Assessing U.S. And Coalition Strategy For Syria And the Islamic State
16 August 2015
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
What to do about Syria? How to defeat the Islamic State? Think of all
theop-eds and policy papers that aim to provide answers to these questions.
But is there actually anything to them? What about the current U.S. approach?
To begin with, one can readily agree that the U.S. train-and-equip program
for Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has been misguided from the beginning. The
notion that such a force can only take on ISIS and not the Assad regime has
no credibility among the overwhelming majority of Syrian rebels, regardless
of ideological orientation, as the fight against the two is seen as
inherently intertwined. Little wonder then that the initial batch recently
inserted into Syria had only 60 recruits.
Further, U.S. policymakers' grasp of the ground situation appears to have
been grossly out of touch with reality. They failed to anticipate a clash
with Syria's al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has also been targeted in
American airstrikes. It is clear to any observer who has visited or tracks
online the Azaz district into which the U.S.-trained rebels were inserted
that the area had a notable Nusra Front presence that would suspect any
Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, bound as they are in part by
political considerations, have produced mixed results. They have been most
effective in the north, in support of the Syrian Kurdish units -- known as
the People's Protection Units, or YPG -- that have deprived ISIS of
significant control of north Raqqa province and Hasakah, such that the YPG
has also taken over many parts previously held by the Assad regime. On the
other hand, understandable reluctance to launch airstrikes that can be seen
as directly supporting the regime means that ISIS advances through the Homs
desert have largely been unimpeded. ISIS's control of the heartlands of its
territories in central and southeastern Syria remains largely unchallenged,
and revenue streams have not been seriously hurt. Furthermore, hundreds of
civilianshave been killed by U.S.-led airstrikes, according to a recent
The YPG, for all its successes, will only go so far in attempting to take
territory from ISIS. The same goes for the expected establishment of a
Turkish "safe zone" in the north Aleppo countryside that may clear ISIS out
of the remaining northern border areas and has prompted the withdrawal of
Nusra Front fighters. This expected "safe zone" is a small, strictly local
initiative driven more by Turkey's desire to stop the YPG from linking up
with its third canton of Afrin.
Given the failure of current U.S. policy, the main alternative proposed is
broader support for rebel groups -- either bringing the downfall of the
regime or forcing a political settlement that can then bring about more
effective local forces to take on ISIS. In this context, arguably the largest
single rebel group -- Ahrar al-Sham -- has taken to Western media, calling
for more engagement with the group from the West and the international
community, while professing commitment to a "moderate" vision of Syria,
including protection of minorities.
While the Ahrar al-Sham op-ed seems superficially impressive, it overlooks
the most important issue of the group's ties to al Qaeda. Linked to this
point is the subsequent inability or lack of will to oppose some of the more
unsavory sides of the al Qaeda presence. For example, rhetoric of commitment
to minorities cannot conceal the fact that Ahrar al-Sham has done nothing
about the forced conversion to Sunni Islam of the Druze in Idlib at the hands
of Nusra Front. Indeed, Ahrar al-Sham, like many other rebel groups, appears
to pretend as though this has not happened at all.
In reality, when one reads between the lines of the op-ed, it becomes clear
that what Ahrar al-Sham is advocating is Sunni Arab majoritarianism with a
sectarian model of politics that cannot be seen as conducive to stability in
Syria, even post-Assad. Generally left out of the debate in this context is
the problem of simultaneously empowering the rebels and the YPG, when the
former tend to view the latter asworking towards taqsim Souria (the "division
One thinks of the headache of Kurdish-Arab territorial disputes in post-2003
Iraq: such qualms are and will be no less of a nightmare in a post-Assad
Syria. Add to this intra-rebel rivalries with power, ideological disputes and
likely continued fighting from pro-regime and ethnic minority militias, and
it can be seen just how difficult forming any unified force to take on ISIS
will be even with the regime gone. The chaos that has engulfed Libya in the
post-Gaddafi era is instructive in this regard, as is thecivil war and
anarchy in Somalia of nearly a quarter century since the downfall of its
dictatorial regime in 1991.
Nor should one pretend that the way forward lies in broader engagement with
the regime. The regime is seeing its own population increasingly fragmented
amongdifferent militia factions and continues to lose peripheral territories
to its rivals. It is unlikely to be able to unite the country under its rule
again. Working with the regime and by extension its main ally Iran, can only
be seen as a recipe for permanent warfare.
In other words, there are no viable solutions. There is generally little
honesty about what it would actually take to rebuild Syria at this point. For
many years if not decades, it would take a large international ground force
in Syria, enforcing the disarmament of all militia actors and implementing a
grand nation-building project embodied in a government seen as acceptable to
all sides. Unsurprisingly, no willpower or consensus exists anywhere for such
Sadly, we are only "in the early stages of what will be a much longer war,"
as Rania Abouzeid put it. The Islamic State is here to stay for the long
term, if not indefinitely, and the coalition should accordingly give up on
pretensions to "degrade and destroy"it. Instead, the coalition should focus
on containment, providing humanitarian aid for refugees and civilians and
establishing a no-fly zone to stop indiscriminate killing of civilians and
destruction of what remains of infrastructure in Syria.
Any talk of restoring stability to Syria and defeating ISIS without realistic
acknowledgment of what would be required is only an invitation to mission
creep and unnecessary waste of lives and resources.