Two months ago, my colleague and I published a Foreign Affairs piece warning about the political challenges that lay ahead in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, where the government and its security forces, with U.S. and international support, were seeking to rout the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). We made three main points.
First, the Iraqi government could not simply conduct a repeat play of the Sunni Awakening, particularly because the Sons of Iraq and other Sunni leaders who had joined with the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda in the 2006–07 period have since lost their local credibility.
Second, Baghdad must lay the political groundwork, preferably before it tries to reconquer ISIS-controlled cities militarily, including allaying legitimate socioeconomic grievances in this region. Only fair and accountable governance—and the provision of services by Baghdad—can ensure the endurance of tactical Iraqi security forces (ISF) gains.
Third, Washington should not ease the pressure on Baghdad that it had started exerting last fall. Instead, it must do more to push the Shiite political parties still running Iraq to integrate non-elite, tribal, and diverse Sunnis into the political system, ISF, and local security infrastructures in Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din provinces. The United States still has significant, although diminishing, leverage over Iraqi officials, particularly since the U.S.-led coalition air strikes against ISIS and training efforts continue to protect the Baghdad government and its forces.
The fall of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, last week to ISIS only underscores these points. In fact, the collapse of Iraqi government forces in Ramadi was a direct result of lingering Sunni grievances about government neglect there, including Baghdad’s months-long failure to pay local police forces. Moreover, the Iraqi parliament has been delaying the plans to formalize the Sunni National Guard units for this area because of Shiite concerns that this plan, initially put forward by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself, may empower Sunnis in Anbar and other provinces.
If anything, the ISIS rout of the ISF in Ramadi is simply a reminder that the group operates with real military prowess and operational planning. ISIS spent almost a year setting its sights on the strategic city of Ramadi. It carefully preceded its attacks against the ISF there with months of cars bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and by deploying a web of ISIS infiltrators to soften up parts of the city. Indeed, the fall of Ramadi suggests that ISIS, like any smart army, understands the propaganda value of seizing big urban centers and will continue to mobilize its resources, even as they diminish, to go on the offensive when opportunity arises. ISIS’ seizure of Palmyra from Syrian forces last week served a similar “shock and awe” function, given its historic significance.
OUTRAGE IN RAMADI
It is premature, however, to declare a failure to the overall strategy against ISIS because of the events of the past two weeks. In the wake of the fall of Ramadi, some have bemoaned the failures of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, apparently having expected that U.S. and coalition air strikes, combined with new types of ground force training, would enable Iraqi forces to retake the significant percent of Iraqi territory still under ISIS control. And it is true that despite real gains by Iraqi and Kurdish forces and their allies against ISIS in some parts of northern and western Iraq over the past year, ISIS still holds many large cities, including Mosul.
It is premature, however, to declare a failure to the overall strategy against ISIS because of the events of the past two weeks. Indeed, the United States should make tactical readjustments to the Iraq part of the strategy—including, perhaps, reviewing new ways to support ISF units fighting in the hostile Anbar region. After the attacks, Ashton Carter, the U.S. secretary of defense, noted that the ISF units in Ramadi had shown a lack of will to fight, but he subsequently argued that with greater tactical support, such as specific military equipment to counter ISIS’ IEDs, the ISF could yet retake this city, which is only 120 miles from Baghdad.
In fact, the current strategy has generated progress against ISIS’ fighters and diminished the group’s supplies, capabilities, and resources, including its oil revenue. When it comes to countering ISIS in Iraq, the U.S. government has not been exaggerating the coalition’s successes but rather underemphasizing—and failing to explain sufficiently—the long time frame that will be necessary to achieve its desired end state: it will take years, if not decades, to rebuild Iraqi security forces and generate a modicum of stability in the Sunni Arab heartland. During that period, the Iraqi government will continue to be weak, internally divided, and vulnerable to Iranian influence.
Instead of jettisoning the current U.S. strategy to counter ISIS in Iraq, policymakers and officials should spend more time explaining the likely duration of the conflict and nature of the objectives there. And they should also be publicly and privately reckoning with how to elevate the Syria component of the strategy. This is particularly important given that the supply lines that have helped ISIS fighters retain their capacities in Iraq run directly back into Syria. U.S. policy and military planners must acknowledge that only by hastening the anti-ISIS efforts in Syria can the coalition definitively turn the tide against ISIS in Iraq. In short, any notion of an “Iraq first” approach to defeating ISIS is illusory.
