War Stories

A New War Against ISIS

How to defeat the terrorist group.

French fighter jets at the Nancy-Ochey Air Base in Thuilley-aux-Groseilles, France, during a military exercise of ground-guided strikes in September 2015.

Photo by Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images

French President François Hollande says his nation is “at war” with ISIS. President Obama, at a news conference Monday marking the end of a G-20 summit, affirmed, “We are united against this threat.” But what do these statements mean? And what should they mean?

Twelve French warplanes dropped 20 bombs on ISIS targets in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday night, and this seems to be the start of a larger campaign, as the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, with another dozen jets onboard, is steaming toward the Arabian Sea.

Obama pledged an “intensification” of airstrikes and other U.S. military operations, just as reports appeared that four A-10 attack planes and two AC-130 gunships, flying from bases in Turkey, destroyed 116 trucks carrying oil that ISIS was smuggling out of eastern Syria.

That’s a good start, especially the strikes on oil assets, a primary source of ISIS revenue. It’s long been a mystery why they haven’t been attacked more intensely all along.

In recent weeks, ISIS positions have come under attack on multiple fronts—from Kurds in the north, Iranian-backed militias in central Syria, the Iraqi army in western Iraq, all supported by U.S. air power. This marks a new phase in the pushback against ISIS, whose commanders have until now been able to move their fighters around to retreat and reinforce at will, and the strain is beginning to show.

This is the time for anti-ISIS forces to consolidate and push ahead with these gains. It’s unclear that these forces are prepared, or have the political will, to do so. Here are a few steps that could bring them closer.

First, NATO should invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on one member is to be treated as an attack on them all. That would be more a gesture than a tangible act, but it could be used to hold the allies’ feet to the fire—to prod them to follow their fine rhetoric with actual military commitment. France has been attacked by an outside power; if NATO still means anything, its members must rise to their most basic obligations of collective defense.

Second, with the U.S. base in nearby Turkey and other countries (not just France) bringing in air assets, ISIS could come under much fiercer bombardment. The bombing shouldn’t be indiscriminate. (The French may have overdone their revenge strike over Raqqa: Shutting down water and electricity in a city of 200,000 people, most of them victims of ISIS, not members, doesn’t serve any apparent strategic or tactical goal.) It should be focused on specific military targets and coordinated with ground offensives as much as possible.

Third, this air power should be directed to support all ground forces engaged in fighting ISIS, no matter how unpalatable they might otherwise be—including Iranian-backed militias. This is not a simple Cold War–style fight. In the war on ISIS, we are on the same side with allies, adversaries, and forces in between. Choices must be made: If the overriding goal is to defeat ISIS, especially after the attack on Paris, then we need to swallow hard and team up with—or at least not impede—countries and organizations that we otherwise don’t like at all. In World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill allied with Josef Stalin to beat Adolf Hitler—and if they hadn’t, out of loathing for Soviet communism, then Hitler’s Germany would have won. True, as a result, after the war, the Soviet Union occupied all of Eastern Europe for the next 45 years, but that fate, however dreadful, was seen as preferable to seeing a Nazi flag waving across the entire continent. Not to stretch the analogy, but a case can be made that acceding to more Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria (which is likely to happen anyway) is preferable to seeing ISIS stretch its caliphate across vast swaths of the Middle East.*

Fourth, in part to counter Iranian expansion but also to accomplish the narrower but more urgent task of crushing ISIS, everything should be done to raise up, supply, and if necessary train Sunni militias and command groups, too. This will be hard to organize if we’re also supporting Iranian-backed Shiite groups in this fight, but history has seen more unwieldy coalitions, and resistance to this one could be softened by the usual methods, including huge sums of money, massive stockpiles of arms, and lavish massaging of egos.

