Letting US ‘Lead’ Against Islamic State

America’s Mideast “allies” are less eager to take on Islamic State terrorists themselves than to urge the U.S. military to do so, raising questions about whether much of today’s campaign-trail tough-guy/gal talk about Washington taking the lead really means doing the dirty work for Saudi Arabia, Israel and others, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recent column by David Ignatius contains an important insight about how different countries perceive their roles in countering the extremist group known as ISIS. Ignatius observed a table-top war game at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. The game scenario involved ISIS seizing control of a province in southern Syria and conducting cross-border attacks that inflict casualties on the armed forces of both Israel and Jordan.

The teams playing the roles of the Israeli and Jordanian governments both acted with restraint, hoping not to be drawn deeply into the Syrian war. The Israeli team retaliated for ISIS killing its soldiers but did not initiate any major military operations. The Jordanian team was looking for the Syrian regime and its Russian backer to use force to eject ISIS from its new position in southern Syria.


The Israeli team was led by a retired general who previously headed the planning staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Ignatius confirmed with a later visit to Israeli military headquarters that the game accurately reflected how Israel’s actual military leaders currently view the war in Syria. He cites a senior Israeli military official as saying that if Israel wanted to launch a major ground offensive against ISIS forces in southern Syria (as well as ISIS-connected militants in the Sinai Peninsula), it could wipe out the ISIS forces in three or four hours.

“But,” the official continued, “what would happen the day after? Right now, we think it will be worse.” That is a terse but correct statement of the key question and main problem involved in any ideas at the present time about escalating the use of force in an effort to destroy ISIS.

When it comes to how most Israeli officials talk about the U.S. role, however, they say something different. According to Ignatius, “They argue that the United States is a superpower, and that if it wants to maintain leadership in the region, it must lead the fight to roll back the Islamic State.”

That’s not leadership; it would be, among other things, a free rider problem.

It’s not just the Israelis and Jordanians who are thinking along such lines. Although U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says, “I have personally reached out to the ministers of defense in over forty countries around the world to ask them to contribute to enhancing the fight against ISIL,” the New York Times reports that “the United States has had little success in persuading allies to provide more troops.”

It is quite rational and unsurprising for other countries to behave as they have on this issue, both because of the long-term prospects for ineffectiveness that the Israeli official noted and as a matter of burden-shifting.

As Ignatius puts it, “Most players still want to hold America’s coat while the United States does the bulk of the fighting.”

It may be in the interest of those players for the roles to be apportioned that way; it certainly is not in the interests of the United States for the roles to be apportioned that way. And the question about what happens the day after applies to the United States as it would to Israel or any other party that might intervene.

All of this is related to warped but nonetheless commonly expressed views within the United States about what constitutes U.S. leadership abroad, in the Middle East or anywhere else. Too often what is labeled as leadership is really more like followership, in that it gets measured in terms of what other, coat-holding governments would like the United States to do. Also too often, leadership is equated with sounding bellicose or doing tough-looking, kinetic things such as escalating the use of military force.

The warped views of U.S. global leadership do not correspond to what generally is understood to constitute leadership in other contexts, such as a corporation or other organization. In those places, for the boss to do everything himself or herself is not seen as leadership but rather as a sign of inability to exercise leadership.

True leadership instead involves persuading everybody in an enterprise that they are part of a common effort with important goals, and motivating them to work together to do their parts of the job. Maybe Secretary Carter is not demonstrating effective leadership in his failure to get other countries to contribute more in fighting ISIS, or maybe the interests of those countries just make it difficult for even the most skillful leader to make much headway on that front. But it should not be a matter of the United States doing it all.

Sometimes a leader does have to get ahead of what other players are doing, but as a way of pointing them in the right direction and inspiring them to act as well, not as an alternative to their acting.

Underlying all of this as far as the ISIS problem is concerned is the question of whom the group most threatens. As measured by generation of refugees, destabilization of one’s region, and potential for direct physical harm, the United States has less reason to feel threatened than do many other countries, including the coat-holders.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

16 comments for “Letting US ‘Lead’ Against Islamic State

  1. Abe
    February 1, 2016 at 14:31

    Don’t bomb “our” rebels

    It’s easy to pinpoint who’s livid with all the Russian action: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and – last but not least – the ‘Empire of Chaos’, all at the table in Geneva.

    Jabhat al-Nusra – remote-controlled by Ayman al-Zawahiri – is intimately linked to a gaggle of Salafi-jihadists in the Saudi-sponsored Army of Conquest, as well as tactically allied with myriad outfits nominally grouped in the nearly extinct Free Syrian Army (FSA).

