Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters monitor the area from their front line position in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometres north-east of Mosul on August 16, 2014. Kurdish troops backed by US warplanes launched a bid to recapture Mosul dam, Iraq's largest, from Islamic State jihadists, a senior Kurdish military official said.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters monitor the area from their front line position in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometres north-east of Mosul on August 16, 2014. Kurdish troops backed by US warplanes launched a bid to recapture Mosul dam, Iraq's largest, from Islamic State jihadists, a senior Kurdish military official said.

Yesterday Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with help from U.S. jets, drones and bombers, recaptured a strategically important dam in northern Iraq from ISIS militants. President Barack Obama praised the effort and said the two-day ground offensive demonstrates the cooperation possible between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. The territorial ambitions of ISIS are far reaching and represent, many believe, a dire threat to security in the region and the U.S. Please join us to discuss the fight against ISIS, the future of Iraq, and role of the U.S.


  • Shadi Hamid Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution author of "Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East", Oxford University Press
  • Ambassador Lukman Faily Iraq's ambassador to the US
  • Yochi Dreazen Managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."
  • Stephen Biddle Professor of political science and international affairs, The George Washington University, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy, Council on Foreign Relations and author, "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle"
  • Ali Khedery Chair and chief executive, Dragoman Partners served as special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq and as senior adviser the three heads of the Central command for 2003-10


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Kurdish forces with help from Iraqi troops and U.S. air power recaptured key territory which had been taken over by the radical group known as ISIS. President Obama hailed the coordinated effort and said continued U.S. support would be possible. Joining us to talk about the security threat posed by ISIS and strategy options: Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, Amb. Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S., Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine, and, joining us by phone from upstate New York, Stephen Biddle of George Washington University.

  • 10:07:44

    MS. DIANE REHMI invite you as always to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And thank you all for joining us.

  • 10:08:04

    MR. YOCHI DREAZENGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:05

    MR. SHADI HAMIDGood morning.

  • 10:08:06

    AMB. LUKMAN FAILYGood to be here. Thank you.

  • 10:08:08

    MR. STEPHEN BIDDLEMy pleasure.

  • 10:08:09

    REHMYochi Dreazen, tell us what the latest news is from Iraq.

  • 10:08:16

    DREAZENSo there's news from Iraq worth flagging. Then there are two pieces, one from Washington, one from the Middle East, also worth flagging. They don't get as much attention, and they should. The news from Iraq is that there has been tremendous fighting in the Mosul dam. The Mosul dam is not only important because of the amount of water behind it, but because the way it's built, it needs to have regular maintenance, needs to have basically a concrete slurry injected into the dam every few days, or the dam could collapse.

  • 10:08:40

    DREAZENSo reconquering it isn't simply a strategic win. It's also a win that might keep something that has to be maintained, or there's a catastrophic failure be maintained. There are two other things, just briefly, worth highlighting, one again from Washington, one not. Yesterday, when President Obama took to the stage to say the dam has been reconquered, he said, we have now -- we are not operating like the Iraqi air force. We're not operating like the Iraqi air force. There's no mission creep. Of course we're operating like the Iraqi air force. And we should be honest about it.

  • 10:09:11

    DREAZENThe air force that the U.S. helped set up in Iraq is very weak. It has Cessnas. It has, for the most part, unarmed aircraft. We are the Iraqi air force right now, and we should be honest about it. He can't really articulate now what the goal is. Yesterday, in saying the flood, he said, if the flood were to continue, it might endanger U.S. personnel in Baghdad. That's silly. We should again just be honest and say, we don't want ISIS to take Kurdistan. We don't want ISIS to take the dam. So he's trying to articulate a mission without a whole lot of success.

  • 10:09:39

    DREAZENThe third thing, which got the least attention but may matter the most in the long term, is that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which had long been seen as the most dangerous al-Qaida group because they have bomb-making skills, they're the ones who almost took down a U.S. airliner because they have bombs that are not metallic. They have now basically formally made an alliance with ISIS, so you have this tremendously dangerous al-Qaida affiliate outside of Iraq now having alliance with this arguably the most dangerous terror group in the history of terror inside of Iraq. And that doesn't get the attention it should, but long term, it may be the biggest threat of all of this.

  • 10:10:12

    REHMShadi Hamid, give us background on ISIS, where it came from, what its goals are.

  • 10:10:22

    HAMIDSure. So, I mean, the precursor to ISIS was al-Qaida in Iraq, and they played a very important role and as a terrorist group and an extremist group that was fighting U.S. troops and also killing Sunnis and Shias alike in Iraq. Now -- but to really understand the rise of ISIS more recently, we can't forget about Syria. And Syria is where -- what was previously al-Qaida in Iraq was rejuvenated and fought on this new front and gained a lot of ground because of the power vacuum and the weakness of so-called moderate rebel forces in Syria.

