Sorry Realists. Containment Wont Work Against ISIS

The rhetorical war over expanding direct U.S. military intervention into Syria—this time against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—has once again reached a boiling point. And in the long shadow of the Iraq War and its associated catastrophes, it is no surprise that the language of Realism is being deployed by those seeking to influence the debate against further involvement. With its vocabulary of prudent restraint, realist perspectives appear to resonate not only with a war-weary U.S. public but President Obama himself. Their argument boils down to this: While it is a brutal terrorist organization, ISIS fighters are not, as Harvard’s Stephen Walt put it, “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that U.S. officials and a hyperbolic cable media culture have portrayed them to be. Despite the group’s savage self-depiction and gruesome murders of civilians, according to realists like Paul Pillar, Washington needs to maintain a capacity for “cool-headed deliberation” to contains this threat rather than exacerbate a conflict situation in where we have little control and limited strategic interests.

Yet, for realist arguments that focus so heavily on the potential risks of intervention against ISIS, they conveniently elide or downplay the damaging consequences from maintaining the status quo. The conflict trajectories in Syria and Iraq are remorselessly marching towards one of two possibilities if the U.S. continues its policy of “strategic restraint”: The first is that local actors, primarily the Syrian and Iraqi governments, Kurdish politico-military groups, and the Iranian regime, summon the will and capacity to defeat ISIS. While a low-cost solution (for the U.S.) to neutralize the ISIS threat, the reality on the ground suggests this to be highly improbable. The more likely outcome is that ISIS will continue to consolidate and govern its expanding “caliphate,” which realists believe is both containable and susceptible to collapse. Unfortunately, this assessment fundamentally misreads ISIS’s growing capacity on the ground and existing intent, which together pose a real national security threat to U.S. interests that requires intervention now before it is too late.


Can Local Actors Actually Defeat ISIS?

In a January 2014 interview, President Obama inauspiciously analogized ISIS to “the JV team” when he compared the militant organization to Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. Yet just four months later in late April, the “JV team” routed Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) in the province of Dayr Al-Zawr. This was a major strategic loss for JAN, as Syria’s eastern oil fields in the area were a major source of independent revenue. This pattern of local armed actors losing, often badly, to ISIS forces in areas of strategic importance extends to the Syrian and Iraqi militaries. It is true that the ISIS takeover of Mosul was enabled in part by local Sunni discontent against the Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces and the participation of other Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups such as JTRN (one of the Iraqi insurgent groups drawing from the discontent of Sunni ex-Bathists).

But it was ISIS alone that took over a series of Syrian-regime military bases in northeastern Syria late this summer, including the 17th Brigade base outside Al-Raqqa city on July 25, the 121 Regiment (i.e., Malbiya Regiment) in Al-Hasake governorate in late July, and the Tabqa Airbase in Al-Raqqa governorate on August 24. This quick series of victories stand in marked contrast to non-ISIS rebel achievements against the Syrian regime; despite controlling Al-Raqqa city and much of the province since February 2013, they were either unwilling or unable to overtake any of these Syrian regime positions.

Syrians I interviewed in Turkey, who despised ISIS as an organization, reluctantly admitted that the group’s governance structures were more than simply a component of a savvy media campaign.

This partial review of the conflict map highlights unwelcome realities for those hoping for a local response to deal with ISIS. The deterioration of state military forces, especially the Syrian army, has been severe. The Syrian regime’s operational dependence on Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, the substantial defections of mainly Sunni soldiers to the armed opposition, and the cumulative attrition from battling rebel groups across the country for several years all put into question the idea that the Syrian regime would be an effective partner in battling ISIS and retaking lost territory (Of course, the reputational costs of a U.S. partnership with the Syrian regime—a policy some former US diplomats have proposed—that is actively committed to an ongoing mass murder and displacement of civilians, would be severe). Even the highly respected Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq lost territory to ISIS until they were 20 miles outside of Erbil, which then triggered limited U.S. airstrikes.

