Are You Staying, Or Just Passing Through? The Geopolitics Of Asylum

European politics have been roiled over the past few years by the question of how the EU as a whole and its individual member states should deal with refugees seeking asylum from the ongoing wars throughout the Greater Middle East. Most attention has been focused on the stream of unfortunates coming across Turkey and the Aegean from Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria. Their stories have tugged at European heartstrings, even as some have worried that the crowds of apparent refuges could also include potential terrorists.

Germany in particular has chosen to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confident proclamation “Wir schaffen das” (We can handle it) has earned her praise from humanitarian groups but also brickbats from analysts and political critics who claim she has undermined national security in quixotic pursuit of moral redemption for the German people’s historical sins.

At the root of the debate has been the question of German and European responsibility for helping the victims of wars on Europe’s periphery—wars in which Europe has been unwilling or unable to take an active role—and the potential danger such migrants pose to European society. Critics of Merkel’s policy point to recent terror attacks as proof of the dangers of unchecked immigration, and argue for robust interdiction and higher fences.  Supporters of a more open policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, have argued the opposite, that accepting refugees will allow Europe (and the United States as well) to display their commitment to human rights, counter Islamist assertions that the West is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the well-being of Muslims, and thus actually enhance both the reputation and the security of the West. 

So far, neither side in the debate has scored an undisputed victory, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. But the discussion of migration and asylum, so focused on the actions of European governments, often leaves out the actions of the migrants themselves.  Although one will occasionally see discussions of the need for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to integrate into European culture, the primary policy question for Europeans has been framed as “do we let them in or not?”

The closer one looks, however, the more one sees that it is not just a matter of who comes in, but how they come and go once they have found asylum, and the political activities they choose to engage in while enjoying the protection of that status.

All of which leads us to the saga of Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is a Yemeni activist, the brother of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, currently involved in a bitter civil conflict with the government of Yemen. That conflict has developed into a proxy war between Shiite Iran (which backs the Houthis) and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government.

[For those interested in more detail, the conflict in Yemen was the subject of the February 2015 episode of FPRI’s “Geopolitics with Granieri,” which addressed its local, regional, and global complexities.]

Al-Houthi’s exploits have recently been the subject of a two-part summer series in the print edition of the Saudi news magazine Majalla (available in English as well as Arabic). The series highlights the significant questions about German capacity and willingness to hold political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay, and the implications for this case for future asylum policy.

Although even less well known to American audiences than the Syrian Civil War, the war in Yemen has entered its second year with no clear end in sight, and is producing its own flow of displaced refugees. Its wider implications have also increased the significance of Houthi activists abroad. Al-Houthi himself fled Yemen more than a decade ago, and found political asylum in Germany.  Far from staying out of the politics of his homeland, however, al-Houthi has been an active supporter of the rebel cause, appearing on a variety of media outlets (including the Arabic service of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the Voice of America), meeting with Iranian representatives and other supporters of the Houthi cause, including Hezbollah, and even traveling back and forth to Yemen to participate in the rebellion.

Such activity stretches the legal meaning of asylum, and poses a difficult political problem for the Germans. There is of course historical precedent for rebel groups and self-styled “governments in exile” to set up shop abroad. Usually, however, such actions depend upon the formal approval of the foreign host. The Germans have extended no such formal support to al-Houthi and his compatriots, but at the same time they have not acted to shut down his behavior either. Either decision would bring political challenges that Berlin appears to prefer to avoid. The resulting ambiguity, however, is not only embarrassing for the German authorities, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the broader responsibility of even the most welcoming governments for the political activities of those whom they chose to shelter.

In this atmosphere of increasing tension about how to deal with the challenge of integrating political migrants and asylum seekers, European policy discussions should include an understanding of this particular case. So far, it offers no satisfying solutions, but many questions well worth pondering.

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The Local Proxy Problem

On Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a bold plan to expand the war against ISIS during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”

There’s one serious problem with this approach: it is utterly baseless.

Contrary Mrs. Clinton’s assertion, our experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan should lead to the opposite conclusion: relying on local proxies, whether formal as an army we train or informal as a militia that we arm, has a deeply troubled history and so far has resulted in catastrophic battle losses against the enemy. 

In Afghanistan, the army and militias America has spent years building up barely function. From the scourge of “green-on-blue” attacks (whereby Afghan police and soldiers decide to murder their American trainers), to catastrophic combat losses against the Taliban, our local partners have proven wholly inadequate to the task of defeating the Taliban (and al Qaeda, and now ISIS). Furthermore, the Afghan national army has staggeringly low retention, so low that if the U.S. Army were experiencing the same rate it would be a full-blown crisis and the institution would be facing collapse. Lastly, there is the appalling corruption of both the national army but especially the local militias trained in an attempt to implement a locally-led counterinsurgency policy: not only in terms of money and weapons stolen, but in terms of directly implicating the United States in the systematic sexual abuse of children.

Is it any surprise that such a force is unable to hold its ground against a massive Taliban assault? As more details emerge about the horrific air strike against a hospital in Kunduz province, it seems that the Afghans were the ones falsely claiming that it was a Taliban outpost. In our effort to support our local partners, we may have abetted a war crime.

There is a similar story to tell in Iraq. Training the Iraqi national army, and later the Iraqi militias, was the signature counterinsurgency policy of General David Petraeus. From his command in Mosul in 2004 to his command of the entire war effort, training locals to do the heavy lifting was the key to winning the war. Nevermind that the Iraqi Army cost America more than $25 billion and collapsed at the first sign of ISIS in 2014. Nevermind that some of the Iraqi militias we trained were little more than death squads. And nevermind that we flooded Iraq with so many unaccounted-for weapons and so much equipment that ISIS is currently outfitted about as well as the Iraqi army.

