by Paul Iddon
A recently proposed strategy published by the 'Institute for the Study of War' offers what is bound to be a controversial solution to the threat posed by Islamic State (IS, referred to herein as 'ISIS') which insists that any feasible military solution will indeed require the deployment of American ground forces in Iraq and Syria.
Written by Kim and Fred Kagan and Jessica Lewis 'A Strategy to Defeat The Islamic State' proposes many potential steps the United States can take to address ISIS. Fred Kagan is of course one of the chief intellectuals involved in devising the troop surge implemented in Iraq which did help bring some semblance of stability to that country before the U.S. withdrawal in late 2011. That fact in and of itself makes this strategy well worth understanding, evaluating and of course critiquing.
From the get-go the authors make it clear that their proposed strategy for defeating ISIS will require an insertion of ground forces. As many as 25,000 in fact which they envision being made up of “special forces and special mission units.”
In essence they inform their readers that,
'The activities recommended in this paper will likely require the deployment of not more than 25,000 ground forces supported by numerous air and naval assets. The bulk of those forces will likely be comprised of various kinds of units supporting a much more limited number of special forces and other assets deployed in small groups with tribes, opposition forces, and Iraqi security forces. This plan does not envisage U.S. combat units conducting unilateral operations (apart from targeted attacks against individual enemy leaders and small groups) or leading clearing operations. It requires some combat units in the support and quick reaction force (QRF) roles.'
As for Syria broadly speaking their solution is quite straightforward. The United States should seek to take on the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), ISIS and the Assad regime. They summarize this view when they write,
'The problem in Syria is relatively easy to state, but extremely difficult to solve. The Assad regime has lost control of the majority of the territory of the Syrian state. It has violated international law on many occasions and lost its legitimacy as a member of the international community. Assad himself is the icon of atrocities, regime brutality, and sectarianism to Sunni populations in Syria and throughout the region. His actions have fueled the rise of violent Islamists, particularly ISIS and JN. U.S. strategy must ensure that none of these three actors control all or part of Syria while supporting the development of an alternative, inclusive Syrian state over time.'
A consistent theme throughout their paper is the fundamental necessity of a political solution in both Iraq and Syria coupled with a military one. Again on Syria they insist,
'The U.S. must also engage much more vigorously in efforts to develop an inclusive government-in-waiting in Syria. We must do more than trying to unify what is left of the moderate opposition. We must also reach out to the ‘Alawite community and to Syria’s other minority groups in search of potential leaders who could join forces with moderate Sunni leaders to oppose extremists on all sides.'
From the get go we're informed by the authors that their strategy may prove impossible to implement given circumstances which range from whether or not potentially friendly elements in both Iraq or Syria will cooperate with them to whether or not the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) can be effectively reformed when they inform us that,
'Even then, this strategy suffers from the high risk of failure and the near-certainty that the U.S. will suffer casualties, including at the hands of supposedly friendly forces. American troops dispersed among the Sunni population are at risk of being kidnapped. The significant anti-aircraft capabilities of ISIS put American helicopters at risk. It may turn out that the Sunni Arabs cannot or will not fight with us, finally, and that the overall strategy proposed here is infeasible. In that case, it will be necessary to abandon this strategy and reconsider our options.'
'The U.S. should adopt this strategy despite these risks. The consequences of inaction or inadequate action are evident: ISIS will retain control of much of the territory it holds, sectarian war will escalate, more foreign fighters including Americans and Europeans will cycle through the battlefield and get both trained and further radicalized, and al-Qaeda will benefit from the largest and richest safe-haven it has ever known. It is worth accepting the risks of this strategy to avoid this outcome.'
To date the authors tell us that Obama's record hasn't at all been a good one due to the fact that,
'He celebrated the regional and international partnerships that will join in the U.S.-led plan. This plan is largely a continuation of the failed counterterrorism strategy that the administration has pursued for years, and in which the threat of the Islamic State arose. The plan to lead other regional and indigenous forces in conducting an air-ground campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS in Iraq assumes conditions in the region that are no longer present. These conditions will likely cause the U.S. strategy to fail.'
