What to do and to don’t in response to the Paris attacks

By Dr. Kimberly Kagan and Dr. Frederick W. Kagan
This article is co-authored with AEI's Critical Threats Project

The ISIS attacks in Paris mark a step-change in the threat that group poses to the West.  The tactics employed came straight from the battlefields of the Middle East into the heart of Europe.  The group hit multiple targets simultaneously without detection by French security services, which are among the best in the world, despite a series of arrests aimed at disrupting this operation.  That capability demonstrates superior planning ability, resilience, and operational security.  The successful use of multiple suicide vests shows that ISIS was able either to smuggle them all the way to Paris or, more worrisome, build them from materials available in Europe without detection.

Europe’s proximity to the Middle East and relatively open borders make it much more vulnerable to this sort of attack, but Americans should be very concerned that a group with these capabilities could also penetrate our homeland.  We must draw the right conclusions from this incident in the context of regional and world crises if we are to maintain our security in the months and years to come.  The following things to do and things not to do are the correct next steps for ensuring our security.

DO take the gloves off against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Adjust the rules of engagement to accept the risk of collateral damage (civilian casualties), hit every ISIS target on our lists, and do as much damage as possible from the air quickly.  This should be our immediate response.

  • Restrictive rules of engagement have prevented U.S. aircraft from attacking many targets in Iraq and Syria known to be ISIS nodes. President Obama’s desire to avoid civilian casualties is laudable from both a moral and a practical standpoint.  Wantonly killing civilians, as the Assad regime and the Russian bombing campaign is doing, will alienate the Sunni Arab community in which ISIS and al Qaeda exist and operate.  But the president has gone too far in precluding all targets with any risk of civilian casualties.  The U.S. military has long experience now in choosing targets carefully to minimize that risk while still accomplishing its missions, and it should be allowed to operate as it had been doing for the first six years of this presidency.
  • We cannot defeat ISIS or al Qaeda with airstrikes, but we can damage both groups much more significantly than we have so far. We can force them to go to ground, to stop maneuvering vehicles, and to stop massing forces.  Doing so would degrade their abilities to conduct offensive operations significantly and would facilitate the formation of opposition groups that could ultimately recapture ground they now hold.

DO put the necessary U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq to help the Iraqis retake Ramadi and Fallujah rapidly and prepare them to retake Mosul within six months.

  • The Iraqi counter-offensive to retake Anbar and Ninewah Provinces has stalled for a number of reasons, including struggles between Iranian proxy militias and the Iraqi Security Forces over prioritization of effort and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. But American reluctance to engage fully in the campaign has been another important factor. If the U.S. made available to Baghdad the resources needed to retake Iraqi territory from ISIS rapidly and with limited losses, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi would likely leap at the chance.
  • The U.S. military footprint required is likely around 10,000 troops. Iraq does not at this point need American combat brigades leading the fight.  It needs more U.S. Special Forces, tactical air controllers to direct precision strikes in direct support of Iraqis fighting on the ground, additional helicopter and artillery support, and a variety of other technical capabilities that only the U.S. can provide.
  • Iranian-controlled militias and political figures will oppose any such U.S. deployment, probably by attacking the U.S. embassy and other American targets in Iraq. We must accept that likelihood and prepare for it by maintaining the forces and capabilities necessary to counter-attack against them within Iraq.  The President must state clearly that he has already authorized the U.S. military to respond immediately and decisively in this scenario.  The U.S. should seek to avoid open confrontation with the Iranians in Iraq, but we must not be deterred from defeating ISIS by the fear of what the Iranians might do to us.  What they are doing against ISIS in Iraq is also failing, after all.  It is, in fact, making things worse.
  • The U.S. must also act to support Prime Minister Abadi against his sectarian Shi’a political foes, particularly former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki. It was the malign behavior of Maliki and his allies, after all, that generated support for ISIS in Iraq after the departure of U.S. forces.  The U.S. should use all the diplomatic leverage at its disposal to strengthen Abadi as his coalition fractures and to help him plan and execute the reform agenda that is essential to Iraq’s future and to his own political survival.

DON’T over-rely on Kurdish forces for rapid, decisive operations beyond Kurdish ethnic boundaries.

  • Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are among the most competent and determined foes of ISIS. They must surely be a part of any undertaking against ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, as well as a central part of stable political resolutions in both countries.  The U.S. is well-advised to help them defend their own lands against the jihadis and to integrate them as appropriate into the larger anti-ISIS effort.
  • But it is also important to understand that ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs have been high for decades and are rising. Iraq’s Kurds have a vision for an expanded Kurdistan that includes areas inhabited now by mixed populations of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen—particularly the cities of Mosul, Sinjar, and Kirkuk.  The presence of heavily-Kurdish Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul was one of the factors driving support for al Qaeda in Iraq into 2007, and the contest for control of Kirkuk has caused repeated outbreaks of violence.  Encouraging the Kurds to seize Arab territory will generate a backlash among local Arabs that can only benefit ISIS.  The Kurds cannot clear and hold Mosul or its environs to the south and west on their own without the high risk of starting an ethnic war.
  • Kurdish forces fighting in Syria are heavily infiltrated by the PKK, which the U.S. Treasury has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group. The PKK continues to conduct terrorist attacks in Turkey, and U.S. de facto support for the group in Syria seriously damages any prospect for a real partnership with our NATO ally.  Syrian Kurdish forces also face problems similar to those described above in Iraq—any attempt by Kurdish forces to seize and hold Raqqa, for example, will ultimately generate Arab backlash and increase opportunistic support for ISIS or for al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  The U.S. must act to exclude the PKK from participation in anti-ISIS efforts.

