Though the challenges to American interests in the Middle East could hardly be more complex or interrelated, I will attempt to focus sharply on the danger posed by the so-called Islamic State, which today controls approximately 30 percent of Syria and significant portions of Iraq.
The Islamic State is a severe threat to American interests in the Middle East, and the safe haven it represents significantly increases the risk of terrorism directed against Western Europe and the U.S. homeland. But the United States has limited policy options for countering the new Islamic State because defeating the group depends on more stable and non-sectarian governance in both Iraq and Syria, neither of which are forthcoming.
We must be clear-eyed about the resilience of the Islamic State; it is unlikely to be destroyed any time soon and returning to the status quo ante is an increasingly improbable option. At the same time, ignoring the group is unacceptable because it threatens to expand instability outside of Iraq and Syria, including to key countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State aims to upend and then replace all existing order in the Middle East—and has a disconcerting amount of power to invest in that grandiose mission. The Islamic State has essentially upended sovereignty and the post-Ottoman national borders in the Middle East. They have created a new reality on the ground and, despite the unsavoriness, our policy should reflect those practical facts rather than hew to the whims of mapmakers a century ago. Any coherent response to the Islamic State must approach the problem regionally, avoid being stove-piped into distinct nation-state based conversations, and reflect a willingness to support and significantly engage non-state actors like the Kurdish Regional Government.
As such, I will describe here a military and political strategy to contain the Islamic State by strengthening friendly regimes on its periphery, empowering a narrow class of vetted militants willing to target it, and laying the political foundation to capitalize on the governance failures the Islamic State is almost certain to commit.