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US strategy to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria needs overhaul

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Longstanding weaknesses in America's Middle East strategy, spanning at least four decades, mean new options are needed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, stabilize the Middle East and reestablish a sense of domestic security in the U.S. and Europe, according to a new RAND report.

The report recommends that the new U.S. administration undertake a bottom-up review of the counter-IS strategy and offers three options for a strategic design. It finds that success against IS can best be achieved by removing the political, social and physical space that it needs to survive. This will entail a long-term commitment, including the establishment of legitimate governance in Iraq and Syria – a complex problem for which there is little hope of immediate resolution.

Stability is most consistent and enduring when it emerges naturally from popular satisfaction with governance and other socioeconomic conditions, rather than from government oppression or military action by external powers, according to the report.

"Any new strategy that fails to pursue long-term resolution of root cause issues will have to recognize the likelihood of continuing instability, the periodic recurrence of destabilizing, large-scale social violence, and the continual reemergence of international terror groups like IS," said Ben Connable, lead author of the report and a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Each of the options that the report offers represents a broad strategic approach to defeating IS. One, continuous counterterror, focuses on containing and suppressing ISIS while accepting ongoing instability in Iraq and Syria. Another, practical stability, seeks to reestablish the pre-Arab Spring order in Iraq and Syria, building stable states at the probable expense of democracy and human rights.

The report recommends instead a third option: legitimated stability. This approach pursues a long-term strategy that seeks to address the root causes of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, reconciling the disenfranchised Sunni Arab populations with their governments, and thereby removing the conditions that allowed IS to emerge and thrive.

Other alternatives that fail to address root cause issues are likely to condemn the United States and its allies to continual crisis and unpredictable and unending reinvestment of resources, with little gain in security or reduction of international terror.

Other authors of the report, "Beating the Islamic State: Selecting a New Strategy for Iraq and Syria," include Natasha Lander and Kimberly Jackson.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence Community.

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