  • 10:11:07

    HAMIDSo over the course of 2012, 2013, we saw the decline of the moderates. And ISIS has now become the most powerful rebel group in Syria, and not just Iraq. And actually it's worth noting that just over the past week, ISIS has been making gains towards Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, and they may very well capture parts of Aleppo. And that would be a devastating loss for the Syrian -- for the mainstream Syrian rebel forces. And it's surprising to me how little attention that has gotten.

  • 10:11:43

    REHMHow different do you see ISIS strategy from that of al-Qaida?

  • 10:11:52

    HAMIDSo in some ways it's not very useful to look at ISIS as a traditional terrorist group. There's so much more than that. Obviously, they terrorize people and are brutal and vicious. But it's not the old -- the kind of the old school terrorists of the early to mid-2000s of blowing things up and killing innocent civilians where they were destroying, but there was no affirmative vision.

  • 10:12:15

    HAMIDISIS actually does things beyond destruction. It governs large swathes of territory, provides social services. It provides for law and order in the territory it holds. It is effectively a state, and that's what's so striking about this and why it has become the most successful extremist group in modern history.

  • 10:12:37

    REHMAmb. Faily, are we seeing a new civil war in Iraq?

  • 10:12:45

    FAILYI would say it's more a region of issue rather than just domestic to Iraq. Shadi talked about the Syrian and that side of it. The U.S. -- primarily what President Obama talked about last night was also saying that, once the government is formed, there will be more regional drive to address the issue because the sources and the ramification is not contained within Iraq. There is a Shia-Sunni narrative, but that's not the only narrative. Let me give you a simple example. ISIS, when they took over Mosul, they executed 14 Sunni Imams. And what Shadi talked about, law and order, it's their law and their order. That's what they're not talking about.

  • 10:13:22

    REHMAnd of course President Obama hailed the coordination between both Iraqi and Kurdish troops in the recapture of the dam that Yochi Dreazen spoke of. What do we know about that kind of coordination?

  • 10:13:44

    FAILYMore of a command and control center's coordinating in Baghdad and in the KRG region, more about a sort of air fight, more about sort of the supply lines of ISIS and so on. They traditionally have been -- over the last few months, they've been trying to occupy and contain and control an area, rather than just do terrorist acts. Now that has to be challenged. We cannot coexist with them.

  • 10:14:15

    REHMYou cannot coexist with them?

  • 10:14:17

    FAILYNeither player in the regions can.

  • 10:14:20

    REHMAnd, Stephen Biddle, has U.S. air power in this recapturing the dam, for example, made a difference that will have to continue?

  • 10:14:35

    BIDDLEWell, it certainly made a difference. The question is how much difference and to what end. So far, a lot of the fighting, especially in the northeast, has been in areas of mixed sect and mixed ethnicity. And there's been a certain amount of ebb and flow through this kind of contested borderland. The American air strikes have certainly helped. The Peshmerga moved back into contested territory that they moved out into and occupied shortly after ISIS went south. Whether we can go further or not, whether this can enable the Peshmerga to move into primarily Sunni territory is another question altogether.

  • 10:15:17

    BIDDLEAnd in that sense, it's important to understand exactly what air power has been doing so far. I mean, air power, as far as we can tell, has not been simply slaughtering ISIS fighters en masse. There's been very little reporting of actual casualties. It appears that what the air power has been doing primarily is destroying pieces of heavy equipment that ISIS has been deploying in the open and moving in the open.

  • 10:15:40

    BIDDLEAnd what that does -- and what it does for most people who are confronted with Western air power these days -- is persuade everyone else very quickly to disperse, intermingle with civilian populations, move into places where they can get cover from that air power. And what air power then ends up doing is it takes one option off the table.

  • 10:15:59

    BIDDLEIt makes it hard for them to amass and use heavy equipment in the open. But it then forces the war into a slower-moving, more insurgency-like mode in which the combatants on both sides are intermingled with civilians. And it's a lot harder for the kind of discriminating air power that we prefer to use to continue having a decisive effect.

  • 10:16:19

    REHMPresident Obama continues to say there will be no U.S. manpower on the ground. Do you believe that ISIS can be contained without that manpower on the ground?

  • 10:16:41

    BIDDLEI frankly think ISIS can probably be contained without the U.S. air strikes. I mean, the whole problem here is, in an ethno-sectarian identity civil war of this kind, it's very hard for any of the identity groups to push into the others' home territory and simply conquer or crush them. ISIS's expansion so far has been mostly in areas of Iraq that are either primarily Sunni or have important Sunni populations in them.

  • 10:17:07

    BIDDLEMy guess is that, even with our air strikes, our allies on the ground are going to have a very hard time re-establishing control of primarily Sunni populations as long as the Sunni residents of those places view the Iraqi government and the Kurds as existential threats and as enemies rather than potential allies. And that's why the president has been putting so much emphasis on political reform and accommodation in Baghdad.

