JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council. I am delighted to see so many friends, old and new.
Tonight's program is a little bit different for us. It is a first joint venture between the Center for New American Security [CNAS] and the Carnegie Council. Our working together on a program like tonight's makes sense at a most fundamental level, and we feel most fortunate for this opportunity.
The mission of the Carnegie Council is to enlarge the audience for the simple but powerful message that "ethics matter."
The mission of the Center for New American Security is "to develop strong, pragmatic, principled national security and defense policies."
So you will notice the common idea in the missions: to think about values and interests, and to provide educational experiences and resources of lasting value to expert and general audiences. You will see this idea reflected in the title of our program, "The Rise of ISIS: Implications for U.S. Strategy, Interest, and Values," and I am sure you will also find echoes of this idea in today's news.
The partnership is meant to connect Washington and New York, which I suppose could be a topic unto itself, but also to provide thoughtful reflection outside of the often frenetic, politically driven, polarized media.
With this as background, I am pleased to introduce Michèle Flournoy, president of CNAS, who will preside this evening. I think everyone here knows Michèle as a scholar, public servant, the recent under-secretary of defense for policy, and one of the founders of CNAS.
Thank you all for coming. Over to you, Michèle.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Joel, thank you so much, and welcome to all of you.
We are so pleased to be launching this partnership with the Carnegie Council because this gives us an opportunity to advance our core mission, which is elevating the national security debate, but doing so in partnership with a tremendous institution, with a wonderful history that reminds us to think about not only our interests when we think about U.S. strategy in the world, but our values.
We couldn't be more pleased to kick off this speaker series with this panel on this topic. We didn't know exactly what the headlines would be in the paper today, but it is hard to think of a more topical issue for us to be addressing: the rise of the Islamic State [ISIS] in the Middle East, the threat that it poses to the region, to the United States, and, as the title suggests, to our interests and values.
We are very fortunate to have a distinguished panel to kick off the conversation tonight. Let me introduce each of them briefly to you.
First is retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Mike has been a real innovator in the United States military. He has held command at every level in our military intelligence infrastructure. But he really revolutionized how intelligence is done inside the military, particularly with regard to supporting counterterrorism after September 11. He was the person who rethought the intelligence function in support of our Joint Special Operations Command, revolutionized military intelligence support to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a real maverick in terms of his thinking and his leadership. He most recently completed leadership of the Defense Intelligence Agency. We are all waiting to see what he goes on to do next. Thank you for being with us.
Unfortunately, Fran Townsend, President Bush's homeland security advisor—her flight was cancelled. Thanks to wonderful spousal support and depth of bench, we have Patrick Cronin's lovely significant other, Dr. Audrey Cronin, who is a counterterrorism expert extraordinaire. She has written a book that many of you may have read—if you haven't read it, you should. It's a Princeton University Press book called How Terrorism Ends, really looking at this from a very strategic perspective. She is a professor at George Mason University and is the director of the International Security Program there. We are so grateful to her for being willing to step in and offer her perspectives on the counterterrorism dimension.
Last but not least, we have Ambassador Robert Ford. Ambassador Ford was our last U.S. ambassador to Syria, from 2011 to 2014. I had the privilege of seeing him on the video screen in embattled situations in the Situation Room on many occasions. Having seen him in some very difficult circumstances, he is very deserving of an award that he was recently given by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, which is a Profile in Courage Award. He has a 30-year career in the Foreign Service. He served as ambassador to Algeria as well. He served in Iraq three times; Bahrain, Cameroon, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey. He is a true expert on the Middle East and on U.S. strategy in the Middle East. We are really grateful that he is with us tonight. He is currently with the Middle East Institute, and you see him frequently in the media.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: With that, let me start with you, General Flynn, to talk a little bit about the threat of ISIS. I think for many Americans the rise of ISIS and the fact that they rapidly expanded out of a safe haven in Syria and took so much territory, including major urban centers in Iraq, was a surprise. Suddenly, they saw American hostages on television, in their living rooms. Can you talk a little bit about where did this threat come from, were we surprised, and how do you see it in terms of a threat to the region and a threat to the United States?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I think, and to try to stay as brief as possible with what we are facing, if you think about everything that we talk about as something that is 1.0 or 2.0 or 3.0, I would put ISIS in the al-Qaeda bucket of technology at about the 3.0 or the 4.0—far more dangerous, far worse than what we saw, those of us that have been paying attention to this for certainly more than a decade or more.
This is an organization that came out of the real challenges that we were facing in Syria, the outcome of the real economic and social—the lousy conditions that existed really in Iraq, and also what we were seeing elsewhere in the larger Islamic world, in North Africa, West Africa. So all these different pieces caused an organization like an ISIS to come about.
What you have is you have a group of leaders in this organization—there are many, many that we faced in Iraq in the early days of 2003, 2004, 2005. In the leadership right now, there are probably 1,500 to, I would say, 2,000 that were in prisons inside of either Syria, Iraq, in some cases Libya, in some cases Egypt, that were broken out and now they are back on the battlefield.
What we are facing is something that we definitely don't appreciate what it is, the depth of their organization, the depth of their belief in the ideology. I think you have to go back to even some of the early writings in the Islamic world. This is the type of belief system that they have.
