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A New Strategy Against ISIS and al Qaeda
The U.S. has been relying too heavily on Shiites and Kurds. It needs to cultivate Sunni Arab partners.
Wall Street Journal
The Trump administration is set to supersize President Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamic State, sending more American forces to the region and lifting restraints on direct participation in combat and when to use armed force. Yet any victory under the current approach will be ephemeral. Even if American proxies, backed by U.S. military forces, wrest Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, away from ISIS, success will be fleeting.
The most important error is the near-exclusive focus on Islamic State at the expense of serious efforts against al Qaeda. Destroying ISIS is necessary but not sufficient. As the Obama administration turned its attention toward ISIS, al Qaeda learned from its failures. It has temporarily deprioritized spectacular attacks on the global stage and focused on embedding itself within Sunni communities in Syria, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere to develop long-term strength and resilience.
Al Qaeda also has become more cautious in imposing its radical version of Shariah. It now indoctrinates populations over years rather than forcing immediate compliance with strict Islamic law. It does not demand that fighters place themselves formally and publicly under its command. Its affiliates in Syria do not even insist that local groups accept its ideology as long as they fight common foes. Al Qaeda today introduces its beliefs slowly and carefully, and the false message that it is more moderate than ISIS resonates around the world.
The second major flaw in America’s strategy against ISIS, which is Sunni, is Washington’s reliance on non-Sunni and non-Arab partners. That amplifies the terror group’s message. In Iraq the U.S. works with the Shiite-dominated government, whose past persecution of Sunni Arabs fueled ISIS’s rise. Meanwhile, America’s Kurdish partners in both Iraq and Syria are pursuing an independent Kurdistan, a political goal that is unacceptable to most Arabs.
The U.S. has no meaningful presence among the Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq and Syria that ISIS, al Qaeda and others are vying to control. This appears to confirm al Qaeda’s claim that it is the only effective armed force dedicated to protecting Sunni populations from a combined assault by all the world’s powers. That message may win out if Washington does not rapidly change its approach.
The current strategy also empowers Iran and Russia, which have done little to fight ISIS. Instead they have focused on destroying the moderate Syrian opposition that threatened the regime of Bashar Assad. Iran and Russia made great progress toward that aim in December when they helped forces loyal to Mr. Assad seize Aleppo.