  • 10:17:35


  • 10:17:36

    DREAZENOne thing you hear often from military commanders within the U.S. is a frustration that they don't know what the U.S. strategy is or if the U.S. strategy exists, if it's just simply pin-prick strikes. Centcom, the military command that oversees this, sends out these very surreal press releases that proudly say, today, U.S. air strike destroyed an ISIS truck. All U.S. aircraft returned safely. And it's almost sort of laughable that that's the kind of thing we're touting.

  • 10:18:00

    DREAZENI think Steve's point is very interesting. We are not touting that we've decimated or hit or caused ISIS fatalities. But there's one key point. If this continues, if the air strike campaign continues or intensifies, at some point, we do need U.S. personnel on the ground. We need spotters. These are people whose job would be to go forward, to be able to say to the U.S. planes above head, that building is an accurate target, that building is not, this convoy is actually a convoy, this convoy is not. You will need U.S. troops to be those people.

  • 10:18:28

    REHMYochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine. Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about current events in Iraq, the continuation of fighting there, the rise of ISIS. Joining us now by phone from Dubai is Ali Khedery. He's head of a strategic consultancy headquartered in Dubai. Ali Khedery, in today's Wall Street Journal, which I have here in front of me, Jerry Seib writes that ISIS represents a new level of threat that is fundamentally different from anything we faced before. To what extent do you agree with that?

  • 10:20:55

    MR. ALI KHEDERYI absolutely agree with those conclusions and also with Shadi's. The reality is that the -- Bashar al-Assad's genocide campaign for the past three years in Syria abetted by Hezbollah of Lebanon, abetted by Iraqi militias and the Iraqi government and also Iran's revolutionary guards have in killing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and forcing millions more to be displaced both internally and abroad, they have radicalized Syria's population. And also Prime Minister Maliki's misrule over the past four years has done the same.

  • 10:21:38

    MR. ALI KHEDERYAnd in radicalizing millions of primarily Sunni Arabs in these two countries, what's occurred is al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Qaida in Syria has been reinvigorated into a much more virulent form and really has been rendered an incubator for transnational jihad. And so, as you mentioned before the break, you have now al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula from Yemen, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb from North Africa.

  • 10:22:16

    MR. ALI KHEDERYThey are now -- according to U.S. intelligence agencies, we're seeing whole scale defections of these entities to join ISIS. And, again, as one of your guests mentioned, that's quite troubling because these entities have great capabilities as demonstrated by their repeated plots to attack the U.S. homeland in the form of the attempted cargo plane bombing, the underwear bomber, the shoe bomber, et cetera.

  • 10:22:33

    MR. ALI KHEDERYAnd now, if you combine those entities' logistical capabilities and technical capabilities with ISIS's having seized hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of U.S. military equipment from the Iraqi army as divisions collapsed, when you layer on top hundreds of millions of dollars that have been seized by ISIS from the Mosul Central Bank, again along with thousands or potentially tens of thousands of fighters now across these two countries, including many that are coming from Chechnya or Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen or other countries in North Africa, when you layer all of these things on top of each other, it's no wonder then, as we've seen with ISIS's most recent message yesterday, that they tell Americans, we will drown you in your own blood.

  • 10:23:21

    REHMI understand that many of the members of ISIS have come, as you said, from other regions, and that includes the United States, so that many of them indeed have passports and paper that would allow them to come into the U.S. Is that correct?

  • 10:23:51

    KHEDERYThat's absolutely correct, and a very important point, Diane. We've seen recently the director of the FBI in a statement from Dallas several weeks ago admitting publicly that the FBI has actually no idea how many Americans or Westerners are now waging jihad in Syria and Iraq. You've seen the intelligence community give roundtables to members of the press, including The Washington Post, as David Ignatius where he wrote an excellent piece last week saying that the intelligence community is ringing the alarms sort of fearing an attack on the homeland.

  • 10:24:26

    KHEDERYAnd, in fact, we've seen with one individual from Florida that he joined ISIS, went to fight in Syria, came back. He penetrated our trillion-dollar national security state, came back for several months, and then went back to Syria and blew himself up. And we had no idea this was occurring.

  • 10:24:47

    KHEDERYSo what this tells you is that potentially a dozen or dozens of these fighters can go back to Western countries, to include the United States, using their Western passports, that there is a high chance that they may not be intercepted in time and that they could execute either a coordinated series of attacks or individual sort of lone wolf-style attacks and that there are strong indications that we may not be prepared. And that is extremely troubling to those of us who are serving the government.

  • 10:25:18

    REHMDo you believe indeed that the president, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, do you believe they are being fully open and honest with the American people about this threat?

