31 October 2015

Why the New ISIL Strategy is a Bad Idea

October 28, 2015

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivered remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee detailing the administration’s latest plan for escalating the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In his testimony, Secretary Carter outlined a tripartite strategy for defeating ISIL dubbed the “three R’s.” The proposed course of action calls for U.S.-led forces to focus their efforts on targeting Raqqa and Ramadi (ISIL’s major strongholds in Syria and Iraq respectively) and conducting raids against senior ISIL leadership. This plan will also expand the role of U.S. special operators and provide air support for the Syrian opposition. Of particular note, Mr. Carter stated in no uncertain terms that Washington and Moscow remain on separate pages in dealing with the Syrian Civil War. “To be clear, we are not cooperating with Russia, we are not letting Russia impact the pace or scope of our campaign against ISIL in Iraq or Syria.”

The administration’s decision to escalate the campaign in Syria does not reflect the new realities on the ground. Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in the conflicts calls into question the viability of this approach. As I have written previously, an American-led effort to impose a post-conflict settlement on the ground in Syria requires Washington to either return “liberated” territory to the Assad government or serve as an auxiliary peacekeeping force for the outgunned opposition. The idea that the American military would liberate the people of Syria from Islamic extremism, only to surrender them to an embattled tyrant is ludicrous. The alternative however, would require the U.S. and its coalition partners to wage simultaneous offensives against ISIL and Assad. Before Russian involvement, a strategy aimed at defeating both ISIL and Assad would have led to direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran in Syria and Iraq. Now that the Russian military is effectively serving as Damascus’ air force, this approach would at best yield a proxy war between Washington and Moscow and at worst risk bringing both powers into actual conflict.

Defeating ISIL is firmly within the purview of America’s overarching regional interests. Hoping to establish a friendly regime in Syria, however, is not. It is time to divorce our ISIL strategy in Syria from our efforts in Iraq. Focusing our efforts on the latter will enable defense planners to prioritize our partners in Baghdad and Erbil, instead of attempting to build a Syrian opposition from the ground up. It will give the Obama administration a final opportunity to reverse the political and security losses inflicted by an American withdrawal from the region. Furthermore, it will reduce the U.S. presence in a conflict that will increasingly pit Syrian regime forces and ISIL militants directly against one another. Instead of escalating our involvement in a crisis that has no winners, the U.S. should take this opportunity to regain its footing and remember where its regional priorities really lie.

Robert Cantelmo (@RobertCantelmo) is Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest. He writes on U.S. national security and strategy.

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