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What to do about ISIS — a five-part plan

Syrian forces after capturing Palmyra this week from ISIS, which had held the city since May.

What to do with Syria and ISIS is one of the most often debated questions lately. Suggestions vary from President Barack Obama’s past hands-off approach, relying on a belief that this conflict will burn itself out (which it obviously did not), to Secretary of State John Kerry’s hope that he can negotiate with Russia and Iran (why wouldn’t he include ISIS as well according to his idea that we “negotiate with enemies not friends?”), to “just destroy them” (except no one dares suggesting sending significant American military contingent to the Middle East). So let’s think out of the box.

The first thing to do is to simplify the problem to make it solvable (just as in math) — by defining allies (who mostly have common interests with America in this region at this time) to help, foes (who mostly have opposite interests with America and want to hurt us) to harm or destroy, and adversaries (who mostly have opposite interests with America but do not aim to hurt us directly and are also strong) to partially satisfy but not strengthen.

It is, of course, difficult considering the complexities of the conflict: Turkey is against Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS, who are fighting each other, but is also against Kurds who are the best fighting force against ISIS, which is also Iran’s enemy. But Iran is the biggest threat to Gulf States, much more than ISIS, and America’s agreement with Iran amplified their fears and reduced their willingness to fight ISIS, which they fear may help Iran. On the other hand, Assad and Russia are interested in keeping ISIS alive because it justifies their fight against “terrorists.” So, keeping in mind American interests in this region first, let’s identify foes: ISIS, Iran, Assad, Iraq (unfortunately, it is too much under Iran’s influence), and Hezbollah (and by extension, Lebanon, where it governs); allies: Gulf States, Kurds, and Jordan (mostly, because in this fight our enemies are their enemies); and adversaries: Russia and maybe Turkey.

Now here is the plan.

First, promise to help Kurds with their independent state on territories where they constitute majority within Iraq and Syria. Also warn Turkey not to attack Kurds and give them autonomy in exchange for not including Kurdish territories within Turkey into a future Kurdish state and not expelling Turkey from NATO. This will encourage Kurds to keep fighting ISIS, undermine Iraq and Assad (and by extension, Iran), and will keep Turkey under control.

Second, suggest creating an Alawite state under Assad’s leadership north of Lebanon where most Alawites live. Promise Russia to consider recognizing its ownership of Crimea (it is de facto recognized already) in exchange for agreeing to form Kurdish and Alawite states, preventing Assad from helping Hezbollah, and leaving the Donbas region. This will allow Assad to save his face while making him harmless and Russian President Vladimir Putin to get what he wants the most (naval bases in Tartus and Sevastopol) without making him stronger — and will further undermine Iran.

Third, support creating Sunni states from the rest of Syria and Sunni areas of Iraq provided ISIS is defeated. This will hurt Iraq and Iran (and Hezbollah since it will be cut off its main sponsor), but will give Sunnis an incentive to abandon ISIS, which will lose its basis of support (i.e. its presumed fight against Assad and Shia Iraq). This will weaken ISIS enough to either wither away on its own or be defeated by Kurdish and other states around it; in either case, American involvement will not be necessary. And if ISIS gets to power in a new Sunni state (which ISIS de facto already has anyway), it will become more exposed to strikes than when it is a stateless entity.  

Fourth, stop all help to Lebanon – anything that comes there will end up in Hezbollah’s hands since it is a part of the Lebanese government. The painful truth is: The Cedar Revolution is over and Lebanon is lost to Iran. Despite all U.N. resolutions, agreements, and wishful thinking, Hezbollah has acquired more weapons and gained more strength since 2006 thus increasing chances of a nightmarish war with Israel. Confining Assad to his Alawite territories, far away from Hezbollah’s hub in South Lebanon, and separating him from Iran will weaken Hezbollah and Iran.

And fifth, conduct a cyberwar against ISIS and shut down all its websites immediately as they appear; if Anonymous can do it, the CIA can do it better (this has nothing to do with the free speech or “closing the Internet”). That will force ISIS to concentrate on its Middle East operations, where it mostly fights American enemies, rather than encourage terrorism in the world.

