Divide and Conquer in Syria and Iraq

The October bombing of a Russian airliner above Sinai, followed quickly by the November Paris attacks, created a broad international consensus that the Islamic State (ISIS) is on the march and must be stopped. The United States had acknowledged as much—at least rhetorically—over a year ago. In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States would seek to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, but cautioned that the campaign would be long and difficult. Indeed.

Unwilling to commit ground forces to topple the jihadist state, Washington settled on a gradual approach that involved a very limited application of force. In fact, the pace of the U.S. strikes on ISIS was so slow that the attacks amounted to a strategy of containment. The limitations of such containment became all too clear in October and November. The strategy had given ISIS time to consolidate its control, train terrorists, and embed operatives in Western countries. From the ruins of this failed strategy, the United States must craft something new and bold.


The United States’ initial response to ISIS was shaped by its bitter experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama believed that his election gave him a clear mandate to extract the United States from the Middle East and, more generally, to reduce Washington’s reliance on force in foreign policy. Notwithstanding his tepid participation in the intervention in Libya, the president has remained committed to retrenchment.

Containment of the violence worked for a while, even as refugees put enormous strain on Syria’s neighboring states. But after ISIS entered the picture, the strategy was no longer viable. American hopes of staying away from Middle Eastern conflicts faded; the plight of the Kurds and the genocide of the Yezidis led to a gradual increase in U.S. involvement in Iraq. And then ISIS’ beheading of American journalists forced a reluctant president to expand the U.S. bombing campaign to Syria.

Washington’s main problem is that despite its commitment to defeating ISIS, such an outcome requires…