The U.S. campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIS) is unlikely to succeed without a clear strategy for taking the fight to ISIS in eastern Syria by convincing local tribal leaders there to join the battle. The experience of fighting ISIS’ predecessor—al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—in Anbar province from 2006 to 2008 makes that clear. Defeating AQI would not have been possible without the Sunni Awakening in AQI’s core areas.
ISIS’ continued control over territory from Aleppo to the Syrian-Iraqi border allows the group to resupply and reinforce its frontlines from northern Syria all the way to Baghdad’s suburbs. The area is also a valuable staging and training ground for hordes of foreign ISIS recruits. Indeed, over the long term, ISIS’ rule in eastern Syria is likely to turn the territory into a terrorists’ safe haven, providing cover for transnational jihadist fighters on a scale greater than in Afghanistan during Taliban rule or today in Yemen’s Hadramawt region, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still dominates.
The most recent initiative in the fight—the roughly 96-mile-long, 28-mile-wide U.S.-Turkish ISIS-free zone along the Turkish-Syrian border proposed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seconded by the United States—could be a step in the right direction. It will certainly help contain ISIS and make it difficult for new foreign fighters to arrive via the Turkish border, but the zone alone is not enough to displace and replace ISIS rule all the way down the Syrian Euphrates River valley. That will take an outright revolution: a Syrian sahwa (awakening) that is supported by the Western coalition.
A LONG WAY TO GO
In spite of the coalition’s efforts to date, ISIS is still a long way from being defeated.
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