September 25th, 2014
01:32 PM ET

Zakaria: To beat ISIS, it's the politics stupid

CNN's New Day speaks with Fareed Zakaria about U.S.-led military strikes against ISIS, the Obama administration's strategy, and why the politics are so complicated. This is an edited version of the transcript.

This morning, a new round of U.S.-led air strikes targeted about a dozen oil refineries to try and cut off the money that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria makes through the black market. But we don't know how successful these bombings will be, and we're not really going to know because the coalition isn't on the ground in a meaningful way. And even if they achieve every objective they want to, it's far from over. Explain the complexity of this situation in terms of how you make real change.

Well, you're exactly right. Think about the initial air campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, brilliantly successful in Iraq, brilliantly successful in Libya. And then what you have is the ground operation, and most importantly the political operation as it were – who is going to govern these areas? Who is going to take charge? And the problem we face in Iraq – we have an answer, and we have a strategy. The Iraqi army tries to move in, the Kurds move in, you're trying to create a more inclusive Iraqi government. Not there yet, but at least that is the strategy.

In Syria, it is a mess because once you start striking at ISIS, who is going to replace it? Well, the al-Assad government, the Syrian government, wants to be that person. We want the Free Syrian Army, the rebels, the moderate rebels as we call them, to take over. And, guess what? This is a 12-cornered contest. It's going to be very messy.

So, imagine the two-step race here. We have a one-step campaign to defeat ISIS. Then we need to, in our minds, help the Free Syrian army defeat the al-Assad government.

Meanwhile, just to complicate things further, the Iranian government, which has been backing the Syrian regime, is going to fight those free Syrian rebels. I had the opportunity to interview President Rouhani of Iran yesterday, and he said flatly, the Free Syrian Army are terrorists. From Iran's point of view, they really don't make that much distinction between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. They're going to fight both.

And people will hear this and say, I don't care what Iran does. But if Iran is going to fight against the people the U.S. and coalition want to train in Syria, they could be the Iraqis' best friend in terms of maintaining the Shia stability that's in that region. So they become someone who's a problem on two fronts if they're not dealt with. And how do you deal with them when you don't have great diplomatic relations?

You’ve hit the nail on the head, which is the solution, our political solutions in Iraq, in Syria, and I would add in Afghanistan, all rest in a very strange way on Iran. Who has a really great relationship with the Iraqi government to make them more inclusive? Iran. Who has a great relationship with the Syrian government and the generals so that you can talk about some kind of post-al-Assad future, maybe a power sharing deal? The Iranian government. We don't talk to the Syrians.

In Afghanistan, where you have this new deal between the two contenders and a national unity government, who has influence with the people we don't have influence with? The Iranians. I asked Rouhani about this. I said, couldn't you be helpful on all these fronts? And he said, first, we have to deal with the nuclear issue. We get past the nuclear issue, we can be very helpful on all those things. He said, there's a Persian saying, let's first raise the baby that we just gave birth to before we start talking about the second baby.

People at home will say, this is confusing. But if you care about the bombing, you have to care about what the goal of the bombing is. The U.S. just took a huge risk here in getting involved in this. And the fact is this, we're calling it ISIS, but it could be called anything. Because it's just an idea. It's extremism. It's about the soul of Islam. Not the faith of Islam. Everybody by now hopefully knows that Islam itself, being a Muslim is not about being violent. However, who will fight that fight? This coalition that the president is trying to build – many of these countries have funding mechanisms in their own countries of extremism. Isn't that more important than anything you achieve on the battlefield?

Ultimately, the most important thing is exactly that. And President Obama, to his credit, actually pointed out the very fact you're saying. He had a line in the speech, and I'm paraphrasing, he said there are people and there are governments that profit from globalization, meaning sell oil to us, and then use those funds to support extremism and jihad. Who is he talking about? He's talking about Saudi Arabia. He's talking about the United Arab Emirates.

So who fights that fight?

Well, I thought the president's most distinctive element to his speech was the fact that he said only Muslims can do it, only Muslim leaders can do it. It's not just political leaders, it's cultural leaders. And he said something very important. He said, they're not doing enough. They're not doing it frontally enough. This is a cancer in your midst.

Because ultimately, 1.57 billion Muslims in the world aren’t going to care what the president of the United States thinks. What they're going to care about is what their local leaders think. And what President Obama is saying is you guys, in the world of Islam, you haven’t done enough to exorcize this cancer within your midst.

