How to respond to the ISIS threat
June 12th, 2014
12:39 AM ET

How to respond to the ISIS threat

Just a day after overunning Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, militants from the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit. How should the Iraqi government and United States respond? And what are their chances for success? Leading analysts offer their take on what to look for. The views expressed are their own.

U.S. should deal with Iraq and Syria together

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

The astonishing advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across parts of northern and central Iraq has reignited a debate about what the Obama administration should do in Iraq and Syria. For now, the centerpiece of the struggle is sharply focused on how Iraq’s government responds and how countries in the region react.

The first key question is how Iraq’s government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responds to this assault. Al-Maliki, a leader from a Shia party who has led Iraq for the past eight years, has been accused by his opponents of becoming increasingly authoritarian and not inclusive when it comes to reaching out to people in the Sunni minority community.  Some have gone so far to say that his neglect of the Sunnis created the opening for extremist groups like ISIS to achieve the rapid gains over the past few days.

If al-Maliki can put together a cohesive response that cuts across the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and the Arab-Kurd split, this would go a long way toward building a more stable political foundation to address Iraq’s dangerous security problems.  These events come just as Iraqi leaders are negotiating a new governing coalition after national elections on April 30.

The second key question is how Iraq’s neighbors react to these events. It is difficult to imagine Iran, a Shia-majority country that has seen its regional influence grow considerably after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, will just passively watch events inside of Iraq. Iran has also strongly backed the al-Assad regime in Syria, which is a sworn enemy of ISIS, the group that seeks to establish a new Islamist emirate on both sides of the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country that strongly opposes Iran’s regional role, will not likely sit on the sidelines if sectarian violence continues to rise back up again in Iraq. Finally, Turkey, a NATO member that has built stronger ties with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government during the past year, continues to be directly impacted by the violence.

More from CNN: How Iraq upheaval threatens wider world

It’s easy for this complicated regional picture to induce policy paralysis in the United States – but this need not be the case. Iraq and the United States have mechanisms to coordinate security and intelligence activities – it should increase this cooperation and elevate the level of diplomatic engagement to encourage an effective and inclusive response that isolates these militants.  This doesn’t require any U.S. boots on the ground. In Syria, the United States should reexamine its current policy posture – its rhetorical support for a negotiated political transition is out of sync with the reality on the ground and isn’t matched with sufficient commitment to change the battlefield dynamics there. Finally, the United States should develop a more cogent and integrated policy approach that deals with Syria and Iraq together – the challenges in both countries are becoming more interlinked.

But the real action is in the region – and it will largely be up to Iraq and its neighbors to respond.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.


Provide arms, intelligence to Baghdad

By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN

What has been especially shocking about the takeover of Mosul was that Iraqi government forces did not resist it, but actually facilitated this by cutting and running. This development, along with the ISIS takeover of Tikrit, raises ominous questions about whether ISIS will be able to seize control of any more – or even all – of Iraq.

Can anything be done to prevent this? One thing is clear: the Obama administration, which presided over the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, is highly unlikely to send them back there under any circumstances. But America, as well as other countries, could provide arms, intelligence, and possibly even advisers to Baghdad to bolster it in the fight against ISIS. Equally important, Washington could help the al-Maliki government increase cooperation with important Iraqi groups it now has bad relations with – including the Kurds and those Sunni Arabs who are also threatened by ISIS.

Hopefully, these steps – as well as the desire for self-preservation – will result in the al-Maliki government being able to contain further expansion on the part of ISIS and even to roll back its gains. But if al-Maliki is not willing or able to do this, then the United States and others must work with other, more capable Iraqi actors – including the Kurds in the north, Shia Arab militias, and anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribesmen. The result may be the permanent division of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia Arab, and Sunni Arab segments. But a divided Iraq with ISIS defeated or contained inside the Sunni Arab zone is preferable to a united Iraq in which the central government is too weak to fight effectively against ISIS.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and author of Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan.


Time to push al-Maliki out of power

By Anthony Cordesman, Special to CNN

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s seizure of Mosul is a major threat to Middle East stability, not just Iraq. ISIS is now moving on Iraq's main refinery, may be taking control of other western cities like Tikrit, has already threatened Samarra and is simultaneously fighting to create a much larger enclave in Syria.

This highlights the risk Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al Qaeda will create an extremist enclave in both Iraq and Syria. This could make any hope of a serious moderate rebel force emerging in Syria impossible. It could create an extremist sanctuary that could threaten Jordan and the other Arab Gulf states, make the conflict between Sunni and Shiite even worse, and push the Iraqi regime closer to Iran in self-defense.

