We can't destroy ISIS without destroying Bashar al-Assad first

The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.

Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring. Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countries—notably Libya and Yemen—teeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.

The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraq—with a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnis—all of them—as supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.