  • 10:25:42

    KHEDERYThat's an excellent question, Diane. I have seen two things that cause me great concern, the first is President Obama's assessment of ISIS in January, calling them the JV, the junior varsity team, basically discounting that they are a serious threat. And in fact, you know, what he should've called them is that, you know, they're the all-star team rather than the -- in the professional leagues rather than the junior varsity team.

  • 10:26:08

    KHEDERYAnd then, only last week, my friend and colleague Tony Blinken, the president's deputy national security adviser said on CNN's Jake Tapper, he just simply outright assessed that ISIS is not a threat to the homeland and that it is not a threat to American interests. Frankly, I was beside myself when I saw that interview because, again, you've had, you know, senior members of the American intelligence community, the director of the FBI, the attorney general, the president's homeland security council and others clearly give indications that that is not the case.

  • 10:26:49

    KHEDERYAnd, again, I refer the president's team back to what we're seeing on Arabic media on a daily basis. ISIS has said, we will drown you in your own blood. The head of ISIS, when he was released from an American prison in Iraq in 2009, told his American captors, I will see you in New York. So, as bin Laden, in the famous interview with CNN Peter Bergen in 1998, when he said, I'm coming, we should believe these folks, that they are indeed hell-bent on attacking us in the homeland or as they did with Amb. Chris Stevens in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. They may try to attack our interests either commercial or government abroad.

  • 10:27:33

    REHMStephen Biddle, how do you react to Ali Khedery's assessment?

  • 10:27:41

    BIDDLEWell, I think the United States debate has a very hard time dealing with issues like ISIS. ISIS is a real terrorism threat, no question about it. I mean, there is an ambiguous risk that ISIS could send American passport-holders back to the United States and do an attack here. But for locals in Iraq or in Syria or in the region, ISIS and its associated problems are existential threats. There are hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, and the personal lives of all the decision-makers involved are at stake. And what happens with ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, it is not an existential threat to the United States way of life.

  • 10:28:16

    BIDDLEThe worst plausible case from ISIS is significant conventional terrorism that kills important numbers of Americans but not hundreds of thousands. And that poses a problem that we're going to face throughout the world for a generation. We're engaged in waging limited wars with asymmetric stakes that are existential life and death for the locals, are not negligible to us but are not existential to us.

  • 10:28:40

    BIDDLEAnd that puts the administration in the bind that they're in now. They want to do something because they see non-zero stakes involved. Nobody in the United States, not the administration -- now its critics are talking about sending 130,000 American soldiers back to Iraq, which, if this threat were actually existential, would make a lot of sense.

  • 10:28:59

    BIDDLEOn neither side of the aisle in U.S. politics does anybody think the threat is of that state -- of that scale. So people are trying to justify doing the something that they think is appropriate, but they have this problem that they can't advocate all out strategies because they don't see the threat as warranting that.

  • 10:29:18

    REHMBut, Stephen Biddle, do you see the threat as warranting that?

  • 10:29:25

    BIDDLEI see the threat as real but limited. It's not an existential threat to the United States.

  • 10:29:31

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:29:31

    BIDDLEAnd the trouble is real, but limited responses are very unlikely to defeat ISIS.

  • 10:29:35

    REHMAmb. Faily.

  • 10:29:37

    FAILYWhat we have here is -- what has to take place is a new narrative in the fight against terror. It may not be just within U.S. soil. It has to be a more regional perspective. A new doctrine has to be defined. I think what the president was saying and what my colleagues are now talking about is a new Frankenstein monster called ISIS.

  • 10:29:57

    FAILYIt's a new breed with an effective and thinking-outside-the-box perspective on things. So I think that's what has to take into account. However, let me just -- the issue is not whether it's just within U.S. soil. It's the U.S. allies in the region and U.S. national interests globally is a threat. It may not be purely a U.S. soil issue.

  • 10:30:17

    REHMYochi Dreazen.

  • 10:30:19

    DREAZENLast week in a meeting I had with U.S. intelligence, their feeling was that there are active ISIS cells already in Europe. A few weeks back at the Aspen Security Forum, there was a comment that there are a hundred ISIS members -- a hundred Americans who had gone to fight with ISIS now back inside the U.S. That was the number they used. So Steve's point is correct. We're not talking about hundreds of thousands, but we are talking about the prospect of significant numbers of attacks inside the U.S.

  • 10:30:42

    DREAZENOne point, building on a common theme the ambassador made, al-Qaida for a long time -- and I don't mean this to be glib -- but they were the cool terror group. If you were a radicalized Muslim and you wanted to go fight somewhere, if you wanted to send money somewhere, al-Qaida was the brand name. They're not anymore. Increasingly, ISIS is the brand name. If you're somebody who wants to go fight, who wants to gain experience, who wants to affiliate yourself with someone who's seen as having momentum, it's ISIS.

