A Muslim Foreign Legion to Destroy ISIL?

December 17, 2015

After the horrific attacks on Paris, the world began contemplating how to end the reign of terror of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The United States, France, and Russia have stepped up the pace of their airstrikes in Syria. Seeking a long-term solution, both Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have articulated the need for a substantial U.S. ground presence in Syria to defeat ISIL, but little political will exists for such a course of action. Retired Adm. James Stavridis offered an alternative course of action that uses NATO’s International Security Assistance Force as a model, but given that this organization is still deeply embroiled in Afghanistan almost a decade after it was created, it is not clear that it should serve as a source of emulation.

The current strategy of defeating ISIL through airstrikes and the support of local partner forces has limits. Aircraft cannot hold territory and U.S. partners on the ground continue to make slow and uneven progress against a determined foe. The United States needs a more effective force on the ground to tip the balance in its favor, but creating one requires out-of-the-box thinking. The best option may be to organize, train, and equip willing and capable refugees and Western Muslims to return to Syria and defeat ISIL. Not only could such a force contribute to the group’s demise, it could also relieve some of the political tensions caused by the refugee crisis. While this plan will not be easy or quick, it could provide the most favorable end-state.

The idea of a Muslim foreign legion has already been raised in Europe. On November 16th, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said, “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have come to Europe recently. We can help them form an army. … They can fight to liberate their country with our help.”

Western states would be boosting ISIL’s divisive plan by shunning Syrian refugees. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright clearly outlined the problem ISIL poses:

Our enemies have a plan. They want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between the defenders and attackers of Islam. By making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into their hands.

Yet Western states can go beyond charity to help these refugees regain what they have lost. By supporting a foreign legion of Muslim troops from Western countries, the world will see that the United States and its allies intend to empower Muslims to eradicate a murderous, apocalyptic group, not to attack Islam itself. Western powers have a unique opportunity to enable Muslims to stand up for what is right, for their religion, and for their homelands.

From the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, we know that operations against well-equipped non-state actors are more likely to succeed if there are a large number of well-trained troops dispersed among the population. While the airstrikes that underpin the current U.S. strategy may be effective in the short run at stopping bad people from doing bad things, airpower has limits. At this time, no government — not even France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks — has seriously discussed deploying large ground forces to Syria, a reluctance that looks unlikely to change. If Western nations can generate support within Muslim communities to form this new army, it would provide a strong incentive for many able-bodied refugees to join the cause.

Admittedly, this solution brings with it many challenges, none of which are insurmountable. The first hurdle will be convincing Western governments to empower refugees. The best way to overcome this wariness is for the United States and its European partners to publicly announce support for a Muslim foreign legion. They must find charismatic and influential leaders in Western Muslim communities that will support this plan. Next, these sponsor nations must announce their willingness to organize, train, and equip this formation. Finally, Muslim political and religious leaders must encourage Muslims to reclaim their religion from those who use it to justify atrocities and explain that these Muslims will have full support of the international community. Central to any Western support would be a clear statement that the foreign legion exists for the sole purpose of destroying ISIL in Syria and Iraq and that it must work in close coordination with those forces currently fighting the group. There can be no hint that regime change or the redrawing of sovereign borders is a part of the foreign legion’s mission. Once successful, all Western forces of this foreign legion would leave the region while native soldiers would remain in their homeland to reunite with their families and integrate into existing security forces.

A second key hurdle will be turning refugees and Westerners into a cohesive ground force. While all Muslims from the United States and Europe should be encouraged to volunteer, emphasis must be put on recruiting trained soldiers and those with law enforcement experience. The United States and other sponsor nations must freely allow all Muslims serving in their militaries to volunteer for the new force. These trained and experienced Western Muslims would form the backbone of the foreign legion.

A third hurdle will be operational security. Due to the inherent risk of organizing, training, and equipping volunteers with diverse, and possibly unknown backgrounds, Western Muslims will likely have more access to combat training, sensitive intelligence, and heavy weaponry than their refugee counterparts. This risk must be accepted at the outset, though a standardized vetting process can help minimize these differences between Western Muslims and those from among the refugees.

Finally, since the cost to equip the foreign legion will be much less than taking care of these refugees in the long-term, nations should be inclined to offer both money and materiel. However, while these forces would be training in Europe, the United States and NATO must provide advanced capabilities that this army cannot provide for itself. This includes airlift and sealift to get forces into theater, robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and close air support, interdiction, and electronic warfare support to ground troops in combat.

ISIL is just the latest actor seeking to use the divide between Islam and the West as a rallying cry for its cause. Of course, the underlying assumption of this argument is that there will be enough refugees willing to fight for their town, their nation, and their people. As someone who has sworn my life to protect and defend my nation and its allies, it is hard for me to accept that so many people would flee from such tyranny and yet be unwilling to fight for their homeland. In order for the United States and European nations to see these refugees as more than consumers of social services even as our militaries are engaged in the very region these refugees have fled, it is imperative that we unite around a common cause to rid Syria and Iraq of the violence that drove them away.


Erik Carlson is a U.S. Air Force officer and is currently serving in Europe. He studied at the U.S. Air Force Academy, University of Washington, and Air University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, U.S. Government, or NATO.


Photo credit: Freedom House