Faysal Itani is a Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Itani is a Middle East analyst who focuses on the Levant including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. His expertise includes the conflict in Syria and its regional impact, sectarian politics, and political economy. Before joining the Atlantic Council, Itani worked as a Risk Analyst advising governments, corporations, and international organizations on political, economic, and security affairs in the region. Itani holds an MA in strategic studies and international economics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a certificate in public policy from Georgetown University, and a BA in business from the American University of Beirut. This article appeared as a feature in JMEPP’s Spring 2015 print edition.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is a product of Iraq’s and Syria’s sectarian polarization, political dysfunction, and the alienation of the local Sunni population from the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition was triggered by the jihadists’ capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014.[i] While dramatic, this was not ISIS’ first strategic victory in either Syria or Iraq, where for months it had manipulated and outmaneuvered its rivals, gaining resources and recruits. In November 2013, ISIS established full control and a de facto capital in Raqqa, northern Syria. Control over significant hydrocarbons resources and infrastructure ensured its continued financial self-sufficiency.[ii] Shortly thereafter, it captured Fallujah in Iraq.[iii]
ISIS’s success is largely due to its rivals’ weakness and passivity, and the dysfunction of political regimes, rather than its own size or military capability as a light infantry force. Because Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq – and Sunni-Alawite tensions in Syria – empower ISIS, non-Sunni efforts against it only reinforce its narrative and appeal. Sunni allies would be the most effective tool against ISIS, and any coalition strategy that does not reflect that is likely to fail. The results in Iraq and Syria indicate as much. The coalition strategy in Iraq does, in principle, involve empowering Sunnis against ISIS and reintegrating them into mainstream politics – though in practice progress on this front has been limited. In Syria, no such strategy exists.
The Coalition Campaign in Iraq
After Mosul fell, the United States increased material support for Iraq’s armed forces, deployed several hundred military advisors, and assembled a coalition to launch air strikes on ISIS. The immediate coalition priorities are preventing ISIS from threatening major population zones – including the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and the capital Baghdad – as well as sensitive assets such as the Mosul Dam and the Baiji oil refinery. The campaign also aims to save Iraq’s military, on which the United States has spent billions, from collapse, in light of their poor performance against ISIS in June 2014 and systemic corruption and mismanagement in the armed forces.[iv]
Officially, the United States has conditioned support for the government of Iraq on political change that addresses Sunni grievances and incentivizes Sunnis to fight ISIS, as they did with much success against Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the Sunni Awakening.[v] The United States successfully pushed for replacing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki with Haidar Abadi, whom it judged to be less sectarian, hostile, and repressive towards Sunnis – many of whom came to see ISIS as preferable to the Iraqi security forces. Abadi seems to have some cautious support from certain Sunni forces willing to fight ISIS, on the condition that they receive government support and greater autonomy and economic support from Baghdad in a post-ISIS Iraq.[vi]
The coalition campaign in Iraq has had some positive results. ISIS has taken casualties and failed to capture Kirkuk or hold the Mosul Dam, for example, and it has lost control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji.[vii] Where the coalition has concentrated air strikes, local forces have often blunted or reversed ISIS offensives.[viii] These coalition successes have, to some extent, undermined the perception of ISIS as an unstoppable force; a perception that played a significant role in facilitating ISIS recruitment and psychological warfare. Iraqi government successes against ISIS in Tikrit have further undermined ISIS’ image of infallibility.[ix]
Despite showing some results and potential, the coalition’s strategy for Iraq faces serious challenges and carries high risks. ISIS has lost some momentum and mobility, but it continues to maneuver and mount offensives that often succeed. It still controls much of Sunni Arab Iraq, with the cooperation or tacit acquiescence of Iraqi Sunni tribal and secular insurgent groups who remain skeptical toward the government’s promise of political reform. ISIS also poses a continuing asymmetric threat to the country’s stability. Attacks on strategic targets could provoke an all-out sectarian war, as was the case in 2006 when militants bombed an important Shia shrine in Samarra.