Furthermore, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS the authors argue that the United States cannot adopt an Iraq-first, Syria-second strategy. It must engage ISIS in both countries simultaneously,
'Only military formations that cross sectarian lines will be able to challenge ISIS. This is an exceptional battlefield condition that cannot be assumed in either Iraq or Syria. Furthermore, the involvement of regional actors such as Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian war has only increased the sectarian nature of the conflict over the last two years; their involvement in Iraq at this point may have the same effect.'
The authors continuously stress that United States policy in confronting ISIS must see to an atmosphere permeate whereby Sunnis feel empowered and are able to take a decisive stand and reject the Islamic State which has been forcibly established around them. The authors also argue that,
'Air strikes alone – which may be perceived as U.S. support to Iranian-backed Shi'a governments trying to oppress the Sunni Arabs – will not allow the U.S. to evaluate this variable and may well reduce the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join with us and, more importantly, to rejoin Iraqi and Syria. Developing a strategy that has a chance of success requires identifying the center of gravity of the overarching regional problem — the struggle within the Sunni Arab community itself amidst the collapse of state structures in the Middle East.'
Futhermore they reiterate their advocacy of U.S. approach which aims to remove Assad, JN and ISIS from the picture in Syria. The following paragraph aptly sums up why this is the position they take,
'ISIS must be defeated in Syria, and Assad must be removed from power. But a strategy that delivers Syria into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra would be disastrous for the U.S. and its regional allies. JN is a loyal al-Qaeda affiliate and would establish an al-Qaeda state in Syria that would support the global jihadi movement. Any successful strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria must also separate JN from the bulk of the opposition, marginalize it, and ultimately defeat it as well, while setting conditions for an inclusive post-Assad government that can prevent any al-Qaeda affiliate from re-establishing itself in Syria. This recovery of the opposition requires the removal of Assad as a necessary pre-condition for ending the Syrian war.'
Working closely with the Sunni communities they insist is essential for defeating such forces due to the fact that,
'Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups such as ISIS can only flourish in distressed Sunni communities. They attack every other religion and sect, but their bases must be in Sunni lands because their ideology is an extreme, exclusionary interpretation of Sunni Islam. Doing anything to al-Qaeda — defeating, disrupting, degrading, destroying, anything else — requires working with the overwhelming majority of the Sunni communities within which it lives and operates. Those communities have shown their distaste for the ideology and the groups that espouse it, rising up against them in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and almost everywhere else they have appeared, except Pakistan.'
While the Iranian dimension in all of this is not on the top of their proposed agenda it is nevertheless featured throughout. The authors repeatedly denounce the prospect of Iranian "hegemony" in the region and denounce its role of stoking "sectarian polarization."
They scathingly critique Iran's role in the region throughout the text. The following paragraph very aptly sums up their many contentions with Tehran's policies,
'Iran is the principal regional symbol of sectarianism, preferentially supports extremist Shi’a groups, and is integrating national security forces into an international structure that includes its own forces and terrorist groups. Working with Iran will have the same effect on Sunni perception as working with Assad. It may also drive our Gulf Arab allies away in the belief that the U.S. has made a permanent shift of alliances in the Middle East. Iran’s leaders and military commanders, finally, have consistently and loudly repudiated any notion of cooperating with the U.S. in Iraq.'
They also denounce the idea of coordinating with Iran in any way insisting that,
'Doing so legitimizes the presence of Iranian troops in Iraq, a principle to which the U.S. cannot accede. It would also effectively require a level of intelligence-sharing and mutual confidence that would place U.S. troops too much at the mercy of the IRGC. Lack of coordination with Iranian assets, however, can lead to accidental exchanges of fire between U.S. and Iranian troops. Such exchanges could in turn lead to escalating conflict with Iran.'