In terms of were we surprised about what happened—absolutely. The outgrowth of what was happening in Syria—and I know the ambassador will talk a little bit about this—suddenly what you saw was this conflict ongoing at the tactical level in Syria, with multiple groups, multiple actors, all sorts of tension, and then it just sort of springboarded into Iraq. Probably a year ago, a year and a half ago now, we began to see the levels of violence—a really vicious level of violence—begin to uptick in places like Fallujah and Ramadi and Mosul and al-Qaim out in the western part of Iraq. I think it was one of these subtle things. We were still deeply involved in Afghanistan. We began to look at the situation and to say, is this something that we should start to worry about? Because we were so overly focused, I think, on Syria.
Suddenly we began to see this organization, under some very effective leadership, begin to take terrain. They began to take pieces of certainly Eastern Syria and then Northern Iraq. I think what we have to now look at and say is that this is a state, if you will—they have declared themselves as an Islamic state. They have a governance structure that they adhere to. They have a military-like organization. They are running schools. They are running health care. They are doing things that are state-like. I think we have to recognize that.
To take it to another level, what we're facing, particularly with this crowd—and there are many advocates of them, from Nigeria all the way to South Asia and India—we are facing a Middle East that's a new Middle East that is waiting to be born. And it's infectious, not necessarily in a positive way. This infection that is occurring has everything to do with the real poor underlying social, economic, financial conditions that exist throughout the Middle East, but particularly in places like Syria and definitely in Iraq.
The last part of this is really the various actors, not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in the region. One of the other components of this: This is the largest refugee and internally displaced problem in the history of the world right now. That is the size, scale that we are facing with the Middle East right now. The numbers are just unbelievable. They are unprecedented.
If we begin to sense the collapse of one of the regional states, like a Jordan or a Lebanon, potentially the Gulf Cooperation states—but certainly a Jordan or a Lebanon—we could really see the failure of the Middle East as we know it today. I think that we are looking at something that is not going to be solved by killing Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic caliphate. That's not going to win the day. We really are going to have to, as I think is happening, begin to build a coalition to not only understand, but to face what it is that we're facing, and really put this thing in the timeframe of about three to five years, in terms of a measure of how long it's going to take for us to actually get our hands on what it is that's happening.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Let me turn to Dr. Audrey Cronin and ask you about your assessment of U.S. strategy to deal with this threat to date. We have seen President Obama take actions to put U.S. forces on the ground, to train and assist the Iraqi forces to try to prepare them to take back territory that has been lost to ISIS. You see the administration putting together an international coalition that is trying to address this in a number of dimensions. Help us understand the key elements of the strategy and your assessment of how we are doing, maybe some ideas of what more needs to be done.
AUDREY CRONIN: I think in order to answer that question, it's important that Americans realize that ISIS is very different from al-Qaeda. Our strategy that was devised in order to deal with al-Qaeda is very much focused on a particular counterterrorism framework that doesn't fit at all. Al-Qaeda arose from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and wanted as its strategy to mobilize the ummah (Muslim world) for the long-term establishment, eventually, of a caliphate. Their strategy was to mobilize, to reach out and have a global strategy.
ISIS is a very different group. ISIS would never have existed if it weren't for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, frankly. Then it blossomed within the Syrian Civil War. It really gained a tremendous amount of strength on the backs of the Maliki government's response to Sunni protests and the fact that they killed a lot of the protesters that were very unhappy about how Sunnis were being treated in Iraq.
One of the reasons why ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere to us is that they were very heavily supported by people who were formerly allies of ours—Sunnis who are within the Ba'athist military regimes and who are trained by the United States, have American weaponry, have a very clear understanding of American tactics. This is not something that was strictly an al-Qaeda terrorist group. This was the development of an army that actually took advantage of very disenchanted Sunnis.
When the United States is trying to use a counterterrorism framework to respond to ISIS as if it were al-Qaeda, we are very ill-advised, because that counterterrorism framework is now dealing with a group that has much more in common with something like the GIA [Armed Islamic Group] in Algeria, which in the 1990s was engaged in a civil war and was trying to slaughter civilians in order to show strength. ISIS is trying to polarize and to show power, not mobilize, to intimidate. So they are killing Shia, they are killing Christians, they are killing all kinds of people, and there's nothing within that religious justification within Islam that we can pick apart in the way that we tried to with al-Qaeda.
So with that as a kind of background, I think that our approach using a counterterrorism framework, where we have been talking about terrorist financing, de-radicalization programs, all of the traditional tools in this whole-of-government approach to counterterrorism that we used toward al-Qaeda, is now ill-suited for a group that actually has completely different origins and a totally different strategy. They are trying to polarize and to show power, not to attract by mobilizing.
In answer to your specific question, I think that the United States is responding in sort of half measures. I understand, because it's an extraordinarily complex local and regional situation, that it's very difficult for us to put troops on the ground or to use the kind of traditional counterterrorism resources that we have had. It's also not a counterinsurgency. We are not in occupation with Iraq. So our emphasis, by some commentators, on hearts and minds is completely ill-suited.