There are also formidable political obstacles to accommodating Sunni grievances. First, even if Prime Minister Abadi is sincere in his outreach to Sunnis, he is only one member in a broad, complex, and divided Shia political establishment, which contains some elements who share Maliki’s sectarian outlook. Furthermore, Maliki had years to cultivate powerful allies within the Iraqi political and security establishment. If Abadi intends to empower Sunnis, he will need to overcome these entrenched interests, in a context of significant Iranian pressure to limit Sunni power and preserve Shia dominance in Iraq.
Additionally, many Sunnis still perceive Iraq’s armed forces as Shia occupiers. As such, a Sunni force would be more likely to secure their coreligionists’ support against ISIS and prevent its resurgence in Sunni territory. Yet, due to Shia and Iranian opposition, Abadi has struggled to implement a plan to build a Sunni-led Regional National Guard to fight ISIS.[x] Moreover, Iraq appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Rather than incorporate Sunnis into the effort against ISIS, the fight has been dominated by Shia militias that appear to be committing widespread atrocities against Sunnis.[xi] These militia are trained and their operations led by Iran, whom many Iraqi Sunnis view with deep suspicion.[xii] If the militias are not demobilized and replaced by a Sunni-led force, a political reconciliation in Iraq seems unlikely. Yes as the Iranian role in and influence over the war effort against ISIS deepens, such a reconciliation becomes more difficult.
Lastly, the coalition’s unwillingness to meaningfully weaken ISIS in Syria will necessarily limit the utility of their campaign in Iraq. As long as ISIS can move fighters and goods across the border, and as long as they can recruit soldiers and capture equipment in Syria, ISIS can survive, and even thrive, in Iraq. Whatever the coalition strategy’s successes in Iraq, it can only generate lasting results if paired with a rational strategy for defeating ISIS in Syria.
The Coalition Campaign in Syria
Despite months of coalition air strikes over Syria, ISIS still controls its core territory in Raqqa, Deir al Zour, and Aleppo provinces, and is making inroads around Damascus and into southern Syria. In the areas under its control, ISIS has displaced rival Sunni, non-jihadist Syrian rebel groups, severely repressed local tribal challengers, and is threatening the regime’s remaining military outposts. Non-jihadist, nationalist rebel groups demonstrated far greater military success against ISIS in early-2014 than the coalition campaign thus far, and as largely Sunni forces, are best-placed to replace them and govern these Sunni territories.[xiii] However, these nationalist groups have been weakened significantly in the past year under continuing regime and jihadist attacks.
Coalition air strikes against ISIS in Syria have had some limited military success, killing several hundred militants and preventing the group from taking the Kurdish town of Kobane.[xiv] Coalition air strikes on ISIS’ oil and gas assets have likely hurt its finances and therefore its ability to run a proto-state, albeit at the expense of civilians who depended on ISIS for public goods.[xv] However, Kobane is not critical to ISIS’s plan, and losses there have not visibly affected ISIS’ overall military posture or capability in Syria. Overall, ISIS remains one of the most assertive, effective, and adaptable military actors in Syria.
The coalition does not appear to have a strategy for creating effective Sunni partners against ISIS in Syria. In early-2014, ISIS was forced to cede substantial territory to its rebel rivals, but later regrouped, consolidated, and regained the initiative against them. This demonstrated ISIS’s ability to recover from temporary military setbacks if local rivals are unable to hold territory, due in large part to unrelenting regime air and artillery attacks. Thus, an air campaign without a ground strategy and allies to provide reliable intelligence, and without local forces able to hold and govern territory, is unlikely to defeat a highly-motivated, deeply embedded militant group that controls resources, population zones, heavy weapons, and territory. The US military has admitted as much.[xvi]
President Obama’s administration has publicly stated the need for an effective local partner against ISIS and has recognized that the Syrian regime is not such a partner as it is the driver of, rather than an antidote to, Sunni radicalization.[xvii] It has repeatedly promised to arm and train moderate rebels, but little has been delivered.[xviii] Even so, as conceived, the White House’s proposed train-and-equip program, will likely be insufficient to replicate the moderate rebels’ battlefield successes against ISIS in early 2014 or fill the governance and security vacuums the jihadists have exploited. The program, which would train 5,000 fighters per year, leaves the rebels vastly outnumbered by regime forces, and would take five to six years to match ISIS’ current numbers.[xix]
Not only does the coalition lack an effective strategy against ISIS in Syria, but its current strategy has set in motion developments among the Syrian insurgency and population that are likely to exacerbate the country’s long-term political and security problems and further empower the extremists. The air campaign and US government positions and statements on the Syrian conflict threaten the strength and standing of moderate Syrian rebels who are likely the most effective potential tool against ISIS.
