A Strategy to Defeat ISIS

It has been a little over a year since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the caliphate in Mosul on 29 June 2014. Since then, ISIS has expanded its dominance in the region and there is little evidence that it is getting weaker. In that same period much has been written and there is considerable debate regarding a strategy to defeat — and narratives to counter –ISIS. However, no comprehensive solution existed until now. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. must implement a population-centric strategy based upon three lines of effort that require simultaneous implementation and detailed coordination. The fundamental components of the population-centric strategy consist of the following:

1. A comprehensive communications plan that undermines the ISIS propaganda machine;

2. Ground combat operations conducted by a multi-national coalition force;

3. Distribution of basic goods and services to non-combatants in Syria and Iraq.

The population-centric strategy outlined here is designed to defeat ISIS by eroding its base of support through local stakeholders within the population. Moreover, it provides political and military decision makers a tailored road map that includes tactical, operational and strategic recommendations to implement across the three lines of effort and aligns ongoing military, humanitarian and diplomatic efforts under a common objective. With the proper authorities, resources and commitment, application of the population-centric strategy can result in the defeat of ISIS within 12 months.

Comprehensive Communications Plan:

There is only one core extremist narrative. It is simple, it is absolute and it is seemingly unassailably true. It is nonviolent — but leads toward violence. It is ubiquitous and agreed upon by movements of different ideological backgrounds from ISIS to Abu Sayyaf to Boko Haram to core al-Qaeda and it is buttressed by activities and actions that attempt to counter it. The narrative is “Islam is under attack.”

When this narrative is combined with the ISIS message that was legitimized when al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the caliphate, ISIS’ message becomes more powerful, resolute and resonates with Muslims in the region and around the world. Al-Baghdadi’s message is simple. It requires all Muslims to pledge their allegiance to the Caliphate and that soldiers of Islam fight against the infidels, apostates and the Shia to fulfill the prophecy and ensure victory. Muslims in oppressed societies gravitate to this message and apply it to their unique personal experiences. One ISIS fighter in Iraq described his reason for joining as, “we all fight as a reaction to the tyranny and injustice we had known before. Islamic State is the best option for oppressed people in the Middle East.” Another fighter in Syria said, “at first we dreamed of having a revolution and gaining our liberty but unfortunately the popular movement was not well organized and was manipulated by neighboring countries such as the Gulf States, so revolution turned into jihad.”

The U.S. cannot effectively counter or defeat the ISIS message using existing narratives. Each time we attempt to discredit or undermine ISIS activities it is turned around and used against us. When the United States and its allies successfully target violent extremist leaders or cells, the spokesmen for these extremists twist the events, not into an attack against radicals, but an attack against all Muslims. The Nusra Front has stated that air strikes are a “war against Islam” and that “These states have committed a horrible act that is going to put them on the list of jihadi targets throughout the world.” ISIS claims U.S. strikes are “a clear message that the war is against Islam.” These narratives have been able to continually attract more fighters and radicalize lone-wolf attackers abroad.

Westerners have no credible voice speaking about Islam, the prophecy or the caliphate. For these reasons, we need to create a new narrative that does not attack ISIS or try to counter their recruitment activities. Our core narrative must tell a story of “humanity” that consumes the ISIS message and extremist narrative because it is greater and more powerful. It must be simple yet elegant and transcend race, religion, tribe and ethnicity. But most importantly, the narrative must amplify the voices of messengers within Muslim societies because they bring the narrative to life and give it legitimacy. The narrative is “Daesh evil must be defeated for the good of humanity.”

Daesh evil must be defeated for the good of humanity.”

The core narrative Daesh evil must be defeated for the good of humanity and its supporting narratives of solidarity, hope, goodwill and a better way of life are woven into every coalition activity to illustrate the irrefutable moral responsibility it has to the people of Iraq, Syria, the Middle East and the world. By joining together to defeat ISIS, the coalition’s mission is to restore stability and deliver a safe, inclusive, prosperous future for all regardless of ethnicity or faith. Under these narratives, the coalition is not viewed as infidels but rather as defenders of honor and freedom, fighting against oppression and injustice that weigh down the souls of societies.