Fifth, all of the above requires intense shuttle diplomacy. Now that Secretary of State John Kerry has momentarily run out of fires to extinguish, the next round of his never-ending tour could be devoted to this theme: plying the Sunnis with favors and assurances to keep them onboard the anti-ISIS caravan. During the 1990–91 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, made dozens trips to the region to hold the anti-Saddam coalition together, first during the massive American mobilization, then during the month of airstrikes and ground offensives. It’s worth recalling that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria mobilized whole divisions or air wings to help oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. They didn’t actually do much in the fight, but their presence pre-empted the critique—which could have been devastating, had it been true—that the war against Saddam was a strictly Western or anti-Islam venture.

Sixth, for this reason, among others, Obama is right to quell talk of throwing thousands of American (or other Western) combat troops into this fight. As he said at his press conference, the U.S. military could retake Mosul, Iraq, and any number of other cities, but then what? The troops—tens if not hundreds of thousands of them—would have to stay there for years, or decades, to hold and rebuild those towns; and they would be recruitment tools for a fresh crop of terrorists eager to wage jihad against imperialist unbelievers. In short, this mission would not be a sustainable mission. Not even Obama’s fiercest Republican critics, who decry him for not “doing more” in Syria, are calling for the deployment of ground troops in large numbers. (The exception, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is running for president on the pledge to send tens of thousands of troops to Iraq and Syria, is garnering less than 1 percent in polls.)

Seventh, this reticence in sending combat troops shouldn’t preclude a doubling or tripling of special operations forces to advise, coordinate airstrikes, and occasionally support counter-terrorist raids.

Finally, none of these efforts will amount to much in the long run without a political settlement in Syria—i.e., without a formal, internationally supervised transition to a new government in Damascus that does not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS rose to prominence by stoking the discontent fomented by Assad’s brutal assaults on his own people and by filling the power vacuums left by the ensuing civil war. By the same token, ISIS won’t be vanquished without the end of the civil war.

Remarkably, a meeting in Vienna this weekend of the International Syria Support Group—an unlikely mélange of 20 nations including the United States, China, Russia, Iran, European Union states, and members of the Arab League—produced a formal statement that laid out a road to just such a transition. Expressing “a unanimous sense of urgency,” the statement called for the transition to begin on Jan. 1, followed by a cease-fire, with elections for a new Syrian leadership to be held in 18 months.

There are holes in this agreement. For instance, there’s this: “The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh [ISIS] or Nusra or any other group the ISSG agrees to deem ‘terrorist.’ ” (Italics added.) At the moment, Russia and Iran consider all groups fighting in Syria, except for the Assad-backed Syrian army, to be terrorist; so, if this situation doesn’t change, there will be no cease-fire—and thus no prospects of a peaceful transition—at all.

Still, this was a first meeting; it was stunning that some of these leaders agreed to sit at the same table, and sign the same document, at all; and they share a common interest in crushing ISIS—especially in the wake of recent events, which include not only the attacks in Paris but also a similar assault in Lebanon and the bombing of a Russian airliner, probably via the infiltration of security personnel at an airport in Egypt.

Obama noted at his press conference that when ISIS racks up victories on the battlefield, it attracts foreign fighters looking to join the clear path to paradise. When it loses ground, the recruits decline. This is why the military dimension of this fight is important: to make ISIS a less appealing receptacle for radical jihadis’ dreams of glory or martyrdom.

Revolutionary groups tend to meet their doom when they overplay their hands, and ISIS has certainly done that in the past few weeks. There is more common ground for an active anti-ISIS coalition, among otherwise incompatible actors, than anyone might have thought possible until this overreach. But nothing is inevitable; ISIS is weakening, but it won’t be defeated unless the powers all around it act together in ways that would be unnatural, even inimical to national or sectarian interests, in ordinary times. These are not ordinary times, and it’s the obligation of the major regional and global powers to act accordingly.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.

Correction, Nov. 17, 2015: This article originally misstated where the U.S. and its allies would prefer to see more Iranian influence. It is in Iraq, not Iran.