On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State—just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq—cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.
The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.
Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring. Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countries—notably Libya and Yemen—teeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.
The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraq—with a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnis—all of them—as supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.
Today’s crisis—that which obligated the President to speak on September 10—has its roots in the March 2011 decision of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to respond with lethal violence to peaceful demonstrators seeking his protection from police brutality. The Assad regime initially escorted Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives from Syria to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but its violently sectarian response to peaceful protest drew much of what was left of the seemingly beaten Al Qaeda in Iraq back to Syria, where it was joined by foreign fighters and split into two groups: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Both groups compete with the nationalist opposition to Assad—indeed, the Islamic State engages in de facto collaboration with the regime in western Syria to erase the nationalists, even as Assad and the caliph clash in eastern Syria over oil fields and air bases. And it was from secure bases in eastern Syria that the Islamic State launched its recent assault into Iraq, taking advantage of the depredations of yet another illegitimate, sectarian leader: Nouri al Maliki.
Indeed, if sidelining Maliki was the essential first step to getting to legitimate governance in Iraq, what about Assad in Syria? He is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world. He is the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are breathtaking in scope and consequences.
President Obama decided, correctly if belatedly, to seek more robust assistance for beleaguered Syrian nationalists fighting in two directions: against the Islamic State and the regime. Will it work? It would have been easier two years ago, but now there is no choice. Airstrikes will not suffice in executing the counter-terrorism strategy. A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq. Indeed, airstrikes in Syria should focus first on Islamic State targets in western Syria, where nationalist forces are desperately trying to repulse the caliph and his forces.
Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This article originally appeared in the New Republic on September 12, 2014.