The Islamic State: Thoughts from the Top Think Tanks

By Erik Goepner

Annually, the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania publishes a ranking of the world’s think tanks.  Regarding the Islamic State and the coalition’s response, perspectives from senior researchers and fellows at the four top-rated defense & national security think tanks follow (i.e., the Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Brookings Institution).  The insights come from Jon Alterman, Ben Connable, Ben Barry, and Kenneth Pollack, respectively.

Overall Strategy:

  • Political settlement and reconciliation is critical (CSIS, RAND, IISS & Brookings)
    • Force collapse of IS from within (CSIS)
    • “Resurrect” power sharing arrangement fashioned by the U.S. during the surge and “recreate” a unified Iraqi government (Brookings)
  • Build an effective coalition (CSIS, IISS)
    • This is a complex endeavor: U.S., et al, want to focus on Iraq first, while the UK and others recommend starting with Syria; several Arab partners will only conduct kinetic operations in Syria; and Turkey is potentially more concerned with the Kurds than IS
    • Iraqi government needs to effectively balance outreach to Sunnis, sustaining military support from Iran, and engagement with the U.S. (IISS)
    • Those with the most to offer are the least willing to participate (i.e., Sunni states and Turkey) (Brookings)
  • Empower moderate forces (Brookings)
  • S. will “have to lead an effort of nation-building to heal the wounds of the [Syrian] civil war. It is unavoidable.” (Brookings)
  • President Obama is on the right track, not just to defeat ISIS but also to address the “wider circumstances” of Iraq and Syria (Brookings)
  • Too militarily focused (CSIS)
  • Two somewhat different approaches are needed to address the two different civil wars (Brookings)
  • Delegitimize IS’ ideology and message (CSIS)
    • IS’ information operations are quite successful, it is unclear whether Iraq and/or the coalition will effectively counter (IISS)

Political Component:

  • Place main emphasis here (RAND, IISS)
  • Sunni reconciliation in Iraq is a must (RAND, IISS, and Brookings)
    • Sunnis are primarily nationalist and, therefore, anti-Iranian, not necessarily anti-Shia (RAND)
    • Most Iraqi Sunnis “reject IS methods and philosophy” (RAND)
  • New Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi should enact all grievance resolutions available to him in one fell swoop (RAND)
  • Divisions within the Sunni polity are problematic (RAND, IISS)
    • Some Sunni leaders have been marginalized for having tried to work with unity government, perceived as having failed
    • Difficult to find one or a handful of Sunni leaders to be the face of reconciliation efforts (RAND)

Military Component:

  • Airstrikes are insufficient (RAND)
  • Build a new army in Syria to oppose the Assad regime (Brookings)
  • Iraq’s recent tactical successes resulted, in part, because of Shiite and Kurdish militia participation (CSIS)
    • But, inclusion of Shiite militias may be used by IS to kindle Sunni-Shia civil war (IISS)
  • IS has high morale and decent fighting prowess (RAND)

One thought on “The Islamic State: Thoughts from the Top Think Tanks

  1. The best summary I’ve seen of what the best minds are saying,
    and only one –the Brookings Institute — is backing the President’s strategy. Has he seen this summary?


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