Mr. President: Consider this.
Mr. President, I am admittedly no diplomat; but I was born and raised in Lebanon, I became a U.S. citizen in building my own firm on Wall Street, and I have access to intelligence sources as part of my work monitoring the global oil markets that are shaped by OPEC and the Middle East.
So herewith, some candid advice from a Wall Street financier who truly cares about America’s role in the world and have been at Middle East geopolitics for a couple of decades now.
For a starter, I believe any successful strategy should consist of tackling all 10 fronts below at the same time… Anything short of that will not be effective. Indecisiveness and “leading from behind” brought us here. Our sworn enemies like Iran and its puppet Assad are not going to help us.
So here we go.
1. Build a true international coalition.
One big thing the United States has going for it: Practically no one likes ISIS.
Sure, there are groups and individuals backing the formation of an Islamic State — which is what ISIS calls itself now that it controls a vast swath of Syria and Iraq — governed by Sharia law. Some from oil-rich Muslim states in the Middle East may bankroll the group; others fight.
Yet ISIS has far, far more detractors than supporters. It has a bloody track record of beheadings, crucifixions, stonings, not to mention the widespread slaughtering of minorities, Christians and Muslims who don’t prescribe to its strict interpretation of Islam.
Such actions — like Foley’s execution — spurred widespread condemnation. Some have incentive to go beyond condemnation and act, militarily, against ISIS.
Start with nations that border Syria, like Jordan and Turkey. As its self-ordained caliphate shows, ISIS has shown that it doesn’t abide by national borders. What’s to stop it from advancing into another country, especially if it gets bigger, stronger and richer? That possibility might spur other countries, besides the United States, to step in sooner rather than later.
Even if they don’t neighbor Iraq or Syria, nations with significant populations of Sunnis — which is the sect of most Muslims worldwide, including in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt– may have reason to worry. Like with al Qaeda previously, disaffected young Muslims anywhere– even in the West — could join ISIS, then perhaps deciding to act out in their homelands.
It’s certainly not in the interest of governments in that neighborhood to have (ISIS) wreaking havoc or perpetrating terrible acts of violence. These nations could band together. The United States could be part of this coalition, perhaps letting others take an equal or greater role both in military and funding operations.
The idea of Washington leading “from behind” has precedent: look at Libya. This international coalition got what it wanted with the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But years later, Libya is not a model of anything good: beset by warring militias and without an effective central government.
Bottom Line: We should not get into a position where ISIS can lead us by establishing ground forces. But we should set strategic objectives where we thwart any goal they set themselves, which we should be able to do by superior air power. And then, if we can enlist other countries, or other more local groups to do the ground fighting, we might actually destroy them.
Focus on the handful of the truly “viable” states—Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia—in confronting ISIS and that would be a very good start.
2. Keep up the surgical airstrikes pounding day and night.
Although any sort of strategy that’s predicated only on the use of American military force will not be an enduring solution, this is a very efficient way to keep crippling the enemy without the need for boots on the ground.
Keep up the surgical strikes – particularly focused on oil fields controlled by Assad and ISIS in Syria and Iraq – pounding day and night . This is where they derive most of their power-logistics and other. You cripple those fields and routes and you’ll have them dead in the water sooner than you think.
After all, it is all about the control of natural resources. The one party who controls those resources calls the shots. No need to bomb them directly. This will do the job in a major way. It may not make any dent in global oil prices as this has already been factored in …. beside the fact that what they control at this point in time is still minutia to dislocate global oil prices.
3. Cut off ISIS’s funding.
Implementing sanctions and freezing bank accounts are often the first, least controversial steps to go after a terrorist group. And they can have an impact, but they also have their limits. They take time to coordinate, and it takes time to drain militants’ piggy banks. Plus, it’s not like there’s a readily available list of ISIS donors to go after.
Despite the challenge, go full blast after their wallet and ban, boycott and shut down any financial institution dealing with them. Whatever time it will take, the process will snowball once the right triggers are put in place.
It is clear ISIS is in this for the long haul and are trying to structure themselves in a way that they can hold and expand their holdings. The earlier you go after their finances the faster you will curtail their efforts.
4. Stop fantasizing that Assad is indispensable and that partnering with him against ISIS is a smart move.
It is the dumbest move you will ever make no matter what foreign policy “rookies” tell you. Attacking ISIS is attacking Assad. All the more reason not to hesitate for a moment. You destroy ISIS and you’ll destroy both.
