The Enemy of My Enemy is Now My Friend: The Fight Against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant


The Middle East and North Africa have been increasingly characterized by weak and failing states, political vacuums and wide scale disorder. This has resulted in a decreased ability to thwart terrorist organizations and networks across the region. One such organization that has successfully utilized this environment to its advantage is the Islamic State (IS). This terrorist organization has successfully taken advantage of the region’s volatile environment to attain and sustain power and influence. IS “…is a brutal, capable enemy that seeks to break modern states and establish a worldwide caliphate.”[i]  To this end, it has acquired and strengthened its position through a violent, brutal and terror-laden strategy. In addition, it has immensely increased chaos and disorder in the region and as such has severely and detrimentally affected the security landscape. This terrorist organization has not only been a threat to the region’s security, it is also a security threat to the West.  Given the complexities associated with IS, the U.S. approach to this challenge needs to be strategic, layered and multi-dimensional. In order to develop and successfully implement such a strategy the United States cannot undertake this massive task on its own and needs to work with key stakeholders through the use of alliances. It is important to understand that “in this complex environment, it is difficult for policymakers to discern the consequences of action or inaction even in the near future.”[ii] However, not involving key stakeholders in the strategy against IS will likely increase the risk of failure. Acknowledging this, alliances have been forged that would once have been deemed impossible, such as those between the United States and Iran, which stems from a mutual interest in eliminating IS. While this strategy is not without risks, multilateral alliances are essential to countering IS’s complex strategy.


The Islamic State is using terrorism as its instrument in changing the system of the Middle East and North Africa. Through the use of terrorism and territorial acquisition from both Iraq and Syria, IS rose to power and now controls vast stretches of land in both countries. Thus, linking both and creating a so-called Caliphate. However, it is not confining itself to this region alone. In order to expand its power, IS’s “…regional affiliates are seizing terrain, establishing training camps and launching increasingly effective attacks.”[iii] Moreover, it is attempting to preserve itself by extending operations outside of Iraq and Syria despite the military actions of the U.S. led anti-IS coalition.[iv] In addition, the Islamic State continuously promotes violence and terrorism against Western nations such as the United States,[v] which makes it a major international security threat. According to FBI Director James Comey “…the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem…”[vi]

As more areas in the region experience volatility and disorder, IS is able to utilize the environment to benefit and exacerbate existing fissures.[vii] As a result, it has been able to expand to other corners beyond the Middle East and North Africa, such as Nigeria[viii], while sustaining itself in Syria and Iraq.[ix] The implications associated with the Islamic State’s activities including its declaration of a Caliphate are vast and highly detrimental to Iraq and Syria, as well as to the international community. As this terrorist organization continues its pursuit of power and territorial acquisition, it is ushering in a new era of international jihadism.[x] “It not only threatens to create a major center of terrorism and extremism in a critical part of the Middle East, and one that could spread to threaten the flow of energy exports and the global economy, but become a major center of international terrorism.”[xi] Consequently, countering the Islamic State “…is a substantial task that involves coherent, yet geographically dispersed efforts, likely coordinated among multiple allies.”[xii] This has resulted in alliances being forged that would once have been deemed impossible, such as those between the United States and Iran as a result of their mutual interest in eliminating IS.


It is important to recognize IS’s complex strategy and adopt pragmatic policies and strategies towards it. Acknowledging this, the U.S. has changed the way it frames its policies and strategies towards this enemy. This evolved approach includes the marshaling of divergent capabilities and priorities to sustain diplomacy and management,[xiii] as well as highly effective hard power strategies such as air strikes. In the fight against IS alliances are vital to establish a strong and lasting counter offensive. This translates into the utilization of multi-lateral alliances with state and non-state partners. This combined action will foster a strategy in which each group’s core competencies will be effectively utilized to weaken and eventually eliminate IS.

