Defeating ISIS means beating it in Syria, not just Iraq
Beirut - US air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS) have proven to be an important strategy to contain the expansion of the extremist group in that country. The operations have degraded the group, which in recent months has lost about 30% of the territory it controlled in Iraq.
While this strategy has reaped benefits in Iraq, it has not reduced ISIS’s reach in Syria, underlining the uncomfortable truth that neither war theatre can be dissociated from the other.
Thinking that one can vanquish ISIS in Iraq alone is a ridiculous idea, Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute declared during a March forum organised by the American University of Iraq.
The conflict in Syria has facilitated the transformation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the original jihadist group there, into the transnational organisation known today as the Islamic State, by effectively eliminating the border with Syria.
In recent months, coalition strikes have focused both on Syria and Iraq but in the latter the air campaign has been coordinated with Iraqi forces and local militias such as the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia factions.
In Syria, the United States and its allies have adopted what Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy refers to as the nascent US policy of “uncoordinated deconfliction”.
This has allowed the United States to lead coalition strikes in the fight against ISIS with the tacit agreement of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has turned a blind eye to international overflights led by what he considers to be enemy nations.
This two-dimensional strategy is not without problems: ISIS has created strongholds on both sides of the Iraqi-Syria border, essentially in Mosul and Raqqa. The US Defense Department said ISIS had lost between 13,000 and 15,500 sq. kilometres of territory in Iraq by mid- April. But ISIS has been largely successful in holding onto a broad area across northern and eastern Syria and gained ground around the Syrian cities of Homs and Damascus.
A successful Western and Arab strategy, thus, cannot focus on Iraq alone. If ISIS is sufficiently degraded in Iraq, it will regroup in Syrian areas where tribal and social affiliations are fluid and extend across borders.
In Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in Syria, the terror organisation will be able to recruit more Islamist extremists and beef up its forces. If the group is allowed to remain strong in Syria, it would mean a spillover of terrorist activity into Iraq would be possible at any moment.
As long as a policy of “uncoordinated deconfliction” is maintained, ISIS will not be successfully degraded and the prospect of defeating it more distant.
Removing Assad might not be an acceptable option for now but in no way does it contradict a revival of the support brought to the Syrian opposition forces so that it can become a credible alternative to both Assad and ISIS.
A stimulus package for the opposition would require additional military, intelligence and financial assistance as well as the creation of a force far beyond the 15,000 fighters that are expected to be trained over three years, a time frame that gives ISIS an opportunity to further entrench itself within Syria and the country’s social fabric.
In addition, assistance should be provided to groups receiving Western and Arab support, something Saudi Arabia appears to be already doing.
The Arab and Western coalition must also engage capable security partners at the local level. Tribal affiliations in Syria and Iraq run as far as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which means that nurturing and using Sunni tribes as intermediaries in both these countries would facilitate communication and promote a level of trust.
Tabler rightly argues the United States should show common cause with Sunni tribal leaders and give those willing to stand against ISIS the support they need to maintain their power base.
As the number of mainly civilian Syrian victims of the regime’s chemical weapons and barrel bombs mounts, the jihadists who make up ISIS will continue to thrive and rule over their Syrian caliphate. The daily massacres will keep on providing the traction the jihadists need to fuel Sunni-Shia tensions.
The terror organisation’s control over large areas of Syria will also provide it with sufficient strategic depth to launch new offensives into Iraq when the time is right, even if the group is temporarily eradicated on the other side of the border.