The US has responsibilities in Iraq and Syria post-ISIS
After the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul and likely collapse in Raqqa, the looming question in both countries is what will happen in areas liberated by US-backed forces.
This question is critical for the United States, given the leading role it assumed when it formed the 60- plus country Counter-ISIS Coalition following the fall of Mosul in 2014. Since entering office, US President Donald Trump has pursued a strikingly similar approach to his predecessor’s by narrowly focusing on dislodging ISIS while minimising the US military commitment.
As the so-called caliphate comes to an end, Trump’s policy choices will affect the fate of liberated areas and perhaps the entire region. Just as the decision to disband the Iraqi Army and other missteps following the invasion of Iraq haunted post-war efforts, so will the decisions on how to govern and stabilise key Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria.
To its credit, the United States sought to forge a consensus or at least an understanding among major stakeholders — the Iraqi central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — ahead of the Mosul campaign. The United States coordinated with the United Nations to develop a comprehensive humanitarian response plan in anticipation of a massive outflow of civilians from Mosul.
Nevertheless, Mosul is utterly devastated and it will require a herculean effort to bring back any semblance of normalcy. With other key Sunni towns such as Ramadi and Falluja also in ruins, the United States must mobilise European, Arab and Asian countries for reconstruction efforts and check the excesses of local stakeholders who may have axes to grind with local Sunnis.
It is imperative that the governance bodies established in liberated areas are viewed as legitimate by locals. This will require a transparent selection process for political representatives and the ability to deliver basic security and essential services. Failure at either could quickly drive a wedge between the authorities and desperate locals, who may turn to warlords or terrorist organisations.
To avoid this scenario, the United States should transform the Counter-ISIS Coalition into a long-term reconstruction and governance programme in coordination with local governance entities and the central government (and the KRG when needed). This would require that Baghdad and Washington formalise the US military presence in Iraq so that US forces can continue advising the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and provide critical assistance should there be a security relapse. Key to this is negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
A SOFA and transforming the coalition would have the added benefit of not ceding Iraq to Iran or its surrogates, as happened when the United States withdrew in 2011. The number of US military personnel in Iraq — now approximately 5,000 — probably could be reduced by half after ISIS has been expelled, which would still be sufficient to provide technical and capacity-building support to the ISF as well as send a strong signal to Iran that there must be accommodation by all parties if Iraq is to be stabilised.
Syria is more complicated because Washington lacks the freedom to operate there as it does in Iraq. There, too, however, the United States should remain engaged and supportive of local actors to prevent a resurgence of terrorist groups and keep Iran from dominating the terrain. Although Iran has a stronger hand in Syria, the United States has enabled local allies to secure strategic territory in northern, central and southern regions of the country that can be leveraged to push for a de-escalation of the conflict.
While no one seriously believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad will agree to any settlement that strips his powers, one can imagine a prolonged ceasefire while political talks lumber along. The United States could start by expanding the limited ceasefire agreement with Russia to cover other areas currently under the control of US-, Jordanian- and Turkish-supported groups.
Although less than ideal, a long-term ceasefire may slow and perhaps reverse Syria’s haemorrhaging of civilians (now close to 6 million) and allow those internally displaced (another 6 million) to return to secure areas. It could encourage donor countries to invest in reconstruction projects that would incentivise all parties to respect the ceasefire.
The Trump administration must invest in Arab partners in places such as Raqqa given that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) will almost certainly be viewed as occupiers by the largely Arab population.
It also must do what the Obama administration never did: Establish deterrence against the regime and its allies. Just as it did following the regime’s chemical weapons attack in April, the United States can signal that it will respond militarily should the regime or its allies attack opposition-held areas and communicate clearly that the purpose of such a policy is to de-escalate the conflict and ensure that hard-won gains against ISIS are not short lived.
The United States must make it clear that it will not support offensive operations from those areas against regime targets as long as the ceasefire is upheld.
The Russians will complain but they will learn to live with the arrangement just as they did after the United States struck regime targets in April. As in Iraq, the United States would maintain a relatively small number of military personnel and assets to signal to its adversaries its seriousness in preserving security while alleviating humanitarian conditions.
Committing US diplomatic, economic and military resources to this phase in Iraq and Syria is a lot to ask of this administration and the US public but it is necessary to create stability post-ISIS and check Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region.