  • 10:31:04

    DREAZENAnd there are three things about ISIS that are particularly worrying. They don't recognize state borders at all. Ayman Zawahiri had first said to ISIS, you focus on Iraq, another group focus on Syria. ISIS broke with them because they said, what do you mean, focus on a border? There is no border. They don't require outside money in the way that al-Qaida did. They fund themselves through smuggling. They fund themselves through taxes. And al-Qaida's never been able to hold territory because they don't function like a government. Our piece today, they do now function like government.

  • 10:31:27

    REHMWhen -- excuse me. When you say they function with money from taxes, taxes from where?

  • 10:31:37

    DREAZENTaxes on the people in the territories they govern, who in many cases feel that paying a tax to ISIS is both less money than they used to pay in the case of Syria to the Assad government. They feel like they know where the money is going. They function like a state not simply in kind of a general sense, but they are building roads. They've reopened post offices. They have schools.

  • 10:31:55

    DREAZENIn one case I wrote about today, they took a hospital administrator who was very skilled, from a Syrian city, put him in charge of the hospitals in Mosul where they're also building new hospitals and medical clinics. So Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that's backed by Iran in Lebanon, was famous for operating a state that was more effective than the Lebanese state. ISIS has learned from that. And no al-Qaida group had ever done that before. They are now building a state and running it like a state.

  • 10:32:18

    REHMShadi Hamid.

  • 10:32:19

    HAMIDYeah, I just wanted to add that, I mean, I think it's troubling that we're talking now about containment. And this actually suggests that in some ways it's too late. We are able to prevent ISIS from making additional territorial gains, but it will be very difficult for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to recapture all of the lost territory, or even most of it, from ISIS. So we're dealing with the reality that ISIS and the Islamic state they've created will be with us not three, five years, perhaps even longer. And it's very difficult to see how we get out of that.

  • 10:32:54

    HAMIDNow it would be possible to strike a decisive blow against ISIS if there was a real U.S. and international commitment. But there's nothing to suggest that the Obama administration wants to move in that direction. And this administration has consistently underestimated the threat from both Syria first in 2011 and from Iraq more recently. Iraq and Syria experts were warning this administration from day one, these threats are getting worse. The extremists are gaining ground. This administration simply did not listen.

  • 10:33:30

    REHMShadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ali Khedery, what do you see as U.S. options at this point?

  • 10:33:48

    KHEDERYWell, I completely agree with Shadi's assessment. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has consistently refused to acknowledge the threats we face and our allies face that are emanating out of Syria and in Iraq owing to, again, the misrule of both Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Maliki over the past eight years. And that all goes back to sort of, you know, the ideology that the president has adopted that really helped him get into office, which was the tide of war is receding. I am the president that's going to end wars, so on and so forth.

  • 10:34:25

    KHEDERYYou know, the -- I -- having served over 2,000 days in Iraq, I'm quite happy to see wars end responsibly. But the reality is, frankly, what's happening is we've ended them irresponsibly. And so by mis -- by underestimating and by mis-assessing the threats out of Syria and Iraq, what's happening is the cancers in these countries, whether it's the misrule of the central governments or the rise of transnational jihadist movements like ISIS, those problems are metastasizing. They're getting worse and worse, and they're beginning to spill over, right.

  • 10:34:59

    KHEDERYSo ISIS, we have to remember, didn't exist three years ago. We were only dealing with al-Qaida and its franchises in Yemen or in North Africa. Today we have a supercharged version of al-Qaida that is so awful and so murderous that even Zawahiri and the core al-Qaida leadership have disowned them. And then that has been created in Syria. That has spilled over into Iraq. It's beginning to spill over into Lebanon now and may potentially spill over into very important regional allies like Jordan, where you've already seen ISIS parades in some of the hinterlands and villages.

  • 10:35:38

    KHEDERYAnd so, if this cycle continues, if the United States continues to have its head buried in the sand, what you may see is either ISIS itself spilling over into other countries like, let's say, Turkey, a NATO power, or what we may see is the ratcheting up of Sunni-aligned ISIS against, let's say, Iranian-backed militias like Hezbollah or the Iraqi militia. And it may turn into -- and it already has really begun to turn into a regional holy war between Sunnis and Shia. And if that cycle continues, you could really see an all-out regional configuration, and that would be extraordinarily damaging to global security instability.

  • 10:36:21

    REHMStephen Biddle, how do you see that?

  • 10:36:25

    BIDDLEWell, I'm afraid I don't see do more, do less as a very helpful spectrum for thinking about our policy options here. There's no plausible do more that's going to destroy ISIL, per se. I mean, U.S. -- an increase in U.S. air strikes, putting U.S. spotters on the ground, I mean, when you look at the outer limit of what anybody in the United States is now advocating, none of that in and of itself makes very much headway in dealing with a movement that at the moment is representative of an important strand of opinion within Sunni Iraq that distrusts the Shiite government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional authority in Erbil.

