By Frederic C. Hof
April 03, 2016
One would think that massacres in Paris and Brussels would sufficiently motivate the West to inject real urgency into the battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria by deploying professional ground forces to close with and kill the enemy.
Airstrikes and Kurdish militiamen inflict damage, no doubt about it. But decisive military operations happen on the ground, and Kurds focused on securing an autonomous zone of their own, will not kill ISIS.
Meanwhile, the ISIS denizens of Raqqa (their Syrian capital) will, so long as they breathe, seek to inflict more horror on Europe and replicate it in North America. Why does Washington persist in believing that time is not of the essence?
Part of the answer may be found in the words of the White House spokesman in his comments on March 30. Josh Earnest was asked, “I guess the ultimate question is, is the president going to say to the coalition, look, if we want to win this we've got to send some troops in now?”
His response: “I think the president’s view is that the core of the fighting forces on the ground has to be individuals who are fighting for their own country. And we've learned the lessons of not pursuing that kind of strategy. . . . Are there more robust military contributions that could be made by other members of our coalition? I certainly wouldn't rule that out. But the principle that we're dealing with here is that the core of the fighting force on the ground can and must be people who are fighting for their own country.”
Regrettably, no one in the press corps challenged the premise. No one asked about the “lessons” referred to by Earnest. But put aside the spokesman’s free ride. What is the administration doing to organize an indigenous ground fighting force able to kill ISIS in Syria?
The bulk of the current anti-ISIS “fighting force on the ground” is Kurdish. It is indeed a collection of people “who are fighting for their own country”—in this case an autonomous Kurdish entity inside Syria astride the border with Turkey.
Surely the Kurds have the motivation and means to exclude ISIS from the largely Kurdish border strip. Do they have motivation and means—even when supplemented with coalition airpower and some Arab militiamen—to liberate Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and other Arab areas from ISIS? Can they sweep ISIS from eastern Syria? They cannot.
Who else in terms of indigenous forces is willing to fight for his country against ISIS? Surely, given a “cessation of hostilities” that is reducing violence significantly in western Syria, there are nationalist rebel units that have fought both ISIS and the Assad regime; units potentially available for duty.
If the core of the fighting force must be indigenous, what has Washington been doing to prepare Syrian nationalist rebel units—particular those with connections to the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor—to enter eastern Syria to fight ISIS?
A White House-mandated train-and-equip program that focused on vetted individuals ended in disaster. But if ‘indigenous’ is the criterion, what about existing units?
The one indigenous Syrian force the administration finds unacceptable for the overall suppression of ISIS is the Syrian army, or what is left of it at the disposal of the Assad regime.
It is one thing to say about Bashar al-Assad, as Earnest did, that “The manner in which he has used that nation's military to attack innocent civilians isn’t just completely immoral, it has also turned a large majority of the country against him.” It is quite another, however, to adhere to a slow-motion anti-ISIS strategy while Shia militiamen and Russian aircraft escort the Syrian army into Palmyra.
What now if they move toward Raqqa? Will Washington and its vaunted 66-member coalition simply look the other way? Or will it provide air support to the advancing Syrian army, completing the only “political transition” that is of interest to Russia’s Vladimir Putin: manoeuvring an American president who once told Assad to step aside into a military partnership with a mass murderer?
In truth, the requirement that ISIS be killed by “individuals who are fighting for their own country” is false and self-defeating. A bullet through the head of a murderous, rapacious, ersatz caliph delivered through the barrel of a rifle aimed by a French infantryman or Jordanian special forces trooper would be every bit as effective as one delivered courtesy of a Syrian.
If the brutal ISIS occupation of eastern Syria is ended mainly by soldiers coming from neighbouring countries and Western Europe, those Syrians currently either dealing with or fearing the enslavement of women and children by soulless barbarians will not see it as an insult to their patriotism or religion.
The real question has to do with “What next?” and if Mr. Earnest wishes to refer to lessons learned he should focus on civil-military stabilization planning and the catastrophic lack thereof.
Iraq and Libya stand out. The problem in Iraq had nothing to do with the combat performance of American uniformed personnel. It had everything to do with senior American officials thinking that once Baghdad fell, everything else would (consistent with the assurances of a prominent Iraqi expatriate) simply fall into place.
In his recent The Atlantic interview, President Obama expressed surprise and dismay that European allies had no such plan for Libya, as if the United States had been a disinterested spectator as the downfall of Qadhafi played out.
So: what has the United States done (a) to assemble a ground force coalition of the willing and/or Syrian nationalist rebel units to enter eastern Syria and kill ISIS in-place, and (b) complete a civil-military stabilization plan focused on preparing and supporting the Syrian opposition—local councils now surviving underground and opposition figures outside the country—to administer territories liberated from ISIS?
Surely the answer must not be “nothing.” It is indeed mandatory to worry about “What next?” once an enemy is defeated militarily: This is something to plan for.
The administration should also worry about the implications of a Russian-supported, atrocity-addicted regime taking hold of populated areas now occupied by ISIS: an exchange of one crime wave for another.
Another fit subject for worry in Washington is the effort by Russia to force the United States into partnership against ISIS with a mass murderer: a partnership that would ruin Washington’s relationships across the region.
To date, the administration’s idea of Syrians fighting ISIS out of love of country has centred on the Syrian Army and nationalist rebels eventually linking arms and marching eastward after Bashar al Assad has obligingly retired to Moscow, Caracas, Havana, Tehran, or Pyongyang.
It is a nice image. When exactly is this supposed to happen? How much time—after Paris and after Brussels—do we think we have?
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.