From the start, insurgents dependent on US support had been chronically under-funded and under-resourced, placing them at a significant disadvantage to extremist groups with more dependable support streams, some of which came from Turkey, Gulf states, and private donors. After announcing its intention to train-and-equip Syrian fighters, the United States has insisted its mission will be fighting jihadists, not the regime. [xx] Syrian fighters and civilians in opposition-held areas view the regime as the primary threat, not ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), and would likely see any fighters that target the jihadists but not the regime as mercenaries, not liberators. Already, the United States’ failure to confront the regime directly or by proxy, and its insistence that Syrians focus on its enemies, not their own, has created perceptions among civilians and fighters alike that it is aligned with the regime.
In addition, the coalition has carried out air strikes against JAN, making Syria’s moderate rebels JAN’s enemies by association. [xxi] This helped put these groups in a conflict with JAN that the United itself had conceded they were not prepared for. JAN recognized that it was a US target, that US-aligned rebels would be forced to contribute to war against it, and that it had better target them before the promised US train-and-equip program materialized. In October 2014, JAN drove US-aligned rebel groups out of their strongholds in Idlib province..[xxii] Since then, a rebel group, once closely aligned with the United States, has dissolved itself and joined a coalition dominated by Islamists.[xxiii]
JAN is a jihadist, US-designated terrorist group and not a feasible, long-term Sunni partner against ISIS. However, JAN is a potent enemy of ISIS. Therefore, provoking it to attack Syrian moderates weakens the effort against ISIS. Additionally, targeting JAN without ensuring that moderates are ready to replace it on the ground only serves to make these territories easy targets for ISIS.
Finally, the coalition air campaign has inevitably killed Syrian civilians, whom the regime also regularly targets.[xxiv] Thus, from some Syrians’ perspectives, the United States is fighting jihadists, wants Syrian moderate rebels to do the same, treats the regime as a marginal problem, and refuses to meaningfully help moderates fight either ISIS or the regime. The United States is fueling Syrian perceptions that it – and the local rebel groups it nominally backs – is helping the Syrian regime.[xxv]
The Outlook in Iraq and Syria
The historical records in Iraq and Syria, and an analysis of local actors’ aims, priorities, and capabilities in both countries, indicates that mobilizing and strengthening ISIS’ Sunni rivals offers the best chance of weakening and ultimately defeating ISIS, without exacerbating the sectarian tensions that allowed it to emerge and attract recruits. In Iraq, the coalition strategy does, in theory, seek to incentivize and enable Iraqi Sunnis to fight ISIS. Admittedly, the mobilization of Iraqi Shia militia directly undermines this. However, it remains possible that Abadi and his allies could foreseeably grant Sunnis a greater political and economic role in Iraq (perhaps after the ISIS emergency abates) and demobilize some of the Shia militias. Also, the two major international players in Iraq, the United States and Iran (and indeed the Iraqi Shia) have no interest in repeating the ISIS experience in Anbar and Nineveh, though they likely disagree on how best to avoid that. If the dominant forces in Iraq conclude that the solution is greater repression of Sunnis, they are unlikely to defeat the jihadist insurgency.
In Syria, on the other hand, it is not even theoretically possible that the current US strategy would substantially weaken ISIS in the long run, or address the root causes of its emergence. ISIS will probably survive and perhaps even thrive as long as its Sunni rivals are weak, and the Syrian state is politically toxic to much of the Syrian Sunni population. At present, there does not appear to be an effective US plan to strengthen Syrian Sunnis against ISIS; on the contrary, the coalition campaign is undermining that goal. Any Sunni-led force would need to be able to effectively fight both ISIS and the regime, as fighting one without the other is operationally not feasible. Fighting only one side would inevitably lead to the other side taking advantage of any diversion of rebel efforts and resources, effectively ensuring the moderates’ defeat by both.
