ISIL, Iraq, and Syria: The Strategy Challenge

Once again, President Barack Obama is taking grief for having committed truth on the subject of strategy: this time acknowledging the incompleteness thereof in the context of training the Iraqi national army. The real problem, however, lies in why the President prefers a negative articulation of the end goal he seeks and his acceptance of the proposition that achieving the objective will take years of incremental effort. This approach will leave his successor with an Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) problem that will have evolved from difficult to intractable. Although no plan survives totally intact after first contact with the enemy, getting the basics right at the outset is the prerequisite for success.

President Obama has defined the end state in terms of ISIL’s destruction. This is inadequate. ISIL has been the malignant filler of political legitimacy vacuums in Iraq and Syria. To destroy it without filling those vacuums is to invite something conceivably worse to take its place.

The end state sought by the president—whether he knows it or not—is legitimate governance in Iraq and Syria: governance in which citizenries consent to the rules of the political game in each state; political systems in which there is near unanimous agreement on the right of officials to discharge their official duties, whether they do so skillfully or not. In such systems, there is no oxygen for ISIL and like-minded groups. Although Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya may be today’s poster countries for political illegitimacy and its horrific consequences, how many political systems in the Middle East-North Africa region can rightfully don the cloak of genuine legitimacy, as opposed to crude majoritarianism? How many MENA states have the requisite antibodies to resist ISIL infection?

Political legitimacy in Iraq and Syria is a tall order. Perhaps President Obama resists calling the requisite, ISIL-killing end state what it is because he knows that the United States cannot unilaterally achieve it. Indeed, building legitimate political systems is overwhelmingly the job of Iraqis and Syrians: a job that can be facilitated by the United States at the head of a broad, supportive coalition. But make no mistake: absent legitimate political systems in Iraq and Syria, even a militarily defeated ISIL will remain undead; the extremist group, something like it, or perhaps something even worse will inevitably arise and fill vacuums created by crude authoritarianism rooted in shallow sectarianism.

Indeed, the administration probably gets all of this. When it published a nine-point anti-ISIL strategy in November 2014, it listed supporting effective governance in Iraq as point one. Yet the absence of the words “and Syria” was telling. The administration had long-since come to recognize the ISIL-promoting illegitimacy of Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and used its influence to promote Maliki’s ouster from the premiership. Likewise, the administration fully understood that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was the essence of political illegitimacy and an unrivaled enabler of ISIL.

Yet Assad presented a problem. He and his campaign of mass homicide and collective punishment enjoyed the full and enthusiastic support of Iran, the country with which President Obama hoped to conclude a nuclear agreement. On one level, the administration understood intellectually that, with the distillation of illegitimacy holding forth in Damascus and terrorizing Syrian civilians, ISIL would have a worldwide recruiting tool and occasional tactical ally of unsurpassed value. But to oppose him—even through low-profile, light-footprint measures aimed at protecting civilians—would run the risk of offending Iran. Hence a letter of assurance to Iran’s Supreme Leader: the premier war criminal of the twenty-first century would not be molested by coalition aircraft operating in Syrian airspace.

Indeed, it is this problem of Assad that, in large measure, persuades the administration to express the desired end state in negative terms: the degradation and destruction of ISIL. The problem of Assad forces it to avoid even the mentioning Syrian governance in its strategy fact sheet. For if the Syrian, ISIL-related end state is defined in positive terms—legitimate governance in Syria—a strategy aimed at facilitating political legitimacy in Syria would have to do things to achieve the objective. Because of the Iranian nuclear matter, the administration prefers to pray for a Deus ex Machina political-diplomatic process to appear magically rather than to consider, in a disciplined manner, what it would take to promote an end state in Syria that would kill ISIL and keep it dead.

This is not just a matter of wordsmithing. Beyond wishing and hoping that leverage-free actors such as Russia and the United Nations will pull its policy chestnuts from the fire through a process that somehow persuades Iran to disgorge its criminal client, the administration kicks the can down the road with a three-year, fifteen-thousand man train-and-equip scheme that is supposed eventually to produce an anti-ISIL Syrian ground force. Give ISIL three years to sink roots in a country where today it has no natural constituency and President Obama’s successor will be fighting a metastasized version of this problem for the entirety of his or her tenure.

Although the ISIL problem overlaps Syria and Iraq, it may be a different problem—especially in terms of the legitimacy end state—in each place. In Iraq, it is not clear that vacuum-filling political legitimacy can be configured to fit the unitary Iraqi state created after World War I. Perhaps it can. But a strategy aimed at filling the legitimacy vacuum should be flexible enough to acknowledge that, in the end, complete legitimacy coverage for what is today Iraq may require something even much looser than confederation.

Without forgoing flexibility entirely in Syria, the strategy for defeating ISIL should focus on promoting political legitimacy in the context of the country’s unity and territorial integrity. Syrians who battle one another still consider themselves Syrians. The near-term strategic priority for the United States and its partners now should be to sweep ISIL from the country completely, and to do so in a manner that can set the stage for real national unity negotiations while relieving the military pressure ISIL brings to bear on Iraq from Syria.

Instead of wasting three years to build a minuscule anti-ISIL ground force, regional ground forces—led by the Turkish Army—should accomplish the military mission of defeating ISIL. Working with coalition air forces concentrating on tactical air support for ground forces, regional units can sweep ISIL from the Syrian theater in a timely, expeditious manner. The establishment of a new Syrian government in ISIL-free Syria—one recognized and supported by the “Friends of the Syrian People” group—would attract pro-regime elements seeking an alternative to a racketeering regime and create an instant negotiating counterpart for the rump “Syrian Arab Republic Government” in Damascus. An all-Syrian National Stabilization Force could be built rapidly, replacing the too small, too slow train-and-equip initiative.

Yes, Iran might still object. Although it wants ISIL dead in Iraq, Tehran and its Damascus client find it useful in Syria. The regime and ISIL rarely focus lethal force against each other, preferring instead to engage common enemies.

Still, as important as the nuclear negotiations are to the administration, is the war on ISIL of so little consequence to the United States as to justify an Iranian veto? Is the nuclear agreement of so little value to Iran as to justify a walkout if the United States and its partners sweep ISIL from Syria, recognize a new Syrian government, and along the way protect Syrian civilians from murder and mayhem?

In articulating a desired end state and formulating a strategy to achieve it, the United States should take its own counsel and that of its allies and friends. Let Iran’s Supreme Leader calculate his own interests. By working with partners now to crush ISIL in Syria and establish the basis for eventual political legitimacy in that country, the United States can also do significant harm to ISIL’s prospects in Iraq. By addressing this challenge incrementally over years, only ISIL’s interests will be served. No one else—not even Iran—will like an end state featuring ISIL having sunk real roots in Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: President Barack Obama listens to National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice during a National Security Council meeting, September 2014. (Photo: White House/Flickr)