This is a conventional threat, and we need to face the fact that it is a kind of proto-state. Until we accept that, we're not going to be responding in a way that looks forward rather than backward to the framework that we are so familiar with.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I want to circle back to both of you to get your ideas on what are some of the things we, the United States, the international community, should be doing that we are not, but I want to go first to Ambassador Ford.
The context for all of this is a raging civil war in Syria and broader crosscurrents in the Middle East—competition between Sunni and Shia, competition within Islam, and so forth. I want to draw you out on that broader regional context. Put ISIS in the broader regional framework and give us a sense of how you see the problem and where we should be focusing our efforts to deal with it.
ROBERT FORD: I think Audrey had it exactly right when she said that the Islamic State came out of a sense of an unhappy Sunni Arab community. The most important conflict in the Middle East right now is not Israel-Palestinians; it's Sunni Muslim versus Shia Muslim. The whole fight in Syria and the recent fight in Iraq are really a competition especially between Sunni and Shia, where different regional countries are backing their clients. For example, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Qatar, leading states on the Sunni side of the ledger, are pumping resources and in some cases foreign fighters into Syria and into Iraq to fight on behalf of ISIS. [Editor's note: For more on foreign fighters in Syria, check out Richard Barrett's recent Carnegie talk.]
On the other side, Iran, the leading Shia state, is using its own Revolutionary Guard. They have lost two Revolutionary Guard generals in the fighting in Syria, plus other personnel. They are using Lebanese Hezbollah. They have even mobilized Afghan Shia to go fight in Syria. There are very powerful Iraqi Shia militias—the very same ones, actually, that we were fighting not five years ago in places like Sadr City. Some of the same cast of characters actually are now fighting the Islamic State either in Iraq or in Syria.
To me, the battle against the Islamic State and what we're trying to do comes within a much broader context of this almost existential, in a way, Sunni-Shia battle between Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side and Iran on the other.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Given that broader strategic context, you hear different lines of thinking in American discussions. On the one hand, you hear people say the Middle East is in turmoil. These are trends that the United States cannot control—maybe only in a limited way, affect. We have a different energy position. We have had 13 years of war, with pretty mixed results. Why do we have to be involved in this? What are the interests and values? Why do we care? Why do we have to be involved?
On the other end, you have people who make a very compelling case that the United States has enduring strategic interests in the Middle East, whether it's caring about the free flow of energy and how energy resources are priced in the global market, the security of Israel, the security of key allies. We care about a safe haven, existing or not, for radical jihadists in the heart of the Middle East, particularly if they express a desire to harm Americans or the United States.
I would ask each of you, how do you see our stake, the United States' stake, in what's going on in the Middle East right now?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I would say, number one, it's our reputation and our credibility. I think that has been stated, or certainly implied. Our going into Iraq was probably a huge strategic error, in hindsight, to be very blunt about it. People have to understand that what comes out of the Middle East, not only through the Suez Canal, Persian Gulf—and it's not just about our energy needs. Our energy needs are obviously on the decline right now. We're in very good shape. But it's the energy requirements that are generated out of that part of the world that still flow into Europe and still flow into the Asia Pacific theater. Seventy percent of the oil and natural gas that comes out of there still goes out into places like Japan and China and Southeast Asia.
So the question is, then, why should we be dealing with it; why aren't they dealing with it? In some cases they are, in their own way. In some cases they cannot because of other treaties that have been imposed by international law and certainly by post-World War II things that occurred.
So there are conditions that exist.
The other thing is that, as we're talking about this idea of ISIS, it is not a group that wants to have a particular capital. This is an ideology that is something that most Americans—99.9 percent of Americans don't understand what it is that we're facing. This is an ideology that is—I have sat in rooms with these individuals and have had the opportunity to speak to them, in perfect English. I will tell you, they are about as vicious—they have a long view. They do not like our way of life. They have every intention of perpetuating violence. In fact, much of what they talk about is just the idea of perpetual violence. So we're not dealing with individuals, to me—they are rational in their sense, but not rational in our sense.
We cannot allow the destruction of the nation-state in this region. The potential for the failure of nation-states in this region—and when I say this region, it's not just the Middle East from the Levant down to Yemen, but it's also the potential as it begins to bleed out into parts of Africa, which is very, very real. These are of the same ideological bent. We have to understand that if we allow that to occur—how do we protect it? How we do things is a completely different question and issue.
To me, we cannot allow an organization to have this type of ideology that perpetuates the idea of the breakup of a nation-state.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I want to ask Ambassador Ford to jump in here. You have argued very forcefully, both inside the government and publicly, that the United States does have a stake, certainly in the Middle East, but particularly in what's going on in Syria. Can you sort of flesh out your argument for what is at stake for the United States, both in terms of interests and in terms of morals?
ROBERT FORD: I view our interests on two levels, Michèle.
First, Syria is an important country in the Middle East. It borders a NATO ally, Turkey. Turkey has a 500-mile border with Syria. We have U.S. forces positioned along that Turkish-Syrian border now, under the NATO rubric, to protect Turkey should Syria launch missiles against it. So we're already involved, through NATO, in this fight, although, mercifully, we haven't had any NATO-generated conflict yet.
Syria also borders Israel, of course, and borders Jordan, another key American ally in the region. So Syria matters.
