In responding to a terrorist challenge such as ISIS, it is important to understand the extent to which U.S. interests are directly threatened. The horror of the recent execution of journalists has focused attention on the brutality of ISIS and has reminded us that we cannot ignore threats that are building. Yet a campaign of bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria cannot alone significantly weaken them. After a few sorties ISIS will shift tactics and present fewer and fewer open targets. They will disperse into populations that will raise the risk of collateral damage from aerial bombardment to an unacceptable level. Attacks that broadly harm civilian populations would simply radicalize many more and would aid ISIS in recruiting.
We will need a combination of special operations forces on the ground, together with allied troops who can operate in Arabic-speaking environments. ISIS is a greater immediate threat to the neighbors of Iraq and Syria, and those neighbors will need to be part of any coalition that seeks to defeat them. The Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and Jordanians must participate. Qatar must cease supporting jihadist groups financially. And we will need patience. This threat has been building for a long time and will not be defeated overnight.
In the meantime we also must address the underlying political and humanitarian issues that contribute to the appeal of ISIS. Iraq must move toward a more inclusive and effective government, defusing the hopelessness felt by many Sunni and Kurdish citizens. Relief must be provided to the refugees and others displaced or injured by this conflict. The sources of funding for ISIS must be identified and cut off. Black market purchases from ISIS of stolen oil must be curtailed. Imams in the mosques must expose how ISIS is attempting to hijack the tenets of Islam.
During my time as ambassador to Saudi Arabia we saw how a concerted effort was able to compromise, weaken and nearly eradicate Al Qaeda from the Kingdom. The horrors of beheadings, attacks on innocent civilians in housing compounds and offices, and random shootings shocked and disgusted the local population. They stepped up their cooperation with the authorities, and the religious leadership joined in condemning Al Qaeda’s brutality. Many of these tactics can be used to oppose and weaken ISIS, but success will not come soon. A campaign of air attacks alone is a recipe for failure.
Robert Jordan is Diplomat-in-Residence at SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies. Jordan served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001-2003. Jordan took charge of his mission in the wake of the September 11 attacks that radically affected U.S.-Saudi relations. He led American efforts to secure Saudi cooperation in the Middle East following 9/11.