These narratives are used to embolden citizens to take back their own land with their own blood and sweat. Narratives are reinforced through simple stories that arouse popular support and build trust. That is necessary because social trust in Iraq and Syria — as in most of the Arab countries — tends to be deeply aligned with tribal affinities or other traditional informal structures. In other words, trust, and thus political legitimacy, tend to circulate locally and do not readily migrate to far-away capitals.

A Different Approach:

Today’s conflicts require new strategies and techniques to counter asymmetric threats employed by ISIS and contemporary adversaries. More importantly, they need rich contextual understanding of cultures, religions and ethnic groups to design effective operations. The failures of recent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq prove this to be true and the current approach to defeating ISIS has been ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. For example, the air campaign has had limited success and does not separate ISIS from the population — air strikes actually force ISIS to embed with local populations to avoid being targeted. Training and arming Free Syrian Army units under the current system is complex due to requirements to vet individuals and takes a considerable amount of time and resources. Supporting Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) is a viable option. Unfortunately, the Turks have political concerns regarding the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Drone strikes that target key leaders are ineffective and Special Forces units cannot conduct clear and hold operations, which are required to defeat an insurgency.

The truth is that ISIS cannot be defeated without a ground game; words without actions are meaningless. ISIS is conducting an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, which requires a population-centric approach to erode its support and undermine its activities to win. Having forces on the ground is paramount to any successful counter-insurgency operation. An ISIS fighter in Syria speaking about American airstrikes said, “they can’t achieve much without ground forces.” In Iraq, the majority of the Sunni tribes in Anbar have not joined the fight against ISIS because they feel betrayed by the United States. One tribal elder who fought alongside US forces stated that “the Americans have no credibility” and “We no longer trust what they say.” Many Sunnis in Iraq trust the Islamic State more than the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. People need to see a commitment and resolve before they will risk their lives and choose an alternative over ISIS. However, current diplomatic, humanitarian and military efforts are disjointed, ineffective and do not provide a viable alternative.

According to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS, the battle against western forces will occur in Dabiq, Syria. The prophecy says that following the victory in Dabiq is the appearance and final defeat of the Islamic version of the Antichrist at the hands of (the Islamic) Mahdi. Devout ISIS fighters believe profoundly in the prophecy and are not discouraged by the current U.S. military action because the prophecy foresees its forces being decimated before they achieve victory. Neither are they afraid of death. Even foreign fighters whose lives were miserable at home — motivated by women and money and who may not fully understand Islam — embrace the idea of death. ISIS fighters are motivated by a battle in Dabiq because they believe it will ultimately bring victory. To most Westerners, it is counterintuitive to believe that death brings victory, but this is logical and rational among many ISIS fighters and its recruits.

To defeat ISIS, requires destroying them militarily and destroying their narrative. This can be achieved by deploying ground combat forces to Dabiq to fight ISIS. By occupying Dabiq, the coalition sends a message to ISIS that it is ready and willing to fight, and help ISIS fulfill the prophesy. Dabiq is a sparsely populated, non-urban environment that is comprised primarily of agrarian based communities, which makes it a perfect area to engage ISIS in a conventional battle. By deploying forces to Dabiq to engage ISIS, the coalition achieves the following tactical, operational and strategic objectives.

· It leaves ISIS vulnerable to conventional ground warfare and air strikes;

· Stresses ISIS’ logistics capabilities to move troops and equipment from Syria and Iraq to Dabiq;

· Removes the asymmetric advantage of urban warfare that they currently employ;

· Creates opportunities to disseminate narratives that undermine ISIS propaganda and;

· Delegitimizes them with potential recruits within their rank and file and the Muslim community around the world, if they do not fight.

If the coalition force is met by ISIS at Dabiq, they will employ all means available to decimate them. However, it is highly unlikely that the majority of ISIS forces will show up at Dabiq. In that case, the coalition force acts as a hammer (pushing east) from Dabiq to Raqqa and then further onto Iraq conducting clearing operations as it defeats ISIS along the way. Let us not forget, in Desert Storm the march to Baghdad lasted only three weeks and crushed Iraq’s conventional army. The same can be done against ISIS.