How Mrs. Clinton can look at our record and conclude this is an effective way to combat terror is puzzling. In Libya, American attempts to arm a local proxy would up helping al Qaeda, instead. We lost half a billion dollars-worth of weaponry in Yemen, a humiliating disaster which is no longer the successful example officials use to cite as their model for defeating ISIS. Even in Syria, the train-and-equip mission cost $500 million and resulted in “four or five” men able to fight. 

Beyond the practical disasters of relying on local proxies to do our fighting for us is the moral hazard inherent to their use. Relying on local proxies to do our fighting allows us to avoid the risk and responsibility of what happens during the fighting. It is a way for a politician to appear to be doing “something” about a challenge without assuming any political risks in the act of doing so: no “boots on the ground,” no massive deployment, and no dead bodies coming home in flag draped coffins. Proxies allow America to fight wars invisibly, with all of the risk off-loaded onto contractors and anonymous locals.

Proxies also present a serious challenge when their interests are not in exact alignment with ours. In Syria, our proxies care much more about defeating Bashar al-Assad than they do defeating ISIS (this is also why Russia’s assistance mission to Syria has consisted mainly of bombing those proxy groups). It is a logical decision for the Syrians: Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the death and devastation there; the reason ISIS exists in the first place is because of Assad’s brutality. He is the root of all evil in Syria. But toppling Assad is not our immediate goal (even though the President has said it was, at times); defeating ISIS is, and no one is prepared to start a war with Russia and Iran to do so.

Lastly, as Adam Elkus put it, “there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way.” Because America is never fully committed to our local partners — that is their appeal, after all — the moment it becomes inconvient to do so these proxies are discarded. When America discarded our proxies in Afghanistan, the result was appalling disaster on a scale only now matched by Syria; it created the space for al Qaeda to organize and grow and spread; and it created the horrors that led Afghans to cheer the Taliban’s emergence in 1994. There were seemingly good reasons for using proxies then that mirror the same reasons people find them appealing now: fear of a quagmire, a desire not to directly war against Russia. But that fear does not always result in sound policy, and we’re still left holding the bag in Afghanistan more than 35 years later.

This week, the House of Representatives approved a measure, targeted at Iraq and Syria, that will both restrict the resettlement of war refugees here but will also possibly interfere with the visa program meant to help Iraqis who risked their lives and now face death threats for helping us during the war. These terps, who literally save U.S. lives with their work, are being discarded because, like all other proxies, they have become politically inconvenient.

The unpleasant truth is that there is no substitute for American troops on the ground implementing American policy. Our reliance on proxies is not just immoral and unjust; it has been actively counterproductive and harmed our national interests. Sending in American boots on the ground is a political minefield, as it should be — we should never be flippant or casual about risking our people in war. The decision to send in troops should only match a threat so grave we are willing to put our own people at risk to address it. Does ISIS rise to that level of threat? That is the subject of considerable debate at the moment. But as this debate matures, policymakers should not be given a pass when they send unaccountable militias to do our dirty work for us.

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Why Assad Must Go

The recent attacks in Paris have underscored the need to defeat the Islamic State and reignited debates over how to do so. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and once again we are hearing that “we may have to hold our noses”[1] and work with people like the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is not a new suggestion. Since shortly after American forces began bombing the Islamic State in August 2014, there have been voices suggesting that “the U.S. should help Assad to fight ISIS, the greater evil.”[2] This argument was not strategically sound then, and the events in Paris have not made it so. Western leaders need to avoid appeasing populist demands with strategic blunders.

Proponents of supporting Assad see him as a viable partner in defeating the Islamic State. A hardnosed realist may acknowledge that Assad is unpleasant, but may still be inclined to put aside such messy moral qualms to defeat the Islamic State, which represents a critical security interest. The advantage of this approach seems obvious at first. It combines a credible fighting force on the ground with American air power. This combination has been a winning approach in the past and is generally what Western strategists prefer. The problem with this plan is not its value-free analysis, but rather that it ignores what FPRI’s James Kurth describes as the “realities of the mentalities of the localities.”

The Islamic State originally formed in Iraq. Its subsequent foothold in Syria did not emerge in a vacuum. It resulted from a political context in which Assad’s forces were killing Syrians en masse. Despite Western narratives about the brutality of the Islamic State, the Assad regime is responsible for many more deaths than all Syrian opposition groups (including the Islamic State) combined. Even over the past year, when the Islamic State has been at the apex of its power, the Assad regime has been much more efficient in carrying out atrocities. In the first half of 2015, for example, the regime killed seven times more Syrians than the Islamic State.[3] Assad targets civilians, tortures, and has used chemical weapons against his own people. These circumstances have driven many Syrians to support groups such as the Islamic State, which they view as the only force that is able to stand up to Assad. In other words, Assad is the problem. His continued presence in Syria is the sustenance on which the Islamic State thrives. Any viable solution in the near-term needs to alter this political context by offering a vision of the future for the Syrian people that does not include living under Assad’s yoke. Without such a vision, the political context on the ground will remain the same and groups like the Islamic State will be very difficult to defeat. This has been one of the main obstacles to Western efforts in Syria so far.

