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TO: Ambassador Susan Rice
FROM: Zoe Siepert
DATE: May 3, 2016
RE: Countering ISIS in the Middle East
ISIS is a militant group with roots in Iraq with aims of creating a “pan-Muslim
caliphate” (Lynch, 2015). ISIS tries to achieve this goal by committing exceptional acts
of violence throughout the world, most notably in Paris and Belgium. The exisiting
policy of the United States on ISIS is one of containment meaning contain ISIS where
they are now and eventually aim to destroy them without use of American boots on the
ground. My policy recommendation is developing a global coalition of world and
regional powers to address key issues in hopes of defeating ISIS.
The current policy fails to address the root causes of the ISIS phenomenon. Any
plan to defeat ISIS must address why ISIS came to be in the first place, because it was
“driven by a massive population increase, critical youth unemployment, failed economic
development, corruption, and imbalanced income distribution” (Cordesman, 2016).
The United States has many key interests in the region. The United States is
concerned about how policy in the region will affect our allies there, mainly Israel and
Saudi Arabia. A more recent interest is Iran’s nonproliferation, which will remain a key
interest for some time. Global stability is also one of the United States main goals. By
developing a global coalition, peace and stability are possible in the MENA region.
The coalition I recommend will lead to a decisive victory against ISIS because it
addresses many of the economic issues surrounding the creation of ISIS. It also targets
ISIS’ funding directly, which, over time, should lead to the destruction of ISIS. I believe
there will be global support for this plan from most countries because there are no
countries that out right support ISIS. The only country that could cause an issue would be
Russia. By ensuring Russia that the defeat of ISIS benefits them as well and steering clear
of any Russia troops in the region, it should not be an issue anymore.
ISIS, or the Islamic State, was created from the “2011-2014 sectarian nature of
the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad” (Lynch, 2015). ISIS has its roots in Iraq and
started as a “local movement aimed at redrawing the lines in the Middle East to establish
a state that more closely the historic concept of Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria”
(Hillegass, 2016). However since 2014, ISIS has rebranded itself simple as the Islamic
State (Hillegass, 2016).
ISIS’ main goal is a “pan-Muslim caliphate by 2020” (Lynch, 2015). Today, ISIS
is a “transnational Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group that controls large areas of
Iraq and Syria, has adherents in several other countries, and disrupts regional and
international security with violence and terrorism” (Cronin, 2016).
EXISITING U.S. POLICY:
President Obama’s policy on ISIS has been relatively consistent since 2014. He
has repeatedly stated that the main “goals of U.S. strategy are to “degrade and ultimately
defeat” the Islamic State using various means including “U.S. direct military action and
support for local partner forces” (Cronin, 2016). His strategy includes; “supporting
effective governance in Iraq; denying ISIS safe-haven; building partner capacity;
enhancing intelligence collection; disrupting ISIS finances; exposing ISIS' true nature;
disrupting the flow of foreign fighters; protecting the homeland; and humanitarian
support” (Hof, 2014).
President Obama’s strategy is one of containment and his administration
understands that “any long-term success must come by way of real political and
economic reforms in Baghdad that credibly enfranchise alienated Sunni tribes now
supporting ISIS in western Iraq” (Lynch, 2015).
WHY EXISTING POLICY NEEDS TO BE RE-EVALUATED:
The current U.S. strategy fails to acknowledge the root of the problem. Any
policy decision must understand that while the fight against ISIS is an “ideological battle
… it is also driven by a massive population increase, critical youth unemployment, failed
economic development, corruption, and imbalanced income distribution” (Cordesman,
2016). There is also a lack of coherent strategy from the world powers, which is
necessary in halting ISIS. There is simply “not enough will or skill in the region or
abroad to mobilize any kind of grand and sustained coalition against ISIS that might
bring about some determinative victory” (Miller, 2016).
THE U.S.’S NATIONAL INTERESTS IN THE REGION:
The Middle East is critically important to rest of the world because of its
abundance of natural resources. Oil and gas are two of the main exports from the region.
Even though the ‘U.S. crude oil imports are “now only 8.2% of U.S. imports,” many of
America’s trading partners in Europe and Asia are dependent on the region for these
resources (Cordesman, 2016).
Another key interest in the region is Israel. The United States has supported the
state of Israel for many decades and will presumably continue for the foreseeable future.
Out of any country in the region, Israel receives the most financial support for the United
States. Other than financial support, the U.S also provides support for Israel thru “a mix
of arms sales, intelligence and security cooperation, and diplomatic support” (Byman,
One of the United States key interests around the world is promoting democracy
and liberal principles. The Middle East region is one with few democracies, which is
something the United States has tried to change for many decades. The United States also
has strong ties with Saudi Arabia, which will be sure to influence the U.S. interests in the
region. Anti-Communism “cemented” this relationship because of shared interest in
keeping Communism out of the region (Byman, 2016).