Only a multi-national coalition force can defeat ISIS. There is no other alternative. Ideally, the coalition should be comprised of nations from the region and around world that represents a diverse cross section of religions, ethnicities and cultures. Having a coalition with a diverse composition demonstrates solidarity and commitment to defeat ISIS and the threat of like movements. The narrative of “solidarity” is woven into the communications plan to support the populations-centric strategy. The coalition force should include countries like the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China and other nations that are willing to contribute. Building such a coalition would not be easy but is the only way to defeat ISIS entirely.

Even more difficult than building a coalition would be obtaining permission for coalition forces to enter and operate in Syria. Negotiations with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime should focus on reaching an agreement where coalition forces can operate across Northern Syria to defeat ISIS. Negotiations with Turkey will also be required to use its bases as logistics hubs and its borders as transit corridors for troops, equipment, and other resources. The terms of both agreements will depend upon a number of variables, but the U.S. and international community must use all measures of influence to finalize a deal.

Terms of the Syrian agreement need to include the following provisions to achieve the population-centric strategy’s objectives.

1. Coalition forces must have unconstrained freedom of movement across Northern Syria from Aleppo to Raqqa and to the Iraq border.

2. Humanitarian relief efforts and the distribution of goods and services must be transferred to international aid organizations and NGOs and no longer be controlled by the Assad regime.

In return, the Assad regime is granted a one-year period, from the date the deal is signed, to transfer control to a transitional government represented by the multi-ethnic Syrian population. Red lines are also established for military activities conducted by Assad’s forces. If Assad forces conduct attacks of any kind against civilians or combatants anywhere in Syria, once the agreement is signed, the coalition will immediately launch a wide array of military operations in response. Military operations will target Assad’s air assets and command, control and communications infrastructure to degrade his ability to conduct further attacks.

Operational Employment:

With an agreement in place, coalition forces could freely prosecute ISIS targets in Syria, allowing the Iraq Army to be used as the anvil. As ISIS forces retreat from Syria and enter Iraq, coalition air strikes will target ISIS convoys while Iraqi artillery and mechanized units engage ISIS targets at transit corridors and choke points. Employing Iraqi forces in this manner capitalizes on their strengths without exposing them to close combat engagements, where they have previously failed. This also enables the Iraqis to contribute to the effort in a meaningful way and gives them a moral victory in the battle against ISIS. But more importantly, it eliminates Iranian influence and the need for Shia militias. It simultaneously provides an incentive for Sunni tribes to join the fight against ISIS.

Delivery of Basic Goods and Services:

Many individuals and communities within the war torn regions of Syria and Iraq struggle each day to acquire the basic needs to survive. ISIS realized this and in the early stages of the insurgency delivered food and other basic needs to co-opt communities, providing services otherwise lacking in wartime. ISIS filled another critical void by delivering order in regions overwhelmed by years of conflict through its own security and governance. Although severe, it has been effective. According to Mohamed Al-Dulaimi, who resides in the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah, “Now there is more security and freedom, no arrests, no harassment, no concrete barriers and no checkpoints where we used to spend hours to get into the city.” Although people may not agree with the organization’s ideology, ISIS has been able to deliver some stability, punish criminals and put in place a legal system: ultimately what people want. Through the delivery of basic goods and its strict interpretation of Sharia Law, ISIS created a base of support within segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations, which remains in existence today. This base support when buttressed by their terror and brutality, enables ISIS to maneuver and conduct unabated operations across large areas of Iraq and Syria.

However, the dynamics of ISIS rule and conditions on the ground differ dramatically from place to place. In Mosul, Iraq, food is plentiful and in Raqqa, Syria, residents have more freedom and are able to cross into the Turkish border, returning with goods and cash. Individuals and communities in other areas of Iraq and Syria where ISIS controls are not as fortunate. For example, in Deir al-Zour, where ISIS fought for almost a year to subdue local tribes, locals suffer and tensions persist. ISIS fighters are regularly ambushed and have responded with public executions and heavy taxes on harvests, phone use, water and electricity. Conditions in Deir al-Zour are becoming the norm in ISIS-controlled areas and individuals are being forced to accept its brutal subjugation. Their only other options are the Iraqi and Syrian regimes or groups like al-Nursa, which are more flexible in dealing with civil society but are as dangerous as ISIS. Conditions similar to those found in Deir al-Zour and other areas create vulnerabilities for the coalition to exploit through the delivery of basic needs and targeted messaging.