Of course, it is important to also know what not to do. Militarily, America should not bomb ISIS without bombing Assad because it helps him and Iran. In fact, totally defeating ISIS in the current situation means making Assad and Iran significantly stronger, which is counterproductive, so it may be reasonable to let Hezbollah and Iran, who would hate an idea of a Sunni state buffer between them, keep fighting ISIS. And ideologically, the so-called “battle for hearts and minds” of people in the Middle East should be abandoned. Regardless of how peaceful Islam may be, terrorists use it as a justification for their acts; so that is where their hearts and minds are and it is impossible to find a replacement for their religion. It should also be remembered that many terrorists are educated and well off, so poverty and lack of opportunities are not the reason for them to become terrorists either. They do not care about our “hearts and minds,” or our limbs and lives for that matter, and neither should we care about theirs.

Osama Bin Laden once said that people prefer a strong horse, and he knew the mentality of people in the Middle East. So let’s become that strong (and smart) horse that people will either prefer or be fearful of. We haven’t been one lately!

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.  


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/31/2016 - 09:31 am.

    All interesting ideas.But

    All interesting ideas.

    But all dependent upon being the king of the world and the dictator of the US.

    Also entirely reminiscent of the great division of the middle east by the Europeans upon the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think that the US is what that part of the world is looking for more of.

    Sometimes a strong horse can appear to be a big ass.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/01/2016 - 09:46 am.

      The Donkey in the Room?

      Sorry, Neal, couldn’t resist your obvious opening here.

      Let’s give a little more thought to these oblique angles.
      If we just give up the region, it’s back to the Russians, Iranians and Syrians. This week’s events at Palmyra are a huge shift of leverage with respect to Moscow.

      As most of us here, I’m not interested in re-visiting cold war considerations; however, I am quite intrigued by what must be seen as Putin’s victory with respect to Syria.

      March 2016 may be the month for many to remember.

      “A-A-A-pril, Come She Will…” [Paul Simon]

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/31/2016 - 09:54 am.


    What would all of this cost, and who’s going to pay it?
    I don’t see any proposal for taxes targeted on the upper 0.!% and the oil interests, who would profit the most from this Bushian nation building exercise.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/31/2016 - 10:00 am.

    And of course

    this would give ISIL more reason to target us rather than Europe.
    As France and Belgium have just proved, ISIL does not live in a single geographic location or Web site (there are many more avenues for electronic communication than Web sites).
    The biggest threat is from resident Islamic populations who have never been integrated into the host society. THIS is where our big advantage lies; we haven’t imported large numbers of foreign ‘guest workers’ who make up the ticking bomb in Europe. The best thing that we can do is to improve our own society so this sort of under class no longer exists.
    Timothy McVeigh and the Black Panthers showed us where our own problems lie.

  4. Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/31/2016 - 11:48 am.

    More magic

    From the kings of smoke and mirrors. Wait, I thought we weren’t to provide aid to areas we’ve destroyed? Wouldn’t nation building be construed as reconstruction? Then again as this plan would lead to regional total war for decades by those folks not inclined to take direction from paternalistic do-gooders (when it suits the narrative, anyway) I guess reconstruction is a moot point. Then again something tells me this outcome isn’t so much a problem as a feature of this half-baked stab at international relations.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/31/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    It’s SO Easy

    to see the speck(s) in your neighbor’s,…

    or a foreign civilization’s eye.

    Except that, when we take the LOGs out of our own eyes,…

    logs made up of our own delusions and dysfunctions,…

    which were programmed into us by our own cultural/family background and upbringing,…

    somehow the specks in those neighbor’s eyes look VERY different,…

    or even vanish all together.

    If you cannot imagine having been raised in the circumstances of,…

    and living the lives of those in very different places and cultures than your own,…

    you have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE how to help them,…

    no idea what type of help they need,…

    nor how they will respond to whatever help you offer.

    As we ALL saw with crystal clarity as the result of the “W” administration’s massively failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan,…

    when the only thing you can imagine is that the problems of the leaders and populations of other nations,…

    result from the reality that they aren’t just like US,…

    your efforts can and will only do further damage to already difficult places and populations.

    Of course you’ll then blame THEM for not being what, if you had any clear sense of reality,

    you would have realized they were never going to be,…

    nor becoming what you deluded yourself into believing they would surely become.

    The struggling nations of the world have to find their OWN way to better lives and better circumstances.

    We can AID them in doing that,…

    but if our aid takes the form of seeking to convert them into us,…

    by use of massive force if necessary,…

    we will ALWAYS fail,…

    even as our radical Islamic brothers and sisters are failing to accomplish anything in the name of Allah at this point,…

    except convincing huge numbers of formerly neutral people,…

    that Islam is, by it’s very nature, evil.