The growth of these jihadi elements, both the Islamic State and the equally unsavory Nusra Front, which is directly loyal to Ayman Zawahiri of al-Qaeda, I think poses a security threat as well. I am very sobered that at least one American jihadi from this al-Qaeda Nusra Front went over, fought for a time for al-Qaeda in Syria, came back to Florida, visited his family, then got back on an airplane and went back to Syria and carried out a suicide bombing. This is no offense at all of colleagues of the Department of Homeland Security, but intelligence always has its limits.
I really worry about Western citizens who have gone over to fight jihad in places like Syria and Iraq, who would then come back, and don't even need a visa. If you are, say, a Belgian citizen, you can come into the United States, or French, or an American citizen, god forbid.
So I think we have a security interest.
Finally, on the moral level, I personally find deeply repugnant that the Assad regime has tortured to death tens of thousands of people. A defector brought out detailed information on just 11,000, complete with photographs and names. He has used poison gas on a scale we have not seen since World War I. He has bombed, consciously, civilian neighborhoods to terrorize people, to intimidate people, such that the casualty toll now on the Syrian civilian side is well over 100,000, approaching 150,000, such that 10 million Syrians out of a population of 23 million have been displaced. As Mike said, it's the largest displaced population since World War II. It's horrific.
That the United States would be perceived, Michèle, as just sort of watching this and doing nothing I personally find abhorrent. I'm not advocating that we rush in American soldiers. In fact, I spent four and a half years in Iraq trying to get a government there stood up so we could get American soldiers out. But there are people on the ground who are moderates. They are fighting both the Islamic State, on one hand, and the Assad regime, on the other hand. Those people, I have felt for years, deserve our support. They are the third way.
Frankly, the delays in getting help to them from the United States—other countries are sort of waiting for us before they go hard in—those delays are actually closing our window of opportunity, such that it's not inconceivable that soon in Syria we will have the choice between this awful Assad regime and this horrible Islamic State. That really is not a choice that the next president of the United States should want to have to make.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Let me stay with you for a second. Then I'm going to come back down the line and ask each of you what should our strategy be. Each of you has implied that we don't have it right. What are some of the concrete things that the United States should be doing, as the United States or as the leader of this broader international coalition, to address the situation as you described? Ambassador Ford, I'm going to start with you.
ROBERT FORD: On Iraq, actually I'm more hopeful. I look at this fight against ISIS as a long war. There's a western front in Syria and there's an eastern front in Iraq, but it's the same war.
On the eastern front in Iraq, there is better news. The Iraqi government has done some good things. But there are two dangers, and the administration urgently needs to address both.
The first is that the Iraqi government, although it has made progress, particularly with Kurds on political issues, is heavily dependent on Shia militias. These militias are backed heavily by Iran. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International last month issued very detailed reports about the human rights abuses committed by the Shia militia. Not surprisingly, Iraqi Sunnis battling in this Sunni-Shia context that I described before are adamantly against the Shia militia coming into their areas, into their cities and towns. In fact, if they did, it would probably aggravate the Islamic State problem.
We need those militias to be contained. The New York Times had a very good article about how these Iranian militias basically practiced a scorched-earth policy in a Sunni town that they cleared the Islamic State out of. That was over the weekend. That kind of scorched earth is not going to win us the war against the Islamic State on the eastern front.
The other thing we need—if not the Shia militia, who? The answer is both [the militias] and an Iraqi national army that is non-sectarian, Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds—that needs to be built back up. Unlike last time, we need to pay attention to the corruption problems. We knew about the corruption problems before. We just didn't do anything about it. This time we have to do something about it. And we have to help the Sunnis in Iraq that are willing to fight. We have to arm them and get them going.
There was a deal among the Iraqis to do that. I notice that Iran's friends in Baghdad are starting to walk that back. That's a problem again.
On the western front in Syria, the window is really closing to help this third way that I mentioned. They are very much on the back of their heels up in the north, pressed between the anvil of the Islamic State on one side and the Assad regime on the other. If we're going to help them, we need to move urgently. It is literally a matter of weeks, a couple of months at most.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: What does that look like?
ROBERT FORD: What that looks like is this: urgently send in much greater supplies of ammunition; urgently send in greater supplies of anti-tank weapons. We have been sending in anti-tank weapons for about a year and have had no problems. We need to work with groups we know. We've been working with them now for over a year, but we need to do more, not send in five or six every week.
We need also to give them cash. Cash really matters in a civil war, because the fighters on all the sides have families to support. They use the cash to help their families. One of the ways you could bring a lot of the young people who are not Islamic ideologues—the leadership that Mike was talking about, they are, but a lot of the fighters in these groups actually joined the jihadists because there is more money, they have better supplies of ammunition, and they have more food. So if we could help the moderates compete on that level, I think, at a minimum, we would dent their recruitment. And we have to dent the recruitment.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Dr. Cronin, you implied that we're taking an al-Qaeda sort of warmed-over strategy approach to ISIS. What's the right approach? If you were briefing President Obama and said, "Sir, these are the five things you should do," what would you recommend?
