September 16, 2014

As the United States opens a campaign of airstrikes against the brutal militants of ISIS, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Fred Hof says the US aim of destroying the group will require the overthrow of Syria’s also-brutal president, Bashar al-Assad. Removing the threat of ISIS (also called the “Islamic State”) additionally will require the establishment of legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq, which now are failed states.

Hof, who served as President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, has been urging many of the steps that Obama included in his September 10 announcement of a strategy for confronting ISIS. In an interview with New Atlanticist, Hof assesses the prospects for the president’s plan and what it will take to destroy the threat from the Islamic State.


In general, how would you characterize President Obama’s ISIS strategy?

Previously, the administration has conducted foreign policy on an ad hoc basis within a small circle around the Oval Office, relying almost exclusively on strategic communications and using language to work through difficult problems.

In his September 10 speech, the president made very good use of his fourteen minutes of airtime to describe an objectives-based strategy that centers on counterterrorism.

However, if this challenge presented by the Islamic State is pursued only as a counterterrorism issue, this problem could go on indefinitely.

At its root, this is a challenge of political legitimacy—or the lack thereof—in Iraq and Syria; these are two failed states.

Having legitimate governance in both of these countries is essential if you want to make sure that when the Islamic State is killed, it stays buried—and that it stays dead. Until there’s actually legitimate governments in these two countries, this organization will rise from the dead, as it has already done in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In Iraq, the US quickly came to the conclusion that it couldn’t get to first base in terms of having an inclusive, legitimate government as long as Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister. Take the Maliki situation and multiply it by 10,000: that is the Bashar al-Assad analogy in Syria.

Most Iraqis and most Syrians want a government in which they can take some pride. They want a government that relies on their consent for the exercise of its powers; they want government that is inclusive; and one that elevates citizenship above any other description of how people operate politically. There is tremendous popular support for this in both countries.

But, as is the case in many situations like this, the majority is not armed and is engaged only on the receiving end of this conflict—as victims.

 

In this context, is the president’s plan sufficient?

One of the most significant aspects of the president’s plan is that he said the US will step up its arming and training of Syrian nationalist rebels. The question is now whether this assistance will be at a scale commensurate with the challenge. If we’re talking about only a few thousand people starting in 2015 over the next two years, then we may as well do nothing at all.

The president has also put a $500 million request before Congress, but that will not suffice to build the force that is needed.

Then again, this does not have to be the exclusive job of the American taxpayer. There are others who can contribute to this, and perhaps the $500 million—while essential—can be viewed as seed money.

 

On that, how hard will it be to get governments in the region to contribute to this effort?

That will depend almost entirely on whether governments in the region believe the US is willing to put some skin in the game and provide leadership for the duration of the crisis. Left to their own devices, regional governments will take care of their own narrow parochial interests, and in the course of doing so, may inadvertently aggravate the situation.

American leadership is essential—but its potential impact depends on regional perceptions of American steadiness, reliability, and commitment to seeing this through until the mission is accomplished.

Some have argued that the US, or the West, should collaborate with the Assad regime to combat ISIS.

In his September 10 remarks, the president explicitly rejected the possibility of any collaboration or cooperation with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He put the spike into this once and for all.

As long as Bashar al-Assad, his clan, his family, and his regime are in place, there’s no real prospect of killing the Islamic State permanently.

Assad is the poster child for Islamic State recruitment around the world. It’s his long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have inspired people from around the world to go to Syria.

Furthermore, in western Syria, the Islamic State and the Assad regime—which hypothetically should be deadly enemies—are collaborating with each other, in a de facto manner at least, to try to eliminate Syria’s nationalist opposition. This is their common enemy.

This is why when the US inaugurates air operations in Syria, it would be well-advised to concentrate in western Syria on those ISIS units that are attacking those nationalist opposition. The Assad regime and the Iranians won’t like it, but there’s not much they can say beyond the alleged violation of Syrian sovereignty by doing these operations.

 

What is the risk of waiting to move on the Syria front?

What the Islamic State phenomenon is doing is filling in the gaps and moving into vacuums. If we don’t move quickly on the Syrian front, the Islamic State and the Assad regime could actually oust, and even erase, the Syrian nationalist opposition from the [western] city of Aleppo and the surrounding villages.

This would leave Syria in a state of uneasy partition: the Islamic State—with its criminal and terrorist features—on one side, and the Assad regime—which is basically a tool of Hezbollah and Iran—dominating in western Syria. Both of those outcomes pose major threats to the US, our transatlantic allies, and interests in the region.

 

Should Americans view ISIS as a threat to homeland security?

Yes, they should.

In fairness, the assessment of the intelligence community right now seems to be that there is no evidence of any imminent attempts to conduct terrorist operations in the US.

But there are at least 2,000 foreign fighters involved with the Islamic State operation. Some of those are Americans. These are people—whether they are Americans, French, or British—who have passports and don’t require visas to return to their countries of origin. In many cases, there may be young people signing up for this as a great adventure, thinking they are doing something for a noble cause. But they’ll be subject to indoctrination; they’ll undergo certain experiences and there’s a possibility that some could return to their countries of origin and create havoc. 

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