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How to Combat ISIS Without War

Weakening ISIS requires eroding the support it relies on from tribal leaders, military figures, and ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. Here's how to do it without bombs. As has been the case with so many presidents before him, he is telling the rest of the international community that national sovereignty can be violated at will without regard for international law, the U.N. Charter and other treaties whenever it suits the U.S.

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Six Steps Short of War to Beat ISIS

By Phyllis Bennis
September 10, 2014
The Progressive

Weakening ISIS requires eroding the support it relies on from tribal leaders, military figures, and ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. Here's how to do it without bombs.

credit: John Darkow/Columbia Daily Tribune (Missouri)

President Obama is right: There is no military solution.

Military actions will not set the stage for political solutions; they will prevent those solutions from taking hold.

Escalating military actions against this violent extremist organization is not going to work.

The bottom line is there is no immediate action that will make ISIS disappear, even if U.S. airstrikes manage to get the right target somewhere and take out an APC or a truckload of guys with RPGs or whatever.

You can't destroy an ideology - or even an organization -through bombing (look at the efforts to do so with Al Qaeda . . . lots of members killed in Afghanistan, but the organization took root in a bunch of other countries).

Arming the so-called "moderate" opposition in Syria doesn't mean supporting the good guys. It means sending arms to the Free Syrian Army which, according to the New York Times, "went on to behead six ISIS fighters...and then posted the photographs on Facebook."

A military strike might bring some immediate satisfaction, but we all know revenge is a bad basis for foreign policy, especially when it has such dangerous consequences.

As horrifying as the beheading of the two U.S. journalists was, revenge is never a good basis for foreign policy. We should keep in mind that Matthew Olson, the outgoing head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said last week that "there is no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the United States," and there is "no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States - full stop."

Instead, we have to recognize that military solutions really don't work. Have we forgotten the failures of the U.S. wars in the Middle East over these many years?

We need to keep our focus on the medium- and long-term solutions, something not so easy to do in a political year.

We have to recognize that military attacks are not only wrong in a host of ways (illegal in international law, immoral because of civilian casualties, a distraction from vitally needed diplomacy) but also that those strikes are making real solutions impossible.


We have to start by understanding just why ISIS is so powerful.

First,  ISIS has good weapons (mostly U.S. and Saudi weapons that have flooded the region for more than 15 years).  So we need to start thinking about the need for an arms embargo on all sides.

Second, ISIS has good military leadership, some of it provided by Sunni Iraqi generals who were kicked out of their positions in the military when the U.S. invaded and who are now providing training, strategy and military leadership to ISIS-allied militias and ISIS itself.  These guys are a very secular bunch. They drink and smoke, and they will be unlikely to stick around ISIS if they believe they have any chance of recovering their lost jobs, prestige, and dignity.  That could happen over time, but only if a really new government takes hold in Iraq, but it's not going to be enough to simply choose a new prime minister and announce a new government made up of too many of the same old sectarian faces.

Third,  ISIS has support from Sunni tribal leaders - the very people President Obama says he wants to "persuade" to break with ISIS.  But these are people who have suffered grievously - first during the U.S. invasion, and especially in the years of the US-backed Shi'a-controlled sectarian government of Nuri al-Maliki. They were demonized, attacked, and dispossessed by the government in Baghdad, and many of them thus see ISIS at the moment as the only force they can ally with to challenge that government. And many of them control large and powerful militias now fighting alongside ISIS against the government in Baghdad.

Fourth, ISIS has support from ordinary Iraqi Sunnis, who (also largely secular) may hate what ISIS stands for, its extremism and violence, but who have suffered terribly under Maliki's sectarian Shi'a-controlled government from arrests, torture, extra-judicial executions, and more. As a result they also are willing to ally with ISIS against Baghdad, at least for now.

So, weakening ISIS requires ending the support it relies on from tribal leaders, military figures, and ordinary Iraqi Sunnis.   The key question is how do we do that?

Step One: Stop the airstrikes.  Because what we in the U.S. see as "hooray, we got the bad guys" is seen by many in Iraq, especially the very Sunnis the president wants to persuade to break with ISIS, as the U.S. acting as the air force for the Kurds and the Shi'a against the Sunnis. Thus the airstrikes defeat the important goal of ending popular support for ISIS, and instead actually serve to strengthen the extremist organization.

Step Two: Make real the commitment for "No boots on the ground." In announcements during just the last few weeks, the White House has acknowledged sending close to 1,300 pairs of boots to the ground in Iraq. And who knows how many unacknowledged pairs of CIA and JSOC (special operations forces) sneakers may already be in Iraq? We need a call to "Stop the Slippery Slide Towards Even More Boots on the Ground!"  The U.S. must also stop flooding the region with arms that only result in more violence against civilians, and end its policy of ignoring the violations of human rights and international law committed by its allies.  We need enforcement of the Leahy Law (that prohibits assistance to foreign military units known to violate human rights) here at home.

