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.



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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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