Leaderless Organizations and the Strategic Value of Airstrikes in Syria

Lieutenant Colonel Michael A. Adelberg

After more than three years of war in Syria, which has seen more than one million refugees, more than a quarter million dead, the use of chemical weapons, and dozens of atrocities on all sides, the United States finally became involved.  On September 22, 2014 the United States and a coalition of Arab states began air attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria.  Many national security analysts and observers are criticizing the President’s campaign of air strikes against ISIL.  Among other criticisms is the assessment that deep attacks and airpower alone will not destroy ISIL.  This observation is almost certainly true.  Bombs and missiles probably won’t destroy ISIL in Syria.  It will most likely take ground forces at some point.  However, such critiques, while absolutely valid in operational terms, and even in tactical terms, completely undervalue the broader strategic significance of the President’s coalition air campaign.  To appreciate its strategic value, some explanation is in order.

First, one must not lose sight of the fact that airstrikes are only one part of the President’s plan to degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.  The strategic end is not, however, the destruction of ISIL; that is an operational endstate.  The President’s strategic endstate is a stable Middle East region comprising responsible governments that respect basic human rights.1  The destruction of ISIL is only one of the ways to achieve this end.

Understanding that U.S. troops on the ground in an invasion of Syria is not an acceptable course of action, the President advanced one of the only decisively acceptable means; and this is where strategy becomes clear.  The strategic means to destroy ISIL is not the actual airstrikes; it is the coalition that is working with the United States to conduct those airstrikes.  Sunni Arab states are attacking the Sunni extremists.  In broader, and much more relevant strategic terms, regional states are seeking to resolve regional issues.  That is the strategic value of this campaign.

When we look at the larger picture, though, the fight against ISIL is just the next battle in the real fight: the fight against Islamic violent extremism.  As any strategist knows, one of the hardest parts of strategic development is the correct identification of the problem.  ISIL is only a symptom of the problem.  While the international community can employ military force against ISIL as an organization, airstrikes will not solve the real problem unless the United States, and its allies and partners, recognize that it is combatting a decentralized leaderless idea, and not just one organization.  As the President stated in his West Point speech, the principal threat “comes from decentralized al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.”2

In 2006, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote about “the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations,” organizations which they called “starfish,” which contrasted with centralized structures and organizations referred to as “spiders.”  The idea is that the spider has a centralized body and the legs are appendages.

With a spider, what you see is pretty much what you get.  A body’s a body, a head’s a head, and a leg’s a leg.  But starfish are very different.  The starfish doesn’t have a head.  Its central body itsn’t even in charge.  In fact, the major organs are replicated through-out each and every arm.  If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise; the animal won’t die, and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with.3

Brafman and Beckstrom analyzed numerous human movements and organizations, from the Apache Indians to Napster and Wikipedia, through Alcoholics Anonymous to the Animal Liberation Front and al-Qaeda.  In every example, these movements take on a life of their own, and there is no single central body or head that can successfully be attacked to kill the whole.  In other words, the Islamic violent extremist ideology fits Brafman and Beckstrom’s theory of a decentralized, leaderless, open system.  Countering an open system requires a vastly different toolbox and way of thinking than the Clausewitzian “center of gravity” concepts. 

Nothing illustrates this better than the recognition that, in spite of the number of terrorists captured or killed in the past decade, or the millions of dollars of terrorist funding seized, or the deaths of Bin Laden, Zarqawi, and al-Masri (to name just a few), Islamic violent extremism is highly resilient.  The ideology is demonstrating that it cannot be defeated with bombs, troops, or even arrests.  Advocates of the traditional center-of-gravity (COG) strategic approach would argue that the United States simply has not correctly identified the true center of gravity, and therefore have not properly deconstructed its critical capabilities, requirements, or vulnerabilities.

Such logic is based on the core assumption that every COG actually has “critical” vulnerabilities, and that if strategists can only identify them they can be attacked and the adversary can be defeated.  However, a decentralized, leaderless, open system may not have critical vulnerabilities because the very essence of the movement—as extrapolated from Brafman and Beckstrom’s work—is imprinted on the DNA of the movement itself.  In a way, once they are established, open systems become self-replicating.