Currently, the American-led coalition is targeting the Islamic State with airpower as well as supporting Syrian opposition forces that are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Some limited special operations forces have also been used in aid and assist missions as well as direct action. These efforts have not been insignificant. According to the latest Department of Defense numbers, the American-led coalition has conducted over eight thousand airstrikes, damaging or destroying over sixteen thousand targets[4] and killing twenty to thirty thousand fighters.[5] This has degraded the Islamic State’s capabilities, but not enough to prevent it from holding large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, or from reaching outside Syria to attack Russian airliners and Parisian concert halls. It has also not stemmed the flow of refugees out of Syria. The biggest obstacle that the American-led coalition has faced is its inability to convince enough Syrians (and Iraqis and foreign fighters) to stop supporting the Islamic State and to instead to join the fight against it. Thus far, the Islamic State has been able to replenish its ranks as fast as the Western-led coalition has been able to deplete them.

The problem is political. Because Syrians are being killed by Assad at much higher rates than they are being killed by the Islamic State, Assad is a much bigger threat to them. Therefore, the current American strategy asks these Syrians to ignore their primary threat (the Assad regime), and instead focus on their secondary threat (the Islamic State). That is a difficult sell and it has not worked thus far. Furthermore, even if the strategy worked and the fighters of the Islamic State were crushed, it would not change the political context in which the Islamic State emerged. As post-surge Iraq showed, if the political context that produces groups such as the Islamic State is not dealt with, similar groups will rise in their place. In other words, the Islamic State should be seen as a symptom of a political context. Fighting the symptom will not kill the disease. Western leaders seeking a way forward after the Paris attacks need to figure out a way to remove Assad without creating further chaos on the ground. That is a tall order, but it is the only way to create a political context in which a lasting peace is possible.

 

NOTES

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.

Postscript:

The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS

June 15, 2015

Scary ISIS headlines have saturated media outlets in recent months.  They usually come in three varieties: a) ISIS does incredibly awful thing(s) in Syria/Iraq, b) ISIS is unstoppable because of (fill in the blank), or c) the U.S. and the West must do (fill in the blank with every conceivable government option) to defeat ISIS. The international coalition seems unlikely to deploy overwhelming military force to rid the world of the latest awful jihadi group. All coalition partners are up for airstrikes, but no one seeks the dirty work of ridding Syria and Iraq of ISIS in direct military engagement.  Likewise, at least in the West, there remains a complete lack of strategic consensus on what should be done to defeat ISIS. 

A few months back, I offered up an alternative option to boots-on-the-ground; the “Let Them Rot” strategy–i.e., using containment to establish conditions by which ISIS destroys itself from within.  (NB: A forthcoming paper will discuss this in greater depth.)  To this point, it appears that the U.S.-led coalition, either by choice or more by default, is pursuing a modified “Let Them Rot” strategy.  But officials and the public grow impatient while the media reinforces the belief ISIS is the next al Qaeda–a misguided one in my view.  The headlines will lead you to believe that ISIS can only be defeated by a major military campaign. And counterinsurgency proponents are likely drooling for another opportunity to employ their beloved Field Manual 3-24.  But defeating ISIS via external force will be a long battle, and one that perpetuates the jihadi belief that the West denies their vision.  The U.S. should seek to destroy the idea of an Islamic State altogether, and to do that ISIS must fail by its own doings, not from outside forces. The recipe of the the “Let Them Rot” strategy should be followed: contain ISIS advances, starve them of resources, fracture their ranks, and exploit through alternative security arrangements

Analysis of the key drivers pushing forth the advance of ISIS reveals several key points at which the U.S.-led coalition can focus to degrade ISIS over time.  Figure 1 below provides a causal flow diagram showing the relationship of key drivers powering ISIS operations.  Note in the diagram that there are two relationships between entities.  Blue arrows represent direct relationships where an increase in one factor leads to an increase in the subsequent factor.  Red arrows represent where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in a subsequent factor.  (Bottom Line Up Front: Blue and Red show relationships, not good or bad, plusses or minuses.)  In the diagram, clearly the most important factor is ISIS’s territorial expansion (see circle #1); their ability to sustain the offensive, and the initiative.  The diagram also illustrates multiple feedback loops arising from their territorial expansion to include increases in their global popular support, financing through taxation and global donations, recruitment through social media, and their levels of military resources through the seizure of equipment. Containment of ISIS’s advance should remain the main effort, and I doubt that they can continue to expand much further. 

Second, starving ISIS comes from disrupting one factor more than any other: elimination of oil revenues (see circle #2).  ISIS, as compared to other jihadi groups that have tried to form emirates, developed the capacity to resource themselves years ago.  Their self-resourcing is not only strong, but also diversified.  Oil and taxation provide a dual-pronged financial power base complimented by global donations and illicit revenue schemes which have combined to buoy ISIS over time.  Three of these financial resource streams, however, result in large part from ISIS’s ability to expand and sustain territory. If expansion was halted, these three streams would be constrained.

Starving ISIS of resources thus requires the elimination or degradation of ISIS capitalizing on oil fields in Eastern Syria.  This will put pressure on ISIS to extract more revenues from the local population through taxation and illicit schemes preying on local populations at a time when expansion is no longer viable due to containment.  The U.S. raid on Abu Sayyaf last month has apparently yielded some gains against ISIS and will hopefully be a first step in the elimination of this vital oil resource for ISIS.  How does the U.S. disable the oil fields without destroying the infrastructure and creating an environmental disaster?  Maybe a raid to facilitate a cyber attack, placing malware into the closed network to disable the oil pumping systems. Or maybe a series of raids to disable the equipment of several oil platforms, although this would be tough. Lastly, the coalition could send a militia deep into Eastern Syria to capture the oil fields, but in so doing will be anointing one group as king over all of the others. 

