What Obama Doesn’t Understand About Syria
The U.S. policy to defeat the Islamic State is doomed to failure. Here’s how to fix it.
The current U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State is likely doomed to fail. In fact, it risks doing just the opposite of its intended goal: strengthening the jihadis’ appeal in Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, while leaving the door open for the Islamic State to expand into new areas.
This is in large part because the United States so far has addressed the problem of the Islamic State in isolation from other aspects of the trans-border conflict in Syria and Iraq. Unless Barack Obama’s administration takes a broader view, it will be unable to respond effectively to the deteriorating situation on the ground.
The good news is that the White House can still change course — and indeed, President Obama has reportedly requested a review of his administration’s strategy in Syria. In crafting a new way forward, the White House needs to understand three points about the Islamic State and the military landscape in which it operates.
1. Growth is essential to the Islamic State’s future, and its best opportunities are in Syria.
Demonstrating momentum is crucial to the jihadi group’s ability to win new recruits and supporters. In an atmosphere of sectarian polarization and amid deepening Sunni anger at the use of indiscriminate violence by the Syrian and Iraqi governments and their allied militias, the Islamic State’s primary asset has been its ability to rattle off a string of impressive victories. Its territorial gains project strength, which contrasts starkly with its Sunni rivals, such as the hapless Sunni political figures in Baghdad and the struggling mainstream armed opposition in Syria. Momentum on the battlefield also provides the Islamic State an alluring brand with which to cloak what is, ultimately, its familiar and unappealing product: single-party authoritarian rule, imposed by brutal force and secret police.
"Be assured, O Muslims, for your state is good and in the best condition," Islamic State "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in his latest audiotape. "Its march will not stop and it will continue to expand, with Allah’s permission."
Although its propaganda suggests otherwise, in reality the Islamic State has prioritized expansion and consolidation of power in Sunni Arab areas. Insofar as it attempts to seize ground and resources from government and Kurdish forces, it does so on the fringes of their territory or in isolated areas — such as the northern Syrian city of Kobani — that are especially vulnerable.
The Islamic State has incentive to pick such low-hanging fruit, but it has more to gain from seizing Sunni Arab areas. Each advance in these areas not only contributes to the group’s perceived momentum, but also comes at the expense of local Sunni competitors. This is crucial, because local forces have by far the best track record of beating back the organization in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. Local Sunni tribes and insurgents routed the group — then known as the Islamic State of Iraq — with American help in 2007 and 2008, and rebel groups drove it from the city of Aleppo and much of northwestern Syria in early 2014.
If the Islamic State is able to sideline such competitors and establish a monopoly on Sunni resistance to hated government and militia forces, it will secure its existence for the foreseeable future. It has already effectively accomplished this in Iraq and now hopes to do so in Syria.
For the Islamic State, the most valuable target for expansion in Syria and Iraq would appear to be the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo. Mainstream rebel factions control the area but are overstretched as they seek to hold the Islamic State at bay near the town of Marea while simultaneously fighting to prevent the regime from encircling their forces inside Aleppo city, 15 miles to the south. Should the jihadis escalate their attack on Marea in the near future, rebel forces already struggling to slow regime progress in Aleppo will probably be unable to prevent significant Islamic State gains.
At stake in the northern Aleppo countryside is the strategic border territory in the opposition’s heartland. If the Islamic State seizes the area, it would give it control over a key supply line from Turkey and a foothold from which to expand further west. For mainstream rebel forces, the combined human, logistical, and psychological toll of a loss there would be devastating.
In this context, the current U.S. approach of giving precedence to the Iraqi battlefield while delaying difficult decisions on Syria is at odds with dynamics on the ground.
2. The twin crises of the Islamic State and Syrian regime are inextricably linked.
U.S. officials publicly acknowledge that the Syrian regime’s behavior — indeed its very nature — is a primary factor fueling the jihadis’ rise and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continue to kill far more civilians (and rebels) than the Islamic State does. They also recognize that the role of mainstream rebels will be essential in reversing jihadi gains. Yet in practice, U.S. policy is emboldening Damascus and undermining the very rebels it is ostensibly designed to support.
The U.S.-led coalition’s strikes have enabled the regime to reallocate assets to face mainstream rebels, whose defeat remains the regime’s top priority. Since strikes against the Islamic State began, regime forces have gained ground against mainstream rebels on key fronts in Hama province and in Aleppo city; in the case of the latter, they have done so against the very same rebel groups that are confronting the Islamic State in the nearby northern countryside.
