A New Approach to ISIS? Obama Administration Reviews Strategy

Elliott School discussions with former U.S. ambassador to Syria, international affairs experts examine threat to the Middle East.

Robert Ford
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, right, discusses the threat of ISIS in the Middle East in an interview with School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno.
November 13, 2014

By James Irwin and Julyssa Lopez

Less than a day after his former ambassador to Syria reiterated criticism of the administration’s policy in the country, President Barack Obama has asked his national security team for a review of U.S. strategy regarding ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In two ISIS-related events hosted this week by the Elliott School of International Affairs, Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, and International Affairs Professors Stephen Biddle and Marc Lynch discussed the strategies the U.S. has employed toward ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) so far, and what path it can take in its continued fight against the terrorist organization.  

ISIS has a wealth of resources, Amb. Ford said Wednesday night at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication’s fourth annual Walter Roberts Lecture.

“The Islamic state has more money than any terror group we’ve ever seen,” Amb. Ford said in a discussion with School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno. “They earn somewhere between $250,000 and $3 million a day in black market oil sales. That’s a lot of money. Osama bin Laden never had access to that kind of cash.”

U.S. airstrikes against ISIS have hurt the American-backed moderate Syrian rebels—currently fighting ISIS and the al-Assad regime—Amb. Ford said. Bombings around the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, he said, have caused ISIS to withdraw from that area, enabling the Assad regime to move air assets they were using to bomb ISIS to now bomb the moderates.

“They no longer had to defend their people in Deir Ezzor—we were doing it for them,” Amb. Ford said. “We were Assad’s air force in Deir Ezzor.”

Amb. Ford cited the Obama administration’s policy in Syria as a reason he resigned his post in February. The U.S. strategy—creating a unity government through negotiation between the Assad regime and the opposition, setting up a cease-fire and then fighting the Islamic State together—is a good idea, he said, but isn’t possible unless the regime, backed strongly by Russia and Iran, feels the pressure to negotiate. Meetings in Geneva in February fell apart, Amb. Ford said, when the Assad regime refused to talk.

On Thursday, just hours after the Obama administration announced it would review its strategies toward Syria, Dr. Biddle and Dr. Lynch led a discussion on what obstacles the administration will need to overcome to strengthen its approach.

Dr. Biddle pointed out that although the U.S. had announced its goal was to destroy ISIS, the strategy it has pursued is incapable of doing that. It has stakes in the fight against ISIS, including keeping terrorism threats at bay, solving humanitarian crises and preventing damage to the U.S. economy. But these factors are “limited” in that they aren’t interrupting the American way of life. Therefore, the U.S. has crafted a restrained campaign that isn’t committed enough to truly defeat the organization, he said.

Some officials in the White House also have questioned the value of investing in the Middle East when the U.S. faces other challenges to American security, including China and issues in the Pacific, Dr. Biddle said.

“It doesn’t mean they want to abandon the region. It means they don’t want to wage wars there, but they find themselves unable to do so,” he said.

The risk of ISIS spilling over into neighboring countries makes the situation more difficult, Dr. Lynch added, calling Syria “a black hole at the heart of the region, dragging everyone down into it.”

The complexity of the conflict and the limited approach from the U.S. offer little hope for a solution.

“The policy options have been reviewed hundreds of times, and they always end up in the same place. None of the limited options—fly zones, air strikes, anything—can succeed. All they can do is drive the U.S. deeper into a conflict, which brings us toward overinvestment,” Dr. Lynch said.

The best ways to move forward, Dr. Lynch continued, might be a “strategic pause,” or a de facto cease fire that ameliorates human suffering and de-escalates war. Any proposal to create an effective, moderate Syrian rebel army is likely to fail, he said.

While the panelists agreed the situation in Iraq is slightly more positive than Syria, it doesn’t look promising. The strategy in Iraq would benefit from allies supporting a broader military campaign and more boots on the ground. However, Dr. Biddle said allies would need greater incentives to fill the front lines, especially if the U.S. continues to keep its engagement limited.

“We’re going to have to engage in a much more conditional set of policies that offer bigger sticks and bigger carrots,” Dr. Biddle said.

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