    The CIA, using the Saudis for plausible deniability, fully weaponized “vetted” FSA outfits, which received, among other things, TOW anti-tank missiles. Guess who “intercepted” virtually all the weapons: Jabhat al-Nusra.

    The follow-up was nothing short of hilarious: Washington, Ankara and Riyadh furiously denouncing Moscow for bombing their “moderate rebels” and not ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.

    Slowly but surely, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), parallel to the Russian offensive, retook the initiative. The “4+1” – Russia, Syria, Iran (Special Forces, many of them from Afghanistan), Iraq, plus Hezbollah – started coordinating their efforts. Latakia Province – which hosts not only Tartus but the Khmeimim Russian airbase – is now under total control by Damascus.

    And that brings us to Ankara’s nightmares. Russian Air Force smashed most of Ankara’s Turkmen proxies – heavily infiltrated by Turkish fascists – in northwest Syria. That was the key reason for Sultan Erdogan’s desperate move of shooting down the Su-24.

    It’s by now clear that the winners, as it stands, on the ground, are the “4+1”, and the losers are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So no wonder the Saudis want at least some of their proxies at the negotiating table in Geneva, while Turkey tries to change the subject by barring the Syrian Kurds

    You have now landed in Geneva, Syria
    By Pepe Escobar

  2. Abe
    February 1, 2016 at 14:06

    “Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities.”
    U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels
    By Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzojan

  3. Liam
    February 1, 2016 at 02:31

    Recording of public hearing Eurocontrol for MH17. Full hearing in English. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=64b_1454167170 Discussion of Ukraine’s lack of radar data starts at the 13 minute mark.

  4. dahoit
    January 31, 2016 at 13:50

    This has been the Zionist strategy since before the first gulf war,let America do our dirty work.This is sort of common knowledge.
    I’m trying to decipher the Israeli remark the aftermath would be worse.Well if they wiped out IsUS,as they said,what would cause their concern?
    Of course its just bravado,a guerrilla group in the rubble are very hard to dislodge,and of course as IsUS implies,why would they attack our and their proxy?
    And this talk of IsUS Israeli conflict,why has there been absolutely none?
    Not one outside terrorist attack on Israeli in their history?,a most wondrous fact.Jeez.

    • dahoit
      January 31, 2016 at 13:52

      This has been the Zionist strategy since before the first gulf war,let America do our dirty work.This is sort of common knowledge.
      I’m trying to decipher the Israeli remark the aftermath would be worse.Well if they wiped out IsUS,as they said,what would cause their concern?
      Of course its just bravado,a guerrilla group in the rubble are very hard to dislodge,and of course as IsUS implies,why would they attack our and their proxy?
      And this talk of IsUS Israeli conflict,why has there been absolutely none?
      Not one outside terrorist attack on Israeli in their history?,a most wondrous fact.Jeez.
      Witness the ironclad protection of the Saudis and gulf states post 9-11,and the failure of the MSM to call for a proper investigation to the funding of that day,and the absolute silence on the 28 pages.

  5. Abe
    January 31, 2016 at 13:27

    Israel and Turkey have a shared agenda in Syria, which has stood in the many business plans between the respective states. Long Gas pipelines can only be built economically in shallow waters hugging coastlines, or future repairs would be difficult. The planned Turkey-Israel pipeline could potentially have to go through Syria’s exclusive economic zone which extends 370 km off the Syrian coastline. Israel illegally occupies Syrian land and has been in a state of cold war with Syria for decades. Both Israel and Turkey would economically benefit from the dismantlement of the Syrian State through the support of terrorist groups operating in the country. Several American think tanks have been promoting the balkanization of Syria and separating its coastal region from the rest of the country. Armed Forces Journal published plans to balkanise Syria in 2006, preliminary talks on the gas pipeline between Turkey-Israel were also held that year. Such a breakdown of the Syrian state would clear the path for Israel and Turkey to build a pipeline across Syria’s coastal region, and ISIS is the tool by which this can be achieved.

    In recent years, Syria has also stood in the way of Turkey’s goal of becoming a pipeline hub. While Turkey doesn’t have much oil and gas resources of its own, it can still profit from the resources of surrounding nations by forcing all gas pipelines through its borders and then onto Europe. But in 2009, Syrian president Assad refused to sign the proposed agreement that would allow a pipeline through Syria connecting Qatari gas to Turkey and onto European markets. Assad said this was to protect the interests of his Russian allies who are the main suppliers of gas to Europe. Russia was negotiating its own gas pipeline deal with Turkey which was shelved after Turkey shot down a Russian jet. The new Leviathan pipeline deal with Israel would resurrect Turkey’s hope of becoming a pipeline hub again. But once again Syria stands in the way, which is why Turkey has chosen a policy of sending ISIS terrorists across the border to destabilise Syria. This policy has already allowed Turkey to supply Syrian oil to Europe, via ISIS oil trucks.