Airstrikes, partner pressure, containment and starvation will ideally bring stress on ISIS disrupting the feedback loops previously created form territorial gains.  Fearful of spies and infiltrators directing airstrikes and providing intelligence for Special Forces raids, ISIS will tighten its security, slowing their operations while further alienating the population.  At the same time, ISIS will ideally become more predatory on the local population and increasingly self-doubting.  At this point, two key fractures may become available for fracturing ISIS.  First, in Iraq, internal starvation of resources paired with a slow and steady advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hopefully incentivize former Baathists and Iraqi Sunnis to break ranks with ISIS to secure their local stake in Sunni territories of Western Iraq (see circle #3).  A representative example of this dynamic was seen with the collapse of Shabaab from clan-oriented defections over the past three years. 

The second important fracture for exploitation is the potential rift between ISIS Iraqi leadership and the global foreign fighter legions that power their ranks (see point #4). To date, young ISIS foreign fighters have had much to celebrate; winning on the battlefield, taking ground and rapidly becoming administrators of governance.  But when battlefield advances end and resources become tight, local ISIS members will compromise their ideological principles to maintain their grip on power.  Resource starvation, much as was seen in Somalia, will cause tensions between the heavily Iraqi-dominated leadership and the global ranks of foreign fighters. 

Examining what is currently underway in the fight against ISIS, it appears that the U.S. is essentially pursuing this strategy.  Despite the media ramping up the American public with a relentless barrage of scary ISIS stories, on the surface it appears the U.S., at least, is pursuing this strategy–they are doing most of what I just outlined.  The trick will be whether they can exploit the fractures described above.  Exploitation will be the hardest step, offering alternatives that fill the void and spread the rifts across Syria and Iraq. 

 

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Why the U.S. Raid On Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in Eastern Syria May Be A Game Changer

This morning, reports confirmed that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a daring raid deep into Eastern Syria killing a key ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, along with several other ISIS members.  The raid occurred near Der Ouzzer amidst the critical Syrian oil fields that provide the key lifeblood to ISIS. This daring U.S. raid and its great success likely signal a turning point in the fight against ISIS.  Here are a few points worth considering.

Why risk so much to go after Abu Sayyaf?

For those outside of military and intelligence circles, Abu Sayyaf is an unknown, mid-level leader in ISIS.  However, the best way to target the top leaders in a terrorist organization is to first go after those people in charge of finance and communications.  These deputies hold the links between the foot soldiers and the leadership and provide essential coordination amongst the top commanders.

In well-run organizations, elimination of the top leaders may only result in a rapid succession of command with little resulting impact on the organization as a whole.  Targeting those individuals in charge of finance and command and control will disrupt how an entire organization operates; sub-elements won’t receive needed funds, junior leaders will be unsure of what to do, military operations will slow and/or become disjointed, and throughout the entire terror group doubt will creep in as communication lessens.  The effects of this strategy on terror groups can be observed retrospectively by looking at how al Qaeda was targeted through Abu Zubaydah, a key financial figure, not long after 9/11 and a targeted drone strike against Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s key communications interlocutor.

ISIS has succeeded in pursuing an Islamic State where other al Qaeda affiliates have failed for one reason above all others: they have funded themselves.  This self-funding has come in large part from oil.  For the U.S. led coalition to make significant, sustained gains against ISIS, this revenue must be cut off and removing Abu Sayyaf from the network could definitely slow if not stop oil production and resulting revenues.  

Why a raid rather than an air strike? 

The U.S. mission more than anything suggests a perceived intelligence coup by targeting Abu Sayyaf.  Early reports suggest they wanted to take Abu Sayaaf captive, suggesting his knowledge on ISIS could likely map out the entire organization.  Taking Sayyaf alive would have allowed for interrogation and the yielding of unmatched intelligence from other sources.  Even if a captive like Sayyaf doesn’t talk, his detention would instill fear amongst the rest of ISIS leaders who would be concerned about what their comrade has revealed.  

A preference for raids as compared to airstrikes always signals the priority may be intelligence first and degrading ISIS operations second.  Along with capturing Abu Sayyaf’s wife and freeing some prisoners, computers and communications between many nodes inside ISIS were gained and this intelligence will likely identify where key ISIS leaders may reside, their role in the organization, and illuminate previously unknown weaknesses inside the group. 

What will be the effect of this raid on ISIS?

This highly successful raid will go much further to erode ISIS than the past many months of airstrikes and partner ground operations. 

First, the raid will be a huge blow to the confidence of ISIS members.  After taunting the U.S. to conduct ground operations, Special Forces have gone into the heart of ISIS’s caliphate, eliminated a key target and left without a scratch.  ISIS growth has hinged for more than two years on their success in building an Islamic state through military victories.  This raid represents an overwhelming defeat harming both ISIS ground operations as well as its online advertising which has up till now drawn an unprecedented number of foreign fighters.

Second, the raid will likely disrupt both financial and military operations.  ISIS units will increase their security by communicating less.  This will result in weakened command and control and a slow in military operations.  This increased security posture may also impede ISIS’s ability to operate a state: a point of great pride for the group and an essential element of their attractiveness to their members. 

Third, a successful raid of this caliber likely signals the start of a campaign rather than the conclusion. The raid and its resulting intelligence will ideally yield further elimination of key leaders in the coming weeks and months.