The United States and its allies, however, face a second threat. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become steadily more authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive. He has made the Iraqi security force his political tool, deprived it of effective leaders, used security funds for his own profit, and brought his supporters and relatives into the command chain. His ruthless repression of legitimate Sunni opposition and pressure on the Kurds – and lies and broken promises to Sunni tribal leaders – have lost him the support of Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and empowered ISIS. His broader failure to govern has led institutions like the World Bank and United Nations to give the same or worse ratings than Saddam Hussein, and his ties to Iran have helped it ship arms and volunteers to Syria, Hezbollah – which now presents a massive rocket and missile threat to Israel – and helped create the same rising threat in Gaza.

Yes, the United States might have to help in spite of his total unfitness to rule and Iraq's desperate need to expel him and his cronies from the country, but U.S. aid must be conditional and tied to the fact that al-Maliki is an authoritarian thug. The United States should also quietly do everything possible to push him out of power and into exile.

Anthony Cordesman is Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


No time to turn back on world’s most combustible region

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Suddenly, Iraq is coming apart at the seams. Its government seems powerless to stop the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group so extreme and aggressive that even al Qaeda has disowned it. Let’s hope President Obama has a contingency plan to prevent Islamist extremists from destroying the tenuous order that’s existed there since U.S. forces pulled out two and a half years ago.

The new war in Iraq calls into question four key decisions that have shaped President Obama’s approach to the old one, and Middle East policy in general.

The first was the decision not to press harder to keep a residual U.S. force in Iraq. Now Sunni insurgents have reclaimed large swaths of Anbar Province, which U.S. forces had pacified at considerable sacrifice, as well as the important northern city and oil hub of Mosul. At a minimum, the White House seems to have placed too much confidence in the Iraqi army, which despite intensive U.S. training and billions of dollars’ worth of advanced equipment, has failed to check the insurgency. The president needs to act swiftly to use U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism assets to stiffen the resolve of Iraqi forces and help them launch an effective counteroffensive against ISIS.

More from CNN: Why Iraq elections can't fix Iraq chaos

Obama’s decision to stand aloof from the Syrian crisis also deserves a second look. Foreign policy “realists” have heaped fulsome praise on the president for this supposedly wise rebuff to interventionist hotheads. But over the last three years, the Syrian conflict has turned into a major humanitarian and strategic debacle, prompting our ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, to resign in protest.

ISIL drew jihadis from Sunni countries to fight the “apostate” regime in Damascus, has now apparently invaded Iraq from Syria, and is busy setting up an Islamic Caliphate in the ungoverned spaces straddling the two countries’ borders. That gives the President Obama a strategic rationale for arming the moderate Syrian opposition, which as Ford notes will have to grow strong enough to topple Bashar al-Assad and drive foreign fighters from Syria.

Third was the administration’s decision to treat al Qaeda, rather than its ideology, as the main danger to be contained. This implied that our fight against terrorism would be over once the original al Qaeda organization was smashed. To the president’s credit, that’s happened. Unfortunately, though, the persistent threat we face comes not from any particular group of Salafist terrorists, but from the fanatical beliefs they share in common. Thus we’ve seen al Qaeda-inspired offshoots crop up in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa, in Syria and now Iraq again. The Obama administration needs to develop a patient, long-term strategy for countering the extremist narrative.

The president’s fourth decision was to declare America’s intention to pivot to Asia. Of course, there’s a powerful strategic argument for shifting U.S. attentions and assets to the Pacific, the world’s new epicenter of growth and power. But the administration has given friends and foes alike in the Middle East the impression that it can’t wait to extricate the United States from the miserable place once and for all.

The truth is, we can’t afford to turn our backs on the world’s most combustible region. The ripples and spillover from its endemic disorder and violence have already hit us, hard, and will continue to threaten our interests and friends. We aren’t leaving the Middle East anytime soon, and we might as well say so.

Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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Topics: Iraq • Syria • Terrorism

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soundoff (218 Responses)
  1. chri§§y

    Lol @ bobcat...the good old days huh? Well they were til the terd in the punchbowl arrived anyway huh? I suspect thats the same clown present now too!

    June 12, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Reply
    • Peshwar

      Sounds like Souh Viet all over again. South's soldiers cutting and running wtih no fire in their belly!

      June 12, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Reply
      • mfh

        So you were in South Vietnam were you?

        June 13, 2014 at 8:24 am |
  2. Infinitus Max

    I'd like to see a demonstration of a couple of MERVs outfitted with neutron physics packages. Conventional warfare is so boring and impresses no one anymore.

    June 12, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  3. snowdogg

    "encourage an effective and inclusive response that isolates these militants"

    What blather... doesn't mean a thing.

    June 12, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  4. Dave in IL

    Draw a red line around Baghdad and scare ISIS away.