The need to undermine IS’s appeal and counter its offensive has translated into a cooperative relationship between key stakeholders. The utilization of each stakeholder’s unique core competencies in a coordinated and consistent strategy at strategic and tactical levels will facilitate IS’s weakening.  Alliances between the United States and Iran along with others, such as Iraq and Turkey, as well as Coalition Forces and non-state partners such as militias and community leaders can facilitate a coordinated, layered and multi-lateral strategy to counter IS’s attempt to preserve itself in Iraq and Syria. It can also successfully counter its operations outside this region. While this approach is essential it is not without risks. As such, it is important to have comprehensive understanding of each stakeholder’s interests and forecast potential challenges associated that may emerge as a result of the alliance. Nonetheless, alliances can heighten the impact of resource utilization. Furthermore, by working together to deter, detect, and disrupt surveillance, rehearsals and execution of operations by IS, these partnerships can help strengthen and secure key points in the strategy against IS. 

Conclusion:The Islamic State has become a common enemy of many nations and millions of people. It has used terrorism as an instrument to disrupt a regional system to infringe upon the territorial integrity of nations and to inflict violence and terror on a massive scale. IS’s impact does not end at the borders of its so-called Caliphate. It is a major security threat to countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the West and beyond. Given the complexity associated with fighting IS and its threat to U.S. national security, it is in the best interest of the U.S. to strategically utilize the core competencies of key stakeholders. This approach can be used not only to counter the terrorist organization, but also curtail issues pertaining to instability, chaos and disorder, which IS takes advantage of to increase its power and influence.

[i] Harleen Gambhir, “Middle East Security Report 28 ISIS’s Global Strategy: A War Game,” Understanding War (July 2015) (accessed August 5, 2015)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv]  Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ken Dilanian, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue, “Despite Bombing, Islamic State Is No Weaker Than a Year Ago” (August 1, 2015) Real Clear Politics (accessed August 4, 2015)

[vii] Harleen Gambhir, “Middle East Security Report 28 ISIS’s Global Strategy: A War Game” Understanding War (July 2015) (accessed August 5, 2015)

[viii] BBC, “Boko Haram Declares Islamic State in Northern Nigeria,” BBC News (August 2015) (accessed September 22, 2015)

[ix] Ibid

[x] Charlie Cooper, “Viewpoint: ISIS Caliphate a Dangerous Development,” BBC  (June 30, 2014) (accessed July 3, 2014)

[xi] Anthony H. Cordesman, “Iraqi Stability and the ISIS War,” CSIS (August 12, 2015) (accessed August 15, 2015)

[xii] Harleen Gambhir, “Middle East Security Report 28 ISIS’s Global Strategy: A War Game,” Understanding War (July 2015) (accessed August 5, 2015)

[xiii] Harleen Gambhir, “Middle East Security Report 28 ISIS’s Global Strategy: A War Game,” Understanding War Cite (July 2015) (accessed August 5, 2015)

Photo credit: Flicker, non changes made.

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About Author

Satgin Hamrah

Satgin Hamrah earned a Masters of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California and a Masters of International Relations degree from Boston University. She is currently at Tufts University and taking short courses at the Naval Postgraduate School & the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Satgin is also an Editor-at-Large at E-International Relations, an Associate Editor at the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy and is writing a book on the Iran-Iraq War.


  1. Satgin Hamrah

    Thank you for your comment. You highlight very important and interesting points. I agree that simply utilizing air power against the Islamic State is inefficient. A multilateral and a multi-pronged approach should be utilized in order to eliminate this terrorist organization. Overall, in my opinion there is a need for strong hard power strategies, such as: air power, ground forces (military and militia). There is also a need for strategically crafted soft power strategies that includes using the Islamic State’s own message and so called ideals against them (on ground and online) and the development of relationships with the local population in a manner that will increase the likelihood of their cooperation and assistance in eradicating this threat.

  2. My opinion is that until a terrorist organization only acts in a region, or in a part of region, or in a country, like Boko Haram, it isn’t a world security issue, regardless of the consequences of its activities. But, when these consequences, which could appear in form of refugee crisis or terrorist attacks, have become a threat to the Western democracy, the masters of political games have started thinking about creating common strategies. Generally, those strategies consist of forming multiple alliances, in which there are some of the Western countries and some of the main region`s countries.
    The current events with refugee crisis is a direct consequence of the Islamic State`s intent to found a so-called Calphate which should be the main center of international terrorism. I think that only air or other kinds of attacks to the Islamic State won`t be enough in this situation, when every day thousands of refugees are coming to Europe with the aim to settle there.

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