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U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Author:  Clint Watts
November 4, 2015

U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a few dozen Special Forces soldiers to Syria. After more than a year of operations and a promise not to put soldiers in harm’s way, the U.S. would seemingly be pushing troops directly into Islamic State (IS) territory.  The announcement comes just days after the U.S. saw its first foreign advisor perish during a raid on an IS prison in Northern Iraq

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. convened its “Counter ISIL Coalition” and in short, when all was said and done, more has been said than done.   The U.S. State Department and the President’s Special Envoy retired General John Allen have spent more than a year reciting five “lines of effort” for countering the Islamic State, which they continue to refer to as Daesh–a name that hasn’t really caught on the way they hoped it would. Last year, I identified seven obvious flaws that would plague this strategy.  A couple of these flaws have been remedied, but the toughest challenges still remain.  Here’s my short assessment (grade) of progress on these five strategy pillars and those massive hurdles that still remain for defeating IS (See also Figure 1):

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

The toughest challenge and most obvious weakness remains the building and deployment of a Sunni force capable of countering IS in Sunni territory. Never has the world witnessed such commitment to a bad Pentagon PowerPoint bullet than the tripling down on creating militias to fight terrorists. The U.S. has tried for a third time in a third country to train and equip an indigenous force. A year of training Syrians yielded roughly one infantry company of troops (100-200) to fight IS who has possibly recruited thousands of foreign fighters in the same time. Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra quickly displaced this force, referred to as Division 30. If the U.S. were to pursue a  train-and-equip mission again in a fourth country, we will most assuredly know our policy makers to be absolutely mad. 

Since the U.S. can’t build militias to counter IS, they’ll instead have to reinforce existing forces, and this is where things become problematic. The Iraqi Army and its supporting Shiite militias have made intermittent progress against IS, but seem unlikely to make a full recovery of Sunni areas of Iraq. U.S. Special Forces deploying to Syria will back the only element truly capable of gaining ground against IS–the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.).  The Y.P.G. seems capable, but will be seen as occupiers should they invade Arab areas such as IS’s heartland of Raqqa.  U.S. alliance with Y.P.G. also chafes Turkey, an American ally, who fears the rise of Kurdish forces as much or more than IS.  The Arab Syrian Democratic Coalition in Syria represents nothing more than a briefing point–incapable, disorganized remnants of forces previously routed by IS.

Bottom line:  Only Sunni Arabs will want to fight and die for Sunni Arab land in Syria. Kurds and Shia will never be fully invested, and should they win, they’ll be resisted by locals.  Until there are Arab forces capable of countering IS in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, there is no viable U.S. strategy to counter IS. An alternative approach and potentially the only viable solution may be to starve and splinter IS into Sunni Arab sub-groups over time, similar to the method used against al Shabaab in Somalia.  This will take years to achieve.

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

Turkey hasn’t sealed its border entirely, but it has somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Analysts continue amplifying talk of foreign fighter flows heading into Syria.  Many of these fighters have expired in fighting, and many others have begun to defect from IS ranks. 

My current assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters to IS has passed its peak.  The costs associated with getting to Syria have become too high for many potential recruits. Regional affiliates allying with IS in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have created other opportunities for recruits to join an IS affiliate closer to home. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, there have been infrequent, but successful attacks coupled with the arrests of IS supporters.  Online, IS networking on social media has been blunted and the fervor amongst its fanboys has reached a steady state.  Surely there will continue to be a trickle of foreign fighters sliding across borders into IS’s ranks, but the flow of fresh extremists no longer appears to be the fire hose it was two years ago. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

Cutting off ISIL/Daesh’s access to financing and fundingGrade C

The U.S. coalition apparently put the brakes on IS external donor funding placing pressure both on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Banking instructions for wiring funds into IS coffers appear less frequently on social media.  But, slashing IS external funding addresses only a small part of the problem.  IS predominately funds itself through taxation, oil revenues, and black market activities.  Only military defeat and the rolling back of IS territory will undermine their internal resourcing.  Thus line of effort number 1, “supporting military operations” is clearly intertwined with this line of effort number 3.  Luckily, even if the U.S. coalition only sustains its current efforts, IS appears poised to collapse economically according to Jamie Hansen-Lewis and Jacob Shapiro in their recent analysis “Understanding the Daesh Economy”.   

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

The refugee crisis continues to grow.  A year ago, refugee discussions focused largely on the displacement of civilians to camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Today, Syrian refugees flood the Mediterranean Sea and land routes across Europe. Those who’ve decided the Syrian conflict may never end, have given up hope of returning home and now seek other opportunities.  Syrian emigration threatens Europe as droves of refugees resettling in their countries have strained resources and have created isolated immigrant communities that in future years may breed crime and violent extremism.  The conferences and associated working groups for stemming this refugee crisis have begun.  But much like the Syrian civil war, no solution appears available or palatable for an increasingly fractious coalition. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

Exposing ISIL/Daesh’s true nature (ideological delegitimization) – Grade D

Social media campaigns refuting IS have begun.  The United States, United Kingdom, France and others in the future will continue to cast counter IS programming into the social media abyss. IS’s near constant stream of content still drowns out these counternarratives. On the ground in recruitment hotbeds, there seems little success in stemming militancy.  The same failed approaches used to counter al Qaeda extremism last decade are being trotted out against IS.  I guess the logic goes like this: Why invent a new failed approach when the old failed approach works just fine? 

Luckily, disillusioned foreign fighters are fleeing from IS in ways never seen during al Qaeda’s boom years.  Their departure provides a valuable new weapon for creating counter-narratives to IS.  Whether the U.S.-led coalition can take full advantage of these gifts remains to be seen. 

In the U.S., critics have pounded the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria and Iraq. The administration deserves some of this. At times, the U.S. has wanted to lead the charge against IS and then at other times been completely reticent to get involved. The Obama administrations delay to act in many ways may be justified. No one in the U.S. political system, either Republican or Democrat, has clearly identified U.S. interests in Syria or with regards to IS over the longer term. 

The central goal for any IS strategy should be to end the Syrian conflict, but doing so requires bartering with two other adversaries – Russia and Iran.  Simultaneously countering IS and the Assad Regime without deploying overwhelming military force has put the U.S. at odds with all of its allies.  For the U.S. in Syria, there are no good options, and any chosen ‘bad option’ will either anger an ally or enrage an adversary.  Thus the U.S. by default may end up pursuing a strategy I’ve endorsed from the start: “Let Them Rot”.  When you are unsure what to do, it’s often better to do nothing at all or pursue only a limited set of actions.  The U.S. may appear weak from inaction in Syria, but at least we haven’t plunged calamitously into unending conflicts like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.  General Colin Powell once applied the Pottery Barn rule to Iraq noting, “You break it, you own it.” The U.S. has been negligent in Syria, but not entirely responsible for the conflict.  We didn’t break it, and we don’t own it.  

***Note in this discussion, I, like the U.S. strategy to counter IS, haven’t addressed any of the conflicting nation-state interests that limit any effective and comprehensive strategy. That would require an entirely separate post. 

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