• Five Hidden Risks of U.S. Action Against the Islamic State

    5 Posted by: Frederic Wehrey September 11, 2014

    U.S. President Barack Obama’s four-pronged strategy of air strikes, support to local proxies, defense against the Islamic State’s attacks through intelligence and counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance leaves many unanswered questions. It’s hardly a clear articulation of the sort of long-term, holistic strategy needed to deny the Islamic State the fertile ground it needs to thrive. The approach is fraught with trade-offs, risks, and hidden costs that need to be addressed.

    1. The focus on targeting the Islamic State’s leadership—drawing from what Obama hailed as successful campaigns in Yemen and Somalia—doesn’t create the conditions on the ground for a lasting solution to the movement. High-value leadership targeting through precision strikes carries the risk of collateral casualties and radicalization. And the record shows that militant leadership cadres can reconstitute themselves quickly, making such a strategy akin to a game of Whac-a-Mole.
    2. The emphasis on coalitions, while laudable in concept, also carries hidden risks: each of Iraq’s Arab neighbors will be pursuing competing agendas that may run counter to stated U.S. objectives. And the solicitation of Gulf support will come with costs: the United States must be leery of turning a blind eye to the repressive policies of these regimes toward legitimate Islamist opposition groups under the newfound framework of “counterterrorism.”
    3. Each of Washington’s local allies against the Islamic State also have their own agendas—the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Shia militias. And there’s evidence that each is already using air strikes as convenient cover to advance its own political objectives.
    4. Ultimately, Baghdad holds the key to the long term: how power is distributed in the capital’s institutions. Obama cited U.S. support for the devolution of security responsibilities to Sunni tribes as part of the national guard structure for Iraq. But this must be pursued carefully, to avoid setting the conditions for warlordism and militia rule.
    5. Finally, the United States shouldn’t focus too much on counterideology—this is an argument without end, and religious factors are probably tangential to the more societal, economic, and political grievances that drive the rank and file, whether they are alienated young Muslims from the West, Anbari tribes, or ex-Baathist officers.

    Obama rightfully began his remarks by dismissing the Islamic State’s religious pretensions. The caliphate discourse is the mobilizing vocabulary for something that is ultimately more mundane and worldly: the absence of credible and inclusive institutions that can temper the appeal of toxic sectarian identities and radical religious voices. These are deeply embedded afflictions in the region. Getting rid of the Islamic State will not solve them overnight—and the challenge for U.S. strategy is not making them worse.

  • Obama’s Strategic Gambles in Syria and Iraq

    Posted by: Lina Khatib Thursday, September 11, 2014

    Obama’s strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive.

  • Syria’s Ahrar al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing

    Posted by: Aron Lund Tuesday, September 09, 2014 1

    The killing of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership will have major ripple effects in the opposition.

  • Awaiting Assad’s Inauguration Speech

    Posted by: Aron Lund Tuesday, July 15, 2014 1

    There are no indications that Assad is ready to let anyone not under his control join the new government in his third term as president. Genuine power sharing in Syria will remain as distant as ever.

  • Jordan: The Jewel in the ISIS Crown

    Posted by: Nikita Malik, Abdullah Shami Tuesday, June 24, 2014 10

    As the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-influenced jihadists, Jordan will serve as a crucial buffer from the terrorist movements that threaten to spill over into the region.

  • Breaking Baghdad

    Posted by: Aron Lund Friday, June 13, 2014 5

    Leaving Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in rebel hands could fatally undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s already weak legitimacy as a national leader. But even if the army were to recapture all or most of the rebel-held cities, the Mosul debacle has already dealt a tremendous blow not only to Maliki but to the Iraqi state as well.

  • Syria’s Phony Election: False Numbers and Real Victory

    Posted by: Aron Lund Monday, June 09, 2014 9

    To ask whether the June 3 Syrian presidential election results will lead to any change within the government betrays a misunderstanding of the situation: what just played out in Syria was not an election—it was a demonstration of power in which the presidency was the active subject, rather than the people.

  • The Fight for Raqqa

    Posted by: Sirwan Kajjo Tuesday, June 03, 2014 1

    Since the militarization of the Syrian uprising, Raqqa has been a strategically vital region for all armed groups. Now under the control of ISIS, Raqqa has become a hub where ISIS militants are gathered and dispatched to other battlegrounds across the country.

  • Assad’s Election: A Security Quest

    Posted by: Lina Khatib Monday, June 02, 2014 1

    A key objective for Bashar al-Assad in his third presidential term is presenting his crackdown on Syrian opposition groups as a fight against jihadism. In doing so, Assad is betting on the eventual support of the international community in this new “war on terror,” which would secure his position in power.

  • Syrian Conflict Transforms Regulations in Jordan

    Posted by: Nikita Malik Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3

    As fighters join Al Nusra and ISIL at an alarming rate, the Jordanian government responds with new anti-terrorism measures.


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Syria in Crisis provides analysis of the civil war and its impact on the region. Edited by Aron Lund, a researcher who has published extensively on the Syrian opposition, it brings together Carnegie and outside experts.

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