New Strategy Against ISIS and Al Qaeda
By Frederick Kagan
and Kimberly Kagan
Wall Street Journal
March 14, 2017
The Trump administration is set to supersize
President Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamic State, sending more American
forces to the region and lifting restraints on direct participation in combat
and when to use armed force. Yet any victory under the current approach will be
ephemeral. Even if American proxies, backed by U.S. military forces, wrest
Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, away from ISIS, success will be fleeting.
The most important error is the near-exclusive focus on
Islamic State at the expense of serious efforts against al Qaeda. Destroying
ISIS is necessary but not sufficient. As the Obama administration turned its
attention toward ISIS, al Qaeda learned from its failures. It has temporarily
deprioritized spectacular attacks on the global stage and focused on embedding
itself within Sunni communities in Syria, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere to
develop long-term strength and resilience.
Al Qaeda also has become more cautious in imposing its
radical version of Shariah. It now indoctrinates populations over years rather
than forcing immediate compliance with strict Islamic law. It does not demand
that fighters place themselves formally and publicly under its command. Its
affiliates in Syria do not even insist that local groups accept its ideology as
long as they fight common foes. Al Qaeda today introduces its beliefs slowly and
carefully, and the false message that it is more moderate than ISIS resonates
around the world.
The second major flaw in America’s strategy against ISIS,
which is Sunni, is Washington’s reliance on non-Sunni and non-Arab partners.
That amplifies the terror group’s message. In Iraq the U.S. works with the
Shiite-dominated government, whose past persecution of Sunni Arabs fueled
ISIS’s rise. Meanwhile, America’s Kurdish partners in both Iraq and Syria
are pursuing an independent Kurdistan, a political goal that is unacceptable to
The U.S. has no meaningful presence among the Sunni Arab
tribes in Iraq and Syria that ISIS, al Qaeda and others are vying to control.
This appears to confirm al Qaeda’s claim that it is the only effective armed
force dedicated to protecting Sunni populations from a combined assault by all
the world’s powers. That message may win out if Washington does not rapidly
change its approach.
The current strategy also empowers Iran and Russia, which
have done little to fight ISIS. Instead they have focused on destroying the
moderate Syrian opposition that threatened the regime of Bashar Assad. Iran
and Russia made great progress toward that aim in December when they helped
forces loyal to Mr. Assad seize Aleppo.
The U.S. has done nothing to limit Iran’s increased
military activity in Syria or Iraq. Tehran has sent ground forces from the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight in Syria. It has also recruited
thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis, deployed fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah,
and brought in Iraqi Shiite militiamen. Iran has penetrated Syria so thoroughly
that if it withdrew the Assad regime could not survive. Unless the U.S. acts
soon, Tehran’s expanded military presence will become permanent.
America’s backing of Kurdish-led forces to take Raqqa
exacerbates these problems and offers little gain. Its capture will not shatter
ISIS, which retains control of southeastern Syria, from the city of Deir ez Zour
to the Iraqi border. Raqqa’s fall will represent only a tactical victory—and
al Qaeda, Iran, the Assad regime and the Kurds will compete for the spoils.
Sunnis will lose, diminishing the chance of forging a strong Sunni leadership
opposed to ISIS and al Qaeda.
What’s needed is a new approach—and we have one. The
Institute for the Study of War joined with the Critical Threats Project at the
American Enterprise Institute for an intensive planning exercise beginning in
November 2015. Our analysts tested more than 15 different courses of action
before arriving at the one that offers the best chance of changing the momentum
The key is finding new Sunni partners and taking the fight
to new terrain, specifically, southeastern Syria, where ISIS leaders have
refuge. American military forces will be necessary. But the U.S. can recruit new
Sunni Arab partners by fighting alongside them in their land. The goal in the
beginning must be against ISIS because it controls the last areas in Syria where
the U.S. can reasonably hope to find Sunni allies not yet under the influence of
al Qaeda. But the aim after evicting ISIS must be to raise a Sunni Arab army
that can ultimately defeat al Qaeda and help negotiate a settlement to the war.
The U.S. will have to pressure the Assad regime, Iran and
Russia to end the conflict on terms that the Sunni Arabs will accept. That will
be easier to do with the independence and leverage of a secure base inside
Syria. America should also liberate itself from the troublesome reliance on
Turkey by shifting its base of operations south, where a reliable ally, Jordan,
is fully committed to fighting Salafi jihadism. Both these moves would give
Washington access to Sunni partners not heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda.
No single military operation can achieve victory in Syria.
But an operation against the enemy’s heartland, freed of the constraints
imposed by problematic proxies, would change the assumptions of America’s
friends and enemies. President Trump should break through the flawed logic and
poor planning that he inherited from his predecessor. He can transform this
struggle, but only by transforming America’s approach to it.