    Israel itself has been supporting Al Qaeda and ISIS inside Syria, providing a safe zone and medical treatment in the Israeli occupied Syrian Golan heights. This has gone hand in hand with the discovery of oil in the Golan Heights. The Golan is internationally recognised as Syrian land that was occupied by Israel in 1967. The selling of Syrian oil by Israel would constitute a war crime under the fourth geneva convention. In spite of this, Israel granted a ‘drilling licence’ to a company whose shareholders include Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch and Jacob Rothschild in 2013. Israel has been attempting to circumvent international law and annex the Golan Heights for decades. But the Syrian Druze population who inhabit the Golan remain steadfastly loyal to Syria and supportive of the Syrian government and military. Israel is backing Al Qaeda and ISIS in the hope that destabilising the Golan Heights will legitimise Israel’s annexation claims. Israeli President Netanyahu asked Obama to support Israel’s bid to annex to Golan, under the guise of protecting the Syrian Druze population from the very terrorists Israel is supporting. Israel would only be able to sell illegally obtained Syrian oil to Europe through their Turkish route. Talks between Turkey and Israel as far back as 2006 included not only gas, but oil pipelines as well.

    Turkey and Israel have allied themselves with terrorist groups, ISIS and Al Qeada, to dismantle the Syrian state and allow for the theft of Syrian energy resources. Israel’s facade of being opposed to terrorism and Turkey’s attempt to portray an image of being champion of Palestinian rights takes second place to that objective. The death of hundreds of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire nation, and the spread of terror throughout the world, are all sacrifices Israel and Turkey are willing to make if it means future oil and gas revenue.

    Israel, Turkey and ISIS Ally to Steal Syrian Energy
    By Maram Susli

    • Kiza
      January 31, 2016 at 21:16

      Abe, as usual, you are the best, in what you write and in articles you quote.

      I am not sure I understand the point of this article and the strategic simulations. The US is truly driven by foreign interest. Even Turkey, through its lobbyists (remember Sibel Edmonds before she went over to the dark side?), has more influence over the US foreign policy than US citizens. Israel and Saudi Arabia are the true owners of the Pentagon rent-an-army.

      I have written at the beginning of the Syria war that Israel had initiated this war, just like the two wars on Iraq before, to create chaos in the Middle East, in which it can pursue other people’s lands and resources (arable land, water, oil, pipeline routes etc). Israel is also the key secret and indirect sponsor of ISIS and all other extremism in the ME. I wrote that once the chaos created started knocking on Israel’s door, which was just a matter of time, Israel will run back to its big and dumb Uncle Sam for more money and blood to protect it from its personally created sons of Frankenstein (with the middle name Chaos).

      Now those who may try to challenge me on the statement that Israel is a key, secret sponsor of Sunni extremism, even over and above the Saudis, need to think of the US ziocon supported General Petraeus and how he solved the problem of Sunni resistance in Iraq by paying them off. This was the seed capital for creating ISIS. ISIS later switched over to stolen Syrian oil and Saudi money as means of survival.

      People usually say that Syrian war is a proxy war. But there is whole hierarchy of proxies involved: Israel is on top, US, Saudis and Turkey are the willing proxies of Israel, ISIS and Turkmen nationalist terrorists (managed by Turkish Grey Wolves https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_Wolves_(organization)) in Syria are the proxies of the Saudis and Turks.

      • Abbybwood
        January 31, 2016 at 22:53

        To Abe and Kizaz;

        I have a question. Can someone please give more details on how and why and when Sibel Edmonds went to “the dark side”?

        And also, if Obama, the CIA, NSA, The Pentagon, The Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State John Kerry and Co. all know about the involvement of Israel with Turkey/ISIS/Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc., wouldn’t this represent treason/high crimes?

        • Kiza
          February 1, 2016 at 01:58

          Good questions, Abbybwood, both of them.

          Regarding Sibel Edmonds there was a rumor recently that she has joined the establishment, but I could not find a link to what I read. Please note that this may be totally false, just another, usual smear job by the establishment whose criminality she exposed. If I find the link again, I will save it for reference and I will check its reliability.