DON’T drop into a defensive crouch

  • Some candidates and political leaders are already demanding that the U.S. and Europe stop taking in Syrian refugees, close our borders, and focus on monitoring our Muslim populations. President Obama continues to discuss possible American responses in terms of the law enforcement paradigm he believes will be effective against these groups.  These defensive measures will fail.  We cannot close our borders so tightly that determined and skillful adversaries cannot penetrate them, nor can we monitor our own Muslim communities so carefully that no plots could escape our attention.
  • Attempts to rely on these defensive measures will also do the greatest harm to our own way of life and values as free peoples, moreover. Reliably detecting all such plots from among our own populations will turn our countries into police states.  Closing our borders as completely as necessary to prevent any penetrations will disrupt the free flow of goods and people on which we rely and that marks one of our most important liberties.  This defensive path is the quickest route to the erosion of everything we hold most dear.

DON’T line up with the Russians, Iranians, and Assad against the Sunni Arabs

  • The Russian-Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah military coalition is not fighting to defeat ISIS. It has conducted few major operations or airstrikes against ISIS targets.  It is fighting, rather, to maintain the Assad regime, if not necessarily Assad himself, as the minoritarian dictator of as much of Syria as he can hold.  Its military operations have focused on U.S.-backed opposition groups and Islamist groups not affiliated with ISIS because they pose the greatest threat to the regime.  Its objectives are incongruent with ours.
  • Assad himself has been the principal driver of the radicalization of the Syrian conflict. His violent attacks against peaceful, secular protesters in 2011 began this war.  His steady escalation through artillery, air, barrel bombing, and chemical weapons attacks against civilian populations has driven Syrians into the arms of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra and created the massive refugee flows we now see.  He cannot re-establish control of Syria except by the most brutal methods, and he almost certainly lacks the military power he would need even to try.  Supporting him is supporting a continually expanding endless war.

DO take action to drive the Assad regime—not just Assad—from power

  • U.S. policy has become excessively focused on getting Bashar al Assad himself to step down, but more is needed to achieve peace. His departure is essential. He is the symbol of atrocity and violence in Syria, to be sure, but the majority Sunni Arab population of Syria will not accept the continued rule of Assad’s lieutenants either. They will not accept continued domination by a minoritarian ‘Alawite government, in fact, while any representative system in Syria would drive the ‘Alawites from power.  The only political solution in Syria is an inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian government, which will not be achieved by simply removing Assad himself.  It will also not be achieved through the political opposition to Assad alone. The armed opposition must have a place at the peace talks and in the new political order.

DO get the Russians out of Syria

  • Vladimir Putin intervened in Syria to establish a Russian air and naval base on the Mediterranean and to solidify a regional alliance with Iran aimed at expelling the United States from the region. He has also used his base to press on NATO’s southern flank by violating Turkish airspace.  To the extent that he has clear objectives in Syria, they are antithetical to ours—he is interested in solidifying the control of an ‘Alawite government friendly to Russia on the Syrian coast.
  • Putin will therefore likely use his military operations in Syria to deter the U.S. from attacking Assad and to interfere with any such American efforts. He will oppose the establishment of a no-fly zone and try to undermine it.  The U.S. must work to drive Russia out of Syria even as we move against ISIS and Assad.
  • The U.S. should not pursue immediate military action against Russian forces in Syria and should seek to avoid direct conflict with the Russians. We should, however, refer back to the Cold War playbook for dancing with MiGs that we used for decades to raise the cost of Russian adventurism.  We can take many actions to make it harder for Russian aircraft to operate over Syria while deterring any thought they might have about shooting at our airframes.  A single American aircraft carrier, after all, has nearly three times as many combat aircraft as the Russians now have in Syria.  If Putin chose to shoot, it would not be a fair fight.  The U.S. should use that fact to lever him out of Syria’s skies.
  • Radical groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are using Russia’s intervention to stoke their false but resonant narrative that the U.S. is complicit with Russia and Assad in killing Syrian civilians. America’s failure to challenge the Russians and the Syrian regime stokes this false narrative.

DON’T imagine that they couldn’t do that in the U.S.

  • The French police and security forces are among the most competent and determined in the world. They have been on alert for precisely this kind of attack since the Charlie Hebdo murders and the attack on the kosher supermarket.  They generally have fewer restrictions on their abilities to collect information within their own country than do their American counterparts.  If ISIS can beat the French in Paris, they can beat us here.
  • France’s proximity to the Middle East and membership in the European Union certainly made it easier for ISIS fighters to enter and operate. But it took only eight fighters to kill more than 120 people and wound hundreds more.  There is nothing U.S. law enforcement and border security could do to guarantee that a group that small could never enter our country or, once here, plan and conduct an attack like this.  If the enemy is allowed to try as hard and as often as they like from safe havens abroad, they will eventually get through our defenses.