How Not to Fight the Islamic State


As far as the heavy hitters of international relations theory and national security community go, it is tough to beat Joseph S. Nye. Recently, Nye joined the debate on “how to fight the Islamic State” tthhrough an op-ed he penned for Project Syndicate in early September.

In Nye’s conception, the Islamic State needs to be defeated militarily and deprived of its territory, but an overly heavy U.S. military footprint will amplify the Islamic State’s soft power. “That is why the boots on the ground must be Sunni,” Nye writes, suggesting that the overwhelmingly Sunni Kurdish forces should be complemented with boots from other countries in the region.

As to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — “one of the Islamic State’s most effective recruiting tools” — Nye insists that Washington should persuade Russia and Iran to remove him while keeping the existing Syrian state structure intact.

Nye concludes by invoking the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War. In times of turmoil, the United States should be ready and willing to be flexible in its dealings with its actual and potential allies, even when they may appear as enemies and competitors at times.

While Nye’s plea for pragmatism in the diplomatic realm is commendable, his arguments are plagued by three problems: misconceptions about the nature of the sectarian tensions in the region, unfounded optimism regarding the notion of “fighting through auxiliaries,” and unrealistic assumptions about where Assad stands in the overall crisis.

Getting the Sunni–Shia Conflict Right

Because the Islamic State wants regional and global spectators to think that the main problem in the region is the perennial Sunni–Shia conflict, thinking of solutions in terms of the sectarian divide only helps the Islamic State market its rhetoric more effectively. Nye is inadvertently buying into the sectarian rhetoric propelled by the Islamic State, and by doing so emboldening it.

Dormant sectarian tensions have exacerbated the conflict in Iraq and Syria. However, sectarian divides are consequences — not a cause — of state failures in these countries. As long as they functioned, the Baathist regimes under Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein brutally and effectively kept intra-communal sectarian tensions under control. The rise of sectarian cleavages should not be surprising. In times of anarchy, people tend to coalesce around any identity or idea that may help them.

Sunni populations living under the Islamic State’s rule are concerned primarily with avoiding victimization and anarchy, rather than avoiding Shia rule. Indeed, there are still sizeable Sunni populations living in Assad-held territory. Considering the existing sectarian divides, facing Shia-dominated armed forces most certainly creates an element of fear for Sunnis. But it is the actions of those forces that confirm the sectarian fears while also creating a cycle of enmity and distrust between the Sunni and the Shia. Under these circumstances, “putting Sunni boots on the ground” will not address the problem.

For example, recall that Nye identifies the Kurdish forces as overwhelmingly Sunni and argues that they should be backed by other Sunni forces on the ground. This sectarian interpretation of the Kurds is misplaced. Sunni Arabs in Syria have not necessarily been thrilled to be liberated by Kurdish forces. Furthermore, Kurdish groups are fighting the Islamic State not only for survival, but also to gain international support for a nationalist cause that can only come at the expense of their Arab neighbors. The rising influence and territorial reach of the Kurdish forces therefore has the potential to infuriate and alienate an already insecure Sunni Arab population.

Moreover, the largest Kurdish groups in Syria are secular and socialist. In theory, Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria may prefer an ultra-secular socialist group over a Shia militia, but even then, such preference would have little to do with the Kurds’ sectarian affiliations.

In sum, Nye is right to point out that the crisis surrounding the Islamic State has a lot to do with sectarian tensions. Yet he also seems to have joined numerous analysts who mistake the symptom of the problem, sectarian tensions, for its cause, region-wide state failure.

Fighting Through Which Sunni Auxiliaries?

There is no reason to think that states like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will put boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State. First, the Islamic State does not currently present a direct military threat to these states. Second, all three Sunni powers, most notably Turkey, have complicated interests in Syria and Iraq. Third, because these countries are overwhelmingly Sunni, they are more susceptible to Islamic State-coordinated terrorist attacks on their soil if they intervene more directly.

The Islamic State emerged and remains as a regional threat not because it was too powerful or because its potential opponents were too weak. It succeeded because its capable regional opponents have few incentives to individually or collectively arrest its development and destroy the group. Nye merely tells us what “must” be done, but gives us little in the way of how what he proposes “can” be done. Under these circumstances, his suggested solution adds up to little more than presenting a key component of the problem as its cure.