  • 10:36:59

    BIDDLEGiven that -- I'm no big fan of most of the administration's policy in Iraq, by the way, but, given that, the stance they're trying to take now, which is using the prospect of military action -- increased military assistance that hasn't happened yet -- to try and create an incentive for political changes both in the civilian government in Baghdad, but much more importantly in the Iraqi military that might split the Sunnis, is a sensible way to proceed.

  • 10:37:26

    REHMStephen Biddle of the George Washington University. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear more from you, our listeners. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd it's time to open the phones as we discuss ISIS in Iraq, what's happening there, the rise of the militaristic form of this incredibly powerful group. Let's go first to Bill in Galax, Va. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:27

    BILLGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:40:28


  • 10:40:30

    BILLOne thing about ISIS, I seldom, if ever, hear -- you mentioned one person who's a leader in there. I never hear of the names of those people. Second thing is, do we know -- is there any way we could pinpoint them? Somebody must be in command of these military maneuvers they're going with now.

  • 10:40:55

    REHMAll right. Ali Khedery?

  • 10:40:59

    KHEDERYGreat question. Based on my service in Iraq, I'll tell you that the answer to that question is actually much harder than you think. Obviously, the United States intelligence community is the finest in the world, particularly with signals intelligence, intercepting phone calls and emails and whatnot. Now, as we know, thanks to Snowden, the NSA is extremely adept at this. However, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of resources to map out these networks. It takes a lot of what we called human-enabled SIGINTs, which is that you need sort of spies on the ground that can help you develop various capabilities.

  • 10:41:39

    KHEDERYAnd, obviously, with the both civilian and military drawdown in Iraq, those capabilities have been dramatically eroded since the days of the search, for example. And so, again, while we have a window into that world, it's much more difficult than you think. And it also takes a lot of time and resources. Now, that it is an issue that is probably, you know, one of the top three or at least top five to the president, those resources will gradually be tasked an increase, but it'll take months and perhaps years to map out the full network and then begin to develop the capabilities to take them out or to proactively erode their operational capabilities.

  • 10:42:22

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Detroit, Mich. Bashar, you're on the air.

  • 10:42:28

    BASHARYeah, good morning, Diane.

  • 10:42:29


  • 10:42:30

    BASHARMy question is, I mean, we see ISIS doing all the genocide in Muslims and killing the Christians and the Yazidis and the Shiites. But we didn't see any Muslim leaders from any countries. I've been watching the news. I've been here many years in the United States. And I am watching the news, the Arab news or reading the news and Arab news. I didn't see any Muslim leaders come out in this TV or radio or anything saying what ISIS is doing is destroying the name of Islam, destroying our value or that some value.

  • 10:43:05

    REHMAll right. And we've had a number of emails to that same effect. Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is Egypt? Where is Turkey? Why are they not being part of this effort to destroy ISIS, Mr. Ambassador?

  • 10:43:26

    FAILYOver the last decade, Iraqis have -- with this democratic system -- have been asking its neighbors to play their role in the fight against al-Qaida. Not focusing on that has led to ISIS being -- the creation. So it's purely, I would say, short-termism of the region players that's a key issue. What Bashar and others are talking about -- the listener -- is fatwas are still being -- coming out of our region and southern neighbors. That has to be stand -- has to be stopped.

  • 10:43:58

    FAILYWe talked about regional cooperation. This is one side. You have multi-layer issues. You've got tweeters. You've got all kinds of Facebooks coming out of the region with messages, videos and so on. That has to be a regional support in the fight against al-Qaida or ISIS. It's not only at U.S.

  • 10:44:14


  • 10:44:15

    HAMIDSo I think that there's been an assumption with this administration that if the U.S. steps back others will step in, that others will kind of rise to their responsibility. I think that assumption has been fundamentally disproven over the last six years. You know, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, if they don't see the U.S. leading, then they're not going to expose themselves.

  • 10:44:41

    HAMIDThey're not going to put themselves out there. And they were begging, literally begging the U.S. for years to get more involved in Syria, to support the mainstream rebel forces against extremists like ISIS. When they saw the U.S. didn't have skin in the game, they said, well, you know, there's not a lot we can do then. I mean, the bottom -- the big problem here is that whatever Obama says, everyone in the region can sense that his heart isn't in it.

  • 10:45:10

    REHMDo you think that's changing, Yochi?

  • 10:45:12

    DREAZENNo, not in the slightest. I mean, when this mission doesn't have a name, the mission doesn't have clear goals -- and, again, everything he says about why we're there has this caveat of we're there to protect the 800 U.S. personnel in Baghdad and Irbil. And I just find that silly, like, really legitimately silly to say that we're trying to prevent a dam from overflowing because we have troops in Baghdad hundreds of miles away.