AUDREY CRONIN: First, I would like to agree with the ambassador. I think it was the right approach some years ago, that we should have supported the moderates. It's quite ironic now that ISIS has howitzers, MRAPs [mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles], Humvees—American weapons—when the main reason that we didn't support the moderates was that we were afraid that those weapons would fall into the wrong hands. It makes our policy look a little bit illogical, at the very least.
I'm a lot less enthusiastic about talking about American prestige and credibility, because that becomes a zero-sum game. If you are talking about prestige, anything that goes against what looks like an American approach can draw us into absolutely every fight.
I'm a lot more interested in looking at specifically what the interests are now. Those interests—I'm much less optimistic about the role of the moderates. I think we have missed that opportunity, to support them. I would say that our top priority now needs to be to realize that we have entered the realm of high politics. One of the reasons why the Syrian regime continues to exist is that they are supported by Russia. Turkey plays a very large role.
We need to stop pretending that we can have parallel actions with Iran without confronting a little bit more directly in a diplomatic way what exactly the Iranians are doing and how that compares and contrasts with what we are doing on the ground.
We need to realize that this is not a fight just between the United States and ISIS. This is a regional fight. We need to work much harder at the regional level with these major powers to stabilize the region in order to contain, at least in the short term, ISIS, and then move together with those large powers, who are taking action anyway, to come to a regional solution.
As long as we continue to put this into that dichotomous perspective where it's the United States versus ISIS, we are destined to fail, I fear.
MICHAEL FLYNN: Last summer, the assessment was about 550 foreign fighters a month entering Syria. We believe those fighters represent over 50 countries in the world. As of today, we think the number of nations represented by foreign fighters going into Syria is actually higher. It could be as high as 80 countries. We believe that number went from about 550 to about 1,000 a month entering Syria. Some of the leaders who are running this organization are not Syrians. They are not Iraqis.
I say that because there is a very, very dangerous dimension to this thing that will return and bite us all at some point in time.
So what do we do about it? Diplomatically, we absolutely have to have an Iraq strategy first, but we have to be agile enough to have a Syria component to this thing. We can do that. We, the United States, certainly can lead the international community. That's a diplomatic step. Make it about getting the Iraqi government, the current government, to reconcile not only with their Sunni tribes inside of Iraq, but the larger Sunni community. They have to do that. If they don't do that, then we will have a massive Shia-Sunni civil war. To a degree, there are elements of that going on right now.
From an informational standpoint, we have to pour it on. It has to be international, it has to be certainly in this country, and it definitely has to come out of the region. The region has to use all elements that they have of their information weapons, whether it's talking to their own people, whether it's media, whatever it is. This ISIS crowd has absolutely stolen the day on the information campaign, and their message is resonating. Whether you want to hear it or not, it's resonating. The number of hits that they get on their websites is stunning, and how many people are following what they are doing. It's unbelievable.
From a military perspective, what are the military steps that we can take? There were thousands of Syrian military that left the Syrian military during the last couple of years because they didn't like the Assad regime. They are now in these refugee camps. We're in the process of trying to recruit and get some folks out of these countries and bring them back to be vetted and trained and get them back in there to do some military tactical thing.
What we ought to be really looking at—we know that there are many in the military that did leave, and we know that there are some that—these guys are trained. They know their organizations. They know how to use equipment. There is some of that that exists right now.
The last thing is the economic piece. I think there needs to be economic conditions imposed on the region. I'm not just talking about Iraq or Syria, but imposed on these other countries in the region that benefit from the wealth of the United States, certainly from the wealth of the international community. There has to be some thought about how we impose levers and how we move those levers economically.
At the end of the day, the military component, which gets all the media—how many bombs we have dropped—that's a lower-case instrument of national power. It is the least decisive of all of the elements that we can bring to bear. I think it's something that we would have to really seriously think about. In strategy, the sum of tactics can actually equal strategic failure. If all we do is tactical things and it makes us feel good, summing them all up actually can achieve strategic failure.
As the ambassador has stated—he's talking weeks. That's the first time that I have actually heard somebody say that. But I don't disagree with that. I think we are past where we have time to be thinking about this. We definitely need action. But we have to not just have action that makes us feel good by killing a couple of leaders. That was the al-Qaeda strategy. The al-Qaeda strategy was to get rid of the leadership. That failed. That was a failed strategy from the beginning. They just kept growing and growing and growing. These guys have learned that.
That's why I say the military instrument is actually the least decisive. All these others, especially the diplomatic one—I would say, of all of them, the economic component—there have to be some rules that we impose, conditions.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I'm going to pick up on an item in the news today. Since we are at the Carnegie Council and ethics do matter, it gives us an opportunity to step back and reflect on how the United States has prosecuted its counterterrorism efforts over the last decade or more. As you may have read in the newspaper this morning, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report that was extremely critical of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA's use of certain interrogation methods that they described as being synonymous with torture.
I think, whatever you think about the details, the report really provides us with an important opportunity to step back and think about the ethics of our own approaches and how we need to consider maintaining the moral high ground, maintaining our own integrity, our own values, as we deal with some of these threats.
I want to just ask for comment—maybe starting with you, Dr. Cronin—ask for your thoughts on what we should learn from this report and from this period as we think about how to deal with these threats going forward.