Fourth, we should look to see how this raid affects ISIS’s manpower: will foreign fighter flow slow after such a public ISIS loss?  Will ISIS members who’ve begun retreating under coalition strikes and ground campaigns now see this raid as the time to abandon ship? 

What does the raid signal for U.S. strategy against ISIS?

President Obama has stated and continues to imply the U.S. will not deploy ground troops on a large-scale to Iraq and Syria.  Today’s mission suggests the U.S. is now entering a fourth phase after initiating airstrikes, deploying advisors and implementing the equip and train mission of selected militias.  How much further will the U.S. go?  Does the Special Operations raid approach represent a substitute plan for eroding ISIS over time as opposed to bloody campaigns to re-take cities like Mosul?

The raid also suggests a major increase in U.S. intelligence on Syria and Iraq.  Last summer, news stories indicated the intelligence community was caught off guard by ISIS bold advance due to insufficient insight on ISIS movements.  This raid likely took a while to prepare indicating significant intelligence collection and planning..  Finally, the raid demonstrates the lengths the U.S. is willing to take against ISIS.  Airstrikes represent a safer strategy; few if any American lives are being put at risk.  A failed raid deep into Syria resulting in significant U.S. casualties would truly test the resolve of the American public to sustain a campaign against ISIS. 

Over the past year, no incident may represent a bigger game changer in the U.S. strategy to counter ISIS.  The pace and type of American actions in the coming months will be key for understanding both the U.S. strategy and ISIS resiliency. 

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You Don’t Win Hearts and Minds, You Rent Them – Reigniting Sunni Tribes Against ISIS

In 2008, Americans lauded the great success of ‘The Surge’ – implementation of broad new counterinsurgency doctrine that “Won The Hearts and Minds” of Iraqis, particularly disaffected Sunnis strewn throughout Western Iraq.  “Winning Hearts and Minds”, so we were told, hinged on the “Sunni Awakening”, where Americans would partner with disenfranchised Sunnis on shared goals – defeating jihadi insurgents and ensuring the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s new Shia dominated democratic government.  More importantly, but less discussed in academic propaganda on counterinsurgency, was U.S. funding of the “Sons of Iraq” Sunni militias. The “Sons of Iraq”, as part of the “Sunni Awakening”, were not “won” over solely by the pleasantries of U.S. troops and the great merits of representative democracy. America imported another lesson learned from its own democracy; when you can’t convince someone to support you based solely on the merits of your ideas, you must then pay them to endorse your idea as their own. If you can’t “Win Their Hearts and Minds” then you “Buy Their Hearts and Minds”.  Only now, having withdrawn from Iraq, we Americans realize we neither “Won” nor “Bought” the hearts and minds of Iraqis, we only “Rented” them.

Abandonment of ethnic groups is a signature of U.S. warfare in Iraq – Kurds and Southern Shia in 1991 and the Sunni in 2010.  Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Sunni hopes of inclusion in the Maliki Iraqi democratic government faded and payments slowed. The “Sons of Iraq” militias went the way of almost all militias throughout history – they sought out new suitors. After helping squash al Qaeda in Iraq and their alter ego the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) by 2009, Sunnis in Western Iraq this year supported, permitted or acquiesced in the reemergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).

The American strategy to dislodge ISIS suffers one major flaw above all others – a lack of viable ground force options for regaining Sunni dominated areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Until recently, U.S. efforts to build up the Free Syrian Army against Assad were restrained and ineffective.  To the east, Sunni militias in Iraq still feel the sting of abandonment after the U.S. withdrawal. 

The lack of viable ground options for securing terrorist safe havens is not a challenge unique to Iraq.  The U.S. faces a similar challenge against jihadist enclaves enmeshed in ungoverned spaces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and the Sahel to name only a few places. Compounding this problem is American distaste for the downsides of all three ground force options available to secure these safe havens where local militaries continue to fail. (See Figure 1)

  • Large-Scale Military Deployment –  The U.S. military remains the most effective and professional military force in history.  Military deployments allow for complete command and control, accountability and transparency.  But U.S. military deployments cost cash and produce causalities.  Having just exited Iraq and Afghanistan, a large-scale U.S. military deployment, sufficient to displace ISIS, remains unlikely.
  • Military Contractors and Mercenaries – For centuries, countries have paid forces to secure their interests in far off lands. The U.S., at times over the past decade, augmented its operations significantly with short-term help that almost always became a long-term solution. Contractors appear cheaper and provide a layer of protection against the responsibility for mishaps. See Blackwater, Xi, et al., from 2003 to the present. But, Americans sit with unease when it comes to contractors. Buying fighters who may not share the democratic principles and transparency indicative of a nation pushing a freedom agenda around the globe presents persistent legitimacy problems over the long-term.
  • Militias and Paramilitaries – A hallmark of counterinsurgency has been the creation and/or backing of local militias who sit apart from foreign militaries but can more effectively police their local areas at a low cost.  Local militias can navigate both the physical and human terrain of their areas and can sometimes be trusted partners for disenfranchised local populations.  Americans can grow to like militias because they are cheap and provide insulation against the dirty business of counterinsurgency. Militias come with a host of problems as well.  Building a militia is easier than demobilizing one, rarely does a profiting warlord seek to melt back into democratic institutions. Backing militias routinely reinforces tribalism, competition, and warlord politics, unless of course the institution might sustain their patronage (corruption).  Issues of control and accountability quickly arise where militias take the cash and pursue their interests in their own way first, and seek out American objectives second. 

