Policy Tensor

An Army To Oust Assad?

In Middle East on August 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Kenneth M. Pollack’s proposal in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs is intriguing and clear-eyed. He outlines a strategy to defeat Assad by raising a professional army composed of Syrian fighters. As opposed to arming moderate rebels, Pollack would have the United States make a fresh start at creating an armed actor ex nihilo that can take on both Assad and Islamist extremists, and ensure stability when the fighting is over.

These men and women could come from any part of the country or its diaspora, as long as they were Syrian and willing to fight in the new army. They would need to integrate themselves into a conventional military structure and adopt its doctrine and rules of conduct. They would also have to be willing to leave their existing militias and become reassigned to new units without regard for religion, ethnicity, or geographic origin. Loyalty to the new army and to the vision of a democratic postwar Syria for which it would stand must supersede all other competing identities.

The strategy’s most critical aspect would be its emphasis on long-term conventional training. The program would represent a major departure from the assistance Washington is currently providing the opposition, which involves a few weeks of coaching in weapons handling and small-unit tactics. The new regimen, by contrast, should last at least a year, beginning with such basic training and then progressing to logistics, medical support, and specialized military skills. Along the way, U.S. advisers would organize the soldiers into a standard army hierarchy. Individuals chosen for command positions would receive additional instruction in leadership, advanced tactics, combined-arms operations, and communications.

Needless to say, this strategy would take a few years’ time to bear fruit. The “fruit” in the best case scenario is the establishment of a modern democracy protected by an apolitical army. While we can’t rule out an outright rout of such a force, it is highly unlikely to be defeated by Assad or the Islamic State if it is backed by American air power. Another scenario that Pollack considers is the new army prevailing against Assad but failing to secure the country. “The new Syrian army would then continue to face a grueling and destabilizing battle with extremists and insurgents while struggling to establish law and order, a challenge that undermined postwar governments in both Afghanistan and Libya.” A good case can be made that this is the most likely scenario.

The problem, which Pollack seems entirely unaware of, is that an army forged by the United States and embedded with American advisors to boot, would be necessarily seen as illegitimate by, if not the majority of Syrians, then at least a significant minority. In this region of the world, Western meddling smacks of colonial practices. An armed actor backed by Washington will be seen as America’s lackey. This would directly play into the hands of Islamist propaganda. No matter how well-intentioned the American intervention, the Islamists’ message of resistance to the West would resonate with increasing force. In particular, many more would join the Islamic State to fight the “good fight” against the infidel enemy. The Iraqi army forged ex nihilo by the Americans that Pollack cites as an exemplary case, also suffers precisely from this association; exacerbated, in this case, by the sectarianism of the regime in Baghdad.

The new Syrian army would have to be forged in either Jordan or Turkey. If based in Jordan, it could destabilize the small state quite quickly. The Islamic State already has plans to expand into Jordan. A large-scale American operation of this magnitude would immediately create a fertile ground for the expansion of the Islamic State’s influence; particularly among disenfranchised Palestinians, who constitute a majority of Jordan’s populace. Jordan has so far narrowly avoided the instability engulfing its neighbors. An American operation of this magnitude in Jordan would not be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, it would be a brick.

If based in Turkey, the United States would have to constantly be wary of Turkish influence. Washington and Turkey have very different interests in Syria. In fact, Washington is furious with Ankara over the latter’s blind support for Islamist insurgents in Syria. Turkey has reportedly allowed the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qa‘ida affiliate, among other odorous groups, to establish supply lines and training camps in its territory. There is some evidence to suggest that it has directly armed and funded Islamist extremists. Seymour Hersh reported in the London Review of Books that the chemical attack allegedly carried out by Assad that almost prompted American cruise missile strikes, was a false-flag operation orchestrated by Turkey to prompt an American assault on Assad’s forces. It would be extremely difficult for America to both convince Turkey to host such a force and contain Turkish influence. It would also put the sustainability of the process under question. Turkey could, for instance, eject the half-trained force if Washington failed to accommodate its interests. At the very least, such an operation would increase the Turks’ leverage against Washington.