  • 10:45:35

    DREAZENAnd I agree with Shadi completely. There's no one I've talked to, for instance, in the Gulf who trusts this administration on Iran. They don't trust this administration on the fight against Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood. And they certainly don't trust them on the fight against the Islamic State.

  • 10:45:47

    REHMBut what about the reports that the White House is getting from the CIA and other sources of intelligence? Isn't that moving them at all?

  • 10:46:05

    DREAZENBut we've also had this strange -- it's not yet clear how it happened, but if you remember a week or so ago, the notion was we had -- we, the U.S., had to do something because there was going to be a genocide on Sinjar Mountain of tens of thousands of Yazidis. The figures were 40,000, 70,000, 80,000. Then the U.S. Special Forces 20th went in and said, actually, it's not that bad. Most of them have left.

  • 10:46:25

    DREAZENSo one of two things happened. Either by some logistical miracle, 75,000 Yazidis left in a matter of days, or the estimates were wrong. And if the estimates are wrong on the Yazidis, you wonder, what else is the U.S. intelligence not grasping about the fight there or the strength of the enemy?

  • 10:46:39

    REHMAli Khedery, what do you make of that?

  • 10:46:44

    KHEDERYI think if can, for a second, just go back briefly, regarding the issue of the regional allies and not doing enough.

  • 10:46:53


  • 10:46:54

    KHEDERYIn fact, they have begun to do things. Well, they've been doing things for a long time. It's not widely publicized intentionally, but, again, there are lots of indications in the public domain already, that the United States and its intelligence services and its diplomatic corps cooperate daily with our regional allies, who include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt. We are daily battling al-Qaida on a variety of fronts. And, believe me, had we not been doing so, there would have been many more 9/11s, really around the world, first.

  • 10:47:30

    KHEDERYSecond, in fact, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, last week, private, you know, quietly began to mobilize the royal family and the country's top clerics and told them that they needed to very forcefully begin speaking out against ISIS. And since then, we've seen, for example, today the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, essentially one of Sunni Islam's top clerics, publicly condemning ISIS and al-Qaida and explicitly that they do not represent Islam and really acknowledging that they are a threat to humanity.

  • 10:48:09

    KHEDERYSo these -- I think it's very important to acknowledge what is occurring behind the scenes. I think it's very important to acknowledge what's occurring in, you know, on openly, on the stage. And I think, as Yochi and others have said, I think it's very important to, really, for this president to lead. You know, last week I called for -- in a piece on -- for the United States to really adopt a regional strategy to -- for the president to appoint a Middle East Czar.

  • 10:48:39

    KHEDERYNot to displace our, for example, diplomats around the region and not to displace the Secretary of State, for example, but what you really have, again, is a very serious series of crises across the region, whether it's Libya or the meltdown in Yemen or in Syria or in Iraq. And what you really need is somebody to fuse all of the U.S. government's efforts, whether it's intelligence diplomacy or economics, into -- and certainly military. You need a fusion cell that -- to be created by the United States government to work with our regional allies and tackle these very complicated, time-consuming, resource-intensive issues.

  • 10:49:17

    REHMAmb. Faily?

  • 10:49:19

    FAILYWhat I have been talking about and our government have been talking about, is a new doctrine, as a repeated, a new doctrine in the fight against terrorism. The regional players have not played their role. They, I mean, Ali talks about lately, all the examples was only last week and the week before. Well, last year, our foreign minister here in Washington asked for strikes against al-Qaida bases or ISIL bases in the camps.

  • 10:49:42

    FAILYThey were identified. They were clear. We know it's a bit late, but we also know that there are still atrocities being committed. So we need to address that. There has to be a sense of urgency, and it has to be comprehensive. It cannot be a single player, whether -- however mighty United States' capabilities are, it has to be a regional role, significant role.

  • 10:50:02

    REHMStephen Biddle?

  • 10:50:03

    BIDDLELet's play out the implicit counterfactual here one step further. Let's say President Obama gets a heart transplant. He becomes fully committed. He announces that the U.S. is going to do whatever it takes, you know, move any mountain, cross any sea. The kind of Sunni outreach that's necessary by Baghdad, in order to split the opposing alliance and actually end this war before it burns itself out, is extremely risky to Iraqi Shiites and Kurds.

  • 10:50:29

    BIDDLEThey don't want to do this for perfectly a sensible reason. There's enormous risk to their identity group. There's also enormous risk to them personally if they result is some sort of, you know, coup d'etat or other political instability. If the United States simply declares that ISIL is an existential threat, we will do what's necessary to destroy it, and we're behind you, whatever, why in the world should they take these risks? We've given them no incentive to do things that they personally see as enormously risky to their own personal survival.

  • 10:50:59

    BIDDLEBut the problem the administration faces here is they're trying to walk a tightrope. You can fall off of it in either direction. They don't want to offer so little that they have no leverage to get people to accept risks and engage in accommodation outreach. But they don't want to offer so much that they create disincentives to risk taking that are necessary to do outreach. I'm sympathetic to the dilemma that they're stuck with here.

