War on ISIS: Johns Hopkins expert explains how to defeat the Islamic State

SAIS dean, Middle East scholar Vali Nasr discusses the Paris attacks and the need for a diplomatic solution to Syrian conflict

Crowd around memorial of candles, flowers on Paris sidewalk

Image caption: A street memorial in Paris, France, where 129 people were killed in coordinated terrorist attacks on Nov. 13.

Credit: Jean-François Gornet

Friday's deadly attacks in Paris, which left at least 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, signaled a new chapter in the Islamic State's war against the West. With a series of coordinated attacks at a concert venue, at restaurants and bars, and outside a stadium, the group—also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh—demonstrated its ability and willingness to strike targets beyond the Middle East.

Vali Nasr

Image caption: Vali Nasr

The attacks raised new fears about homegrown, ISIS-inspired terrorists across Europe and beyond and raised new doubts about security as thousands of refugees flee war-torn Syria for the safety of foreign soils. They have also galvanized the resolve of ISIS's international opponents, including the United States, Russia, and France, with French President Francois Hollande declaring that, "France is at war."

For insight on recent developments, the Hub spoke with Vali Nasr—a Middle East scholar, former U.S. government foreign policy adviser, and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies—about the Paris attacks, the war against ISIS, and the ongoing instability in Syria that gave rise to this emerging extremist organization.

What do Friday's attacks in Paris tell us about the capabilities of ISIS? We've heard in news coverage leading up to the attacks about them being contained in Syria and Iraq, and so maybe the threat doesn't seem so imminent. But obviously this attack tells a different story.

I don't think it says as much about their capabilities as it does about their change of strategy. We saw this sort of attack also against Charlie Hebdo a number of months back, and so we knew that they could recruit fighters who have French citizenship and choose a target for an attack.

But this time, the understanding is that there has been a major shift in their strategy and they are much more proactively targeting Europe or the United States. Previously they were focused on state building in Syria and Iraq. Now it looks like they are behaving differently, that their priority may be attacks on the West.

What would be the reason for that shift? Is this a show of strength, an attempt to spread the ideology and bring in new recruits?

We don't know exactly, but first of all I think it's that they want to deter the West from threatening their holdings on the ground. The Russians intervened in Syria, they faced a terrorist attack in the Sinai. The French have joined the attacks in Syria, there was a retaliation. So I think primarily it's to deter Western powers from going after their holdings in Syria and Iraq.

And secondly, as they have lost some ground in Syria and Iraq in recent months to internationally backed Kurdish forces on the ground, they are trying to show that they still matter and that they're still a vigorous organization by carrying out these attacks.

World leaders, in the wake of the attacks, have talked about the war on ISIS. France has stepped up its attacks. What does a war against a group like that look like? You can go after territorial holdings, but there is also an ideological element that it seems would make them a difficult group to fight.

No, I don't think it's that difficult of a group to fight. They are controlling territory, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Libya and Egypt. The most obvious, low-hanging fruit is to basically eradicate them from that territory.

I personally don't think this is so much a war of ideas. Essentially, you're dealing with an organization that is controlling territory and recruiting foot soldiers to do its fighting. Yes, it appeals to them, but this appeal in my opinion isn't so much much religious as it is an appeal to their sense of being underdogs in their own societies, being marginalized, being disenfranchised.

The ideas of ISIS may be out there. There are plenty of people in even rich Arab countries who share the ideology of ISIS—the people in Saudi Arabia, the people in Kuwait, in Bahrain, in Qatar whose ideas may be similar. But the singular power of ISIS comes from the fact that it has territory in which it can organize these people, train them, give them a sense of community, give them a sense of political power and turn them into a military force. If it didn't have that capability, if it didn't have that open space, it could not attract so many people and it would not matter as much. It would be a much fainter echo. Even al-Qaeda, before 2001, was able to become al-Qaeda because it had access to all that territory in Afghanistan.

So for the Obama administration and its allies, is the strategy being employed now a winning strategy? That is, largely attacking ISIS from the air without committing ground troops, and instead working through the rebel groups on the ground in Syria?

The only other option, which people are goading him to say, is that we are going to invade Syria. But if the Republicans were in power, they wouldn't have many more choices than Obama has right now, at this minute. The reality is you want to continue to downgrade and downsize the organization every chance that you get. So bombing them from the air, supporting Kurdish forces or Syrian and Iraqi forces to fight ISIS, taking territory from them, keeping their military engaged is the right strategy. You want to continue to clip their wings.

You also want to find a way to end the war in Syria, and that cannot be done through military means, largely because [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad has backers. And so long as there is no political solution to the fighting, the fighting will continue, and that's to ISIS's advantage.

So I think what Secretary [of State John] Kerry is doing in Vienna is absolutely right. This has to be a multifaceted military and diplomatic effort against ISIS. You have to end the war that has provided the opportunity for ISIS to grow, but at the same time you want to downgrade ISIS's capabilities.

Now, whenever you go after an organization like this, it's not going to sit there for you to chop its head off. It's going to react, it's going to retaliate, and it's going to do that in a way that it hopes will thwart you from pursuing your campaign. So these recent attacks I think are a reaction to the success of the Western campaign against ISIS, but also it does put the question on the table about escalating it further.

You mentioned the situation in Syria, and I'm reminded of something you wrote more than three years ago for The New York Times about there being no end in sight for that conflict, an op-ed that in many ways predicted the present-day scenario. So what is the next step there? How does the situation in Syria get resolved?

I don't see an easy military victory on the ground, definitely not after the Russian intervention. There is no straight shot for either ISIS or for moderate Syrian opposition to capture Damascus now. Assad's not going to fall. On the other hand, Assad's not going to win, either. He is too weak and too marginalized and too hated for his crimes to be able to conquer all of Syria and hold it.

So if there is no military end to this war in the short run, perhaps there might be a cease-fire agreement and then a political deal that would end the fighting. This is kind of like what happened in the Balkans—toward the end of the Balkan War, the Serbs could not win, the Bosnians and the Croats could not win. You might have ended up with a stalemate or a see-saw battle in which many more Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats would have died. The whole point of the agreement was understanding that there is not going to be a military resolution, so how can we have a political deal that will end the fighting.

And I think that's what the Vienna meeting is about—looking at the reality on the ground, with ISIS and the refugee crisis, and determining if it's possible to think of a political deal that will end this war.