Options for Syria
Presently, the US policy debate over Syria revolves around three options. The first is the aforementioned train-and-equip program, which in its current proposed form will likely be ineffective. To have results against ISIS, it would need to be substantially augmented and accelerated, and should enable rebels to defend themselves against regime air and artillery attacks as well. Also, rather than repeatedly and publicly highlighting the weakness of both the train-and-equip program and the moderate rebels, US officials should boost their allies’ credibility and chances of success by tackling these weaknesses instead. A US-led Military Operations Command (MoC) based in Jordan has had some success in building strong moderate insurgent partners in southern Syria, who have made been allowed to fight the regime and contain jihadists. The MOC strategy may be a model for a larger-scale train-and-equip strategy at a national level.
The second option, championed by United Nations Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura, focuses on ‘freezing’ the fighting in Aleppo, where the regime and ISIS threaten to encircle rebel forces. In theory, this freeze would allow humanitarian aid to reach Aleppo’s besieged population and establish a framework for broader cessation of regime-rebel hostilities, freeing both to fight ISIS.[xxvi] That is possible, but the regime may simply redeploy forces against rebels elsewhere, leaving them and ISIS to fight one another around Aleppo. If so, a ‘freeze’ in Aleppo would strengthen the regime and weaken the rebellion across Syria. That would ultimately improve ISIS’ position. Rebel forces are therefore insisting that any freeze in Aleppo be accompanied by limits on regime redeployment. It is unclear that the regime would accept such an arrangement. The regime has treated previous ceasefires as localized affairs reached by besieging and starving populations, and has simply used them to redeploy resources against rebels elsewhere, rather than as a means to a broader political process and settlement.[xxvii]
The United States and Turkey have reportedly discussed a third option: creating a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian-Turkish border, over which regime aircraft could not operate.[xxviii] In the short run, this would offer moderate forces relief from regime air strikes and allow them to concentrate their efforts on fighting ISIS. In the longer run, it would allow rebels to establish governing institutions on Syrian territory, safe from the regime air and artillery attacks that undermined such experiments in the past.[xxix] Ultimately, this is the most effective means of preventing ISIS’ re-emergence in rebel territory. The ‘safe zone’ idea is promising, but there is much ambiguity over how, where, by whom and with which local Syrian partners it would be enforced. It is also not clear that the United States or Turkey would be willing to bear the costs and risks of open hostilities against the Syrian regime. Neither would likely be willing to shoulder the burden without the other’s cooperation.
The strategy most likely to result in the lasting defeat of ISIS in Syria – and therefore in Iraq as well – would combine elements of all three proposals outlined above: a robust, coalition-led train-and-equip and advisory program; a political negotiation track between rebels and the regime; and the creation and enforcement of a safe zone in rebel territory, in which opposition groups can organize, build institutions, govern territory, and present Syrians and the international community with a credible alternative to both the regime and ISIS. All three are prerequisites to a broad, fair political settlement between the regime and Sunni-led opposition. Only such a settlement would allow Syrians to focus on fighting ISIS and, ultimately, addressing the sectarian repression and political dysfunction that gave rise to it.
 This author uses the term ‘moderate’ to refer to those Syrian insurgent groups that are not Al Qaeda-affiliates or ISIS, do not seek to impose an Islamist political ideology by force, and publicly espouse a nationalist agenda. The term ‘moderate’ does not imply that a group is ideologically liberal or secular.
[i] Jessica Lewis, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham Captures Mosul and Advances Toward Baghdad”, Institute for the Study of War, June 11, 2014, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/islamic-state-iraq-and-al-sham-captures-mosul-and-advances-toward-baghdad.
[ii] Chris Looney, “Al Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa”, Syria Comment, December 8, 2013, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/al-qaedas-governance-strategy-raqqa-chris-looney/; Matthew Levitt, Testimony submitted to the House Committee on Financial Services, November 13, 2014, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/testimony/LevittTestimony20141113.pdf.
[iii] Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda force captures Fallujah amid rise in violence in Iraq”, Washington Post, January 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/al-qaeda-force-captures-fallujah-amid-rise-in-violence-in-iraq/2014/01/03/8abaeb2a-74aa-11e3-8def-a33011492df2_story.html.
