FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: What are the strengths of the Islamic State? I posed this question to two deeply knowledgeable observers, a European diplomat and a foreign official, and the picture they painted is worrying, although not hopeless. Defeating the group would require a large and sustained strategic effort from the Obama administration but it could be done without significant numbers of U.S. ground troops.
The European diplomats stationed in the Middle East travels in and out of Syria and has access to regime and opposition sources. Both sources agreed to speak only if their identities were not revealed. This European official agrees with the consensus that the Islamic State has gained considerable economic and military strength in recent months. He estimates that it is making $1 million a day in Syria and Iraq each by selling oil and gas, although U.S. experts believe the number is too high in Iraq.
The Islamic State’s military strategy is brutal but also smart. The group’s annual reports — yes, it has issued annual reports since 2012 — detail its military methods and successes to try to impress its backers and funders. The videos posted online of executions are barbaric but strategic. They are designed to sow terror in the minds of opponents who when facing Islamic State fighters on the battlefield now reportedly flee rather than fight.
But the most dangerous aspect of the Islamic State this diplomat believes is its ideological appeal. It has recruited marginalized disaffected Sunni youth in Syria and Iraq who believe that they have been ruled by apostate regimes.
How to handle this challenge? The American, a former senior administration figure, counsels against pessimism. The Islamic State could be defeated, he says, but it would take a comprehensive and sustained strategy much like the one that under girded the surge in Iraq. The first task is political, he said. Supporting the Obama administration’s efforts to press the Iraqi government to become more inclusive.
“We have more leverage now than at any time in recent years and the administration is using it,” he said.
If this continues, the next step would be to create the most powerful and effective ground force that could take on the Islamic State, which would not be American troops, would not be the Free Syrian Army, but, rather, a reconstituted Iraqi army. Remember, that force was built, trained, and equipped by the United States.
The former American official says it’s actually got some very effective units. The Iraqi special forces were trained in Jordan and are extremely impressive,” unquote. Pointing out that it was those forces that recaptured the Mosul dam recently. It’s underperformed recently because then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had transformed it over the past two years into a sectarian and loyalist force.
The two observers agreed on one central danger, the temptation to gain immediate military victories over the Islamic State could mean that the United States would end up tacitly partnering with Bashar al- Assad’s regime in Syria. This would produce a short-term military gain against the Islamic State but it would be a long-term political disaster. It would feed the idea that the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are embattled, that a crusader Christian Shiite alliance is persecuting them and that all Sunnis must resist this alien invasion the European diplomat said.
The key is that Sunnis must be in the lead against IS. They must be in front of the battlefield, he said.
So the strategy that could work against the Islamic State is nothing less than a second Sunni awakening like the one during the Iraqi surge. It’s a huge challenge but it appears to be the only option with a plausible chance of success.