This generates a follow-on question: What Syrian partners are capable of fighting ISIS in Syria? The Syrian military and its proxies are slowly losing the fight against ISIS. Besides being ethically wrong to partner with the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it would be counterproductive, given the regime’s direct complicity in the creation of the ISIS problem a few years ago. The strongest group of opposition fighters on the ground today in Syria, the Jaish al Fatah coalition, is making gains against the regime in northwestern Syria and even threatening regime supply lines to Aleppo and core regime areas on the Syrian coast. Jaish al Fatah, however, has not shown a willingness or desire to take on ISIS. Moreover, it would be shortsighted for the international community to support this coalition or other jihadists, because these groups’ end goals for Syria diverge significantly from the consensus objective among the United States, its allies, and most of the international community: pursuing a post-Assad regime transition toward a stable, multisectarian, and inclusive state.
This leaves the U.S. train-and-equip program, which was started earlier this year to train moderate but capable Syrian opposition fighters. Critics have called the program a “Hail Mary” and predicted its failure, but it may be the only viable option. Certain variables may increase the chances that these U.S.-backed fighters will succeed once they are sent back into Syria, where the number of combatants in the civil war is growing. First, it matters greatly where in Syria the new units are inserted this fall or in 2016. They must be deployed in areas where they will have maximum local credibility. If they are positioned strategically, and with sufficient resources, other local militias and opposition fighters might rally around them instead of competing with them. Potential allies on the ground for these new fighters may include Syrian Sunni tribes, some of whom have recently shown a willingness to take up arms against ISIS. In some places, Kurdish units that have demonstrated success in the fight against ISIS may emerge as useful local partners.
In short, although the one-two punch by ISIS in Ramadi and Palmyra last week is not particularly surprising, it offers an opportunity to examine how deeply and inextricably the ISIS threat is intertwined with the long-term resolution to the underlying political conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Second, the train-and-equip fighters must be protected adequately from Syrian regime forces, including Hezbollah mercenaries, who will immediately see the symbolic significance of defeating Western-backed fighters. During the negotiations with Turkey over hosting one component of the train-and-equip program there, the United States reportedly agreed to provide “air protection” to these fighters once they are sent into Syria. The newly trained rebels may need both air cover and ground force protection. Although the United States need not provide these combat boots on the ground in Syria, other allies may have to do so.
Third, the trickiest political part of the train-and-equip program is that some of the countries that are involved in hosting the training are also supporting jihadist Islamist factions, who may very well become rivals to these moderates. Even if the United States feels that it needs Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to host training programs, it should not be fooled into thinking that these neighbors hold all cards or have all the answers when it comes to how to send in the new units, where to do so, and how to sequence a military strategy for fighting ISIS as part of the overall efforts to end the civil conflict.
Finally, the train-and-equip program is much more likely to succeed if it is linked to the resumption of a political process or at least a horizon for negotiations toward a political settlement. Here, Russia needs to be involved and may be more prone to do so given the reality that, currently, the Assad regime is unable to retake more than a core of Syria and that its forces have recently faced significant military defeats in Idlib and Homs provinces. The Russian government’s decision to host two Moscow meetings this year to bring together regime and some Syrian opposition figures may also suggest its growing impatience with the stalemated conflict. Finally, although Russia has been unsupportive of the international coalition against ISIS, it at least seems to realize how the proliferation of jihadists in Iraq and Syria poses a direct threat to Russian security and how the perpetuation of the status quo conflict only contributes to this threat.
In short, although the one-two punch by ISIS in Ramadi and Palmyra last week is not particularly surprising, it offers an opportunity to examine how deeply and inextricably the ISIS threat is intertwined with the long-term resolution to the underlying political conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The military strategy against ISIS will continue to have its victories and its setbacks. In the meantime, there is more work to be done to plan the Syria part of the strategy, all the while recognizing, with humility, that the conflicts on both sides of the border will be long and bloody.