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The Trump administration is set to supersize President Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamic State, sending more American forces to the region and lifting restraints on direct participation in combat and when to use armed force. Yet any victory under the current approach will be ephemeral. Even if American proxies, backed by U.S. military forces, wrest Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, away from ISIS, success will be fleeting.
The most important error is the near-exclusive focus on Islamic State at the expense of serious efforts against al Qaeda. Destroying ISIS is necessary but not sufficient. As the Obama administration turned its attention toward ISIS, al Qaeda learned from its failures. It has temporarily deprioritized spectacular attacks on the global stage and focused on embedding itself within Sunni communities in Syria, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere to develop long-term strength and resilience.
Al Qaeda also has become more cautious in imposing its radical version of Shariah. It now indoctrinates populations over years rather than forcing immediate compliance with strict Islamic law. It does not demand that fighters place themselves formally and publicly under its command. Its affiliates in Syria do not even insist that local groups accept its ideology as long as they fight common foes. Al Qaeda today introduces its beliefs slowly and carefully, and the false message that it is more moderate than ISIS resonates around the world.
The second major flaw in America’s strategy against ISIS, which is Sunni, is Washington’s reliance on non-Sunni and non-Arab partners. That amplifies the terror group’s message. In Iraq the U.S. works with the Shiite-dominated government, whose past persecution of Sunni Arabs fueled ISIS’s rise. Meanwhile, America’s Kurdish partners in both Iraq and Syria are pursuing an independent Kurdistan, a political goal that is unacceptable to most Arabs.
The U.S. has no meaningful presence among the Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq and Syria that ISIS, al Qaeda and others are vying to control. This appears to confirm al Qaeda’s claim that it is the only effective armed force dedicated to protecting Sunni populations from a combined assault by all the world’s powers. That message may win out if Washington does not rapidly change its approach.
The current strategy also empowers Iran and Russia, which have done little to fight ISIS. Instead they have focused on destroying the moderate Syrian opposition that threatened the regime of Bashar Assad. Iran and Russia made great progress toward that aim in December when they helped forces loyal to Mr. Assad seize Aleppo.
The U.S. has done nothing to limit Iran’s increased military activity in Syria or Iraq. Tehran has sent ground forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight in Syria. It has also recruited thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis, deployed fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, and brought in Iraqi Shiite militiamen. Iran has penetrated Syria so thoroughly that if it withdrew the Assad regime could not survive. Unless the U.S. acts soon, Tehran’s expanded military presence will become permanent.
America’s backing of Kurdish-led forces to take Raqqa exacerbates these problems and offers little gain. Its capture will not shatter ISIS, which retains control of southeastern Syria, from the city of Deir ez Zour to the Iraqi border. Raqqa’s fall will represent only a tactical victory—and al Qaeda, Iran, the Assad regime and the Kurds will compete for the spoils. Sunnis will lose, diminishing the chance of forging a strong Sunni leadership opposed to ISIS and al Qaeda.
What’s needed is a new approach—and we have one. The Institute for the Study of War joined with the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for an intensive planning exercise beginning in November 2015. Our analysts tested more than 15 different courses of action before arriving at the one that offers the best chance of changing the momentum in Syria.
The key is finding new Sunni partners and taking the fight to new terrain, specifically, southeastern Syria, where ISIS leaders have refuge. American military forces will be necessary. But the U.S. can recruit new Sunni Arab partners by fighting alongside them in their land. The goal in the beginning must be against ISIS because it controls the last areas in Syria where the U.S. can reasonably hope to find Sunni allies not yet under the influence of al Qaeda. But the aim after evicting ISIS must be to raise a Sunni Arab army that can ultimately defeat al Qaeda and help negotiate a settlement to the war.
The U.S. will have to pressure the Assad regime, Iran and Russia to end the conflict on terms that the Sunni Arabs will accept. That will be easier to do with the independence and leverage of a secure base inside Syria. America should also liberate itself from the troublesome reliance on Turkey by shifting its base of operations south, where a reliable ally, Jordan, is fully committed to fighting Salafi jihadism. Both these moves would give Washington access to Sunni partners not heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda.
No single military operation can achieve victory in Syria. But an operation against the enemy’s heartland, freed of the constraints imposed by problematic proxies, would change the assumptions of America’s friends and enemies. President Trump should break through the flawed logic and poor planning that he inherited from his predecessor. He can transform this struggle, but only by transforming America’s approach to it.
The original article is available through subscription here. It was written with the Institute for the Study of War. The Critical Threats Project and Institute for the Study of War recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.
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