The targeting in Washington’s air campaign has further blurred the lines between U.S. and regime military strategies. Rather than maintain singular focus on hitting Islamic State targets in eastern Syria, the United States has struck al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate whose role in combatting the regime and Islamic State has earned it credibility with the opposition’s base, west of Aleppo. On one occasion, the United States also appears to have hit Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi group that has moderated its political platform substantially in recent months and that is broadly viewed as an authentically Syrian (albeit hard-line) component of the rebellion. Washington’s claims that these strikes targeted members of a secretive "Khorasan" cell planning attacks against the United States or Europe are unconvincing in rebel eyes — not least because Washington never publicly mentioned "Khorasan" until the week preceding the first round of strikes.
Such attacks strengthen jihadi claims that the U.S. campaign aims to quietly boost Assad while degrading a range of Islamist forces, and thus they are a significant blow to the credibility of those rebels willing to partner with the United States. For a rebel commander seeking to convince his fighters that cooperation with Washington is in the rebellion’s best interest, American strikes that ignore the Assad regime while hitting Ahrar al-Sham are extremely difficult to explain. Even assuming "Khorasan" poses a threat justifying urgent action, Washington should more carefully weigh the immediate losses jihadis suffer in strikes against the recruiting benefit they derive from rising disgust with the U.S. approach among the rebel rank and file.
Washington also faces a more concrete operational problem: How can it hope to empower moderate rebels in northern Syria if the regime continues to drive them toward the brink of defeat? The portion of the White House’s policy explicitly designed to strengthen these forces — a $500 million program to train and equip 5,000 fighters over the course of one year — will prove too little, too late to enable them to hold their ground against anticipated escalations by the Islamic State, ongoing al-Nusra Front efforts to expand control within rebel areas, and continued regime onslaughts.
3. For a "freeze" to help, it must be fundamentally different from a "cease-fire."
U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura is advocating a "fighting freeze" in the pivotal battle between regime and opposition forces in Aleppo. The goal is to relieve the humanitarian disaster in the northern city and allow all groups to focus their resources on combatting the Islamic State.
De Mistura’s use of the word "freeze" rather than "cease-fire" is important. Cease-fires have been discredited in Syria: The regime has exploited them as a pillar of its strategy, cutting such agreements with rebels to cement a military victory or to withdraw resources in one area in order to shift them to another front. The regime’s significant advantage in firepower has ensured that terms are heavily tilted in its favor — and it has often used egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including sieges and indiscriminate bombardment, to achieve its aims. The cease-fires thus have not led to an overall reduction in the level of violence nationally or in the resolution of legitimate grievances that jihadi groups have proved so adept at exploiting.
A freeze in Aleppo can save lives and aid efforts to combat the Islamic State, but only if it preserves the mainstream opposition’s fighting capacity. If it cements regime victory there or enables Damascus to redeploy resources against mainstream rebels elsewhere, it will work to the Islamic State’s advantage. Insofar as the regime is able to gain ground from mainstream rebels, whether by force or truce, it is clearing Sunni competitors from the jihadis’ path.
Yet the regime’s position around Aleppo is so strong, given its progress toward severing the final rebel supply line to the city, that it currently has little incentive to reach any deal that would leave the rebels’ fighting ability intact. Damascus would much prefer to deliver a decisive blow to the mainstream opposition in Aleppo, which would cripple the West’s potential partners and leave only the regime as a supposed bulwark against the jihadis. Rebels recognize this, and given their negative experience with cease-fires elsewhere, even those in favor of a freeze are unlikely to invest political capital in convincing the skeptics in their own ranks unless they see new reason to hope for a fair deal.
The crux of the American dilemma in Syria is thus clear: Degrading jihadi groups requires empowering mainstream Sunni alternatives, but doing so may prove impossible unless Damascus (or its backers in Tehran) can be convinced or compelled to dramatically shift strategy. For now, the regime treats the Western-, Arab-, and Turkish-backed opposition as the main threat to its dominance in Syria and treats the Islamic State as a secondary concern that the United States is already helping to deal with. Iran has done nothing to suggest that it objects to the regime’s strategy; instead, it is enabling it.
Damascus and Tehran appear to believe that achieving regime victory is simply a matter of maintaining the conflict’s current trajectory. This view, however, is shortsighted and would yield an unprecedented recruiting bonanza for jihadi groups. If Washington wishes to prevent this — and the unending cycle of conflict that it would perpetuate — it must better balance its Iraq and Syria strategies, refine its airstrike tactics, and find ways to change calculations in Damascus and Tehran.