SCHANZER & NICHOLS: Take a Deep Breath and Build a Coalition to Confront ISIS

As people who have been studying and, at times, directly involved in, counter terrorism efforts in the U.S. since 9/11, we have been disappointed in the over-hyped public reaction to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The key goal of U.S. counter terrorism policy over the past 13 years – preventing a large scale terrorist attack inside of America – has been achieved. ISIS undoubtedly presents a new and dangerous threat, but the organization clearly does not constitute an existential threat to the U.S. homeland. The hysteria over ISIS in the media and our sensational political dialogue is unjustified and unhelpful. This rhetoric attributes undue stature to a regional collection of fanatical insurgents. Let’s take a deep breath and confront ISIS in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

It is surely unsettling to see waves of heavily armed extremists sweeping across swaths of Iraq and committing gruesome atrocities, especially the beheading of American journalists and the mass executions of religious minorities. But let’s be clear. This is happening more than 6,000 miles away. Of course, the ease of global travel shrinks the world and creates a security vulnerability for the U. S. But over the past decade there have been thousands of radical extremists lurking in dark corners of the world with a deep desire to attack America. None of them have been successful in executing an attack inside our borders. The fact that as many as a hundred ISIS fighters may hold American passports increases our risk. But we have a large counterterrorism enterprise focused like a laser beam on this problem. It cannot drive the risk to zero, but a combination of electronic surveillance, working with regional allies, and border security can substantially mitigate the likelihood and severity of any potential ISIS attack by radicalized US citizens.

What we cannot do is let fear and hyperbole lead us into the trap that ISIS is setting for us. Like al Qaeda before it, ISIS is eager to draw America into a conflict in the Middle East and satisfy its bloodlust on American targets in its own backyard. An exclusively American air campaign, or, worse yet, American troops marching through the heart of the Middle East, would reinforce the extremists’ worldview that the mighty Christian and Jewish west is dedicated to the destruction of Islam.

So, while President Obama has been deservedly criticized for being too slow to recognize the ISIS threat, his instinct about the need to build an international coalition is absolutely correct. Rash, unilateral action by the U.S. would undercut this effort. It would wrongly relieve the pressure on countries in the region to work with us on the ISIS problem. We can’t forget that the security interests of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and our NATO allies are threatened by ISIS to a much greater extent than our own. We should insist that they step forward, provide people and resources to the fight, and, most importantly, publicly align with the emerging anti-ISIS coalition. We will be in a far better situation if we are overtly fighting with Muslims against ISIS (think the first Iraq War), than if America is seen as intervening in the Middle East against Muslims yet again (think the second Iraq War).

We have seen some progress, but also plenty of foot-dragging, among regional actors.

Although Iraq has a new prime minister, its factions are still moving at a glacial pace toward forming a new government despite the mortal threat that ISIS poses to Iraq’s very existence. The dithering needs to end and concessions to the Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds have to take place now, not in six months or a year when it will be too late.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar need to stop funding and arming Sunni extremist groups in Syria and direct their full attention to crushing ISIS.

Iran and the Assad regime are not going to be overt members of the coalition, but there is no reason for us to take care of their ISIS problem so they can pursue other agendas directly contrary to our interests. They must get the message that we expect them to direct their firepower at ISIS too.

We should also insist that our European allies shoulder a fair share of the burden. After all, there are perhaps hundreds of Americans fighting in Syria and Iraq; there are thousands of Europeans there and these fighters can literally drive from the conflict to the E.U. border.

To be sure, the situation on the ground has become sufficiently dire to justify U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets. These will be especially effective in places where ISIS is massing troops and equipment in either Iraq or Syria. Such strikes will blunt ISIS’s momentum and give the emerging coalition time to organize, muster resources, and take the offensive.

But this problem will not be solved with U.S. airstrikes or exclusively through the use of force. A regional military and political solution will be required. This will not come about if the U.S. military charges into the region promising to destroy ISIS, without developing a genuine coalition and demanding that the coalition partners both contribute militarily and make the concessions necessary to address the political grievances that are fueling the ISIS rampage.

Our long term security interests are best served by framing the conflict with both ISIS and al Qaeda as a fight between a unified, multinational, interethnic coalition of civilized nations against a group of militant radicalized barbarians. So let’s cool down the rhetoric (especially the quasi-religious references to the “gates of hell”), beef up what we need to do to protect the homeland from returning fighters, and build an enduring coalition to confront ISIS and other extremist organizations.

David H. Schanzer is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy and the Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Lt. Col. Timothy W. Nichols (U.S.M.C. RET.) is Visiting Associate Professor of the Practice, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University and Executive Director, Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program. This commentary was originally published online at ISLAMiCommentary.