A recent critical report, issued by a joint team of ISW-CTP experts, argues that US strategy in Syria and Iraq, developed under the Obama administration and currently maintained by the Trump government is, doomed to fail in its long- and short-term objectives. The report stresses the fact, that US strategy is based on wrong assumptions regarding the real enemies in Syria and Iraq and also on the notion, that a victory over ISIS will dispel any existing political problems. While initially the report proposed a valid and well-written perspective on the actual state of affairs (both political and military) in the Syria-Iraq conflict, the second part of the text, which contains the propositions for a possible US strategy modification, is in fact based on the same wrong assumptions outlined in the report’s introduction.
So, what is wrong with the ISW-CTP propositions? First, their assumption that Russia and Iran will ideally wait for the US to assert its priorities in the region is both erroneous and dangerous. While the report does point out the possibility of Iran and Russia globalizing the conflict with the USA, it does not pay substantial attention to the effects that this broadening will have on the international political stage. It’s not enough to simply say “things might go very badly in the Baltic, Ukraine, Persian Gulf and Yemen if we do this and this”, at least not in a report coming from such esteemed institutions.
The second big problem is the proposed course of ground actions. While taking Abu Kamal in the Euphrates River Valley (ERV) is a good way to cut an essential supply route of ISIS, it will not have the overwhelming effect on disrupting Daesh’s logistics in the long run. ISIS has proven again and again that it could utilize every available camel trail existing in the dessert to its utmost advantage. Cutting one road will do no explicit harm to the groups’ modus operandi.
With regard to the possible capture of Abu Kamal, ISW-CTP experts make a second wrong assumption with regard to the local population. While the report recognizes the importance of winning over the Sunni Arab Tribes of the Deir ez Zor Governorate, it does not acknowledge the fact that the ERV has been transformed into the heartland of Daesh’s “state”. The population there is not likely to respond positively to an US interference and occupation. This is proven by the failure of the New Syrian Army to obtain control over the desert area between At Tanf and Abu Kamal in June 2016, though receiving substantial US support. Local tribes, while willing to support general anti-ISIS actions are disenchanted with the US regional policy, which has much to do with the next important issue the report misses.
While the ISW-CPT team recognizes that the war in Syria can be won only by achieving a political, as well as a military solution, the experts make the wrong assumption, that the US can separate the political from the military aspect, which is basically impossible in a civil war. The report argues that the US should follow a Salafi Jihadists-first strategy, focused on destroying ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq with the help of local forces. The trouble here is that these local forces should meet a number of expectations, which should more like wishful thinking rather than well thought concepts. The main issue here is not so much the demand for a rapid break between the opposition groups and Islamist ideology (which is problematic for most factions in its own right), but rather the expectation that US-backed groups should quit fighting the Assad regime and focus solely on ISIS/Nusra. While the report outlines this strategy as a new approach, the fact is, that this “tactic” has been tried before on several occasions and it always fails. The reason is simple – for most Sunni Arab Syrians who oppose the government, Assad and ISIS are basically the same thing. While this perception can be challenged by foreign observers, on the ground, the population perceives Daesh as a fragment of the regime’s strategy to tarnish and destroy the 2011 Revolution’s idea. So, for these people, defeating Assad will always be the primal goal. Therefore, if the USA wants to recruit locals into forming a new, pro-West oriented force, Washington must give the Sunni Arabs clear proof that it will try to deal with Assad while simultaneously fighting ISIS.
Regarding the securing of areas, already liberated from ISIS, the ISW-CTP report does not take into consideration the necessity of establishing a specialized police force, capable of dealing with organized crime on a whole new level. ISIS and Al Qaeda have already transformed, among other things, into cartels, dealing with weapons, drugs, human trafficking etc. This brings them quite close to the Mexican and Columbian drug cartels, with which the jihadists maintain business relations. The sleeper cells, which ISIS and Al Qaeda leave behind after abandoning settlements can reconstruct the entire network of operation within months. Thus, it is of utmost importance to use specialist, capable of unearthing these underground structures and rooting them out before further military campaigns are carried out against regular jihadist fighting units.
While the ISW-CTP report proposes some valuable perspectives and outlines some of the leading issues with regard to the situation in Syria and Iraq, their ultimate goal to propose a credible short term strategy for the Trump administration is carried out inadequately. By making wrong assumptions and underestimating the reality on the ground, the analysis team has produced a report, which contains too many flaws to be of practical value in building an adequate response against the actions of the Salafi Jihadist groups and the political opponents of the US’ inherent resolve to inculcate its political and military model on the Middle East.