They need air support and weapons.
The critical town of Ramadi, in Anbar province, is on the verge of falling to the Islamic State, which would give it near total control of the Sunni areas of Iraq.
And Obama must finally address the heart of the matter, the need to strike at Islamic State forces in their safe haven of Syria. Gen. Dempsey said that the Islamic State can’t be defeated “without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria.” At present, al-Qaida can safely regroup in Syria after any U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.
Until now, the administration has shown no interest in attacking the Islamic State inside Syria. Last week, however, a senior administration spokesman said that policy was being reconsidered, but there is no sign yet that Obama has changed his mind.
If the administration had a strategy to disrupt the Islamic State — and defeat it in the long term — it could not avoid dealing with the Syria question. Obama’s declared reluctance in the past to violate Syria’s sovereignty is now moot, because we know that U.S. special forces launched an attack inside Syria to try to rescue Foley.
Anyway, the Islamic State presides over lawless territory that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad no longer controls. Strikes on Islamic State camps or forces do not need to be coordinated with the Assad regime.
Obama should, however, coordinate with other Arab countries that feel threatened by the Islamic State, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan. A U.S. show of backbone should help prod them to cough up the billions needed to help Iraqi and Syrian refugees and prevent them from falling prey to Islamic State recruitment. Such U.S. leadership might also push Iran and Russia to finally seek an alternative to Assad.
But nothing will happen until Obama takes to heart the seriousness of the threat, and the need to disrupt it before it grows stronger.
“We’re just doing pinpricks,” Crocker warned, “and (the Islamic State) has the space to plan where they’re going to hit next. We have to go after them wherever they are.”