AUDREY CRONIN: I haven't had a chance to read the report yet, but I have been a very vocal critic of the heavy dependence upon the decapitation strategy. I have also been very concerned about the degree to which we seem to have forgotten some of our fundamental values when it comes to the question of interrogation, and that the costs to American reputation have been higher than any potential gains that might have been achieved, whatever those are and however fraught those are about to be argued in the media. Those gains are not worth the damage to our moral credibility throughout the world.
It is no accident that the Islamic State, ISIS, is now attracting young people, who are drawn towards something that looks as if it's successful, and is engaged in the most horrendous, brutal kind of violence. Nonetheless, these young people are looking for some sort of answer in a world in which some of them are no longer seeing that American "city on the hill" that we all so deeply believe in, in the way that we feel and should be projecting toward them.
This is by no means saying that this is the fault of the United States. That's not my point. My point is that when you have three young teenagers who grow up in a suburb of Chicago and who are Americans and who decide that they are going to go off and join this horrendous Islamic State, with no warning to their own parents, because they are attracted to the idea of success, action, and, even the young woman among them, to go off and be a bride for an Islamic State fighter, there's something wrong about that image. We need to compete better with that image by being much more true to our own ideals.
So I very much fear what's going to happen within the next few weeks and month as that report is debated in the press, because it's only going to be even more damaging. That's going to hurt our campaign against ISIS and against al-Qaeda far more than any kinds of military gains will.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: General Flynn, do you want to speak to this issue?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I'll tell you what, I think it's very dangerous for a time, because it exposes the United States to something that we—I think history will look back on it and it won't be a pretty picture, regardless of all the people that you have heard in the media, what they have said.
I think it was pretty telling—I caught a little bit of Senator Feinstein's statement on the Hill today, and I was able to read Senator McCain's response. I would encourage all of you to read Senator McCain's response. Senator Feinstein was incredibly articulate about why the report. I was interested to see what the other side would say. In this case I thought Senator McCain's very thoughtful—from an individual who really experienced enormous levels of torture himself—what his response was going to be.
If there's an American strategic advantage, it is our values. We must protect our values at all costs.
There is a great story about a young rifleman who is just killing his way through a street, and in a second he stops being this incredible soldier doing his job and he protects a child—picks a child up, hugs it to himself, exposes his backside to the fire that he's taking, and saves the child.
That's an American value. That is not only a heroic act, it's an American value.
That kind of story happens all the time, and that's what we want our military to be seen as, this really incredible, ethical organization that this place is espousing as well.
I would say, though, when it comes to terrorists on the battlefield, there are only three ways to get them off the battlefield: You kill them; you capture them—and if you capture them, you have to do something with them; you put them into a judicial system of the country you capture them in or, if it's from a foreign country, you have to have some international capability to get them back—and the third way is, you turn them. There has been some moderate success by some countries—I would say the Saudis in particular—to be able to take some of these young men that go off and fight, and when they are returned, they are able to turn them back into being full-fledged citizens, if you will.
That's it. There is no other way. We are going to have to pay very close attention especially to the Americans that are, in fact, joining this group. We have to ask the question, why? Is it our own—now let's just be very selfish and look at the United States. Let's have self-interest here for a second. Is it our own problems in our own society and what is going on in either the urban or the rural areas of this country, where people don't have opportunities? I don't know. I don't know what the case is.
I'm familiar with the group you are talking about. I don't know what all those cases are, though, but there's a bunch of them out there. There is a fair number of Americans that join. You think, "Jeez, why would anybody want to leave this great country?" It's the same way throughout Europe, in many other countries.
Why does this idea resonate with young people enough to the point where they are willing to put on a vest and go blow themselves up? Think about that. It's unthinkable.
QUESTION: Jim Traub, with Foreign Policy.
Ambassador Ford, you and I have talked, and I wanted to ask you about this. You said it's a matter of weeks or months. My impression is that, from the point of view of the Obama administration, which is not focused on Syria as such, but Iraq, it's a matter of years. If nothing happens in a few weeks or months or whatever it is, what's plan B?
ROBERT FORD: It's not clear to me that the Obama administration, on the Syrian side, the western front, has a plan B. What I can tell you is that it will be really hard to make sustainable progress in Iraq against the Islamic State if the Islamic State enjoys deep strategic depth in Syria, because it's one conflict.
I was just in meetings in Berlin, Germany—I got back last night—where I met several Iraqis whom I have known for 10 years. Boy, did they emphasize that point. They were actually kind of nervous that what we're doing in Syria isn't very clear to them.
The administration is slowly moving towards arming and training moderate armed opposition fighters. That's a good thing. Better late than never, perhaps. But they are moving so slowly, and they have this idea in their heads, in the administration, that those fighters they train are only going to fight the Islamic State. That would be great if it was true, but it's just not true. Assad has killed probably 30 to 40 times more people than the Islamic State has killed in Syria—30 to 40 times more. So while they certainly will fight the Islamic State, they are also going to fight Assad. All the international lawyers in the world arguing about the definition of sovereignty and the United States having to respect international law isn't going to change that political reality on the ground in the Syria.