5. Deal with Iran but watch them very closely.
While Iran has been a major backer of Assad, that doesn’t mean his regime follows every Iranian order. The Assad regime has indeed resisted or undermined several Iranian initiatives to broker deals to tamp down violence in Syria, rarely worked. So Iran and Syria are not necessarily the bedfellows people think they are.
There has though come into being a kind of a Shia belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. And this gives Iran the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire — this time under the Shia label — in the rebuilding of the Middle East that will inevitably have to take place when the new international borders are drawn.
This gives Iran a very powerful level from a strategic point of view. So watch out for Iran. It is an even bigger problem than ISIS. ISIS is a group of adventurers with a very aggressive ideology. But they have to conquer more and more territory before they can became a strategic, permanent reality. I think a conflict with ISIS — important as it is — is more manageable than a confrontation with Iran.
6. Support factions in Syria to fight ISIS.
Time has come to stop touting your support for “moderate opposition” battling both al-Assad’s forces and ISIS. Start arming such forces and providing them humanitarian assistance s well. Just because it was not done when we had opportunities doing it made ISIS and Assad much stronger and our security situation much worst.
Arming groups like the Free Syrian Army, can clearly help take out ISIS and become a “game changer” in a major way. It also helps to have someone local you trust to provide on-the-ground intelligence for airstrikes or compliment those strikes with a ground assault.
The goal being to strengthen them, not so much so they can win but so that they can survive and maintain some territory to give us a partner to work with.
7. Support the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq to fight ISIS.
In Iraq there is a clear understanding that military progress requires an alliance with the Shiite-dominated army and government, as well as with allies in the Kurdistan regional government. There’s no appetite for repeating the mistakes of 2003 and undertaking a full military reoccupation; any footprint today will be light — and everyone recognizes that political inclusion and empowerment of both the Sunnis and it goes without saying the Kurds will be crucial this time.
8. Support the Lebanese Army in Lebanon to get out of the Iran- Hezbollah orbit.
Stress to the Saudis and Iranians alike that the struggle against ISIS in Lebanon must be done through the only valid representative of the Lebanese State. Its Army. Not by Hezbollah or anyone else. The Saudis will support you financially and otherwise too; The Iranians will balk… Tough luck. Lebanon can be one of the best allies to the US if provided the right opportunity. Besides, Lebanon has suffered for over 30 years of Syrian and Hezbollah dependence. Hezbollah trying to fool people into believing is the “Moderate Alternative” to ISIS is a farce that has got to end. Hezbollah is no alternative to ISIS. It is the “Harvard” of Terrorism using only different means. Time to deal with both once and for all before the Hezbollah cancer goes beyond control as well. Syria, ISIS, Hezbollah are all made of the same cloth. They all have to go for the benefit of all.
9. Strengthen the “financial” relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
No matter what people accuse Qatar of, they are still playing ball. As an example, the ISIS jihadists contacted Qatar to pay a ransom for James Foley. The amount was huge and Qatar said no – and we also said no. But these movements are also based on personal relationships and not with organizations, so it is difficult to check. However, since we are well present politically and militarily in Doha, I do not believe Qatar would finance a terrorist organization or make advances without our full support. Same goes with Saudi Arabia. Here again, ISIS has indeed relations with some countries, and there are further reports naming Saudi Arabia, but again the relationship may be with some members of the ISIS organization. Bottom Line: I am still not sure of the relationship between Qatar or Saudi Arabia and ISIS. So until our intelligence services prove such a relationship exists, stay the course with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and move them further to our side by asking them to fully support – both financially and politically – our new strategy in the Middle East.
10. Be very firm when sharing your new strategy agenda with Russia’s Putin.
Make it crystal clear to Putin that although we are at loggerheads in Ukraine and elsewhere, including the Middle East, we both agree that the sort of violent Islam practiced by ISIS, which now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, endangers the global order in which both of us compete for influence. It is a fact that nothing focuses the mind like a mortal threat. Given not only ISIS’s savagery but its potential to overthrow regimes and spill over borders, we all agree on one thing: ISIS needs to be stopped along with all the regimes that fund them, back them and support them. Period. It has got to be patched together, somewhat ad hoc, with maybe some sort of informal and even clandestine agreements on who does what. Short of that, we are all facing major upheaval in the upcoming weeks and months.