No matter what the solution, the U.S. will need to employ a combination of the three ground force options listed above to disperse ISIS members to other safe havens.  U.S. advisors continue to deploy supporting the Iraqi Army and many military contractors still remain from the last American deployment to Iraq.  The missing piece remains the build up of militias.  Hopefully those crafting the plan to counter ISIS can design a “Renting Hearts and Minds” strategy that secures western Iraq and eastern Syria at the lowest price over the longest duration, accepting that no matter what option is chosen, it will be frought with many downsides. 

“Renting Hearts and Minds” – A Framework

Four factors should be considered for effectively building relationships with Sunni ground force partners in Iraq and Syria

  • Establishing favorable conditions for negotiating with militia partners – As I noted in the “Let Them Rot” strategy a couple months back, the preferred method for building militia partners is to have them seek out U.S. support as much or more than the U.S. seeks their support.  During the ‘Surge’ era, Americans went begging the “Sons of Iraq” to participate – i.e., Sunni tribes held the upper hand.  Today, the conditions may be reversed.  Sunnis are suffering under ISIS harsh reign, the U.S. might be able to keep the upper hand to compel participation with tighter controls or lower costs. 
  • Offering incentives for participation – Americans must provide more than just cash to entice locals to again rise up against ISIS.  In Iraq, Sunnis feel burned by the American withdrawal.  What would incentivize them to fight? Last time, the “Sons of Iraq” got the cash, but never got their place in governance. Possibly a Sunni state would entice them.  But this would require Americans opening up to a three state solution in Iraq, one that has been rebuffed since the 2003 invasion, but appears ever more realistic and necessary moving forward. 
  • Determining the level of control and responsibility for militia actions – Today, the U.S. prefers the “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” militia approach.  But ISIS atrocities have been remarkable.  Surely building Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria will result in monstrous reprisals. We might also expect these Sunni militias to later plot against the Shia dominated Iraqi government, or even worse, metastasize into an anti-American terrorist group.  Americans should brace themselves now for the unintended and unexpected consequences of bartering with Sunni militias in both Syria and Iraq who are in need of support and desired by many suitors with differing agendas.
  • Duration of Support – During the 1980s, the U.S. backed militias in Pakistan that fought against the Soviet Union.  These militias and their safe haven later became the protective layer for al Qaeda.  Americans won’t be able to support Sunni militias forever.  How much are they willing to pay?  How long will they “rent” these militias? And who will start employing these militias when we no longer have use for them?

Building or backing militias in Iraq and Syria will remain a necessity for years to come.  The U.S. must identify its interests in the region, what costs come with employing militias and what will be the obvious downsides of such an approach on the horizon.  Lastly, I’d encourage all those interested in the topic to read “Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare” at Small Wars Journal where Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, America’s greatest military tactician, provides his excellent perspective on the challenge of using partners in warfare. 

 

 

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Turkey’s Competing Strategic Cultures: Part 4 – Now and Into the Future

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Scholars of strategic culture have noted that multiple strategic cultures can exist in the same country or community. Indeed, this is true of the concept of culture writ large. As Alastair Iain Johnston argues, “the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural, and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures….” This is certainly the case in Turkey where two elites have produced two competing strategic cultures – one republican and the other neo-Ottoman.

The rise of the neo-Ottoman strategic culture and the slow decline of the republican one have been the subject of this series so far. Both strategic cultures were elite driven (as strategic cultures almost always are). Republican strategic culture rose from the traumatic dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which lost its populous, prosperous European territories from the early 19th century through to the First World War. This process culminated in the never-enacted Treaty of Sevres, which sought to end Turkish control of the Straits, put Smyrna under Greek suzerainty and then sovereignty, and carve out independent Armenian and Kurdish states from Eastern Anatolia. Turkish nationalists prevailed in the end under the inspiring leadership of Mustafa Kemal. These experiences and the hard realities of geography forged a strategic culture that was obsessed with homogeneity and internal unity, distrustful of outside powers (particularly Russia), saw security as limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity, slow to compromise, and fearful of getting dragged into outside conflicts.

Republican strategic culture is now being challenged and even, in some ways, superseded by a neo-Ottoman strategic culture – the product of a different elite. Mustafa Kemal disestablished Islam’s political role as he forged the Turkish Republic and the military and government bureaucracy served as reliable guardians of the principle of laicism. But in the aftermath of Turkey’s 1980 coup, a spectrum of devout political actors, including Islamists from the Milli Görüş, found more fertile soil in which to grow. The military and republican elites turned to the Turkish Islamic-Synthesis to stave off far leftist ideologies that, as they saw it, almost tore Turkey apart in the late 1970s. They enacted educational reforms that gave religious actors more room to maneuver. Turgut Özal, who from deputy prime minister to prime minister to president in the 1980s, embodied many of the transformational reforms of the era in the political, religious, military, and social spheres. He championed a more forward-leaning, activist foreign policy. While he was often stymied in these efforts by the Turkish Armed Forces, he set the stage for the more assertive strategic culture now seen embodied by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture accepts diverse, subnational identities; prefers more balance in Turkey’s Western-Eastern orientation; seeks greater regional power, if not regional hegemony; favors activism and involvement, particularly in the Middle East and broader Muslim world; and views security as a far broader concept than territorial integrity. In this entry, I will briefly address how Turkey’s two strategic cultures are interacting with two key issue facing Turkey today: Syria and the Kurdish problem. I will then discuss one case where Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture is clearly ascendant and dominant: post-Arab Spring Egypt.