Pursuing the strategy advocated by Pollack thus runs the risk of increasing regional instability and drawing the United States into a prolonged stability operation. It comes with a hundred billion dollar price tag and clear diplomatic costs. Washington could certainly have good reason to bear these costs and run these risks if there was a significant American interest at stake. The United States has one overriding interest in Syria: to defeat the Islamic State and, more generally, contain the Salafist-Jihadist menace. In contrast, getting rid of Assad is a minor gain that comes with its own risks since the United States cannot be sure that a post-Assad Syria would be conducive to American interests. Moreover, no matter how odorous Assad is on humanitarian grounds, he is not a direct threat to the United States or its key allies. The only security gain from replacing Assad by a more compliant regime is that it would undercut Hezbollah’s supply lines. While this would go some way towards furthering Israeli security, it would hardly be a major transformation since Israel can already deter and punish Hezbollah at will, and the latter would survive Assad’s ouster because it has deep roots in Lebanon. In other words, the security gains to Israel from Assad’s ouster are marginal.

In terms of securing the United States’ principal interest of defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat, it is not clear at all that Pollack’s high-risk strategy is the best course of action, especially given that there is a straightforward alternative that comes with fewer risks. This alternative, of course, is backing Assad. The central government’s army still constitutes the dominant military force in the Syrian conflict. Assad has a clear interest in bringing northern Syria back under his rule. American airstrikes are insufficient to defeat the Islamic State. To secure the defeat of the Islamic State, Washington should coordinate with Damascus, Erbil, and Tehran. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. Needless to say, this requires significant coordination with Tehran; a process that is already well-advanced. Stratfor reported on August 20, 2014, that “Washington and Tehran agreed on the limited force the Quds Force has deployed in Iraq’s Diyala province to fight alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces against the Islamic State.” The Obama administration seems finally to have moved to the right strategy.

It is clear that Assad has refrained from attacking the Islamic State to undermine Western opposition to his rule: “this is what you will get if I am kicked out.” This doesn’t mean that Washington should continue to seek his ouster anyway. There is no shame is admitting that Assad’s poison pill is an effective deterrent. Washington should not let its humanitarian rhetoric get in the way of pursuing the right strategy to ensure its primacy security interests. Assad may be a butcher, but he is the best man for the job. Pollack’s strategy to oust Assad can work. But it serves no discernible American interest and comes with significant risks and costs. Instead of launching such an ambitious project, the US should hold its nose and work with Assad to defeat the Islamic State. 

The United States and the Islamic State

In Middle East on August 18, 2014 at 5:58 am

President Barack Obama has argued that the road to Mosul runs through Baghdad. That in order to defeat the Islamic State the first step is for the leadership in Baghdad to politically accommodate the Sunnis. The United States has insisted on and obtained Maliki’s head, arguing that Maliki was especially sectarian and angered the Sunnis. It seems to have agreed on a consensus candidate with Iran, Haider al-Abadi, who has now been charged with effecting the political accommodation. The United States has also made it clear that it will deploy air power to prevent the Islamic State to overrun the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG); and implicitly, Baghdad.

The logic of US policy is based on what one may call the Anbar theory. After relentless pressure from al-Qa‘idah in Iraq (AQI) on the occupying American and government forces in 2006-2007, the populace of the ‘Sunni triangle’—the 100-square-mile between Baghdad, Ramadi, and Tikrit—turned against AQI and joined the Americans in defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat. By the Spring of 2009, there were 100,000 Sunni tribesmen on the American payroll. Along with the deployment of 20,000 additional troops, the Sahwa or Anbar Awakening decimated the ranks of AQI (which had rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006). Political accommodation of the Sunnis in Baghdad played a role in reorienting the tribesmen away from AQI. The Sunnis were also said to be exasperated by AQI’s fanning of the sectarian war (by targeting the Shi’a to prompt retaliation), its imposition of harsh Sharia law, and its foreign origins. The theory says that the Islamic State (organizationally a direct descendent of AQI), which now spans across northern Iraq and Syria, can be defeated by effecting a similar reorientation of the Sunni populace. Is this theory valid?

I will argue that the prospects of such a reorientation are bleak. I will strengthen this argument by assuming that Baghdad will be entirely forthcoming in accommodating Sunni interests; itself an uncertain proposition. The argument is straightforward: the calculus of the Sunni populace now ruled by the Islamic State is considerably less conducive to a second Anbar Awakening. In the first place, it was clear to the Sunnis in 2006 that AQI was in no position to prevail against the United States. Therefore, continued support for AQI would only prolong the sectarian war without kicking out the invaders. The strength of US forces meant that by switching their allegiance, the Sunnis would be allying with the overwhelmingly dominant side who could not only be expected to prevail but also to provide security and largesse. By reducing the temperature of the sectarian war it would also enhance the security of the minority. Thus, the proposition was sufficiently attractive enough that coordination problems could be overcome and an en masse switch effected.