It has also been clear for some time that the Syrian regime and the Kurds are unwilling to commit serious resources against ISIS outside their base of support, which relegates much of eastern Syria and western Iraq to minimally contested ISIS control. In light of this fact, other commentators, including Paul Darling in this magazine, have proposed encouraging Iran to step into the breach and fight it out with ISIS. But this most realpolitik of arguments does not factor in the unintended consequences of further exacerbating the Sunni-Shia conflict. A sustained, direct Iranian role in fighting ISIS will inevitably tempt the Arab Gulf States to do even less to restrict jihadi financial networks in their countries from transferring funds into ISIS coffers in order to bleed a strategic adversary. Moreover, a frontline Iranian role will only solidify Iraqi Sunni support for the group, which has been instrumental in ISIS’s success in Iraq and the continued breakdown of the Iraqi state.


Let the Caliphate Fail On its Own

If local actors seem both unwilling and unable to face down the ISIS threat, then the remaining alternative is to let ISIS try to manage its newly established “caliphate.” Former CIA official Paul Pillar has recently summarized this position:

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address”. To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage. Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset… The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance.

At the core of salafi-jihadi movements’ success is the transformative role that violence plays in mobilizing individuals and communities around what were once unacceptable (and unimaginable) social norms. Without being propelled forward by violent territorial expansion, an isolated ISIS mini-state could quickly unravel. Unlike Al-Qaeda, however, ISIS has invested heavily in establishing rudimentary governance mechanisms. Syrians I interviewed this past summer in Turkey, all of whom despised ISIS as an organization, reluctantly admitted that the group’s governance structures were more than simply a component of a savvy media campaign; ISIS regularly collected taxes, adjudicated local disputes, attempted to improve essential services, and worked to convince experienced local civil administrators to stay in their positions through continued payment of salaries. Through these activities ISIS developed diversified sources of revenue, including indirectly from the international community. Syrians involved in transporting humanitarian aid into northern Syria noted that ISIS was the least corrupt actor in terms of allowing international aid to be distributed to local communities under its control (rather than appropriated by armed men staffing checkpoints as is often the case in non-ISIS areas), which generates a degree of popular support from a Syrian population at odds with their ideological extremism.


Why ‘Containment’ Won’t Work

Some commentators have hoped that this extremism will spark a popular backlash. But in other civil wars where insurgent groups were committed to ideologies far more radical than the local community, it has been the society rather than the organization that has adjusted their beliefs and behavior (The Shia community in southern Lebanon is a good example of this phenomenon, which had strong leftist and Communist affiliations immediately preceding the rise of Hezbollah in the early 1980s). The threat of this “mainstreaming” of extremist views in the center of the Arab world is not factored into Pillar’s analysis, nor are other costs ISIS rule will entail. The consolidation of an ISIS territory is the guaranteed elimination of large swaths of cultural history and the cleansing of all minorities unfortunate enough to fall within the caliphate’s contours. While not a narrowly defined American interest, political pressure will continue to build for U.S. intervention as the international community watches a deliberate process of cultural destruction and ethnic cleansing in real-time through the lens of ISIS’s slick media production.

Realist arguments also underestimate the threat posed by ISIS to recruit and deploy hundreds of committed militants if the organization is allowed to maintain control of substantial territory. ISIS’s ideology is fueled by the lived reality and production of violence, and a decision to eventually target the West is part and parcel of its fundamental principles. Additionally, the organization’s location in Syria and Iraq provides a much more convenient staging ground for attacks against the West than Marib in Yemen or Mali. It is why ISIS has been able to recruit so many fighters from Western countries. Just as the barriers for would-be jihadis to enter Syria are too low, the barriers to prevent them from returning undetected to execute attacks are not nearly high enough, and this risk is compounded by the increasing number of foreign fighters that have arrived over time.

Ultimately, ISIS is a national security threat to the West because its end goal is not the overthrow of a particular Arab regime or control of a specific country, but a violent reckoning with the global political order. Mobilized by a nihilistic creed and empowered by an operational capacity that is overwhelming exhausted Syrian and Iraqi military forces, ISIS is not “containable” without U.S. military intervention. The concept of “strategic restraint” may be popular in the current U.S. political climate, but it will only end up increasing the potential for successful ISIS actions against American targets and interests in the future.


Michael Page is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has been a project manager with the research and stabilization consultancy ARKand has spent significant time working in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, and other countries in the Middle East.


[photo: Flickr CC: Matt Morgan]



  1. Mike M. 4 September, 2014 at 14:49 Reply

    You’re right our current strategy isn’t going to work and neither is US involvement only nor should it be up to the US Military to deal with this problem

    It’s time the Middle Eastern countries have some accountability for what’s going on in their own back yard. If Islam is truly a religion of peace and either sect doesn’t believe these extremists have a place in modern society that means it’s time for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, etc. to get involved in Iraq and the international community as a whole needs to do something about the Civil War in Syria to end the conflict. Whether the west agrees or not any solution needs to include Iran.