MICHAEL FLYNN: I would just add, I mentioned this business about Iraq first. Syria has got to be a real close second. There has to be a strategy like that. Now that we're focused on Iraq, there's a big belief by the Free Syrian Army crowd—and it's a crowd of them—that we have forgotten about them. We have to be very careful about that, and not just dropping bombs in Syria and forgetting about it.
I'm over-generalizing a little bit, but not much.
On the Iraq side, there is vicious fighting in the capital city of Baghdad between Shia and Sunni today. That fighting has been going on for over a year. That's the capital city of Iraq. There are 4 million people there.
So we have to understand that there is really bad blood between the Iraqi government and the Sunni community and certainly the Sunni tribes in Iraq. That has to be reconciled at the same time we are trying to do exactly what Ambassador Ford has just explained.
QUESTION: David Speedie, Carnegie Council.
You all did an excellent job in portraying the regional ramifications of the ISIS situation. Iran came up a number of times. It's an interesting situation. As someone said, two Revolutionary Guard commanders have been killed in the ISIS operation. Of course, there isn't an official American-Iranian dialogue on what is going on in the ISIS operation, but clearly we are aware of the Iranian engagement.
At the same time, in Geneva, there's a sort of kicking-the-can-down-the-road exercise going on in the P5+1. The Iranians also, of course, have constantly said that this is more than just a nuclear issue. They would like there to be talks on more than just the nuclear question. Clearly this is other than the nuclear question going on with ISIS.
How do you see this as a possible harbinger for U.S.-Iranian relations, if at all?
ROBERT FORD: I actually feel really strongly about this, because I view this as a grenade which we are going to step on if we are not careful.
I go back to what I said at the start. This is a regional Sunni-Shia conflict being played out in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, other places. If we line up with Iran, we will be perceived by a very large aggrieved Sunni community, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, as taking the Iranian side. I can't think of a better way to help the Islamic State recruit more fighters. It's a gold mine to Baghdadi, and, worse—and worse—it won't even help. Why? Because the Iranians and their Syrian friends don't have enough troops to actually fight the Islamic State and take back all the territory in Syria that the Islamic State has captured. The Islamic State basically controls the eastern half of Syria now. Assad and the Iranians don't have enough troops on the ground to take it all back. In fact, they are not even able to take back the suburbs of Damascus, and they try daily.
So it both has no benefit in the short term and it has a hugely damaging—strategically damaging, when we think about the recruitment to these groups—impact. I really hope people in Washington, who like easy answers to hard questions—this is a hard question, but this is absolutely not the right answer.
MICHAEL FLYNN: And I would just say that, because you brought the P5+1 in, now you are also bringing in Russia, China, clearly Europe, the European Union, NATO, all the various organizations that internationally are trying to solve this issue of Iran wanting to develop a nuclear weapon and do it under the disguise of nuclear energy. I will tell you, the Iranians still today have killed more Americans than al-Qaeda ever has. You start adding up all the various attacks that they have done, from the Marine barracks in Beirut to embassy bombings to the Cole. The guy that's in charge of Iranian forces in Iraq today is a guy we captured because he was killing Americans in Iraq. He got out of prison and how he's back running Iranian operations.
We can't kid ourselves about Iran. Iran should not have an equal seat at any table. It should be the dominant global leaders that are making the decisions about what it is that we think—we collectively need to be able to develop some methods so countries can contribute to turning this thing around, instead of not contributing, which I don't see Iran doing right now.
AUDREY CRONIN: The only thing I would add—it's a slight dissent—is that Iran is a major power with whom we need to deal. I think negotiating with Iran and having discussions about what is happening in the region is not the same as aligning with Iran. We cannot continue to treat it as if it's a pariah state, because the outcome of that kind of lack of normal or even possible diplomatic relationship is an even worse outcome, when it comes to the development of nuclear power, as well as the potential for our actions and their actions to be against each other.
I'm afraid that these opposite poles that people tend to see as either aligning with Iran or not negotiating with Iran—we have to be a little bit more subtle and more nuanced in how we carry out our negotiations. We dealt with the Soviet Union for many years. That was a country that could obliterate us hundreds of times over. I think we need to deal with Iran in a mature way.
QUESTION: Good evening, and thank you. LeAnne Howard. I'm from Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa.
Based on the comment you just made, I'm almost afraid to ask this question, because I don't want it to be too simplistic. If we are looking for a core issue overall and trying to find a starting place to deal with this, could we look at inclusive governance, or the lack thereof, and the security that goes with that inclusive governance as the starting point? If so, should we have a stronger operational, diplomatic, and informational focus, with military and economic levers buying time and space? Is that a better framework? Or is there a different framework that we should be applying?
Then how do we work towards this while applying military force? Do we have an issue with mixed messages?
Finally, is this all realistic with the nation-state model that they have in the Middle East right now? If there is a plan B or a C or a D, should we think through with the region balkanization to some extent?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I'll give you a 30-second answer. We are sort of in a post-Picot era right now. There is going to be a new Middle East by the end of this decade. It is going to look different. There is going to be a different shape to it. There is going to be a different dynamic. There is going to be a lot of conflict to get there. Whether or not we are participating in it in a major way remains to be seen. I'm not going to predict that.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: That's a big headline. Do you both agree with that, that the international boundaries of the Middle East will be changed fundamentally in the next decade and it will not be like it has been?