Regarding Iran's proxies and allies in Iraq the authors contend that,
'The U.S. must use the expanding leverage increased military support will give it in Baghdad to continue to shape the emerging Iraqi government to be as inclusive and non-sectarian as possible. Well-known sectarian actors and Iranian agents such as Hadi al-Amiri (Badr corps commander), Qais al-Khazali (Asa’ib Ahl al-haq leader), and Qassim al-Araji (Badr corps deputy) cannot have leading positions in the security ministries or security services if there is to be any hope of persuading Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they are safe in the hands of the new government. Reported U.S. pressure to keep Hadi al-Amiri from getting a ministry was an important step. Continued pressure must be exerted to keep him and others like him from getting ministerial posts or otherwise obtaining de jure control over Iraq’s security services. If such individuals are given inappropriate portfolios, the U.S. should continue to exert leverage — including refusing to work with forces over which they have been given command or influence — to secure their removal.'
They also recommend the following regarding regional powers who have funded, directly and indirectly, terror groups operating in Syria,
'The U.S. should exert all possible pressure on states that are currently supporting extremists in Syria either to reorient that support to moderate forces or simply to cut it off. If prominent supporters of extremists such as Qatar refuse to change their behaviour, the U.S. should act in concert with international partners to interdict that support and consider sanctioning the offenders.'
The authors also make clear that the United States has and will likely continue to have little sway over the Hezbollah,
'Hezbollah’s deployment of thousands of troops to Syria — the first major external military expedition in its four-decade history — initially strained its support in Lebanon. The expansion of sectarian conflict and the increase in Sunni extremist operations and attacks in Lebanon, however, have rallied support around Hezbollah once again. Strengthening the Lebanese government and armed forces independent of Hezbollah — to the limited extent to which that is possible — could threaten the organization’s control sufficiently to distract it from Syria somewhat. It might even weaken Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon more fundamentally, although that prospect remains dim.'
More risk are acknowledged when they discuss the prospect of JN and ISIS working together when collectively targeted by the U.S. Again inaction is deemed worse since it,
'… would allow ISIS and JN to build up their forces independently and offers no assurance that they will not ultimately recombine in any event. The ongoing jihadi competition caused in part by the ISIS-al Qaeda rivalry, moreover, has already increased the likelihood of attempts by other al-Qaeda affiliates to attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests abroad. The additional spur such efforts might receive from an American intervention in Syria and Iraq would be more than balanced by depriving two of the most lethal affiliates — JN and ISIS — of large territorial sanctuaries.'
As for Iran's potential reaction to such operations,
'Iran may perceive intervention as a re-invasion to position U.S. forces to attack Iran in the event of the failure of nuclear negotiations and may respond with regional attacks. The geographic focus of U.S. efforts may provide Tehran some reassurance, since they will be focused in northern and western Iraq away from the Iranian border. But the U.S. should also consider supplying its Gulf allies with additional defensive capabilities to deter any such Iranian response or render it ineffective if deterrence fails.'
Arguing for "additional defensive capabilities" for the Gulf states may be considered heavy-handed when one takes into account the fact that these Gulf Cooperation Council members have already been sold billions-of-dollars in arms and sophisticated military hardware in the last five years alone – the 2010 arms deal to supply Saudi Arabia with fighter jets was the biggest in both America and Britain's history.
All-in-all in both Iraq and Syria the authors determine that there is no wholly military solution nor a wholly political one. Any solution will have to be a delicate combination of the two, in their conclusion they state,
'A strategy that does not describe how Iraq will win Mosul back and how a legitimate government will regain control of Syria’s northern cities is not a strategy to defeat or destroy ISIS. ISIS can control those areas now in part because the populations violently oppose the Assad regime and the government in Baghdad. The formation of a new government in Iraq does not solve this problem by itself. It may superficially bandage sectarian wounds, but it may also exacerbate them, particularly if the leaders of sectarian militias receive security portfolios. There is no meaningful political discourse in Syria at the moment. And even if political accords were reached in Damascus and Baghdad, ISIS retains the ability to control subject populations through brutal terror. There is no purely political solution to these problems.'
Obviously there is no clear-cut simple solution when it comes to addressing such a complex set of problems. For the good of a detailed, open and informed debate the ideas proposed in this paper should be rigorously evaluated when it comes to determining what should be done about ISIS and what broader role, if any, the United States should play in the Middle East region in relation to this present ongoing crisis.