Six Steps Short of War to Beat ISIS
Six Steps Short of War to Beat ISIS
By Phyllis Bennis /

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.

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.​

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.  Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer,Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A PrimerEnding the Iraq War: A Primer, and most recently Ending the Us War in Afghanistan: A Primer. If you want to receive her talking points and articles on a regular basis, click here and choose "New Internationalism." You can find her on Facebook here:

3.8 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 11,497 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 8,364 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 6,924 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 6,275 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 4,772 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
Who I'm Voting For...
3 min · 3,219 views today · Prince Ea announces who he's voting for. It's probably not who you think.
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 2,661 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 2,276 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 1,917 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
#Hypernormalisation - Why Heathrow Plan Is Proof We Exist in a Catastrophic Fantasyland
Matthew Adams · 1,726 views today · The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,647 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,482 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
These Incredible Stories Remind Us of Our Better Selves
36 min · 1,378 views today · #WhoWeAre is a campaign to share the stories of people whose actions show us compassion and to send a message of empathy, hope and optimism. These videos will automatically...
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 1,327 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 949 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean
Deirdre Fulton · 905 views today · "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 630 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 602 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 591 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 456 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Six Steps Short of War to Beat ISIS