Using Iraq as a base to strike ISIS in Syria is unlikely to work
Much of the attention on US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would pull US troops out of Syria focused on the precipitous way it was made — by tweet, without consulting the Pentagon — the fate of the Syrian Kurdish allies and the likely enhanced role of Russia and Iran.
Much less attention has been on Trump’s addendum to his message that he would use US forces in Iraq to strike Islamic State (ISIS) remnants in Syria should the need arise.
The latter proposition is seen in some circles as reassuring Trump’s own Republican Party critics that the United States would not abandon the region. However, this strategy is unlikely to work for the following reasons:
First is the nature of the ISIS threat. Even though ISIS controls only a small pocket of territory in Syria, an estimated 20,000-30,000 ISIS militants remain in Syria and Iraq and have gone underground. These militants have staged assassinations in Iraq and Syria. Once US troops leave Syria, ISIS is likely to regroup and carry out more attacks even without regaining territory it once occupied.
Thwarting this threat requires counterterrorism operations but they are difficult to conduct without personnel on the ground. Nor would air strikes do the job unless the United States had very specific information on the whereabouts of militants.
A retired US military official said in December that one of the advantages of US troops in eastern Syria working with local forces was that they played a crucial role in guiding the air war against ISIS. He described it as a “very well-oiled process.”
Although the United States could continue the air campaign against ISIS in Syria through intelligence gathered from drones, surveillance aircraft and satellite imagery, those tools are not as optimal as having boots on the ground.
Second, because of the fluid nature of the Syrian crisis, ISIS militants in Syria could be a source of weaponry for fellow militants in Iraq. Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Washington Post that “Syria is the place to get rockets and explosives, things you can’t get in Iraq. If we leave the job unfinished in Syria, you could see this start to happen again.”
This could mean that US forces in Iraq and their Iraqi allies would be in greater danger from a resurgent ISIS, which would complicate counterterrorism operations in Syria. ISIS has plenty of money, with estimates as high as $400 million hidden in both countries, to purchase weapons in Syria.
Third, striking ISIS in Syria from the air or with US special forces based in Iraq is unlikely to end the ISIS menace. While such strikes damage ISIS, they cannot destroy the group’s ideology, which feeds on resentment by segments of the population in eastern Syria.
Much of Raqqa, once the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, is in ruins from the anti-ISIS campaign and, without reconstruction funds, resentment from inhabitants is likely to grow. Although most residents chafed under ISIS’s draconian rule, some have said that there were at least law and order and commerce under ISIS rule.
If the rebuilding of Raqqa and other damaged towns gets put off, ISIS could rebound. The decision by the Trump administration to suspend the $200 million fund for Syrian stabilisation does not help.
Fourth, the use of Iraq for the US military has become a lightning rod, particularly after Trump’s surprise trip in late December to visit US troops in northern Iraq. Trump was supposed to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Baghdad during the trip but it was cancelled for logistical reasons. That Trump did not meet with Abdul-Mahdi except by video conference and only visited US troops offended many Iraqi politicians.
One Iraqi legislator said: “Trump should know that Iraq is not an American state” and went on to demand that “all US troops leave Iraq” as the “Iraqi government should consider them as occupiers.”
Although many Iraqis know US troops played an important role in retraining the Iraqi military and helping it win back territory that had been taken by ISIS in 2014, the idea of a long-term US military presence in the country, even if confined to certain bases, runs up against the strong sense of Iraqi nationalism, something the British unhappily encountered in Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s.
Relying on US forces in Iraq for military operations in Syria is likely to be a problematic proposition.