American strategy toward ISIS has misidentified the group’s center of gravity and is inadvertently strengthening Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. The US approach presumes that regaining Mosul in Iraq and ar Raqqa in Syria will cause ISIS to collapse, and it is not operating against Jabhat al Nusra in any meaningful way. It underestimates the resilience of both groups and the need to pressure both simultaneously to prevent Jabhat al Nusra from benefiting from ISIS losses.
AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War engaged in a planning effort to develop and evaluate possible courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. The findings are part of a series of reports; the third report, “Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” assesses the capabilities of global Salafi-jihadi groups operating in Syria and Iraq and serves as a basis for developing a strategy to defeat them.
1. US strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, simultaneously. The groups’ distinct sources of strength create different requirements for destroying each organization. Attacking the source of ISIS’s strength—its territorial caliphate—is relatively straightforward to describe, but it does not account for the fact that Jabhat al Nusra is primed to benefit from ISIS’s defeat by moving into territories from which ISIS has been cleared.
2. ISIS expansion and consolidation in Iraq and Syria has created conditions in which the group could survive losing particular cities in those countries. Recapturing cities such as Mosul and ar Raqqa will not deal the decisive blow that it likely would have in late 2014 or early 2015. ISIS can reasonably claim its caliphal capital in several major urban centers, including Fallujah, Palmyra, and Deir ez Zour. ISIS must be driven from all urban and major rural population centers in Iraq and Syria if it is to be destroyed.
3. Identifying effective means of separating Jabhat al Nusra from the opposition to destroy it is the most difficult task in developing a strategy for Syria. Jabhat al Nusra draws strength from its intertwinement with Syrian Sunni opposition groups. The slow pace of US strategy and its exclusive prioritization of ISIS are facilitating Jabhat al Nusra’s deeper entrenchment within the opposition.
4. All operations against Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS must be integrated into a single, coherent strategic concept that takes account of the divergence of interests between the US and regional actors. As the recent Russian-Iranian-regime envelopment of Aleppo shows, Moscow and Tehran are pursuing objectives antithetical to American interests, and their operations will further radicalize the conflict in ways that entrench ISIS and al Qaeda.
5. The US and its Western partners must alter the popular narrative that the West has abandoned the Syrian Sunni Arabs in favor of Iran, Assad, and Russia. This task will be impossible as long as the West offers the Sunni no meaningful support in the face of the Assad regime’s imminent threat to their survival as individuals and communities.