    June 12, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  5. amarjeet

    Issue is not scaring ISIS away. Issue is to identify them and kill them as they are Islamic Fundamentalists not concerned with democracy but just theocracy and rule of their extremists lords. It is only Iraqi Govt. and its people that has to take on the challenge and kill these perverts by identifying them and fill those dirty ponds where they breed. Iraqi Govt. and people can certainly bank on US and EU countries and others democratic for necessary and selective help that must be intelligently monitored.

    June 12, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  6. amarjeet

    No political leader should be pushed out in any country unless better one is there with solid supports of its people to take over specifically from opposition groups who mostly just seek opportunity and external resources. Their integrity in promise and practices of democracy must be identifiable and understood by people.

    June 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  7. Nasureth

    We need to send Marines pronto! we don't have time !
    ISIS has control of heavy weapons ,like Artillery,LAV's armed with high tech elite modern weapons,and to top it off they have Jets and MiG helicopters now ,this is a terrorist dream world come true!.

    June 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • alucientes

      The 'terrorists' live in Iraq. We are foreign invaders and occupiers, don't kid yourself. If you wanna blame someone for the chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, look no further than the politicians/corporations that drive US military interests. War has become its own commodity. How long will we continue? Until someone starts bombing our cities and kicking in our doors in the middle of the night,, to take us to cells to be tortured and held indefinitely? We have become so immune to our own cruelty./

      June 12, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Reply
    • woodcat

      Ok we made the mistake once to get there for the wrong reasons and look what we got! Nothing but dead us soldiers and
      US debt. Opinions are not facts. We have no busines sthere and not anywhere else. We should stay out of it pronto, we get in these countries and arethey better off after that: the anwer is no, no, no we create more US haters because of our military interventions and the terrorist love it because we bring our soldiers close to them so they can shoot at us. After we leave they gonna shoot their own people too. We have no business in foreign countries,our soldiers need to be deployed at our own borders to keep the illegals, drug dealers and terrorists out

      June 12, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  8. Kaznukelhed

    David Samuels Apr 18 2007, 11:24 AM ET

    You were famously quoted as saying “if you break it, you own it” about the consequences of an American invasion of Iraq. So do we own it? And, as a practical matter, is it possible for the United States to declare at this late date that we don’t take part in other people’s Civil Wars, and to withdraw our troops?

    The famous expression, if you break it you own it—which is not a Pottery Barn expression, by the way—was a simple statement of the fact that when you take out a regime and you bring down a government, you become the government. On the day that the statue came down and Saddam Hussein’s regime ended, the United States was the occupying power. We might also have been the liberating power, and we were initially seen as liberators. But we were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place. And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order. And in the absence of order, chaos ensues.
    Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. USA fails to impose it`s will on smaller weaker countries.
    You reap what you sow.

    June 12, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  9. Daniel

    Let them sort out their own mess, our help didn't work last time did it ?

    June 12, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  10. chri§§y

    Sounds as if amarjeet understands the concept of what needs to be done! And i didnt read one thing about taking out the whole country!!!

    June 12, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  11. ermentrude

    It isn't "suddenly". This has been a long time coming. The only thing that is going to stop them is worldwide freezing of funds of all associated groups. No money, no ammo or weapons, but those in hand or "won".

    June 12, 2014 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  12. Jerry Okamura

    If some group invaded this country, what are the odds they would be as successful as the ISIS has been in Iraq?

    June 12, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  13. paul

    The united states with thier EU allies are going to get bogged down in Iraq for the second time, they could even get draw in to the third world war, what ever you do in that part of the world is going to keep comeing back, worse still the west keeps allowing islamists to migrate to thier countrys, The majority of them can not believe thier luck that they come from a country where they barely existed to a country where the majority lives on assistance and supports thier income on the street, within ten years islam will be world wide and your children and grand children will live under sharia law and your little daughters and wives will be wearing baraques with boards for shoes, Way to go U.S.A. and you want a war with russia.?? The problem with the west is thier whole political system is very greatly lacking, Your going to get destroyed before you get off this planet,

    June 12, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  14. peatstack

    The civil war inside iraq has nothing to do with the US despite Cheney's steal-the-oil invasion and mass murder of the local people. The US has no business, never did have any business waging aggressive war outside the rule of law. Chart the collapse of the US economy and its travails to the criminal militaristic adventurism that has bankrupted the very civil democracy that we hold dear. Time to cut the losses and let other peoples have self determination. LIke Rumsfeld's famous quote, "democracy is messy." – so is civil war.

    June 12, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well posted, peatstack. Thank you.

      June 12, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  15. Ernie

    I do not think the USA can give them Backbone or Guts to stand and fight.....

    June 12, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  16. chri§§y

    Lol @ banasy...ya mean like the guy with an american name but talks in the 3rd party like he doesnt live here? Lmao

    June 12, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  17. edlf2014

    How to respond to the ISIS threat? Easy. Obama should lay one of his Red Lines down on ISIS.. If returned, maybe he could use the one he laid down on Assad.

