Solutions to Violent Conflict

The Role of Diplomacy in Countering ISIS

In Counterterrorism, Middle East, Religion and Conflict on November 24, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Massive influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey, September 22, 2014. Photo: EC/ECHO (Flickr)

David Cortright

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a clear and present danger to international security that must be stopped. The question is how. President Obama said there are no military solutions to this crisis, but he has sent American soldiers back to Iraq and launched air strikes there and in Syria. Recently, he ordered a doubling of U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 3,100. What’s missing so far from the U.S. response is a coherent plan for using diplomacy and political measures to weaken ISIS and halt the spread of violence in the region.

The strategy for countering ISIS requires an understanding of the roots of the crisis. ISIS is an outgrowth of the Syrian civil war and political conflict within Iraq. In Syria the group emerged primarily among Sunni Arab communities fighting the Assad regime. In Iraq the failure to incorporate Sunnis in government during de-Ba`thification allowed ISIS to emerge in the midst of battling Shia militias and the Shia-dominated government.

Overcoming ISIS will require policies that seek to end these originating conflicts. In Syria this means a renewed diplomatic push to end the civil war and achieve a negotiated political settlement. In Iraq it means forging more inclusive governance in Baghdad and addressing the grievances of Sunni Arab communities.


Achieving diplomatic and political solutions will require the cooperation of the neighboring states, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. This will be difficult given the sharply differing interests of these three states. On their own they will not be able to reach agreement. U.S. leadership will be essential in engaging with each and encouraging support for political rather than military solutions.

In pursuing this strategy Washington should work through the United Nations to revitalize international diplomacy on Syria and support the negotiation of local ceasefires. Previous attempts at peace negotiations have failed, but this does not mean diplomatic prospects have been exhausted. It is not uncommon in difficult conflicts like this for early rounds of talks to fail before serious negotiations begin.

The United States can advance the prospects for diplomacy in Syria by working more closely with Russia. Moscow has significant leverage in Damascus and has consistently supported the goal of a negotiated political settlement. Russia has argued that the goal of removing the Assad regime by force is unrealistic militarily, a view that seems confirmed by the grim facts on the ground. After more than three years of brutal fighting, the war has become a grinding stalemate between the Assad regime and its supporters, and the extremist forces of ISIS and the al Nusra Front. The moderate groups backed by the U.S. are weak and divided and have little influence.

Between the two dominant sides, the Assad regime is probably the lesser of two evils. Given these hard realities, the most viable option may be to defer the goal of removing Assad and press for a political settlement in the near term that contains the influence of ISIS and prevents the virus of jihadi extremism from spreading further.


The chances for a diplomatic solution would increase if Iran were invited to the table. Tehran supports the goal of suppressing ISIS and has offered a four-point plan for ending the war in Syria. It is the only state in the region with sufficient leverage to apply effective pressure on Damascus and Baghdad to make necessary political concessions. President Obama recently wrote a secret letter to Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reportedly mentioning the shared American and Iranian interest in suppressing ISIS.

Establishing cooperation with Iran will be difficult for the Obama administration given the hostility to Iran in Congress. Any movement in that direction will probably depend on a successful outcome of negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program. Regardless of the outcome of those talks, the security benefits of working with Tehran to end the war in Syria could be huge.

Iran has significant influence in Baghdad, but so does the United States. Washington should use this leverage more vigorously to press for inclusive governance. The Obama administration lost an opportunity to exert this influence when it yielded to Iraqi requests and doubled the number of U.S. troops without extracting greater concessions from the al-Abadi government to meet Sunni political demands.

The challenges in attempting to achieve diplomatic and political solutions to this crisis are enormous, but if Washington were to devote as much effort to these approaches as it does to military measures, the chances of success would increase. If Obama is correct that military force will not resolve this crisis, his administration should give greater priority to the pursuit of diplomatic and political solutions.

David Cortright is the Associate Director of Programs and Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.