You have populations all through that region where very often they live in complete contempt of who's ruling them because it's certainly not a democracy. So why would that leadership do anything to placate the people? It's not what they've ever done.

What they do is they repress their people, and they give an enormous amount of authority to the most whacky, extreme religious groups and say, as long as you don't attack us, as long as you allow us to stay in power, you can preach whatever you want.

Go subjugate the people but leave us alone.

Right. And so even the ones who don't make that deal, they won't criticize the extreme kind of clerics and preachers because they don't want those guys to turn their wrath on the regimes and say, you guys are apostates, you're not democratic. They know that they have a legitimacy problem.

So this is complicated stuff. But the best way to think about it, I think, is it's the politics, stupid. That we're good at the military side of this stuff. We're amazing at it, both in the technology and human beings. They're the best. But the trouble is that on the ground, what's going to matter is the politics. Do we get the politics right in Iraq? Do we get them to take ownership? Do we get the politics right in Syria in this 12-cornered contest? That's where we need a surge.

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Topics: Iran • ISIS • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. Sean Kelley

    And @teacher this is not a analytical paper or anything of that nature, it is a comment section with a limited amount of characters so the ideas I am trying to communicate it is notthat I use proper grammar

    September 26, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
    • Teacher

      You are the one bragging about your education and SAT scores; I suggest that you exhibit some qualities of your education if you are going to boast about them. Further, this isn't Twitter; there is no character limit.
      Your teachers should make you understand that using text-speak in any medium appears lazy.

      September 26, 2014 at 1:45 pm |
    • banasy©

      Sean, there are three sections to the SAT now. Administered at the same time.
      The critical reading section includes reading passages and sentence completions.
      The writing section includes a short essay and multiple-choice questions on identifying errors and improving grammar and usage.
      The mathematics section includes questions on arithmetic operations, algebra, geometry, statistics and probability.

      You seem to have only taken two. I am surprised you advisor would not have told you to stay and complete the third one.

      September 26, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  2. chri§§y

    Lol the one thing i found odd about one of your posts @ Sean, was the "charlie foxtrot" comment. Lol i have NEVER heard a teenager use that term! It did make me laugh so thanks for that lol. I agree with your message about biased reporting though! One network is biased republican while another is biased democrat for instance.

    September 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm |
  3. Sean Kelley

    Actually banasy I did take all three, but colleges only look at your superstore and I did take all three seconds but my writing section was 40pts below my critical reading score so the average does not look as impressive as the two score, and teacher, those who go around criticizing others and their accomplishments often are pompous and arrogant fools. So if you have an issue with me, call me. And if you don't have my phone number you don't know me enough to have an issue with me

    September 26, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
    • kermit4jc

      That's not how it works Sean. College admissions mostly require all three scores.

      September 26, 2014 at 5:52 pm |
      • Sean Kelley

        Some do, most don't, because it is so new most schools only require 2, and the writing is just a bonus

        September 26, 2014 at 7:50 pm |
      • kermit4jc

        It's not new! It's been that way since 2005. Most GOOD schools require all three. Leading Universities, for instance, where the competition is great. If you do crappy on your Reading Comp, they'll look at your Writing to see if that makes up for it.

        September 26, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
    • Teacher

      Sean, you are wrong, and pointing out your errors isn't pompous and arrogant. It is my job.

      September 26, 2014 at 5:57 pm |
  4. banasy©

    I understand. Good luck with your future endeavors.

    September 26, 2014 at 6:15 pm |
  5. Buck Ofama

    You can count on Barack Obama to beat the ISIS. This he will do, so don't worry.

    September 26, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
  6. chri§§y

    @ kermit you sound oddly familier. Did you used to post on TJI.

    September 27, 2014 at 9:19 am |
  7. Jim

    USA, allies, and the coalition forces should STOP Turkey as soon as possible if they want to stop ISIS. ISIS gets everything through Turkey; new recruits, medical and ammunition support, oil black market. etc. Do not full American people by exaggerating a bunch of blood thirsty terrorists named ISIS. It is not ISIS alone. It is the NATO member Turkey. STOP Turkey as soon as possible.

    September 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
    • Ender

      Jim Do you recommend to bomb Turkey? What does stop mean? make your statement clear enough so that Turks can change their so called ally. The question is that America a friend or a foe for Turks. Russia was supposed as an enemy but it didn't support PKK. Americans did support PKK. Are you a friend or a foe? Ask yourself.

      October 11, 2014 at 5:06 am |
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