The economies of Iraq and Syria, which have been ravaged by the consequences of years of war continue to deteriorate. Yet one constant remains. People continue to struggle to survive and delivering basic needs to individuals and communities provides an immediate impact and way to erode support for ISIS. Providing basic goods and services to communities under ISIS persecution creates a more favorable environment for coalition forces and gives people a sense of “hope,” which aligns with and reinforces the population-centric strategy’s core narrative. These activities are optimized when conducted prior to ground combat operations to shape public opinion and sentiment. When combined, the delivery of goods accompanied with targeted messages of hope demonstrates to the populations within Iraq and Syria that a better option is available.

While the coalition force is staging in Aleppo, increased humanitarian assistance is distributed by international aid organizations through local stakeholders. Tailored messages accompany the aid distribution and are disseminated through local networks, radio, newsprint and social media. In Syria, for example, humanitarian relief efforts can be coordinated through local stakeholders and NGOs that currently operate in liberated areas or areas where ISIS has a limited presence. Civil Administrative Councils (CACs) — nascent governance organizations — are the perfect stakeholder to coordinate distribution activities.

CACs are legitimate local councils, which are often times elected by communities that deliver basic needs and administer governance and justice. Once ISIS is removed from an area, CACs can quickly fill the security and governance voids left behind. Additionally, Free Syrian Army (FSA) units often subjugate themselves to the authorities of CACs. This allows the CACs to utilize moderate FSA units to distribute basic goods and assist with policing efforts. More importantly, linking CACs across newly liberated territories provides the foundation for a transitional government. Stories of local activities are then crafted into the strategic narratives that message “good will” and “a better way of life.” Narratives without actions are empty, so these two activities must go hand-in-hand. Similar aid distribution models in Iraq exist and can be employed utilizing local tribal systems and networks.


Syrians and Iraqis live in a perpetual state of conflict, and their differences are almost always settled through violence. The social tensions that underpin these ongoing multi-layered conflicts are sectarian with deep tribal and ethnic loyalties. In both countries, the repressive governments have sharpened animosities between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, and secular and religious. Ultimately, these repressive governments that created fear and distrust among these different groups are responsible for the creation of ISIS and its surprising growth. The majority of ISIS fighters are not hard-core zealots driven by religious ideology. Most Syrians and Iraqis who have joined ISIS are fighting because “both the regime and the opposition failed us, so we need an armed organization to fight for our rights.” Many people now living under ISIS in Syria suffered under both President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups, leaving them with no alternative but ISIS.

Some suggest the situation in Iraq and Syria today, resembles that of Central Europe in the 17th century, in that there are too many players, inside and outside the countries where the fighting is taking place, who cannot afford to lose and will do anything to win. Tactical victories like the recent one in Tal Abyad are insignificant, and only one more episode in the long-war now engulfing Syria and Iraq. This reality is exemplified in the comments of an ISIS fighter who stated “so what if we lose the Turkish border, I think Islamic State still has open borders with Iraq. It will remain strong and, according to our commanders’ reports, it may lose some battles, but it has its own strategies for winning the war.”

Long-term security and national strategy requires the U.S. to lead the coalition force against ISIS. Ineffective, strategy-less bombing campaigns and random messaging cannot defeat it. We need an approach that recognizes and engages the socioeconomic realities in Iraq, Syria and the region. The United States and its allies — both Arab and European — can defeat ISIS by eroding its center of gravity. A population-centric strategy centered on the narrative that “Daesh evil must be defeated for the good of humanity” accompanied by the delivery of humanitarian aid and the application of military force delivers a better option to the tireless souls that struggle to survive. The freedoms that the U.S. enjoys must remain a beacon of hope for the Syrian and Iraqi civilians who continue to suffer at the hands of violent extremists.



Founder and President of ENODO Global. A 23-year USMC and Navy Intelligence military career led to developing actionable population-centric risk strategies.

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Jim Sisco

Founder and President of ENODO Global. A 23-year USMC and Navy Intelligence military career led to developing actionable population-centric risk strategies.