          Related to this is the treason you mentioned. It is exactly this treason and in relation to Turkey that she exposed (as a translator of intercepts in the Turkish language). Instead of taking action against the individuals who conspired against US for the benefit of Turkey, based on money paid by Turkey to the identified high positioned US officials, the authorities pursued Sibel.

          Therefore, treason appears to be the main business in Washington DC, the district of corruption. The corruption is inherent to the system, not incidental. Such system can last a while, but not forever. Eventually, it will self-destruct and maybe the whole World together.

          • Abbybwood
            February 1, 2016 at 03:57

            Thanks very much for the response….

    • Abe
      February 1, 2016 at 17:53

      To Kiza and Abbybwood:

      Mr. Pillar offers his typical simulation of analysis, demonstrating once again his formidable ability to miss the point. Maram Susli nails it.

      As far as Sibel Edmonds’ contributions are concerned, please remember that those who expose corruption are routinely subjected to smear campaigns in order to destroy their credibility. ‘Nuff said.

  6. Robert
    January 31, 2016 at 13:17

    If the US were to take a leadership role against Daesh, I would present each country with a bill for services rendered. Prorate it to the cost of the Iraq War on a monthly basis. See if that gets their attention.

  7. John
    January 31, 2016 at 12:29

    If the US were to take a leadership role against Daesh, wouldn’t it be wise to start by kicking Turkey out of NATO, then placing sanctions on them, Saudi Arabia, and Quatar?

    • January 31, 2016 at 14:28

      if turkey, saudi Arabia and israel are calling on washington to “take the lead” in “the fight against isil” … it is most likely that this is what washington agreed the chiefs of those states should say.
      it most likely goes like this;
      washington to turkey, jordan, saudi, qartar what have you; “every time some reporter asks ‘what should be done about isis?’ you shall answer, washington must TAKE THE LEAD!”
      these reporters go out and propagate the message, “washington must TAKE THE LEAD! so say every two-bit dictator installed by washington.”
      what about those chiefs who do not go along with washington’s game … “THEY MUST GO!”
      washington creates problems to draw out a reaction … then it elicits it’s monkeys to call on it for a solution.

    • John
      January 31, 2016 at 23:40

      Absolutely. It cannot happen soon enough. The Arab/Muslim world needs to look at its narrative and understand that medieval supremacist world conquering ideology leads only one way: to International approbrium and inevitable destruction. No other group of people on earth believe their religion must fly it’s flag above all others and by force if need be. No other people on earth cannot tolerate the slightest criticism, and enact cruel punishment for dissent. The Muslim world needs to understand that aspects of their culture are intolerable and unforgivable, barbaric, sick and evil. And until they change, visibly and openly, they will attract international ostracism, disgust, and inevitable punishment. They cry, Islam is innocent, just another lie. It is time the world let them know, kick them out of trade, kick them out of international organisations, let them know how the world sees them. They say the US created IS, another lie, it is the baby of their distorted world view. And it intends to eat them. Let’s let it. And after the baby has destroyed the parents, the rest of the world can send the whole lot to the rubbish bin in half an hour. Only then, when this last deviant culture is dead, will the world finally be at peace.

      • b.grand
        February 2, 2016 at 10:05

        John says,
        “No other group of people on earth believe their religion must fly it’s flag above all others and by force if need be.”

        Seems he’s never heard of Israel. And yes, Israelis are Jews…. Here’s Atzmon on the “kosher trinity” – – – – –

        “Expert Witness Gilad Atzmon: You are totally correct, this topic is indeed confusing and for a reason. Contemporary Diaspora Jewish politics struggles to maintain this confusion because it stifles any from of criticism of Jewish politics. In order to understand this construct we should imagine the following kosher trinity.

        “When we criticise Jewish politics (Israel, Zionism, the Lobby etc’) some Jews are“racially offended” in spite of the fact that race, biology, blood or ethnicity was never mentioned. When we criticise Jewish racism some Jews hide behind the argument that we are criticizing their religion. When we occasionally criticise the religion or some obscene Jewish religious teaching we are quick to learn that Jews are hardly religious anymore (which is true by the way). The meaning of it is simple, yet devastating. The Jewish triangle makes it very difficult, or even impossible to criticise Jewish politics, ideology and racism because the Identity is set as a field with a tri-polar gravity centre. The identity morphs endlessly. The contemporary 3rd category (political) Jew is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, this is the quantum mechanics that is set to supress any possible criticism.”

        More at, The Expert Witness – Part 1 by Gilad Atzmon http://www.radicalpress.com/?p=8386

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