A recent session at the 2015 Aspen Security Forum session exploring the expansion of ISIS, and the international response, began by moderator and New York Times Senior Correspondent Eric Schmitt mentioning that in a Senate hearing earlier that day, Sen. John McCain said, “ISIS is winning” (a sentiment he would later echo during his own Security Forum session two days later) and that a spokesperson for the US Secretary of Defense said it would be one to 8 weeks before Iraqi forces could begin an offensive against ISIS. Despite this, the panel was optimistic about the future of the region and its ability to take on ISIS.
Ret. Gen. John Allen: “ISIS is losing.”
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and Former Commander of the US Forces in Afghanistan, retired US Marine Corps Gen. John Allen had just returned from Turkey, which announced that it would not only allow the US to use two of its airbases for operations in Syria, but also send Turkish forces into direct combat along the Syrian border — a “very important turn” for Turkey, as Allen put it.
“A year ago today, we were facing the real possibility that Iraq was going to come apart,” Allen said. But with the appointment of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, last September, and the formation of a 62-member coalition, “we’ve seen some significant progress,” he continued. And inside Iraq, Allen explained that many tribes are committed to the defeat of Al Qaeda and Daesh (a term he prefers over ISIS), and they are better supported by al-Abadi. Accordingly, Iraqi Security Forces will continue to grow in number and training, whereas Allen believes international efforts will decrease ISIS’s access to foreign fighters.
Allen noted that in the past year, Daesh’s territory and the population under their control has shrunk significantly (and will continue to do so as the Turkish border closes).
“I do believe that Daesh’s momentum has been checked strategically, operationally, and, by in large, tactically. But it isn’t just a military campaign. There’s a counter-finance campaign, there’s a counter-messaging campaign, there’s a counter-foreign-fighters campaign, and then there’s a humanitarian piece… It’s very important that you have that larger strategic perspective when you consider whether we’ve had an effect.”
Tackling ISIS’s finances
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a terrorist organization that had the ability to draw from its own internal territory these kinds of resources,” US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser. For example, ISIS has taken control of “money in the bank vaults that was there when ISIS took control of the territory” — between $500 million and a billion dollars — but this is “non-renewable.” Once it’s been spent, it’s gone. Renewable sources of wealth include “hundreds of millions of dollars per year” from extortion or taxation and almost $500 million per year from the sale of oil. ISIS also receives smaller amounts of money from ransoming and foreign donations.
“It would be great to bankrupt ISIS, but I think the challenge we have is to disrupt their financing and bring their revenue down, to make it harder for them to meet their costs,” Glaser said. He outlined a four-part strategy to tackle ISIS’s finances:
Isolate ISIS-controlled territory from international financial systems (the most important piece of the strategy).
Go after foreign donors and smugglers, applying sanctions in some cases.
Understand their internal financial architecture and target their key financiers.
Identify their external international financial networks.
Iraq Ambassador to the US: “We have no Plan B. We cannot coexist with ISIS.”
Ambassador of Iraq to the US Lukman Faily said that while Iraq faces political challenges both within the country and region, great progress has been made recently. “The new Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] has been extremely inclusive,” he said. “He has done outreach to all, whether it’s tribes, political entities within Iraq, and so on.” Additionally, the struggle against ISIS has trumped any sectarian differences. “ISIS can be a good, common project for us, to enhance our social cohesion and to focus on the commonalities of that threat. It’s a threat to our ethnicity, a threat to Iraq’s heritage, and so on.”
Faily said that Iraq will need international support, but as far as Iraqis are concerned, “I don’t think this is an issue of will… We have not asked the US for boots on the ground for a number a reasons. One of them is that we want to go through that painful process [of fighting ISIS] for our own sake, for our own long-term policies, and not have dependencies on others.”
But Faily did praise the work of Iran, noting that they view ISIS as a common threat, so they offered an “open check” to Iraq. Additionally, they provided 200 advisors. Although this is less than one-tenth the number of American advisors, the Iranian advisors are on the front lines, unlike the Americans. Although the US government might not like this, Faily said, “That is a Washington problem, not an Iraqi problem.”
“ISIS is a cancer in our body,” Faily said. “We need to get rid of it through all methods… and we need to be fast. That is the key message.” In order to do so, a myriad of treatments — military, economic, and diplomatic — will be required. But for now, despite the fears of some in DC, the outlook is in fact positive.
Jul 27 2015
By Eric Christensen
© 2015 Aspen Institute