AUDREY CRONIN: They already have been. Absolutely. The United States is naively hubristic if we think that we can re-create Iraq simply because we want to. The Iraqis themselves have to want to, and I'm not at all convinced that Iraq exists right now. You have the Kurds, you have the Sunnis, you have the Shia, and we're trying to look back towards 2003 and see Iraq the way we wanted to rebuild it. But that's water under the bridge now. It's up to the Iraqis.
Again, this two-sided perspective, that the United States is going to go in there and shape what's happening in Iraq, is not realistic.
MICHAEL FLYNN: Tribes matter. Ambassador Ford, you lived this. Tribes matter. They don't care about governance in some central location. In many cases they don't. I feel like that's a part of what we are seeing rising back up.
ROBERT FORD: First, to answer your question, inclusive governance is an ideal. There are a few success stories. Morocco has a government with both secularists and Islamists. The king is still there, and the king is still very influential, but he has brought Islamists in. The prime minister of Morocco, who does the day-to-day stuff, is an Islamist. Morocco is one.
Tunisia just had both parliamentary and presidential elections, and a secularist beat an Islamist. It's the first time I have ever seen an Islamist lose a free and fair election in an Arab country. That was quite interesting. But they will probably end up also with an inclusive government that combines both.
I'm mildly optimistic about Iraq. They have made some progress. They have a long, long, long way to go. But I don't hear a lot of Iraqis demanding the breakup of their state. I don't even hear it from Kurds. I hear Kurds kind of talking about it like, "Watch out, we might be independent." But that sounds to me almost like the Baltimore Orioles saying, "Watch out, we might try to hire one of the best New York Yankee players," knowing that we can't afford his salary. [Laughter]
I think where General Flynn might be right is, it's very hard for me to see how Syria is ever going to be put back together. There has just been a lot of blood.
Yemen is another failed state. I don't know exactly where that is going to go.
So I could imagine that some of the borders may change, Michèle, but it's not preordained that the entire state system in the region is going to collapse. Rather, I think we will have some places where it's under greater strain than others. This is a case where individual leaders and their personalities really matter. The difference between the current prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, and how he is able to work with Kurds and work with many of the Sunnis, and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, is night and day. If only we had not supported Nouri al-Maliki back in 2010. But we did.
This maybe gets to Audrey's point. Be careful that we think we can control this, because a lot of times we insist on one particular individual. We have a really low batting average on that kind of thing.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Let me just ask one last question. Given the importance of the individual leader, of Assad, is there anything that you believe we, the United States and the coalition, could do and should do, would be in our interests to do, that would affect his calculus and actually bring him to the sorts of negotiations that Dr. Cronin was describing?
I think the kinds of efforts to train and equip at this late stage, the type of time that would take, the type of fruits that would—it's hard to kind of close the gap in seeing the kind of impact that would actually affect Assad's calculus.
What brings Assad to the table for a negotiated solution? Is that something that we can and should stomach? Is it actually in our interests to do whatever that thing is?
ROBERT FORD: I can imagine a variety of things that would affect his calculation. One would be if we launched heavy airstrikes on his military targets. That will affect his calculation instantly.
But the problem with that is, then what? This is kind of Iraq all over again.
To me, it makes more sense to understand that this is going to be a long conflict, Michèle. There is no fast answer. I do agree that we need to talk to the Iranians, but talking to them and actually working with them are different things. If we could convince the Iranians to do what they did in Iraq and drop Iranian support for Maliki—it wasn't just American support; it was also Iranian support—the Iranians eventually did drop their support for Maliki. But why did they do that? I think if the Iranians withdrew their support from Bashar al-Assad, even if Bashar doesn't agree to come to the table, the people around him will agree to come to the table. That's how dependent they are on Iran and those Shia fighters that they organize to go fight in Syria.
What would affect the Iranian calculation? I think there are two things. One, what we saw in Iraq was that as the military situation turned frighteningly bad for Nouri al-Maliki, they began to get more flexible. Again it gets into this question of how you change the balance on the ground, aiming not for victory, but aiming for negotiation.
The second is that there needs to be a viable alternative. Haider al-Abadi's name came out of something that we did do well in Iraq. We actually created a parliament where they have real live parliamentary discussions. They are not perfect, but it works. Haider al-Abadi's name came out of that process. We don't have a process like that in Syria. There is no parliament that would play that role.
But I think any assistance we give to change the balance on the ground, Michèle, has to be coupled—and I mean this—in a very stern conditionality that opposition fighters we help must—must—open discussions with the disaffected Alawi community in Syria. There were demonstrations yesterday against Assad in his own heartland, and the police had to fire. It's the first time they have ever done that. The Alawis are tired, too, and they want an endgame.
We need to get Syrians talking to Syrians about the endgame. We tried in Geneva. We got laughed out. The regime said, "Forget it." We can't go back to Geneva. We are going to have to find another way to get Syrians talking to Syrians.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: We are unfortunately out of time. I would like to have you join me in thanking our panel for an excellent discussion.
I would also like to again thank the Carnegie Council for partnering with us in this effort, and particularly Carol Deane and Gerry McManus for making this possible from a CNAS perspective. Thanks again.