By Mehmet Yegin
The Obama administration has updated its strategy towards ISIS. The updates were announced by President Obama on July 6 at the Pentagon and were delineated by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter one day later during the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing on the counter-ISIS strategy. The update introduces additional precautions and proposes new solutions to the problems faced in the implementation of the already existing four-pillar approach. Supplementing the items already outlined in the original strategy, Secretary Carter identified “nine synchronized lines of efforts” that are hoped to further realize the aim of degrading and destroying ISIS.
While the update augments the U.S.’s posture in the fight against ISIS, the core components of the strategy have remained unchanged. With the update, the U.S. has voiced its expectation that local actors take the initiative on the ground in a clearer way. Thus, the updated strategy designates the air campaign against ISIS as a mission that is supportive of motivated ground forces rather than a mission that intends to lead confronting ISIS. With this approach, the Obama administration has focused on the homeland security dimension in the fight against ISIS, urging local/regional actors themselves to combat the group in the Middle East. Nonetheless, this approach is by no means problem free.
Kurds at the Center of the Strategy
The U.S., whether deliberately or passively, is ascribing a grandiose role for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria considering the current dynamics unfolding on the ground. In this regard, the main motto of the updated strategy is to work with “willing and capable partners” on the ground. More importantly, it is expected that the ground forces not only push back ISIS fronts but also provide governance in the territories taken from the organization. This seems consistent with the U.S.’s overall approach to prevent the disintegration of governing structures. However, in reality this approach means that Kurds are granted implicit U.S. support in expanding the amount of territory under their control and the permanence of their endeavors to govern them.
This assertion primarily stems from the fact that the only qualified actor that meets the criteria set out in the strategy update is the Kurds. In Iraq, it is only the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that is capable of taking on this role as it possesses coherent ground forces and has received arms support from more than 12 countries. The Iraqi Army has repeatedly failed in its endeavor to stem the ISIS tide and its sectarian and professional deficiencies are becoming increasingly obvious. Furthermore, in this context, it has been expected by many that Sunni Arabs in Iraq would be recruited and armed by Baghdad. Yet considering the current sectarian atmosphere it is not logical to expect the Baghdad administration to recruit a high number of Sunnis and then to properly equip them with weapons.
In Syria the imbalances in favor of the Kurds, namely the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are even more acute. Only 60 out of 7,000 Sunni Arabs fulfilled the high level of standards for participation in the train-equip program that is being arranged by the Coalition against ISIS. While Secretary Carter referred to various laws and regulations in his explanation of the updated strategy, at the end of the day, the consequences of such an emphasis on local ground forces put Sunni Arabs in a disadvantaged position. Moreover, as Senator John McCain pointed out, Sunni Arabs are not granted guarantees by the U.S. against Assad’s barrel bombs while Kurds remain largely unthreatened by the Syrian regime.
If the U.S. maintains this approach, there is a high chance that an imbalanced order could emerge on the ground. This is especially true in Syria, where the PYD has the capability to take greater amounts of territory from ISIS and establish permanent control thereover, thus resulting in a scenario that sees Syria partitioned primarily between Assad and the PYD if the campaign against ISIS succeeds.
This situation is problematic for both the Kurds and with regard to the overall effort to combat ISIS. The KRG is well aware of the possible problems of such an approach along with its experience. This is illustrated in the fact that KRG President Masoud Barzani’s Peshmerga forces are not willing to fight in the Sunni Arab dominated areas of Iraq, primarily in Ramadi and Mosul. The KRG recognizes that such an approach would cause it to overstretch its forces and become more vulnerable. Besides, it is also aware that such a move could stir the animosity of local Sunni Arabs and other regional actors as well. The PYD on the other hand is not even aware of these dynamics. Despite the limited Kurdish population in the cities of northern Syria, it continues to greedily seize large chunks of territory. However, it is not exempt from the problems foreseen by the KRG and may in fact be even more vulnerable to regional tensions and overstretching.
Furthermore, the disparity between the positions of the Kurds and Sunni Arabs has the potential to increase suspicions of the U.S.’s intentions in the region. Besides, this approach also risks the overall success of the fight against ISIS as well. It has to be kept in mind that a decisive victory against ISIS may come only if Sunni Arabs themselves defeat the organization. Kurds may boast tactical successes, but they cannot solve the root of the problem that sparked ISIS’s formation.
Assad to Leave Office by Himself
The U.S. approach towards Syria does not exhibit a consistent plan on how Assad should leave office. The Obama administration declares that it is against the all-out collapse of the regime (or the country’s governing structures), yet it does advocate that Assad step down. This is mainly due to the fear that a collapsed regime could open the path for ISIS to gain control over the whole of Syria. Nonetheless, the U.S. is not employing a military approach that would force Assad to consider leaving office. In Secretary Carter’s words, “we are trying to influence those who influence him [Bashar Assad] to remove himself from the government of Damascus while keeping intact the structures of governance”.
Why Assad would decide to willingly step down without facing a coercive push to do so remains unanswered. Compared to the past, the Assad regime is not currently facing strong confrontation, and it may even be argued that Assad has been successful in neutralizing the Western animosity as well. In this respect, why should Assad decide to step down considering all of his past efforts and the current diminishment of the threat to his regime on the ground? Why would he cling to power for so long only to relinquish control now? These questions illustrate the vague nature of the U.S.’s current approach to resolving the Syrian Civil War.
In short, the updated U.S. strategy is in line with President Obama’s approach of limited involvement of the U.S. military in the conflict. Nonetheless, according to General Martin Dempsey’s calculations, the strategy foresees 3 years until stability in Iraq is attained and 22 years until ISIS is ultimately degraded and destroyed. This is a very long time for regional actors to tolerate and shoulder the negative externalities of instability. And it also grants ample time for small cells to activate or for lone wolfs to stage attacks on U.S. soil.