War Stories

Why This Weekend Could Be Crucial in the Fight Against ISIS

ISIS has rarely had to fight on more than one front at a time. That may finally change.

President Barack Obama (R) speaks as State Secretary John Kerry.
President Barack Obama speaks as Secretary of State John Kerry looks on during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Feb. 3, 2015, in Washington.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

*This piece has been updated to reflect news of the attacks in Paris.

Hope is not a strategy, as the saying goes, but it’s pretty much what the Obama administration is riding on this weekend at two summits dealing with the crisis in Syria and the fight against ISISand, in an ironic, tragic way, those hopes are strengthened by Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Vienna hours after those attacks for the second round of talks with counterparts from 20 countries that share a stake in the conflict. On Sunday, President Obama attends the G-20 conference in Turkey, where he, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and now many others are likely to discuss ways they might cooperate to snuff out ISIS and end the war.

As Kerry put it in a speech to the U.S. Institute of Peace on Thursday before heading to the airport, “Time and turbulence can generate new possibilities.” He acknowledged, “There are moments in managing world affairs … when the elements required for progress simply do not exist,” and “we do not know … whether the right possibilities have yet come together in connection with Syria.” Still, he added, “We have an obligation … to test those possibilities to the fullest.”

This is the essence of what Kerry called “the administration’s strategy in Syria”—doing what it’s been doing, but more so, for as long as it takes. While that’s not really quite a strategy, it seems to be the only option available.

Saturday morning in Vienna, Kerry suggested that the attacks in Paris up the stakes on that obligation—and might generate the “new possibilities” that make victory possible. The coalition’s main goal, he said, is “to eliminate the evil of terrorism,” and, after Paris, “this determination is only stronger.”

In a telegraphed statement, ISIS declared that the attack in Paris was launched in revenge for recent French air strikes in Syria and Iraq. Nonetheless, French President François Hollande vowed, in his own statement, “France will be pitiless in its response to the Islamic State militants…on every battleground, here and abroad, together with our allies.” It is likely that, at least in their rhetoric, the allies at this weekend’s summits will join in solidarity.

Anti-ISIS forces have made progress on the battlefield in recent weeks, and though Obama has often (and correctly) said that there’s no strictly military solution to the crises racking the region, sometimes a president has to lean on the solutions at hand.

In recent weeks, Kurdish ground troops, equipped with American weapons and supported by U.S. airstrikes, have launched major offensives in northern Syria and Iraq, recapturing several areas along ISIS’s main supply route, most notably the town of Sinjar—which is key to the jihadist group’s sustained occupation of Mosul, the center of its Iraqi operations. Meanwhile, again with an assist from American air power, Iranian-backed Shiite militias have pushed back ISIS forces in the central city of Bayji and Iraqi soldiers have fought off jihadists in Ramadi.

The new element here is not just the intensity of the airstrikes and the ground offensives, but also their scope. In the past, ISIS has rarely had to fight on more than one front at a time, so its commanders could move units around, depending on where they were needed. Now, to an increasing degree, they’re all engaged in battle, all the time; they can’t fill gaps or refurbish their supply lines as readily as before.

ISIS has drawn much of its strength from the weakness of its foes. If all the nations that fear and loathe ISIS—which is to say, almost all the nations of the Middle East—could band together, they could win in short order. But the problem is that many of them fear and loathe one another still more.

This is another reason the weekend’s summits are potentially so important. They could serve as a forum for coalition building. It’s unlikely that, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran would actively cooperate against a common enemy; it’s difficult, on many levels, for the United States to do the same with Iran or Russia. But they could carve out areas or functions of the battle and agree to stay out of each other’s way. If they could expand that level of engagement (passive cooperation, it might be called) and thus force ISIS to fight on still more fronts, stretching its ranks thin in the process, the battle could turn, perhaps rapidly.

Even if all this succeeds (and that’s a very big if), the next, and still bigger question is “What then?” As long as Bashar al-Assad remains Syria’s president, sectarian civil war will rage on in that country, fueling and fueled by the sectarian strife engulfing the entire region. Will Russia and Iran, Assad’s chief protectors, help draw up the terms of a transition that eases him out of power? Why should they, especially if the Syrian rebels—ISIS and otherwise—are weakened by incursions and air strikes? What incentives could the United States or other powers in the region offer in exchange?

When Kerry talks about the lack of new possibilities for Syria, he’s referring to the dearth of answers to these sorts of questions. There are a lot more questions where those came from. If Assad is eased or forced out, who would replace him? What sort of election or other form of succession would install a successor that would please—or minimally displease—the wide array of factions to the point where they lay down their arms? ISIS rose to power, in Syria and Iraq, in a vacuum of legitimate power. If the vacuum remained, ISIS or something like it would revive and flourish, especially if the rulers continued to suppress the Sunni populations, whose discontent ISIS shrewdly exploits.

Obama and Kerry understand that these are the crucial questions that need addressing, but they’re pragmatic enough to see that the road to stable answers is far from paved. So for now, they’re using these diplomatic forums to focus on the problem that might be solved—ISIS, which, furthermore, is a problem that affects American interests, unlike the region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict, which (to put it coldly) doesn’t affect those interests so much, at least as long as it remains localized.

From this standpoint, it wouldn’t be a disaster if the two summits didn’t resolve the underlying issues of this crisis—which is a relief, since they’re not likely to do so. First steps first, and the first step is coming up with a joint plan to whack ISIS. That would mark a very big first step—and hard enough to coordinate.