How Not to Read the Assad Problematique

In his op-ed, Nye subscribes to a popular yet overly caricaturized interpretation of the Syrian president’s sectarian inclinations. In addition, Nye’s suggestion about how to get rid of Assad and what may follow afterwards is at best overly optimistic, at worst dangerously misleading.

Assad and the leading cadres of the Syrian military, bureaucracy, and intelligence are Alawites, who comprise roughly around the 13 percent of the population. The overwhelming majority of the population (around 70–75 percent) is comprised of Sunnis. However, the rhetoric that the Assad regime is built on sectarian victimization and suppression does not necessarily reflect reality, as Sunni economic and political elites have long played an important role in the Assad regime, since its inception in 1970. In addition, Assad also shied away from sectarian rhetoric by appointing a Sunni prime minister in 2012 and broadly framing the Syrian civil war in terms of the secular–jihadist struggle.

None of this changes the fact the Assad is a ruthless dictator who has killed many of his own people. Because Assad drew upon Iran’s elite Quds Force, Shia militia from Iraq, Hezbollah, or the violent paramilitary forces known as Shabiha, he has contributed to the narrative that the Assad regime is bent on eradicating Sunnis. Still, it would be a mistake to view Assad in the same way that the jihadists portray him. Assad can still claim support from the majority of the populations still under his rule who prefer a repressive autocratic regime over jihadists and anarchy. Misreading the true nature of the Assad regime, Nye further emboldens the sectarian narrative that the jihadist groups are promoting from the early days of the civil war.

Nye’s unwarranted optimism about the means of Assad’s exit and what might come after is also problematic. Nye suggests that U.S. diplomacy should seek a way to convince Russia and Iran to replace Assad without dismantling what’s left of the Syrian state. The recent Russian decision to get more heavily involved in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and Tehran’s numerous declarations that it will be with Assad “until the end of the road” should indicate that Nye’s policy advice amounts to little more than wishful thinking. Neither Russia nor Iran will abandon Assad anytime soon.

That the Assad regime is barely standing should serve as a testimony to the fragility of what is left of the Syrian state. Forcing Assad out without a clear and viable replacement will only accelerate the total disintegration of the Syrian state. Assad is in control of one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse pieces of real estate in the Middle East and is keeping numerous jihadist groups occupied. If the Syrian regime collapses, the most likely outcome would be what Nye himself warns us about: the Middle East’s own Thirty Years’ War. In an ideal world, an inclusive and democratic regime smoothly replaces the Assad rule. The reality is less heartening: Assad is not strong enough to defeat his enemies, but he is simply too entrenched to be compelled to give up power peacefully.

Under the current circumstances, if Assad falls, such fall will likely give way to a violent and sudden collapse of the Syrian state, which may plunge the region into an even deeper crisis. The case of Iraq after 2003 and Libya after 2011 should serve as warning to policymakers about pushing fragile regimes off the cliff without having a realistic plan for post-conflict restoration.

So now what?

So, how should we approach the debate on how to fight the Islamic State? There are three key dynamics that we need to incorporate into our strategic thinking. First, we need to start framing the threats and challenges posed by the Islamic State not only in terms of the group itself, but in the context of the broader regional crisis that led to its meteoric rise. The Islamic State was born out of a decade-long political crisis in Iraq and came of age by feeding off of state failure in Syria. Tackling the group without considering the complicated and regional nature of the crisis will either lead to strategic failure or an outcome where the Islamic State is “destroyed,” only to be replaced by an even bigger and complex challenge to international security. We should stop obsessing with “how to fight the Islamic State” and think harder about “how to deal with the broader regional crisis that the Islamic State represents.

Second, we should base our arguments on realistic assumptions about regional actors’ motives and capabilities. Such a task requires distancing ourselves from unfounded optimism and our own ideological preferences. Thinking more realistically about what makes the relevant actors tick is necessary for assessing which options are viable and which aren’t in the face of a complex and time-sensitive crisis.

Third, we should take Nye’s advice about a more flexible, or “realist,” approach to diplomacy to heart, perhaps more so than Nye does in his own analysis. Defeating the Islamic State and making sure that it is not replaced by an even more challenging threat requires that the United States pursue a much more pragmatic and “creative” path in its diplomatic dealings with the regional actors, including the Assad regime. Such pragmatism can be criticized on moral grounds, but, as Nye himself argues, it is also a necessary means to a desirable end: putting an end to the human suffering associated with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq while also preventing the region from sliding into its own Thirty Years’ War.


Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. His scholarly work has appeared in numerous outlets including International Security. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.