    June 12, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  18. Ed Andres

    Will Marshall and Tony Cordesman are right. Time for total reassessment of President Obama's four points. Iraq needs to survive. Under al-Maliki, it is going under.


    June 13, 2014 at 1:18 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Wrong, Ed. Iraq needs to be divided into three or maybe four different states. That very last thing Iraq needs is a reoccupation by either American or British troops!

      June 13, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  19. Tupper

    Let Iran and Russia handle it. Russia did a great job in Chechnya.

    June 13, 2014 at 7:49 am | Reply
  20. Recacitrant Oboermyre

    Obama needs to apologize to the ISIS and send them money . This will show how humble America is to Islam and then they will like us . Peace is the best way to respond to war , terrorism and violence .

    June 13, 2014 at 9:47 am | Reply
  21. THORN

    Like a forest fire, we've tried all the normal measures, backfires etc., but now it's out of control and maybe we need to let it burn itself out regardless of the cost. Every time we send money and arms it's like dropping kindling, we need to boycott middle east and Persian oil, that'll pull the oxygen out of the fire.

    June 13, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Well said, THORN. That's a very good idea.

      June 13, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  22. Sandra

    Call Amanpour, let her explain how her beloved Syrian rebels suddenly became Al Qaeda in all but name.

    June 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  23. Sandra LEVin

    @Sly – you are a such a misinformed IDIOT.

    June 13, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  24. acrabahyiouspe

    The solution is to create a secular government with guarantees of equal rights for Sunnis, Shiites and non-Muslims in Iraq.

    What's needed is for the U.S. to find a secular partner to work with.

    June 14, 2014 at 4:05 am | Reply
  25. Ahmed M Ibrahim

    Mr.Anthony Cordesmann's assessment is perhaps the most practical one. Nonetheless what is the difference between Al Qaeda and the Iranian Clerics who are pursuing the same repressive policies in Iran. The ISIS is perhaps a reaction to what the Iranian Clerics, Bashar el Assad and Nouri el Maliki are doing in the region. The West should not come to a blind conclusion and try to help the autocratic and repressive regime of Nouri el Maliki. Let the events take their own course. The ISIS regime would be a buffer state between two repressive regimes both of which are Shia fanatics.

    June 14, 2014 at 4:06 am | Reply
  26. toddsaed

    what is egregious here is the same mistakes are made over and over
    since Bush the first, Obama in 2011 at Ft Bragg announced
    the US brought " sovereignity, stablity, and self reliance" to Iraq,
    Bush announced victory on a a war ship wearing a flight jacket
    THis is how insanity is defined, and those who are suggesting
    that hackneyed oxymoron – military intellliegence- here
    as a solution, should think, coup, coup, what is
    a coup coup , like in Thailand, it is a crazy bird, the coo coo

    June 14, 2014 at 8:29 am | Reply
  27. toddsaed

    the young seem brainwashed by Reaganoid careerism in the US,
    and spoiled, Viet Nam brought baby boomers to the streets,
    real change happened, the USleft in 1975,
    like all neo colonialist ventures , always doomed to failure
    Now WWlll with China, India and RUssia wiping out the US
    the young will get a chance to learn empathy, social skills
    and survival from necessity, will they embrace
    the patriarchal kleptocratic casino capitalism
    that brought them destruction, or like the thirty eight percent
    who now favor socialism, will they choose life and love
    Nature and the Universe is said not to care, this
    could be changed if we got it right socially,
    Cuba has, Viet Nam is tryingk
    Scandanvia is ahead of most, it is doable in the US, will they act now, learn from history, not likely

    June 14, 2014 at 8:48 am | Reply
  28. toddsaed

    unplug the headphones when walking, stop
    the computer addcition and wssted elbows and eyes,
    or the train might hit you

    June 14, 2014 at 8:50 am | Reply
  29. toddsaed

    in Viet Nam we would stomp rightie John Birch
    Birch John neo cons, gung ho green officers ,into a greasy oil spot,
    frag their monkey butts then get stoned,
    lets do it again

    June 14, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
  30. nuffSaid

    The smartest thing to do is to let ISIS win, for now.
    Once they start pulling their fundamentalist restrictions on Iraq, the people will have cause to band together and throw them off themselves. Even the Sunni's who are not extremists, yet who are co-opting their advance, will be attacked by them, if not shamed by what they do to civilians.
    Once it gets to far, let the Iraqi's broker a power sharing deal, in order to unify and get rid of ISIS.

    Sometimes, doing nothing, is the wisest thing to do.

    June 14, 2014 at 11:03 am | Reply
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