Syria: Problems with a Neighbor

Bashar al Assad’s Syria was once the testing ground of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine. Erdoğan and Assad seemed to have become friends and even vacationed together. That was then. The Syrian civil war broke out and now Erdoğan and Assad are deadly enemies, with the former supporting a wide range of rebels, including a wide range of Islamists, who seek to depose the Alawite-dominated regime. Throughout the course of the conflict, Turkey’s political opposition parties have loudly and consistently protested Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue, accusing him of adventurism and recklessness (echoing opposition criticisms of Özal back in the day). From Kurds to Alevis to republicans and beyond, many Turks have serious objections with Erdoğan’s Syria policies. And as much as he grumbles about Western power and foreign lobbies, Erdoğan is still afraid of acting boldly without Western (and particularly American) backing. Erdoğan is therefore constrained. He is unable and unwilling to follow through on the strategic culture he has been so instrumental in advancing.

Kurds: Trying to Answer the Eastern Question

The Kurdish problem is perhaps the most interesting illustration of the tension between Turkey’s two strategic cultures. A restive Kurdish population has been the biggest challenge to the homogenous Turkish identity the modern Republic has sought to establish. Both Özal, himself of partial Kurdish extraction, and Erdoğan extended more political and social rights to Turkey’s Kurds than they previously enjoyed. Under Erdoğan, the Kurds enjoy greater freedom to use their own language and organize as Kurds. And in the aftermath of America’s second war in Iraq, the Turkish government forged ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state had been fighting since the 1980’s. A peace deal with the PKK would involve even greater Kurdish freedoms in exchange for PKK disarmament and demobilization.

And then two strands of Turkish policy collided. Just as the PKK talks had reportedly reached discussions about disarmament, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded out of Syria into Iraq, seizing much of the country’s north and west, threatening the KRG, among others. ISIL also advanced on Kobane, one of three main Syrian Kurdish enclaves that had enjoyed relative autonomy for the last two years. While Turkey could accept military relief and support for the KRG, Kobane was a different matter. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the predominant Syrian Kurdish faction and is affiliated with the PKK. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been effective in the field against ISIL previously, but talk of arming them came up against serious opposition from Ankara. A tension was thereby revealed between a neo-Ottoman strategic culture that sought to advance Turkish power abroad and accept sub-national identities and a republican strategic culture that was threatened by challenges to internal unity.

Egypt: Neo-Ottomanism Ascends

As the so-called “Arab Spring” took off in Egypt, then Prime Minister Erdoğan and his foreign minister saw this as their moment to shine and exert Turkey’s fatherly influence on this emerging Middle Eastern democracy and former Ottoman territory. As it rose to power, it did not take long for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to cool to Erdoğan’s advances, although this did not decrease his desire to woo them with the so-called “Turkish Model.” When the Brotherhood was deposed, Erdoğan harshly condemned the coup as an affront to democracy and has since sheltered Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including a body that resembles a sort of government-in-exile. Erdoğan continues to condemn Egypt’s new government every chance he gets. Turkey is not only missing out on a healthy relationship with Egypt – its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also strained over the issue, aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood at a time these Gulf states have banned the group.

These examples demonstrate to different extents the tension that still exists between republicanism and neo-Ottomanism. Turkey’s republican strategic culture is far from irrelevant and still exerts influence over the military, opposition parties, and even explains some of the hesitancy of the ruling AKP, the key vehicle of neo-Ottoman strategic culture.

Why is this? Strategic cultures change slowly – often very slowly. Dominant strategic cultures are resilient even in the face of revolutionary strategic change (continuity between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation provide a good example of this). One reason for this, and one that certainly applies to Turkey, is that bureaucracies are stubborn – a simple, yet under-acknowledged factor in the study of strategic culture.

Where does all this mean for U.S.-Turkish relations? It is hard to say. I will focus here on two points: the historic difficulties of U.S.-Turkish relations and the limits of personal diplomacy. Since Erdoğan rose to power, Western op-ed pages have regularly worried about Turkey’s reliability as an American ally. These op-eds constitute a genre of their own They reflect on Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, Islamist leanings, anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric, and his general bombastic and stubborn style. The tone of these op-eds has intensified in the context of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s tolerance (and worse) of violent Islamist networks, its refusal to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik as a base against ISIL, and Ankara’s resistance to come to the relief of the besieged Turks of Kobane have left many American observers frustrated and angry. In these op-eds, vexing Turkish policies are always juxtaposed with the simple fact that Turkey is a NATO ally as if they are asking: “How could this be? They are in NATO!”

Unfortunately, people who write op-eds for a living often have a blinkered view of history and this is especially true for those penning op-eds in this genre. The fact of the matter is, Turkey has almost always been a rather difficult ally, even at the height of the Cold War when republican strategic culture reigned. For example, this is not the first time Ankara has restricted U.S. usage of Incirlik. The air base has long been, as one reviewer put it, “a pressuring mechanism in the hands of Turkey to gain concessions from the US.” In 1970, Turkey told Washington not to use the air base to relieve Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom during Black September or to supply Israel in 1967 (although the United States did both anyway, just as Washington more recently resupplied the Kurds of Kobane in the face of objections from Ankara). In 1967 and 1974, Turkey nearly went to war with Greece – another NATO ally. In 1974, Turkey actually did seize northern Cyprus despite American objections (and thought they had sunk two Greek warships, when in fact it was a friendly fire incident against Turkish naval vessels). In response, the United States imposed an arms embargo that impacted U.S.-Turkish military relations until it was lifted during the Carter Administration. While the character of the challenges presented by Turkey have changed in line with its strategic culture, a recalcitrant, difficult Turkey is nothing new and exclusive to neither republican or neo-Ottoman strategic cultures. So before someone writes another op-ed about how uniquely impossible Erdoğan is, they should take a beat and view today’s problems in historical perspective.

