Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Problem With Regime Change

More airstrikes in Syria will only create opportunities for Islamic state radicals.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 State Department officials signed an internal memo calling for U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. They claimed this would foment regime change and was the only way to defeat ISIS.

The proposal reflected foreign-policy elite conventional wisdom, and was echoed by a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report: “Defeating the Islamic State: A Bottom-Up Approach.” Although the report did not explicitly call for regime change, it’s hard not to interpret its recommendation to “reestablish legitimate and acceptable governance and negotiate a political end-state for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria” as anything but. And it is worth noting that the CNAS study group that produced the report is chaired by former Obama administration official Michèle Flournoy—who many consider to the frontrunner for secretary of defense if Hillary Clinton is elected president.

When will Washington learn that airstrikes and regime change are not the cure-all?

Perhaps inside the Beltway the most obvious facts about the Middle East are lost, or worse, ignored: ISIS is the result of regime change. It was the decision to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq—even though that regime did not represent a direct threat to U.S. national security—that created the conditions for the rise in 2004 of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was the re-branding of a group founded by Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI eventually became ISIS (after al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006) and split from al-Qaeda in 2014 over a disagreement about merging with another group, the al-Nusra Front.

So if history is any guide, regime change is likely to create a vacuum of instability to be filled by ISIS or the rise of yet another radical Islamic group.

Moreover, bombing will not defeat ISIS because it is not just an organized group—it is the representation of one form of radical Islamic ideology. Bombing may kill those who are identified as ISIS, but it will not extinguish the flames of radical Islam. In fact, it may do more to fuel the fire because no matter how accurately we use precision weapons, collateral damage is an inevitable result. The Obama administration recently disclosed that between 64 and 116 civilians have died in drone strikes since 2002. But Airwars, a project by a team of independent journalists, claims that the real number is well over 1,000, including hundreds of children.

And we know the likely fallout because we have historical experience. In November 2003, U.S. F-16 fighter jets dropped several 500-pound bombs in Fallujah. According to one resident in the area where the bombs exploded, “We used to have hopes of the Americans after they removed Saddam. We had liked them until this weekend. Why did they drop bombs near us and hurt and terrify my children like this?” A March 2007 U.S. airstrike in the Kapisa province in Afghanistan (targeting an alleged local Taliban leader) killed four generations of a single family: an 85-year-old man, four women, and four children ranging in age from seven months to five years. As one villager said, “We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans. But now when we see all this happening, I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans.” And the opinion about the Americans of the seven-year old boy who survived the bombing was plain enough: “I hate them.”

Simply put, more bombing gives Muslims more reasons to hate America and lends credence to the ISIS narrative that America is waging a war against Islam—making it easier to tap into anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world to recruit to their ranks and inspire jihad. We have seen this recently in the Orlando mass shooting, as Omar Mateen is thought to have been inspired by ISIS without any training, instruction, or direct connection to the group.

Moreover, the U.S. doesn’t need to bomb ISIS, which is not a direct threat to U.S. national security. The group is waging a war in the Middle East because it wants to establish an Islamic caliphate. As such, ISIS is a threat to Iraq and neighboring countries, so it is their responsibility and in their interest to combat it. Indeed, ISIS represents an ideological battle within Islam that can be fought and won only by Muslims. The more the U.S. tries to assert itself in the middle of somebody else’s civil war, the more we make ourselves a target.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities Foundation. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.