02 Dec 15. It is time to look beyond the tragedy of Paris and the immediate threat of terrorism, and take a hard look at the lack of any meaningful public strategy for the broader fight in Iraq and Syria, and any meaningful measures of progress and effectiveness.
Vague Statements Focused on ISIS are Not a Strategy
So far, President Obama and the administration have implied that there has been far more progress in defeating ISIS than has actually occurred, and have only addressed the broadest trends in the current fight against ISIS. They have not provided a clear picture of the real world lack of progress in creating effective local forces on the ground, of how effective coalition airpower has been and could be in the future, or of the massive problems the United States had encountered by relying on Iraqi government and Arab rebel forces. The President has not indicated how and when a liberation of ISIS-occupied areas could actually take place, or give any hint as to how the United States planned to ensure successful recovery and reintegration of these areas in Iraq and Syria.
More broadly, the President has only addressed something like a third of the full range of issues a truly workable U.S. strategy must address. He has not addressed broader sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria and Iraq that have led to civil war or near civil war – Sunni versus Shi’ite/Alawite and Arab versus Kurd. He did not address the fact it was their status as failed states in terms of politics, governance, economics, and dealing with population pressures that created the situation ISIS exploited.
More broadly, the President and the Administration have not seriously addressed:
- The problems in bringing some form of stability or security to either Iraq or Syria —much less both.
- The role of the Hezbollah or Iran, problems with Turkey, the different goals of Arab states, or the tensions between Arab and Kurd.
- The problems raised in rebuilding a Syria with more than half its population as refugees or internally displaced persons.
- How to resolve the fact that the main war in Syria is between the Assad forces and Arab rebels and not with ISIS.
- The fact many Syrian Arab rebels are part of other Islamist extremist forces like the Al Nusra Front.
- The deep divisions in Iraq, its weak governance, the growing role of Iran.
- The problems created by Shi’ite militias.
- The fact the expansion of Kurdish controlled areas leaves a legacy of future tension or conflict with the Arabs.
- The problems raised by the limits to Iraq’s oil wealth and its inability to properly support its people or develop its economy.
- Iraq’s need to make major changes in its security forces, governance, economic, and politics to achieve security and stability.
Clashes with Russia that make it even more unlikely that there can be any international accord on Syria, and have made it even more clear than ever that the United States lacks any clear strategy for the wars it is fighting in Iraq and Syria. They have served as a warning that fighting Islamic extremism means dealing with both its causes and the overall mix of such movements and not just ISIS. They have shown that the fight against ISIS must deal with both Iraq and Syria, and it cannot be separate from a regional strategy that deals with the broader problems in Iraq, Turkey, and the Arab states.
A New Study Analyzing the Limits to the Present Strategy and Campaign
These issues are addressed in depth in a new study by the Burke Chair at CSIS: Looking Beyond the Tragedy in Paris: Still No Clear Strategy and No Public Measures of Effectiveness for Dealing with ISIS, Iraq, and Syria.
The study examines the problems in the present U.S. strategy or lack of it, as well as the misleading character of the claims of the effectiveness of the ground campaign. It examines the lack of clear progress in creating effective Syrian and Iraqi ground forces, and the meaningless to misleading data the United States has issued on body counts, territory regained, and land fighting, as well as internal debates in the U.S intelligence community the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to date.
It finds that the there is no clear strategy for the air campaign and the limited metrics that have been made public are even more misleading than the body counts issued during the war in Vietnam, as well as the failure to advance any integrated strategy for the air-land campaign.
Options for a More Effective Effort
The study then examines a range of options for changing U.S. strategy and the cost-benefits of specific options. These include:
- No Fly Zones
- Deploying U.S. Ground Troops
- Shaping a Strategy for Air-Land Operations in Both Iraq and Syria
- Treating Strategic Communications as a Critical Part of U.S. Operations
- Creating A Meaningful Train and Assist Mission in Iraq
- Providing Adequate support for the Arab Rebel, Kurdish, and Turcoman Forces in Syria
- Using Air Power Effectively
- Dealing with Russia
The Challenge of Grand Strategy
Finally, the study notes that no defeat of ISIS in Iraq or Syria will matter if it simply leaves two failed and divided states where civil conflicts, Islamist extremist movements and forces, and sectarian and ethnic conflicts ensure that ISIS is followed by other Islamist violence, and both states continue to fight low – or higher – levels of civil war.
The United States must address key issues in grand strategy, and decide what its future goals for Syria and Iraq really are, create real world plans to try to achieve such goals, and decide what types and levels of aid will help bring recovery and development. Defeating ISIS will do little to bring regional security and stability if it is not tied to efforts to deal with the broader sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq and Syria, and to efforts to help the leaders in both states make reforms in politics, governance, and economics that can bring recovery and broader development.
The United States cannot succeed in “nation building” or “nation rebuilding” when the leaders and peoples of a given state fail to unify around such goals. Moreover, Iraq and Syria’s Arab neighbors have as much – or more – responsibility to help both countries as the United States does. So far, however, the Obama administration has not even articulated a clear set of options for helping Iraq and Syria deal with their broader problems. It has not sought some effort to find solutions within the UN, IMF, World Bank, or other international institutions.
No one to date in the Obama administration has shown that there is any overall U.S. strategy that ties the U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS to a credible plan to oust Assad, to bring some form of stability and unity/federalism to Syria and Iraq, rebuild them, and to move them towards development.
This raises a critical challenge to the administration’s legacy. It can make a serious start in addressing these broader issues during its remaining time in office – even if it is only to create a UN or World Bank effort that could propose solutions and reform and offer some tangible form of hope. Ultimately, there is no meaningful military strategy that is not tied to grand strategy in civil-military terms. From this perspective, both ISIS and Assad are far more the symptoms than the disease.
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Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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