During President Obama’s first term, he depicted Erdoğan as his one of his most important international friends. The president directed considerable charm and attention to strengthening and maintaining the U.S.-Turkish relationship, talking to Erdoğan regularly. But personal diplomacy does not always pay off. Turkey has gradually become a more authoritarian place and its foreign policies have been, from Washington’s perspective, far from ideal. But we cannot blame Obama for this. The forces at work driving Turkey’s foreign policies and strategic cultures are bigger than Obama and bigger than Erdoğan. Strategic culture is manifested in personalities and represented by them more than it is driven by them. I hope the United States applies this lesson, not just to Turkey, but to dealings with other allies and especially with rivals such as Russia and China.

 

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. The author would like to thank Soner Çağaptay, Michael Koplow, Bill Park, Joshua Walker, and Chase Winter for their input and mentorship in all matters Turkey. 

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“Why Don’t We Go After Assad in Syria First?” – Thoughts on Countering ISIS Part 4

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

Two years ago, amidst a long U.S. presidential campaign, both political parties largely avoided the Syrian conflict as a foreign policy issue.  The Obama campaign still had not shaken off the sting of helping topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya only to see the country crumble into chaos leading to the Benghazi fiasco.  On the other side, debate on the Syrian civil war would remind voters of Iraq, the Bush administration, the Republican party, and thus by association the Romney campaign would suffer.  Thus, war-weary Americans and their European allies avoided the Syrian conflict hoping that good outcomes would arise naturally.  More than two years later, the West continues to tip toe around the Syrian civil war despite the rise of new adversaries spawned by the West’s collective policy of inaction. 

The latest jihadi threat known as ISIS has infected the Middle East for one reason above all others – the perpetuation of the Syrian civil war.  Two years ago, institution of a No-Fly-Zone would have muted Syria’s air force and leveled the playing field but the U.S. settled instead for limited small arms for the Free Syrian Army fearing the potential blowback of more useful heavy weapons or air defense missiles falling into the hands of al Qaeda linked militants.  The cautious American approach achieved nothing as hordes of more extreme militants backed by Gulf donors swallowed the FSA leading to two unfortunate consequences; the sustainment of the Assad regime in western Syria and the rise of ISIS in eastern Syria. 

The Obama administration and the media have wrongly labeled ISIS a cancer, but it is only a symptom of the real cancer, which is the Assad regime.  ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the Syrian civil war and the safe haven it has produced for extremists.  Here are many reasons why the U.S., if it truly wants to destroy ISIS, should pursue an end to the Assad regime and the Syria Civil War as a first step in defeating ISIS.

  • Assad: Aren’t WMDs a red line? – In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq based in large part on the belief that Saddam Hussein might be producing chemical weapons.  In 2013, Assad’s Syrian regime actually used chemical weapons on civilian populations.  The American presumption that Saddam’s Iraq had chemical weapons ultimately brought al Qaeda to Iraq and created a safe haven where the U.S. today pursues al Qaeda’s spawn ISIS, a group that rose to power for appearing to fight an Assad regime in Syria that actually used chemical weapons.  It’s madness folks!
  • Foreign fighter recruitment – Never in world history has a conflict generated such a migration of foreign fighters. As long as the Syrian civil war persists, the ranks of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will fill with jihadi recruits.  The U.S. can bomb indefinitely, but the flow of fighters will remain.
  • Assad is an Iranian ally – Iran poses a very real nuclear and cyber threat to the U.S., one far greater than ISIS. Iran is desperately straining to keep a foothold in the Levant.  By attacking ISIS first, the U.S. strengthens Assad’s hand and by extension Iran. 
  • Confirms the al Qaeda narrative of ‘Far Enemy’ (U.S.) propping up ‘Near Enemy’ regimes (Syria) – As I noted this past weekend in an article at Politico, the U.S. pursuit of al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria while ignoring Assad further confirms the jihadi narrative that America is the ‘Far Enemy’ propping up ‘Near Enemy’ apostates.   
  • Double Standard on Atrocities – Americans showed great alarm at ISIS beheading two journalists, while turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Syrians killed by gruesome bombings and torture. The world sees the atrocities promoted by ISIS social media, but due to the lack of journalism inside Syria, the world has ignored an equally heinous slaughter committed by Assad.
  • Plays to Assad’s double game – Assad knows the U.S. fears jihadi black flags and scary ISIS YouTube videos.  Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Assad has argued the world should support him to prevent the rise of al Qaeda. Some indications suggest either Assad or Iran actually supported ISIS’s growth. Max Fisher at Vox wrote a great article detailing the Assad strategy with regards to ISIS.

As airstrikes continue, the U.S. and the West as a whole must realize there will be no enduring successful outcome for defeating ISIS and al Qaeda without ending the Syrian civil war – something that requires the confrontation of Assad.  The U.S. seems unlikely to take this action, in fear of riling Iran and their ally of exceptional aggression, Russia.  Maybe the Obama administration has included toppling Assad in their long-run strategy, but I’m skeptical. 

For other parts of the “Thoughts on Countering ISIS” series see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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