04 Apr 16. Grand strategy seems to be a forgotten concept in the wars in Iraq and Syria — and in the conflicts in Libya and Yemen as well. The tactical military focus of these wars is usually on finding some way to strengthen allied ground forces from day-to-day, or on defeating ISIL in the next battle or in reaching an objective.
Strategy, in the narrow military sense, focuses on defeating each party’s primary threat regardless of overall and lasting security. The campaigns in Iraq and Syria are often treated separately, as if their common border, the fact that ISIL is a common threat, and the links between Arab Shi’ites and Kurds did not really matter.
Political and diplomatic strategic objectives are generally equally narrow and limited. For example, much of the limited official U.S. discussion of how the Syria and Iraq wars might end is confined to little more than a call for “destroying” ISIS. Such statements not only ignore all of the remaining players, tensions, and prospects for conflict, they ignore the fact that many of ISIS’s fighters will clearly survive. Violent Islamist extremism will remain a serious threat — even if these fighters take on a new name, or if the more dominant threat becomes other existing movements like Al Nusra or Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Need to Focus on Stability Operations, Lasting Outcomes, and Grand Strategy
The key local and regional players in each conflict seem to focus largely on strategies they define in terms of “winning” narrow political advantages, or simply ending their phase of the fighting on favorable terms. The need to establish a lasting pattern of security and stability receives minimal attention. In fact, not only is there far too little focus on grand strategy, there is no focus on stability operations or the need to answer the question, “how does this war end?”
Far too often, strategy does not seem to go beyond limited goals like liberation of ISIS-occupied areas in Iraq, such as Mosul. There is no clear plan or goal for dealing with what comes next, much less how to bring lasting stability to a weak and unstable nation with terrible overall levels of governance and deep divisions between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shiite, and among Arab, Kurd and other minorities.
The problem in Iraq — and in Syria, Libya, and Yemen — is that no war that simply ensures the temporary survival of a failed state can have a successful end, particularly when that failed state is a product of politics, deep internal divisions, failed governances, poor economic development, and massive pressure for a population that has grown fivefold since 1950.
The Tragedy in Iraq
Iraq is a brutal case in point. The most recent World Bank governance indicators show that Iraq has made only the most marginal progress — if any — in emerging out of decades of consistently terrible governance and critical levels of corruption.
Iraq’s politics are formed on deeply divisive ethic and sectarian lines, and these divisions could lead to new forms of civil war once — and if — ISIS is defeated. The central government is so unstable it may collapse at any time, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is divided and corrupt, and the Kurds have made major territorial increases, and now control territory that is not traditionally Kurdish.
So far, the Sunnis have been the losers, but still have the ability to fight. Moreover, the real world economy, sectarian and ethnic distribution of population, and centralized infrastructure of Iraq make plans to easily divide the country along ethnic and sectarian lines far less practical than drawing a line on a map might indicate.
Cost of war and state subsidized employment have effectively bankrupted Iraq. Its budget and development efforts are a corrupt, inept mess, and Iraq must now deal with the reality that petroleum revenues are 40% lower than in recent peak years, in spite of a major increase in oil production. Its agriculture has needed drastic reform for decades, and Iraq faces major drought and other water problems. Its state-owned enterprise is an expensive nightmare that consumes much of its budget with little output, and creates even further problems for economic reform.
Dealing with A Shattered Syria
Syria’s problems in creating a stable end to its present fighting will be even greater than Iraq’s problems. It has an active civil war with major pro-Assad, Arab rebel, and Kurdish factions — most of whom see ISIS as a secondary objective. Syria must deal with the impact of the divisions between the United States, Turkey, and Russia, as well as the impact of the divisions between Iran and most of its Arab neighbors.
Simply defeating ISIL is not going to bring any form of stability to Syria. Terrorism and violent extremism will still be present, the risk of new forms of civil war is all too clear, and the deep differences between outside powers — Iran, Russia, the United States, Turkey, other Arab states, and Israel — will present major problems.
The more secret parts of the Syrian negotiations may be far more successful than what is known publicly, but getting rid of a failed Assad, relying on exiled leaders who do not clearly speak for Arab rebel fighters, leaving Syria’s Kurds at the margins, and hoping that Islamist extremists will just quietly vanish seems yet another triumph of hope over experience.
This makes it doubtful that any currently proposed negotiation is going to produce some new form of more effective and less corrupt governance, unify Syria rather than divide it, and pull the country back together in the face of the deep anger and search for revenge that now divides all of the major parties to the conflict.
As for its economy and human development, Syria is exhausted to the point of near disaster, and any form of failed unity or unplanned sectarian division is even less likely to succeed in Syria than in Iraq. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimates that Syria’s prewar population of 24.5 million had dropped to 17.9 million by the summer of 2015. No one knows how many have died or have been wounded, but estimates of 300,000 dead are all too possible, and two to three times that number of wounded.
In March 2016, the UNHCR estimated that Syria had 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria. The country also had 7.6 million internally displaced persons without homes, jobs, or schools by mid 2015, and at least 4.8 million Syrian refugees living outside of the country. The economy was crippled, and education and medical services had collapsed in many areas.
The façade of a political settlement will not work, even in the unlikely event it succeeds. No real prospect of recovery can magically occur, much less the development and the creation of enough jobs to deal with a very young population that already puts critical pressure on the job market.