Step Three: Organize a real diplomatic partnership to deal with ISIS.  Even though the U.S. is carrying out airstrikes and deploying new troops in Iraq, everyone agrees there is no military solution.  So diplomacy must have center stage. That means serious engagement with Iran, among other players. Tehran has more influence in Baghdad than Washington does. If we are serious about wanting to encourage the Iraqi government to accept a truly more inclusive approach, joint pressure from the U.S. and Iran holds the best chance. Even though Iran is predominantly Shi'a itself, the country's leaders are very worried about the instability in their next-door neighbor resulting from the years of Shi'a sectarianism in Baghdad. The U.S.-Iran nuclear talks appear to be moving very well; this is the moment to broaden those talks to include discussion of a real "grand bargain" between the U.S. and Iran, to include all the regional crises.

Step Four: Initiate a new search for broader diplomatic solutions in the United Nations. That means working to build a real coalition aimed at using diplomatic and financial pressures, not military strikes, at the international level in both Iraq and Syria. All the regional governments have their own concerns. Turkey, for instance, knows that joining a U.S.-led military assault on Iraq could threaten the lives of its 49 diplomats and their families now held by ISIS. A real coalition is needed not for military strikes but for powerful diplomacy. That means pressuring U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to stop arming and financing ISIS and other extremist fighters; pressuring U.S. ally Turkey to stop allowing ISIS and other fighters to cross into Syria over the Turkish border; pressuring U.S. allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others to stop financing and arming everyone and anyone in Syria who says they're against Assad.  We don't need another Coalition of the Killing (see Step One for why). Why not work to make it a Coalition of the Rebuilding?

Step Five: Push the UN, despite Lakhdar Brahimi's resignation, to restart real negotiations on ending the civil war in Syria. That means everyone involved needs to be at the table: the Syrian regime; civil society inside Syria including non-violent activists, women, young people, refugees, etc.; the armed rebels; the external opposition; the regional and global players supporting all sides - the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond. This could provide a moment to work with Russia on Syria policy, thus building on the successful joint effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and perhaps lessening tensions over Ukraine. An arms embargo on all side should be on the long-term agenda.

Step Six - Massively increase US humanitarian contributions to U.N. agencies for the now millions of refugees and IDPs in and from both Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has pledged significant funds, but much of it has not actually been made available to the agencies, and more should be pledged and given.?


"Obama's Iraq Airstrikes Could Actually Help the Islamic State, Not Weaken It" in the Washington Post
"Don't Go Back to Iraq - Five Steps the US Can Take Without Going Back to War" in Foreign Policy in Focus.
"If There's No Military Solution, Why the Military Actions?" in The Hill.
"Five Things the US Can Do to End the Syria Crisis" in The Nation.

[Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terror.]

Response to speech by President Barack Obama on September 10, 2014, announcing his strategy in Iraq and Syria for dealing with the Islamic State

By Michael Eisenscher, USLAW National Coordinator

September 10, 2014
U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW)

The president yesterday announced his "strategy" for dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. He has given terror networks and the international arms industry cause for great celebration. The former because he is giving them just what they want - a direct confrontation with the "Great Satan" and powerful recruiting inducement, both in the region and around the world. The latter because at a moment when actual cuts are possible in the obscene level of funding for the Pentagon and war, he has opened the door to yet another bountiful feast at the public trough for the armaments industry.

In the process, he is turning his back on the millions of Americans who continue to suffer unemployment, under-employment, substandard (or no) housing, education beyond reach for many and a source of lifetime indentured servitude to the banks for those who must borrow to obtain a higher education, and the multitude of other urgent unmet needs we have here.

He also disregards the consequences for the environment and global climate of war and militarism, which are not only crimes against humanity but also crimes against the planet the consequences of which will be born by generations to come, since the Pentagon is the single largest polluter on the planet and wars escalate the severity of that pollution.

And he, a constitutional lawyer who was elected on a platform of ending war, demonstrates utter contempt for the separation of powers and congressional authority alone to declare war and commit U.S. forces to battle.

As has been the case with so many presidents before him, he is telling the rest of the international community that national sovereignty can be violated at will without regard for international law, the U.N. Charter and other treaties whenever it suits the U.S. but that our borders are inviolate, including by those escaping the ravages and horror of wars (both military and economic) which our country has engaged in and supported in our own hemisphere.

Shame on him and a supine Congress that has abdicated its constitutional duty, and shame on us if we allow this to happen without a determined struggle to stop it.

Michael Eisenscher, National Coordinator
U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW)
(As I have not had time to consult with our officers, these remarks reflect my personal views, though I expect they share the general sentiments  I have expressed, if not their precise formulation.)

In 13 years, how the war on terror has changed -- President Obama's campaign to root out ISIS in Iraq and Syria marks the latest U.S. shift in strategy that's had many faces since the September 11th attacks, just 13 years ago.
credit: MSNBC

How to Combat ISIS Without War

Win Without War
September 11, 2014

What President Obama Should Announce: A Plan to Resolve the ISIS Threat without American Bombs

Tonight President Obama will address the nation and unveil his strategy for confronting the violent extremists of ISIS (also called ISIL or Islamic State). While the exact details are not yet known, numerous press reports have made it clear that a central focus of the President's announcement will be an increased military intervention in Iraq, where we have already launched 150 airstrikes and deployed over 1,100 ground troops over the past few weeks. It is highly likely that the President will also announce that America's latest military adventure in the Middle East will expand into Syria as well. While the professional punditry will no doubt debate just how many bombs should fall and where, we should be asking ourselves, is American military force really the smartest way to address the threat we face from ISIS?

