Defeating ISIS Begins by Recognizing a Sunni Arab State
img 18 Nov 2015

Defeating ISIS Begins by Recognizing a Sunni Arab State

Like many arounCT6qv01WIAAh2Di.jpg-larged the world, I watched reporting of the recent murders of innocent civilians in Beirut, Paris, and over the Sinai skies – all attributed to Islamic State and their sympathizers – in horror. French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, like President Obama, have vowed to defeat ISIS. France has struck targets in Raqqa, the putative capital of Islamic State. Russia has increased its support to Syrian President Assad and has begun hitting ISIS as well.

Clearly, ISIS is feeling pressure in Iraq and Syria and aims to take the fight abroad into the cities and living rooms of their enemies using their version of precision strikes. Anti-Muslim hysteria in the west, cynically exploited by politicians, plays directly into ISIS hands by giving them scores of potential recruits among alienated local youths.

Equally as clear, our current approach to defeating ISIS is not succeeding. Airstrikes have hurt but are insufficient to defeating them. President Obama is right that American ground forces can beat ISIS temporarily, but the hard part is afterward – developing and sustaining inclusive and decent governance. Otherwise, we get repeats of Iraq and Afghanistan – initial successes that turn into bloody and expensive quagmires as insurgencies spawn.

Recent suggestions about how to defeat ISIS have been unsatisfying. Many call for more ground forces, but fail to address Obama’s “what next” problem. Some advocate working with Russia and Iran, others urge against. All tend to suffer from an unwillingness to make hard choices, manage trade-offs, and recognize unpleasant realities. Frankly, many of the ideas are trapped in the same thinking that imprisons our current approach to the problem.

It is time to think differently.

We should begin by finally recognizing five unpleasant realities:

1) A proto-Sunni Arab state now exists in the territory controlled by ISIS;

2) A proto-Kurdish state exists;

3) Neither the Assad regime nor the current Iraqi government are going to win the battle of legitimacy in those areas, ever.

4) The Assad regime and Iraqi government have legitimacy in the Shi’a areas they control.

5) The Assad regime will not be defeated as long as it has Russian and Iranian backing.

The upshot is that the current state boundaries can no longer co-exist with durable peace in the region and abroad.

Accepting these realities opens up the potential for game-changing approaches.

1. Outside-In. This approach uses a large scale ground invasion to defeat ISIS. The Sunni State will be governed under UN mandate and gradually turned-over to legitimate, inclusive local governing authorities supported by a decades-long peacekeeping force.

a) A United Nations-backed international agreement for a Four-State Solution needs to be struck in advance. This would recognize the existence of a Sunni Arab and Kurdish state, in exchange for Assad remaining in control of a rump-Syria and the Iraqi government in control of a rump-Iraq. A prospect of a state gives Sunni Arabs the opportunity to create and fight for a better alternative to ISIS.

b) Forces totaling up to 500,000 are likely necessary to defeat ISIS, defend borders, and to maintain security afterward. A significant portion should come from Sunni Arab states.

c) The Sunni Arab state should be governed under UN mandate until a legitimate, inclusive local government can be fully established. A political strategy, not simply a set of milestones, is needed to manage the inevitable scrimmage for post-ISIS power.

d) A UN peacekeeping force should be sized to ensure 20 security force personnel on the ground per 1000 inhabitants. The force additionally needs manpower to protect the boundaries of the Sunni Arab and the Kurdish state. The force could be adjusted over time but should remain in place for roughly 50 years. The commitments for this force need to be agreed in advance.

This approach has the advantage of swift action once the international agreement is struck. The clear drawback is the size of the ground forces requirement for the invasion and the need for interim international governance.


2. Inside-Out. This approach supports a local Sunni Arab insurgency against ISIS, backed by protected safe-havens. Once the insurgency defeats ISIS, the new government will be backed by UN peacekeepers. Steps A and D above will remain necessary.

b) UN recognized protected safe-havens should be established and defended by international forces. Much of these forces should come from Sunni Arab states. Safe-havens will give local Sunni Arab opposition groups the opportunity to form a political program, develop a strategy, train, and sustain logistical support.

c) If the opposition unites and forms a coherent and inclusive shadow government, the need for governance under UN mandate could be reduced, modified, or eliminated. A political strategy remains critical.

This approach has the advantage of using a local insurgency to defeat ISIS. Insurgencies that have durable tangible support tend to succeed. Safe-haven, financing, training, logistical, and air support must be provided. The drawback is the likely amount of time required, and the probability that ISIS will continue to foment attacks abroad.

Both approaches require sacrifices and hard trade-offs by all involved. The requirements may be dismissed as too hard. Success on the cheap and without compromises is appealing but unrealistic. If such choices are too hard, then get accustomed to living with ISIS.

If we are willing to make tough choices and pay the price, these two broadly framed approaches have real potential for durable success.

Christopher D. Kolenda is President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC, and senior military fellow at King’s College London. He served as senior advisor and key strategist on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and three Commanders of International Forces, Afghanistan.


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