Just Fighting ISIS is a Fatally Flawed Strategy
President-elect Trump wants to re-orient the U.S. approach to the Syria war. Even more than is already the case, he wants to concentrate on fighting ISIS and pull out from what the Syria and Iraq wars are really about.
Defeating the physical ISIS caliphate is the most achievable goal of the wars, but it addresses none of the underlying causes and it would not end the conflicts of the region.
In fact, with a single-minded Western strategy of fighting ISIS – without removing Assad or reforming the Iraqi government – Iran, Assad, Russia, and Shiite power circles in Iraq, will be the big winners from an ISIS defeat. This will strengthen Iranian dominance, further alienate the U.S. in the Middle East, and bring the regional situation to a new crisis level. The result will not be less extremism, it will be more.
Even worse, Trump wants to cooperate with Assad, since "Assad is fighting ISIS". Nothing could be further from the truth. Assad has, as a matter of strategy, directly and consistently facilitated and financed extremist movements such as Jabhet al-Nusrah and ISIS, and he studiously avoids fighting ISIS if at all possible.
For Assad, the moderate rebels are by far the greater risk, and his strategy has from day one been to create extremism that would be seen as a bigger threat than himself. Assad and Putin concentrate on destroying moderate rebels, and when one day there are only Jihadists left, Assad hopes to join forces with the West in fighting the "terrorism" he himself has aided and abetted.
And finally, if Trump cuts support to the Syrian opposition and the moderate rebels, their defeat to the combined Russian, Iranian, Hizbollah, Shiite militia and Syrian forces is almost assured. It will be a direct contribution to Assad's war plan and it may trigger an even more direct intervention by major Sunni powers, thereby bringing the regional conflict to an even more dangerous level.
Assad has deliberately made the Syrian war sectarian through the use of predatory Shabiha militias pitting Sunnis against Assad's Alawite minority. He did this to change the nature of the conflict away from being an uprising against a dictator and to ensure the critical support of Iran and Hizbollah. This strategy has linked to Sunni grievances in Iraq to create the unique space for ISIS, and it has spiraled into a fully-fledged regional Sunni-Shia conflict fought as proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Iranian military intervention in Iraq and Syria currently blocks any peace solution other than the continued dominance of Shiite regimes. This approach is the major threat to stability in the region.
A Western strategy must to be results-oriented, not just aimed at visible and comparatively easy quick-wins. Even if the desired end state is limited to the full defeat of ISIS, it has to be a virtual as well as a physical defeat, and it has to avoid negative consequences that worsen the other conflicts and spur further extremism. This is only possible if it happens in conjunction with the establishment of inclusive governments in Syria and Iraq that can start the long process of establishing normality, building bridges between the sectarian groups, and of eroding the space for extremism.
A political solution in Syria is at the core of a sustainable outcome, but crucially it must involve Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia. The benefit is that such an inclusive agreement on Syria would open the door to manage the whole regional Sunni - Shia conflict and it would be a basis to find a sustainable power sharing arrangement in Iraq.
But no sustainable solution is possible with Assad still in power. He cannot survive without total control of his massive security apparatus that persecutes and tortures on a massive scale and murders many thousand prisoners every single year. Assad and his close henchmen have to go if any real long-term solution is to be possible – but that does not mean the fall of the whole system. The Syrian government, the Syrian army, and the state apparatuses are essential partners in any solution.
Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are coming dangerously close to achieving their objective of becoming the solution rather than the problem. In a bid to join forces with the U.S. under the crudely manipulated guise of "fighting terrorism", the Russians are playing President-elect Trump for a political simpleton. Time will tell if they are successful.
Rolf Holmboe is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Danish Ambassador to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (2012-2015).