ISIS, Syrian Conflict ‘Not Containable’ in Middle East

Bipartisan report calls for greater American involvement abroad

May 17, 2016

Threats emanating from the Middle East, including those caused by ISIS and the Syrian civil war, cannot be contained and therefore require the United States to significantly ramp up its military commitments in the region, according to a new report.

A group of scholars, strategists, and former government officials from Republican and Democratic administrations convened to develop the study, which was released by the Center for a New American Security on Monday.

The report, which has been endorsed by a number of ex-Democratic officials including a former Clinton administration aide, implies that the Obama administration’s policies toward Syria and the Middle East in general have been weak.

"Despite recent American misjudgments and failures in the Middle East, for which all recent administrations, including the present one, bear some responsibility, and despite the apparent intractability of many of the problems in the region, the United States has no choice but to engage itself fully in a determined, multi-year effort to find an acceptable resolution to the many crises tearing the region apart," the report states.

"The key point is that the dangers emanating from the Middle East, including both terrorism and the massive flow of refugees, are not containable. They must be addressed at the source, over many years, using a combination of local actors and American power and influence."

The report calls for the international effort against ISIS to be "scaled up substantially," a move that would include sending more U.S. special operations forces to help root out the terror group from Iraq, Syria, and newly-established footholds in countries like Libya.

"The United States should show a new resolve by increasing significantly its military contribution across the board, including providing more unique air assets, additional intelligence assets, and a larger contingent of special operation forces capable of identifying and destroying high value and other critical ISIS targets," the report states.

President Obama’s efforts against ISIS, which he once compared to a "JV team," have long been criticized. Just one day before the group launched deadly coordinated terror attacks in Paris last November, the president declared during a nationally televised interview that the terror group had been "contained."

The Obama administration, which began air strikes against ISIS in 2014, has sent modest contingents of special operations forces to Syria and Iraq in order to provide "advise and assist" support for Syrian Arab, Kurdish, and Iraqi troops fighting the terror group in the region. It has also green-lit limited operations directly targeting leaders of the terrorist group.

The administration has insisted that American troops are not in combat operations against ISIS, even though three American service members have died at the group’s hands in Iraq.

The report released Monday indicates that the administration has not done enough to thwart a terrorist group that could pose a greater threat to American and Western security than al Qaeda.

"The terrorist assault on Paris this past November and on Brussels in March were stark and painful reminders of the many ways instability in the Greater Middle East can come home to countries in Europe. The mass shooting in California in early December 2015 also demonstrates why ISIS potentially poses a greater threat to the United States and its allies and partners than al Qaeda," the report states, citing the terrorist attack on a San Bernardino, Calif., holiday party carried out by a radicalized couple.

"With so many ISIS-inspired terrorists holding Western passports, counterterrorism has become significantly more difficult. Nor can one discount the possibility that just as ISIS has emerged to compete with al Qaeda for leadership of the jihadi forces, there will be other groups seeking to take the mantle."

The CNAS project is co-chaired by James Rubin, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration, and is endorsed by CNAS co-founder Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration. The project was established to develop a bipartisan consensus about the role America should play in the world, and the report was deliberately rolled out ahead of the 2016 election to shape the national conversation.

While the experts do not go out of their way to criticize the current administration’s foreign policy agenda, the report offers implicit rebukes of the administration’s efforts abroad, particularly in the Middle East. It calls for making a political solution to the five-year Syrian civil war dependent on the departure of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad—a point the Obama administration has appeared willing to concede in recent months.

The report also calls for an overhaul of the Pentagon’s "inadequate" program to arm and train the Syrian opposition forces, who have faced brutal resistance from Syrian government troops emboldened by Russian and Iranian intervention in the conflict. The Defense Department was forced to shutter its failed program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which cost American taxpayers $500 million, in favor of a less ambitious initiative last October.

"Syrian government forces have regained considerable territory and momentum especially in and around Aleppo, primarily as a result of coordinated Russian-Syrian-Iranian operations backed by heavy and often indiscriminate Russian bombardment from the air," the report states.

"At a minimum, the inadequate efforts hitherto to arm, train, and protect a substantial Syrian opposition force must be completely overhauled and made a much higher priority."

The report also proposes the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria where displaced Syrians can relocate out of harm’s way and where opposition forces can arm, train, and organize.

More generally, the experts make the case for boosting American engagement in the face of Chinese economic growth and military buildup, Russian aggression, and continued destabilization in the Middle East. The maintenance of post-World War II international order, the report explains, is dependent on strengthening U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military power and boosting spending on defense and national security.

"The greatest challenge to the preservation of this order today may be here in the United States. The bipartisan consensus that has long supported America’s engagement with the world is under attack by detractors in both parties," the report states.

"Responsible political leaders need to explain to a new generation of Americans how important this world order is to their well-being and how vital America’s role is in sustaining it."