    Let’s be honest here this is not a European/American problem other than our interests in the oil/gas industry. There is no risk of ISIS invading the United States anytime soon, so lets not keep spreading that myth that terrorists could mount another attack here at any time. The drug cartels, gangs, human traffickers, etc crossing the US/Mexico border every day are a far bigger direct threat to our security they ISIS. They are certainly a threat to Iraq and Syria, but not to the US.

    So we have two options 1) We build a coalition of the neighboring countries to deal with the problem 2) We go all in and don’t stop until there isn’t a single ISIS member or terrorist group left in the region in any country in the Middle East or Northern Africa.

    I don’t think the current administration really understands what it would take to go all in and defeat this problem and really none of the previous administrations did either, because our track record in dealing with crisis in the Middle East since the end of WWII is pretty poor. We do not have a single positive example to show that our strategies work or military action has worked.
    Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, how many examples to we need to show where our current strategies have not only not worked but have failed epically.
    Other than stopping the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, what have we done?

    I would really go for option 1 and let the other countries deal with this problem, however option 2 would look something like this

    1. We’re all in, we commit everything we have and we tell the Saudis and Jordanians and the Qatari’s and the rest, it’s time for them to step up and provide military and financial support.
    2. We secure the oil and gas fields in Iraq and Syria
    3. We launch this biggest air and naval campaign the world has ever seen (Every carrier wing, every air force unit, all of it,), air and cruise missile strikes until every known terrorist, insurgent and sympathizer camp, hideout, base, mosque, etc. is a smoking crater. No target will be left out. Yes there is going to be collateral damage on the scale of WWII, but so be it. THE GLOVES ARE OFF. It will be so big Putin will be jealous
    4. Ground forces move in to secure the area and sorry but there are no arrests or capture for these barbarians, we kill every one of them
    5. Next we redraw the lines on the map and split up these ethic groups and create a bunch of new smaller countries, so there is no arguing over anything
    6. We take away all the weapons in the entire middle east from everyone, sorry but they should have never been armed in the first place from WWI on. We round everything up and dump it in the deepest part of the ocean off the coast of Africa. They can comply or we nuke them, it’s that simple
    7. Next the UN comes in to provide security for the next 20 years, while the region is rebuilt, time for the other nations to spend some money
    8. We take over all gas an oil production, one to reduce global prices, but also to repay us for the trillions we have wasted the last decade on this nonsense

  2. John 5 September, 2014 at 12:35 Reply

    containment is not really a realist approach, it is mostly a liberal approach.

    I don’t care to reveal a true realist approach/strategy since the leadership required for it is lacking in the United States.

    • Joe L 5 September, 2014 at 12:52 Reply

      Very well done, Mike, I like it. You make it clear that Mr Page’s portrayal as either-or is a false choice, and the spectrum of possible US responses is just that. Maybe the only permutation I’d offer is if we’re TRULY all in for option 2, a branch plan that starts with the nukes, rather than using them as a deterrent at the end. This would save money and US lives, and likely keep the pesky human rights reporters without close-up shots of collateral damage. Well, the radiation fallout, EMP damage, and global genetic mutations we’ll handle later.

  3. Raymond Lee Moser 5 September, 2014 at 13:05 Reply

    No 1 does not rule out US: Special Ops, Air Power, training & organization, intelligence, economic warfare, and diplomatic pressure through the UN. No2 also ignores the fact that the ultimate goal of ISIS is physical control of Saudi Arabia (the oil fields and MECCA & MEDINA), not the West. The fight with the West seems more of a means to expose the Saudi hypocrisy over it’s alliance with the USA, while being theologically involved with strongly influencing Sunni Islam thought and practice. No 2 invites the Crusader charge which has been disastrous in the past for the USA. For these reasons, it makes more sense to encourage the Sunni state military assets to expand into Syria/Northern Iraq (Turkey, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia). Doing so might liquidate ISIS, but in the process expose Israel to future, significant military threat. No 2 reads like a ALICE IN WONDERLAND scenario, while no 1 with a more muscular input seems more appropriate.