  • 10:51:24

    REHMShadi Humdi, (sic) we have an email from Tom. He says, "I wonder to what extent the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the major cause of the rise of ISIS. If Saddam had remained in power, would Iraq be a more stable country today?"

  • 10:51:49

    HAMIDSo, Diane, I think that the -- yes. The original sin was the Bush administrations invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Obama's original sin, which compounded the first one, was the failure to intervene in Syria. And I think we have to acknowledge that the rise of ISIS is more directly tied to the Syrian civil war than the Iraq civil war. But I would also just say, I mean, I worry that we're talking about such -- the threat that ISIS is, that we might kind of fall back onto this short-termism, this dependence on repressive autocrats in the Middle East, allies like the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, which have terrible human rights records.

  • 10:52:30

    HAMIDAnd we say, well, ISIS is the bigger threat, so we have to forget about everything else. We have to have a longer-term approach and realize that the rise of ISIS is at least in part a product of governance failures across the Middle East, that the democratic process has been attempted in several countries during the Arab Spring for -- but, for a variety of reasons, those democratic processes failed.

  • 10:52:55

    HAMIDSo with Arabs losing faith in democracy in their own governments, they look to extremists groups like ISIS. And ISIS then has a stronger narrative. So the biggest -- one of the biggest threats, I think, is not just ISIS, but the possibility that we might fall back onto a very narrow counterterrorism, counter-extremist approach that loses the big picture.

  • 10:53:20

    REHMShadi Humdi (sic) of the Brookings Institution. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yochi?

  • 10:53:28

    DREAZENYou know, two quick points on sort of the narrow knife's edge that the U.S. has to tread here. Our friend Susan Page had an article today on polling about this intervention within the U.S. And the numbers were very interesting. You had last month 55-39 saying the U.S. should not get involved. This month, you have 44-41 saying the U.S. should do something. That was the way the question was phrased, do something. At the same time, 51 percent fear that the U.S. will get too deeply involved.

  • 10:53:54

    DREAZENSo if you're the White House and you're trying to legitimately figure out, is the country with you, it is with you to do something, but it's also saying, if you do something, it's you go too far. It's also a weird strange bedfellows' alliance where the only other military that is consistently hammering ISIS is the Syrian military. So not only do we not intervene to try to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, in a very strange, perverse way, the only real ally we have militarily against ISIS is Bashar al-Assad.

  • 10:54:17

    REHMAmb. Faily, how much do you think depends on the man who is to become the new prime minister? How or can he make a difference?

  • 10:54:32

    FAILYHe has made tremendous, positive messages. I know him personally. I know he's committed personally to more harmonizing the politics of Iraq, whether they are Allah Sunna, Shia or Kurds -- who are Sunni, by the way, as well. So in a way, I think there's high expectation, which I'm afraid is too much to ask at this -- it's too early. He has to have more support. He has to have U.S., others -- and there has been a lot of positive signs. At the end of the day, it's not just a one-man show. It has to be a group.

  • 10:55:06

    REHMAnd, Ali Khedery, this discussion has seemed filled with doom and gloom. Last comment from you. How imminent do you think a strike on the U.S. from ISIS might be?

  • 10:55:28

    KHEDERYI think unless we do much more to address its root causes, it will be inevitable. Again, it goes back to the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of Iraq's Sunni community and even some of its Kurds under Prime Minister Maliki over the last eight years. Hopefully that will change both with new faces in Baghdad, but as President Obama has said, with a new way of doing business by the Baghdad government. But I think, just as importantly, we cannot isolate Iraq from what's happening in Syria.

  • 10:55:56

    KHEDERYThe fact is that without genocide campaign that the Assad government has perpetrated and with support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iraq's Shia Islamic militias and Hezbollah, ISIS would almost likely -- almost certainly have never been created. And so frankly, I categorically reject that Assad is an ally in the fight against al-Qaida. He is, in fact, the best thing that's ever happened for both al-Qaida and ISIS.

  • 10:56:22

    KHEDERYAnd so we really have to work with our international allies and our regional allies and even potentially with foes like Iran to figure out a solution for Syria because that's the only way you're going to be able to stabilize that country and to eventually root out al-Qaida and ISIS.

  • 10:56:38

    REHMAli Khedery, Stephen Biddle, Yochi Dreazen, Amb. Faily, Shadi Hamid, thank you all so much for joining us.

  • 10:56:49

    DREAZENThanks, Diane.

  • 10:56:50

    FAILYThank you very much.

  • 10:56:50

    BIDDLEThanks for having me.

  • 10:56:50

    HAMIDThank you, Diane.

  • 10:56:51

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:01

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight, Alison Brody, and Alexandra Botti. The engineer is Andrew Chadwick. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.

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