Libya and Yemen Face Similar Challenges
Syria and Iraq are only two of the wars facing these challenges, and other wars may still occur. Libya is already in a de facto state of low-level civil war between two feuding “capitals” in Benghazi and Tripoli, and faces a growing threat from both ISIL and tribes that have no clear loyalty to the leaders in either “capital.”
Yemen is a nightmare of open sectarian war between Shi’ite and Sunni, tribal conflicts, violent religious extremism vs. corrupt and degenerate secularism. These conflicts are coupled to massive population pressures, water issues, a drug economy, and limited and declining petroleum exports. It is a war in a country that had no clear path to development before the war began, and where every week of fighting makes the prospects for the future even worse.
Silence on Stability Operations, Avoiding “Nation-Building”
No one has yet publically spoken about stability operations in any of these four countries, and most of statements claiming successful recovery at even the local level in liberated towns and cities in Iraq — the case once there has been some actual progress — have been nothing more than dishonest spin.
As for the more serious challenges in creating a lasting and successful end to today’s wars, the very idea of playing an outside role in “nation building” has also been discredited — in the United States, and many European states — by past failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. These failures in planning, organization, effective management of resources, corruption, and internal politics, have been bad to the point where many policymakers will reject future plans for such efforts out of hand.
The fact is, however, that any real and lasting end to war, and any grand strategic success, requires nation building. It requires recovery and enough development to create stability and an incentive for cooperation among divided sects, ethnic groups, regions and tribes. It requires setting clear grand strategic goals that can find the resources, plans, and tools to help those elements in a given nation that is willing — and able — to help themselves.
How Should This War End?
It is not enough to ask General Petraeus’ question, “How does this war end?” The first real question is “How should these war(s) end?” The second question is “what can make it possible to create that end?” And here, it is critical for outside states to look beyond both military victory and conflict termination, and to create incentives that focus on a successful grand strategic objective — one that the factions and peoples of the nation want and not some outside vision of transformation.
War has been given its chance and it is not enough. Focusing on past failures is a reason to learn from them, and not an excuse for grand strategic surrender. This is particularly true because sheer exhaustion will only produce temporary results, a return to authoritarian repression will simply create the forces that ensure new conflicts will be worse once repression fails, and the failure to look beyond the immediate fighting and military objective almost ensures that lasting stability is impossible to achieve.
Put more bluntly, the current paths of U.S., Russian, Turkish, European, Iran, Israeli and outside Arab state policy will lead to grand strategic failure in all four current conflicts and future ones as well. Unless these countries look beyond the fighting and the narrow, short-term self-advantage, they will virtually ensure that any apparent end to conflict will be the prelude to a future one — sometimes almost immediately after an apparent peace.
There are several key steps that the United States must take to develop an effective grand strategy for each case, and to try to mobilize international support:
- Stop focusing on ISIS and short-term diplomatic goals, and find the most viable answer to “How should this war end?” Start focusing on lasting security and stability that offer each major faction a reasonable share of power and wealth, and offers reasonable, well-defined compromises that offer a better alternative than conflict.
- Do not wait for a conflict to end to offer better alternatives not only the conflict, but to the other key divisions, problems, and sources of conflict. Put a grand strategic option on the table. Keep focusing on trying to create post conflict stability and security, work with other states as much as possible, and adapt to a given nation’s needs and limitations.
- Work with other outside states, the UN, and international institutions like the World Bank to develop practical sets of aid goals and plans that offer real incentives for post conflict security and stability, that can be advanced to the factions and peoples of the nations involved, and that give key actors a clear incentive to bring a real end to conflict.
- Do not attempt to modernize, develop or reform nations in the image of the United States. Focus on helping each nation meet the essential needs of its people in terms of security and basic human needs. Wherever possible, keep existing methods and institutions when these work and meet popular needs. Avoid past mistakes in rushing into constitution building, democracy that does not deal with key internal divisions and for which given nations are not ready, sudden changes to the rule of law that many do not want and cannot be implemented, and a focus on human rights in the legalistic sense that ignore urgent practical human needs.
- Put the leaders of the country’s key factions in charge; assist rather than lead or control. Make all aid conditional on acting rather than promising; halt aid when corruption goes beyond reasonable levels; insist on proper accounting for the use of aid; and enforce public transparency.
- Act on the principle that “winning” means working with other outside states, making the UN and World Bank the key leaders and coordinators, achieving stability, and then leaving once that objective is achieved. Make other outside states key partners in the effort, and work closely with neighboring states to aid the country involved, and to try and bring nations together on a regional basis.
- Accept the fact that reversals, problems, and new conflicts may be inevitable. Keep the option of outside aid and support in building their own nation available even when and if new levels of conflict develop. Move slowly, at the pace a given nation can absorb, and — where progress is possible — help the host country’s leaders do it their way on an evolutionary basis.
- Look beyond the need for urgent humanitarian relief, but do not fail to provide it.
- Seek to ease the current regional arms build-up and struggle between regional powers as much as possible. Support effective deterrence, defense, and security, but seek to rebuild the efforts to limited regional military spending and arms races where possible. Focus on development, not arms transfers.
- Persist when things go wrong. They will.
These are not “good,” simple, or easy options, but these are wars where only “least bad” options are available. Grand strategy must be based on realistic expectations, realistic levels of resources, realistic time frames, patience, and conditionality. But, history warns that statements like “all wars must, end” are little more that an irrational myth. Many — if not most — wars only pause, mutate, and resume. The exceptions are the cases where a clear alternative can be created over time that brings a lasting end to conflict, and while it may be a cliché, no one can win a war that does not have a strategy to win the peace.