Syria: A Welcome but Incomplete Shift in US Strategy against ISIS

The US-Kurdish alliance to dislodge the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) from Syria has been successful only inasmuch as US and Kurdish interests align—the United States wants local partners who will fight ISIS; the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) will oblige as long as they can reclaim their own territories. However, the YPG is unwilling to fight further south and take the fight to ISIS in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. Recent changes in US strategy show an understanding that to finish the fight with ISIS, the United States needs to find local Arab partners who want to reclaim territory from ISIS in Raqqa. The new strategy’s success will hinge on how well the United States can find partners who prioritize fighting ISIS over fighting the Syrian regime.

The United States plans to airdrop ammunition and possibly small arms to indigenous Arab forces, such as Jaysh al-Thuwwar who are already fighting ISIS in and near their home territory in Raqqa. The United States may also allow these Arab forces to call in US air strikes against ISIS—thus far an exclusively YPG privilege. This approach appears focused on Raqqa province, where the self-proclaimed ISIS capital is located. Whereas the Pentagon-led train and equip program failed because it willfully ignored its intended participants’ priority of fighting the Assad regime, this new program follows a simple logic—US initiatives in Syria can only succeed when they align with local partners’ interests and priorities.

The new US approach relies on Arabs with an established local presence and vested interested in fighting ISIS and liberating their territory in areas where the regime has little to no presence. This strategy allows the United States to avoid demanding that local forces threatened by Assad refuse to fight him as the train-and-equip program did. At the same time, boosting the Arab component of the joint Arab-Kurdish effort against ISIS recognizes that, while reliance on the YPG has produced results in liberating Kurdish territory from ISIS, it has limited utility in the Arab territory that is ISIS’s heartland. Kurdish forces have little appetite for clearing and holding Arab territory that is not strategically important to securing an autonomous Kurdish proto-state in northern Syria. Only a strong Arab fighting force can and would do so. Linking US and local interests is key to an effective strategy—direct material support to Arab forces fighting who mainly fight ISIS benefits both the United States and local partners.

In contrast, relying exclusively on the YPG may have worsened tensions between Arabs and Kurds by marginalizing Arab forces and possibly encouraging aggressive YPG behavior. Days after the new US program was announced, Amnesty International released a report alleging that the YPG had committed war crimes against local populations in areas liberated from ISIS, mostly by displacing Arabs and destroying their homes. As early as April 2015, Arab civil society and armed groups issued statements that Kurdish forces were displacing Arabs and giving their homes to Kurds. Given the US priority to defeat ISIS, policies that facilitate or acquiesce to a collapse in Arab-Kurdish relations only hurt the US cause. Strengthening the Arab anti-ISIS component may introduce some balance into this relationship and instill confidence and security among the Arab population that the United States will work with them. That is another reason why local Arab forces in Raqqa province may be open to cooperating with the United States against ISIS.

With this approach, the United States can avoid the question of what should be done about the regime and, specifically, its role in radicalizing the Syrian population, weakening the non-jihadist opposition, and enabling ISIS. But this strategy depends on the lack of regime presence in Raqqa province. ISIS is not confined to Raqqa. It dominates Deir Ezzor province and has a significant presence in Hasaka and Homs provinces where regime forces also operate. It is attempting to make inroads in Damascus and Sweida provinces, and, most dangerously, it is poised to make gains in heavily contested and strategically important Aleppo province.

Fighting ISIS only in areas where the regime is absent is not nearly sufficient to eliminate the ISIS threat. The United States would need to expand the scope of its efforts to areas where opposition forces fight both regime and ISIS forces. That would require coming to terms with the local opposition landscape and choosing reliable anti-ISIS partners among groups with a strong commitment to fighting both groups. Failure to do so would cede the landscape to ISIS and repeat the same error that sabotaged the train-and-equip program—ignoring rather than accounting for local priorities.

At a recent press conference, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced  that, “The work we’ve done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach. That’s exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward.” Secretary Carter is right. Inasmuch as the US-Kurdish collaboration succeeded, it did so because it aligned US and Kurdish interests, rather than willfully neglect them. This logic applies to any US effort to work with locals against ISIS in Syria. If pursued elsewhere, this tactic would make it possible to build durable partnerships with various groups, whether fighting the regime, ISIS, or any other party sabotaging US interests.

Faysal Itani is a Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House)