  4. j>houkes 5 September, 2014 at 13:31 Reply

    Well put, the true “Realpolitik” is to accept, that the western world, if possible together with Russia, will need to step up its resistance to imperialistic islamic groups like IS. Not acting now will make future actions more difficult. It creates the risk of IS targetting Turkey or even Isreal , which in both cases will make intervention inevitable. I have the impression, that the so called realists have the idea that never ever war again is a useful guideline. This oversees the notion that the “interbellum” after WW2 was historically speaking the exception.

  5. Robert Jeffrey Wolford 5 September, 2014 at 16:07 Reply

    It’s good to find a place where readers and writers identify issues so then discusses possible scenarios, and second, thrid and fourth order effects on future events. What perplexes me the most is the current state of affairs btwn the three non-democratic based political regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and to a lesser degree Syria, and the historical context for how they got to where they are today.

    Frankly, IMO the biggest issue is American security, both long term and short term. Long Term: How to lessen America’s dependance on foreign energy reserves/fossil fuels, which thereby reduces vulnerability to foreign geopolitical factors, and stregthens Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic power. Short Term: How to stop nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of theocratic Iran, autocratic Syria, and dynastic Saudia Arabia.

  6. William Castle 5 September, 2014 at 20:25 Reply

    I find it interesting that a Graduate Student and a couple of responders have come the closest to creating a “strategy” (with options) for this significant issue that our politicals do not seem to be able to get their arms around. Well Done.

    I think one of the pearls of this was the discussion about creating geographical countries that align closer to the various factions involved (while eliminating ISIS). I doubt that region will ever figure out how to work together in a democratic or unified fashion. That needs to be a long term objective. I do think the US will need to be involved and lead but let the individual factions take care of fighting ISIS (with US support … air power, logistics, intelligence, etc). We also must not be an occupying force again. Additionally, the coalition must have agreed to tolerance for other factions beliefs and rights to exist, politically and economically. This might be the hardest thing to obtain.

  7. Michael Page 5 September, 2014 at 20:41 Reply

    Many thanks for the interesting comments. A few thoughts:

    -Raymond, regarding your comment about “Sunni-led” states (e.g., Turkey) playing a larger role in confronting ISIS. Regional cooperation has been further hobbled by a Saudi-Qatari rivalry revolving around the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the post-Arab Spring. With the Turkish Islamist government and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia and Sisi-led Egypt on the other, a poisonous climate of distrust prevails that discourages more robust regional cooperation on the ISIS problem. Whether US power (understood in broad DIME terms) is sufficient to bridge these gaps is an open question, but in the absence of the US there is no alternative unifying force to compel collective regional action on a shared security threat.

    -Mike and Joe, it’s a good point that US involvement is not binary, but rather a spectrum of action exists with additional permutations on which local partners, for what ultimate objectives, etc.

    What I am skeptical of is that regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, hold the keys for a solution as part of some grand coalition (this seems to be mentioned with increasing frequency in the media). It sometimes appears forgotten that Saudi Arabia and Iran a major source of the problem. They do more than support violent sectarian proxies; they fund an entire ideological infrastructure that reinforces exclusive Sunni and Shia identities among local communities that did not exist even two decades ago. This results in myriad local grievances becoming transformed into an essentialist narrative of Sunni-Shia conflict whenever possible. ISIS, an organization that forces every community it interacts with to immediately align themselves along sectarian lines, is in many ways the ultimate result of their cynical and conflict-generative foreign policies.

    -Perhaps for another article, but in addition to a stronger US role, I’m inclined to believe that a permanent solution lies not with regional powers per se but a drastic re-definition of the Syrian and Iraqi states’ relationship with their Syrian and Kurdish citizens. At its most extreme, this means partition within both countries along some evolving ethno-sectarian boundaries. I should note here that I’m not advocating this; rather, the spectacular amount of violence, the permanent changes in the political geography as a result of mass displacement, and the breakdown of both the Syrian and Iraqi states means that some type of Yugoslavia scenario is much more likely than only three years ago.

  8. Colton F 17 November, 2014 at 02:46 Reply

    For a class paper, I have noted a realist view on terrorist group to the extreme, as extermination as the focus, but for liberalism would the absolute extreme be to just let it go? or would it be working with other local countries to form some sort of policy but limit personal involvement?

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