No. American bombs simply cannot eliminate the threat of ISIS and may indeed make the conflicts in Iraq and Syria worse and harder to solve. Fortunately, we have alternatives, and, while they lack the immediacy of bombing, they are ultimately far more effective in keeping America safe, protecting innocent lives and crippling violent extremists.

At moments like this, we would do well to remember Santayana's famous adage: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, we do not have to look far back in our history for the lessons of what does and does not work in confronting the kind of brutal, violent extremism we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria. Exactly 10 years ago, America was in the midst of the Iraq War when violent militants in the city of Fallujah captured four American contractors. The brutality of what followed shocked Americans, as these men were tortured, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

America's outrage and understandable desire to respond to this brutality was met with a massive military offensive, what became known as the first battle of Fallujah. The resulting violence cost dozens of American lives, saw hundreds wounded, and resulted in a stalemate. The insurgents emerged stronger than before the attack.  Subsequent rounds of fighting yielded little better (though America did eventually `gain control' of the city) while taking a massive toll on both Iraqi and American lives. Today, a decade later, Fallujah is under the control of ISIS, the successor to the very insurgents we began fighting a decade ago.

The desire to avenge the horrific executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff and to confront the challenges posed by ISIS to the world is understandable. But our experience in Fallujah is a stark reminder that not all problems are solved with bombs and bullets, no matter how powerful the American military may be.

Instead of going back to war in the Middle East, President Obama should announce alternative, and more effective ways to degrade ISIS. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Hit ISIS where it hurts: the wallet

One of ISIS's main strengths is its unprecedented access to financial resources. All this money allows it to recruit fighters, purchase weapons, and buy the support of local populations. While some of this financing comes from donors, much of it comes from smuggling illegal oil from fields it controls in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, these fields will need to be retaken by local forces (as the Kurds and Iraqi military have begun to do) but, as we have seen in Afghanistan with our efforts to cut off the Taliban from their opium production and its massive revenues, you cannot address the problem on the supply side alone. Cracking down on Turkish, Iraqi, and other oil dealers who are purchasing the oil on the black market would cut ISIS off from one of its most important revenue streams. Such an effort will require significant international cooperation, hard diplomacy, and likely sanctions, but it could ultimately prove more costly to ISIS than any bomb. Without cutting off the cash flow, ISIS will remain able to replace any weapons we destroy and any militants we kill.

2) Crack down on ISIS's supply routes and weapons supply

Today, ISIS enjoys something essential to any effective insurgency: the ability to resupply itself. While we often hear about the ability to move supplies between Iraq and Syria, the reality is that ISIS is surrounded on all sides by enemies who can and should do more to cut off its supply routes from the outside. A primary culprit is Turkey, whom America should force to crack down on the flow of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria. While care must be taken to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid, shutting off ISIS's access to the outside world is essential in any effort to confront them. We must also crack down on the flow of weapons to other parties in the region. Well intentioned as they may be, arms transfers to Syrian rebels and the Iraqi military have led to ISIS gaining American-made weapons. If we do not shut off access to these supply routes, ISIS will simply replace any weapons that American bombs destroy.

3) Address the underlying political grievances of local populations

By most estimates, ISIS maintains a fighting force of somewhere near 20,000 fighters, yet the Sunni population in which it operates numbers around 25 million.  As with all insurgencies, ISIS cannot be defeated as long as they maintain popular support. Iraqi and Syrian grievances with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus are very real and will take years to fully address, yet ending the Syrian civil war and bringing Sunnis back into the Iraqi political process are essential to driving a wedge between ISIS and the local population. In Fallujah, America was eventually able to convince Sunni tribal leaders to turn against militants through a combination of money and political engagement, the so-called Anbar Awakening. Without a similar effort today, American bombs will only drive Sunnis further into the hands of ISIS and their false claims of `protection.'

4) Provide humanitarian aid and assistance

The humanitarian toll of the three-year-old civil war and the instability in Iraq is massive. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced. The lack of access to food, water, and other essential supplies threatens to cost more lives than any bullets or bombs. While America has been a leader in providing aid and assistance, far more is needed. Countless American allies, who stand ready to support any bombing effort, have failed to provide the type of lifesaving aid that is so desperately needed. Failing to address these needs not only directly costs lives, but also helps to feed further radicalization and instability.

5) Lead a truly multilateral international response

While we have begun to see America lead efforts to bring in international partners to what has been a largely unilateral intervention so far, we must do more to lead a truly multilateral, international response. The challenge posed by foreign fighters with western passports can only be met through cooperation with other countries and international institutions. Our allies like Britain and France must do more to address the underlying issues that have caused so many of their citizens to take up arms with ISIS while also confronting the challenge posed by those fighters when they return home. Similarly, ISIS thrives because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which are fueled by foreign interests. Resolving these conflicts ultimately depends on American diplomacy - not American bombs - involving all the parties including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.