It is here, through the DNA analogy, that one can see how the problem can be defeated.  The Clausewitzian model of COGs (or even Sun Tzu) advocates applying one’s strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses; in other words, asymmetrical warfare.  Radical violent extremism can be defeated symmetrically.  The overwhelming majority of the Muslim world rejects the radical violence espoused by ISIL, and its predecessors and associated groups.  This is also an open “starfish” system; there is no actual hierarchy or centralization of the rest of the non-extremist, non-violent Islamic global population. 

Much has been written that the real problem is the Iraqi Sunni feeling of being oppressed by the Maliki government, with the solution being a viable inclusive Iraqi government.4  However, this solution only assumes the problem is localized to Iraq and neighboring Syria.  It does not address the “starfish” phenomenon that affiliated Islamic extremists touting the same ideology span the globe, from the Philippines to North Africa.  For example, an inclusive Iraqi government will not defeat Boko Haram. 

Neither does an inclusive Iraqi government address the global phenomenon of “inspired by” attacks, such as the most recent attack on the Canadian Parliament, or the beheading of a British soldier in broad daylight on the streets of London. 

Which returns this discussion to the strategic value of coalition airstrikes against ISIL in Syria.  The involvement of the regional powers opens the door for greater ownership of solving the problem.  ISIL itself is a centralized, hierarchical organization, and it can, eventually, be militarily defeated.  Another “caliph” and another violent extremist group will eventually rise up to take ISIL’s place.  But in the interim between these two events, the Unites States will likely have secured strategic time and space for the responsible Muslim world to fight the ideology.

It is not yet, however, a strategic victory.  Any strategy employs the means to accomplish the ends and ways, but it also accounts for risk, and the U.S. leadership of an Arab coalition in Syria is fraught with risk. 

A significant risk is that there is a loss, or a lack, of domestic support among the participating coalition populations, particularly if the Imans do not back the various governments.  Invariably, there will be innocent Sunni civilian casualties in Syria.  If the populations among the less liberal Muslim countries oppose attacks against fellow Sunnis, there could be eventual domestic unrest and violence, undermining the coalition and causing more problems, not less.  One possible outcome is that the coalition falls apart and the United States is left to continue the fight without regional partners.  Worse yet, the legitimacy of the U.S. leadership could come into question by the Arab partners.

Another risk is the unintentional escalation of the larger war in Syria.  Thus far, the U.S. led coalition has reportedly struck ISIL, Al Nusra, and the Khorason Group.  Should regime forces and the Arab air forces engage, either intentionally or inadvertently, the result could be and expansion of direct foreign involvement.  The likely counteraction would be further Iranian support and even spillover into Lebanon.

A third risk involves the third-order effects of the power vacuum created in the Syrian civil war, which would be the result of the removal of one of the key players.  Syria has experienced a relative balance of power between the regime and the various oppositions.  Degrading and destroying ISIL has the effect of eliminating one of the strongest opposition forces.  Clearly, the President intends to fill this vacuum with a U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA).  In his September 10th speech he stated:

Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.  Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters…we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.5

However, unless the efforts to train and equip the FSA keep pace with the air campaign, and these efforts show tangible battlefield results very soon, then it is likely that the regime will fill the void instead.  This could result in either increased U.S. involvement down the road, or simply an Assad victory.

Risks, of course, are not an argument against taking action. By understanding the real strategic value of the air coalition against ISIL, one can have an appreciation of why the President’s chosen course may be worth the high risks.


1. The White House, “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” Washington, DC, May 19, 2011.

2. The White House, “Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony,” Washington, DC, May 28, 2014.

3. O. Brafman and R. A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider, New York: The Penguin Group, 2006.

4. A. H. Cordesman, “The Real Center of Gravity in the War Against the Islamic State,” retrieved from Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 30, 2014, available from

5. The White House, “Statement By The President on ISIL,” Washington, DC, September 10, 2014.


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