MY POLICY RECOMMENDATION:
I recommend developing a cohesive plan to contain and eventually destroy ISIS
with other global and regional powers. Without a consistent global plan, ISIS will
continue to wreak havoc in the Middle East. The United States will “need to build a
broader coalition that includes the West, Sunni States including Turkey, and also Iran and
Syria” (Ricks, 2015). At some point this coalition must commit combat troops to the
region, particularly after ISIS is destroyed so another organization like ISIS cannot be
The coalition must start by weakening ISIS’ global image and making it look
unappealing to any potential new members. Governments around the world must “accept
that there is a rational economic basis, which motivates terrorism, and many youths are
radicalized by unemployment and despair over their perceived lack of social mobility”
(Ricks, 2015). Byman suggests weakening the affiliates “by portraying the core group as
out of touch with local grievances,” which can be done by exposing “how ISIS spends its
money” (Hillegass, 2016). Targeting its sources of funding will also prove to be useful
because without a constant flow of funding, ISIS cannot operate.
The coalition will also need to “help Muslim governments learn how to counter
the new forms messaging used by groups like ISIS, support the reforms necessary to
bring stability, provide aid when it can be a catalyst that will help states help themselves,
support the fight against extremism, cooperate in counterterrorism, seek to end the
conflicts in the region, and provide humanitarian aid” (Cordesman, 2016).
HOW MY POLICY RECOMMENDATION ADVANCES U.S.’S INTERESTS:
One of the United States main interests in the region, and the world as a whole, is
stability. By containing and eventually destroying ISIS, stability in the region is much
more likely. The United States is also very interested in promoting liberal democracies
around the world and by defeating ISIS there is more likelihood that democracy could
flourish in the region.
HOW OTHER ACTORS ARE LIKELY TO RESPOND:
As of right now, there are no states that openly support ISIS, which should mean
there will be wide spread support for this coalition. With my policy recommendation,
many world and regional powers would participate which may upset countries that
choose not to participate. Russia would probably not be willing to join an U.S.-led
coalition, which could present problems down the road. However, by avoiding Russian
troops in the region and reassuring Russia that the defeat of ISIS will benefit them as
well, may help in avoiding any potential conflicts with Russia over the coalition.
POTENTIAL RISKS AND DRAWBACKS TO MY RECOMMENDATION:
There are a few potential risks and drawbacks to my recommendation as there are
with any policy decision. There is a risk for ISIS to strike on American soil. There is also
a risk of citizens of Muslim majority countries opposing reforms done by Western
countries. History has shown us that when the U.S. intervenes in the region, we are met
with anger and hostility. But in the case of ISIS, the region cannot defeat them without
U.S. support. There could also be outcry from Americans who are not supportive of
putting American boots on the ground.
WAYS TO MINIMIZE THOSE RISKS:
Despite the risk of ISIS attacking the U.S., “U.S. military and intelligence activity
suggests that Washington views it as a serious regional menace but not a group capable
of carrying out large-scale international terrorism” (Lynch, 2015). Therefore the risk of
ISIS attacking the United States is low enough that it is not a serious threat. Many in the
region want the United States help in defeating ISIS and by including them in the
coalition, there should be minimal anger at the U.S. involvement. There will also be only
a small amount of American troops sent to fight ISIS because there will be many other
countries who will also send troops.
Byman, Daniel L. "Shifting U.S. Interests in the Middle East." Middle East Politics and
Policy. Brookings Institute, 02 Mar. 2016.
Cordesman, Anthony H. "Rethinking the Wars Against ISIS and the U.S. Strategy for
Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Insurgency." Center for Strategic and
International Studies. CSIS, 28 Sept. 2015.
Cordesman, Anthony H. "The U.S., the West, and Islam: The Real Meaning of ISIS's
Expansion into Turkey, Afghanistan, and Indonesia." Center for Strategic and
International Studies. CSIS, 15 Jan. 2016. <http://csis.org/publication/us-west-
Cronin, Audrey K. "ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group." Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs, 14
Jan. 2016. <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-not-terrorist-
Hillegass, Kathryn. "Exploiting the Inherent Seam in the Islamic State." Georgetown
Security Studies Review. Georgetown University, 13 Mar. 2016.
Hof, Frederic C. "Countering ISIS: Obama Administration Strategy." Atlantic Council.
Atlantic Council, 12 Nov. 2014.
Lynch III, Thomas F. "The U.S. Military and Countering ISIS." Middle East Institute.
MEI, 01 Oct. 2015. <http://www.mei.edu/content/article/us-military-and-
Miller, Aaron D. "The Problem With ISIS." Wilson Center. Wilson Center, 18 Feb. 2016.
Ricks, Thomas E. "Some Thoughts on Countering ISIS: We Need a Coalition Fighting
Not Just in Iraq but across Much of the Middle East." Some Thoughts on
Countering ISIS We Need a Coalition Fighting Not Just in Iraq but across Much
of the Middle East. Foreign Policy, 7 May 2015.