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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. To be sure, there have been successes: coalition aircraft have blasted ISIS targets in Deir ez-Zor, al-Hasakah, and the Raqqa provinces of Syria, hitting manned ISIS checkpoints, weapons depots, convoys, and oil facilities. The campaign has put significant pressure on the ISIS leadership. Further, a May 2015 U.S. Special Forces raid in Deir ez-Zor killed an important ISIS logistician and ground commander, Abu Sayyaf. The mission also reaped a significant amount of valuable operational intelligence and was a strong blow to ISIS in eastern Syria. Yet intense as the coalition’s pressure on ISIS has been, there has been one thing missing: a Syrian-led ground operation to take advantage of the gains made by coalition air attacks.
Left alone, any space in Syria that the U.S.-led coalition opens up is likely to soon become filled with a motley coalition of formerly Islamist Syrian rebel factions predominantly from northwestern Syria’s Aleppo province: groups that have had enough trouble fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, much less taking on ISIS in its core areas. These groups are less motivated to fight ISIS far from their homes than they are to combat the clear and present danger of the Assad regime. This means that the coalition will have to cultivate partners from the ISIS-controlled areas, particularly the tribes of eastern Syria’s Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor provinces.
But finding local partners will be easier said than done. One reason is ISIS’ brutal suppression of dissent. One potentially promising local ally, the al-Shaytat tribe from the Syrian-Iraqi border area of Abu Kamal in Deir ez-Zor, lost 700 tribesmen when the tribe sought to break away from the nascent caliphate because of grievances about control over local oil wells, the right of tribesmen to bear arms, and a general sociopolitical animosity toward ISIS’ rule. Coalition support for this and other local groups, such as the anti-ISIS insurgent organization al Kafn al Abyad (White Shroud), has been lacking, leaving them with the choice to stand alone and risk horrific consequences, turn to the remnants of the Assad regime for protection, or give in to ISIS.
ISIS has been so careful to exterminate rivals because it saw what the “Sunni Awakening” did to al Qaeda. At the same time, it has also sought to keep populations in line through a calibrated combination of social welfare, public service, and salaried employment. In doing so, the group has embraced the Iraqi Baath-inspired security apparatus, ideological proselytism, and an ever-present threat of violence against its internal enemies. Aware of the need to secure the long-term support of the local community, ISIS courts eastern Syrian Sunni Arab tribal leaders, provides employment and social order for local residents, and militarizes local youth through its Ashbal al-Khilafa (Cubs of the Caliphate) program.
All this doesn’t mean that there are no options for coalition fighters. Despite ISIS’ success in installing itself as a statelike authority in eastern Syria, the group continues to face resistance. Battle-hardened rebel fighters from local tribal groups continue to challenge ISIS through irregular war against it. Most of these groups have only about 300 fighters, but they do enjoy deep ties with local tribal groups in eastern Syria, from which they could recruit more foot soldiers. The majority of these fighters are ideologically moderate Islamists belonging to the Syrian Islamist umbrella organization Jabhat Asala wa al-Tanmiya (Authenticity and Development Front) and are allied to the Free Syrian Army. They also understand how to go about applying pressure on ISIS and Assad regime forces thanks to their networks into local Arab tribes, which are a source of intelligence on ISIS and its activities and from which reserve manpower can be mobilized as local areas become liberated from ISIS rule. Better yet, most of these groups are actively seeking outside support and could be vetted by the coalition for their viability as partners.
The coalition could incorporate several of these brigades, drawn from the Syria-Iraq border region, to participate in a train-and-equip program in Jordan. After training, they could be sent back to Syria to reinforce local rebellions against ISIS, and they would be entrusted to hold ground for local civil society organizations, including tribal councils, which could be funded through U.S. assistance programs filling the governmental void left by the Assad regime and ISIS’ departure in eastern Syria. Although significantly weakened, Assad’s forces continue to maintain a presence in Deir ez-Zor city and have marshaled some local tribes against ISIS and other rebel groups.
Intense as the coalition’s pressure on ISIS has been, there has been one thing missing: a Syrian-led ground operation to take advantage of the gains made by coalition air attacks.
Further, the coalition can vet and incorporate several brigades of rebel fighters drawn from the Syria-Iraq border regions to participate in the train-and-equip program, likely inserted from Jordan into Syria. Avowedly moderate rebel groups that already receive support from the United States and its allies, such as Jaysh al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Army) in Syria’s southwestern Daraa and Quneitra provinces, can help establish lines of supply and reinforcement into the caliphate from areas of Syria that are outside of ISIS’ control. Jaysh al-Yarmouk fights both the Assad regime and ISIS, and eastern Syrian rebel groups can and should be allowed to take the fight to the Assad regime, especially if they are attacked by the regime and its loyalist forces.
Coalition forces should more aggressively network with anti-ISIS organizations in eastern Syria, seeking opportunities to facilitate the transfer of arms and financial and humanitarian assistance to local rebel groups and local populations that have the courage to risk displacement and death in order to combat ISIS. Together, the coalition and its local partners could create a beachhead of liberated territory in the Syria-Iraq border region, where it would disrupt ISIS’ resupply lines. Providing support for anti-ISIS forces on the ground, rather than simply pressuring the organization through air strikes and via the assistance of outside forces such as the Kurds or Iraqi security forces, is key to defeating ISIS in Syria. With some external support, partners in the region would be willing, able, and equipped to push back a nascent caliphate that shows few signs of imminent defeat.