    There has to be a better way for BOTH sides to stem the evil that we,…

    and they,…

    have done and seem determined to continue to do,…

    (which is not to say that it will not be necessary to restrain those individuals who,…

    because of their own dysfunctions,…

    seem determined to do evil no matter what the result,…

    as it has always been necessary throughout human history).

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/31/2016 - 05:16 pm.

    Let’s talk specifics

    Mr. Rovick, I specifically said that what I suggest is based on the American interests only, which is how the American government should think, too, and the interests of others should be considered in that light only. I hope you also noticed that my plan does not include much of force use, just a skillful diplomacy that does take others’ interests into account so long as they align (or at least do not contradict) our interests. As I pointed out, only our enemies will be unhappy with my plan. Maybe it is better to be a strong ass kicking other asses rather than a weak horse being kicked. And no, my plan is different from post WWI war division which didn’t take local conditions into account.

    Mr. Brandon, what in your mind would cost anything in my plan? And how would the “oil interests” be advanced? Sure, they do not like ISIS but I thought that no normal person likes ISIS… And are you saying that America doesn’t need to worry about ISIS because we don’t have “guest workers?” What about illegal immigrants and Syrian refugees? On the other hand, why did ISIS target Belgium which did not bomb them while America did? I am just confused by your comment… By the way, all electronic communication has something to do with some website or servers so they can be targeted.

    Mr. Haas, where did I mention any aid to any destroyed areas? How is political nation building the same as physical reconstruction? Isn’t total regional war what is going on there for half a century now? How about letting people (Kurd, Alavites, Sunnis) what they want as long as they do what we want? And of course, we all appreciate the current state of “international relations,” don’t we?

    Mr. Kapphahn, so who is the neighbor in this case? Why do we have to help them? And who are they – terrorists? Shouldn’t we first help ourselves protect against them? What was wrong with winning the war in Iraq and getting rid of Saddam (I mean it made much more sense than doing it in Libya, didn’t it?). And of course you did not point out a single thing which is wrong with my plan because you can’t talk about any specific issues, just generalities… By the way, coming from a different country, I may actually have more clues than many other people…

    I am interested in the discussion about specific points and issues but don’t see that…

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/01/2016 - 12:41 am.

    Appreciate the effort of thought here

    Ignoring knee jerks of others here, I do compliment you on thinking about this area as a region rather than a series of survey lines.

    I need to re-read and consider your points in more depth before evaluating details.

    On the whole, I appreciate your specifics of considerations, particularly those regarding nation-states that do seem out of place and out of time, caught somewhere between tribal histories and contemporary realities.

    If we can admit that the United States has not been seen as an honest broker here (well before 2003, by the way), we might better understand our fundamental inability to influence positive change.

    More than ever, I am now convinced we must end our determination to view the Mediterranean states (Near East) and Arabian Peninsula states (Middle East) as one region.

  8. Submitted by Tim Walker on 04/01/2016 - 08:54 am.

    Just stop it!

    I stopped reading this opinion piece after reading the outrageous lies in the second line: “President Barack Obama’s past hands-off approach, relying on a belief that this conflict will burn itself out…”

    What a shameful distortion, nay, an outright lie, about President Obama’s strategy.

    Have you not been reading about how the U.S. has, under the direction of Commander in Chief Barack Obama, taken out several high-ranking ISIS operatives?

    Slow and steady wins the race, not a hasty escalation into a ground war, which has never, ever, improved things in the Middle East.

  9. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 04/01/2016 - 12:06 pm.


    If you want to talk specifics, I think the points regarding Turkey are among the most questionable. Turkey’s not going to give up a sizable chunk of their territory, nor would it be feasible or prudent to kick them out of NATO for failing to go along with another round of great power line drawing in the Middle East.

  10. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/01/2016 - 09:49 pm.


    Mr. Walker, if you read the entire piece before stopping after the second sentence, you would have noticed that I did not suggest escalation into ground war, nothing even close. On the other hand, how else can one explain Obama’s statements about ISIS’ being “a JV team” but by thinking that ISIS problem does not deserve attention and interference? As for taking out “several high-ranking ISIS operatives,” this may be an interesting reading:

    Mr. Olsen, I actually did not suggest Turkey give up any territory; instead, it will give Kurds autonomy on its territory and will not oppose Kurdish state outside. As for NATO, it doesn’t need Turkey but again, I didn’t suggest doing it, just using it as a big stick.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 04/02/2016 - 10:13 am.

      Continue Writing Here, Mr. Gutman

      It is clear some folks require either more detail, or reiteration of detail ignored or dismissed.

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