[iv] Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly, “Inside the Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division”, War on the Rocks, July 1, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/inside-the-collapse-of-the-iraqi-armys-2nd-division/.
[vi] Prominent Sunni politician from Anbar Province, Iraq in discussion with the author, November 2014.
[viii] United States Marine Corps general in discussion with the author, December 2014.
[ix] Qassim Abdul Zahra,“War with Isis: Iraq government claims most of Tikrit is liberated.” The Independent, March 12, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/war-with-isis-iraq-government-claims-that-most-of-tikrit-is-liberated-10104956.html
[x] Prominent Sunni politician from Anbar Province, Iraq in discussion with the author, November 2014.
[xi] “Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq”, Amnesty International, October 2014, http://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/absolute_impunity_iraq_report.pdf.
[xii] Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive.” Long War Journal, March 5, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/03/iranian-general-at-the-forefront-of-the-tikrit-offensive.php.
[xiii] Roy Gutman, “Al Qaeda Fighters Pushed from Much of Northern Syria, but Fighting Still Rages,” McClatchy, January 5, 2014, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/01/05/213563/al-qaida-fighters-pushed-from.html.
[xiv] Julian Borger, “US claims ISIS demoralised by heavy losses from air strikes”, The Guardian, December 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/19/isis-demoralised-us-air-strikes.
[xv] Kareem Fahim, ‘Strikes by U.S. Blunt ISIS but Anger Civilians,’ The New York Times, November 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/world/middleeast/airstrikes-blunt-isis-in-raqqa-but-many-syrians-there-arent-grateful.html.
[xvi] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “Promises of Syrian Rebel Train-and-Equip Program Meet the Battlefield’s Realities”, Defense One, October 10, 2014, http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2014/10/promises-syrian-rebel-train-and-equip-program-meet-battlefields-realities/96287/.
[xvii] Agence France Presse, “Obama rules out alliance with Assad against ISIS”, The Daily Star, November 16, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Nov-16/277767-obama-rules-out-alliance-with-assad-against-isis.ashx
[xviii] Tim Mak, “US hasn’t even started training rebel army to fight ISIS”, The Daily Beast, November 25, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/25/train-syria-s-rebels-maybe-next-year.html
[xix] Maggie Ybarra, “U.S. to train 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight militants”, The Washington Times, September 13, 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/sep/13/us-train-5000-syrian-rebels-fight-militants/.
[xx] Josh Rogin, “Syrian Rebels: We’ll Use U.S. Weapons to Fight Assad, Whether Obama Likes It or Not”, The Daily Beast, September 12, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/11/syrian-rebels-we-ll-use-u-s-weapons-to-fight-assad-whether-obama-likes-it-or-not.html.
[xxi] Kate Brannen, “Exclusive: U.S. Renews Air Campaign Against Khorasan Group”, Foreign Policy, November 6, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/06/exclusive-u-s-renews-air-campaign-against-khorasan-group/.
[xxii] Keenan Duffey, “Map: Nusra Cleanses Idlib Province”, Syria Direct, November 13, 2014, http://syriadirect.org/main/30-reports/1679-map-nusra-cleanses-idlib-province.
[xxiii] “US-backed Hazm Movement disbands after Al Nusrah attack.” Long War Journal, March 2, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/03/us-backed-hazm-movement-disbands-after-al-nusrah-attack.php
[xxiv] U.S.-led strikes have killed 865 people in Syria, 50 civilians”, Reuters, November 12, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/12/us-mideast-crisis-syria-toll-idUSKCN0IW0W420141112
[xxv] Ruth Sherlock, “US air strike on rebel ally is helping Assad, say Syrians”, The Telegraph, November 6, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11214841/US-broadens-air-campaign-in-Syria.html.
[xxvi] Senior United Nations diplomatic officer in discussion with the author, November 2014
[xxvii] Aryn Baker, “Local Ceasefires are Unlikely to Bring an End to the Syrian War”, TIME, May 29, 2014, http://time.com/123092/syria-ceasefires-wont-end-war/.
[xxviii] United States Marine Corps general in discussion with the author, December 2014