The Islamic State now controls a large swath of territory across northern Iraq and Syria. As opposed to 2006, when it fought to control neighborhoods against the occupying American land army, its control is now uncontested in the interior of the Islamic State’s territory. It has brought security to towns and cities torn by conflict by imposing a monopoly of violence on areas under its rule. It now has a sanctuary in northern Syria where it may tactically withdraw to regain strength and mobilize resources. It is no longer dependent on external sources for arms and money since it now regularly collects taxes and oil revenues.

Not only are the negative consequences of continued allegiance to the Islamic State considerably less dire (with the banishing of war to the frontier of the territory), the positive consequences of switching their allegiance are much more uncertain since they cannot assume that the Iraqi army and/or the Peshmerga will be able to prevail against the Islamic State. The Islamic State has prevailed in a number of battles against the Peshmerga, the Iraqi rump state’s army, the Syrian rump state’s army, a number of Syrian rebel groups, and even fellow Salafist-Jihadist al-Nusra Front (which has winnowed down from defections to the more radical and audacious Islamic State). What all this means is that in the calculus of the Sunni populace, the objective probability that the Islamic State will be able to hold on to its territory is not small at all, especially compared to 2006, when it was zero. Furthermore, the coordination problem of switching allegiance en masse is exacerbated by the threat of retaliation from the Islamic State. The populace of Mosul can hardly be expected to demand the ouster of their heavily armed masters.

To put it bluntly, the security interests of the Sunni populace in the territory controlled by the Islamic State dictate that they acquiesce to its rule. This is simply an outcome of state formation: the Sunnis would be gravely jeopardizing their own security by contesting the Islamic State. The deployment of American air power is only sufficient to contain the Islamic State and thwart its attempts to conquer more territory in Iraq. It is insufficient to roll-back the Islamic State from the territory already under its control. Unless the Iraqi rump state’s army and/or the Peshmerga can be transformed into much more effective fighting forces—another highly uncertain prospect—the United States will not be able to defeat the Islamic State without deploying ground forces.

Is the United States willing to tolerate a Salafist-Jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East? From what we have been given to understand since September 11, 2001, that is not an option. Winston Churchill once famously observed that Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. The right thing to do is to reach an accommodation with Tehran and Damascus with a view to restoring the territorial status quo ante circa 2011. This is not as blasphemous as it sounds. The only real American security interest in the Syrian conflict is containing the Salafist-Jihadist threat. For unless it is defeated, these fighters will emanate out to thirty countries just as they did in the aftermath of the Afghan campaign. And since you are unwilling to do the job yourself in Syria, Assad is the best man for the job.

Not only can Iran twist arms in Baghdad, it can provide elite ground forces to spearhead the attack against the Islamic State. If the US partners in a military campaign with Damascus and Tehran, it can easily bring sufficient military pressure to bear on the length and breadth of the Islamic State. By controlling the skies it can still control the overall military campaign. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. A tilt away from the Saudis to Iran will also help in the ideational struggle against the Salafist-Jihadist threat by providing room to arm-twist the Saudis to moderate the Salafi ideologues on the Kingdom’s payroll (salafism, al Qa‘ida’s religious ideology, is the state ideology of Saudi Arabia.) A strategic realignment in the gulf is also in the American interest beyond the fight against the Salafist-Jihadist challenge. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the gulf. An alliance with Iran will allow the United States to put gulf affairs on auto-pilot and finally pivot to Asia, where a strategic challenge of an entirely different magnitude awaits on the horizon.

Signs of Life from the White House

In Middle East on August 9, 2014 at 6:00 pm

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President Obama has justified the kinetic action being undertaken by the US against the Islamic State as being one of protecting the 40,000 Yazidis fleeing from in and around Mosul, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The ancient, religious minority is trapped on the Sinjar mountains, 160 kilometers west of Mosul; whereas Erbil, the site of US airstrikes is 90 kilometers east of Mosul. The airstrikes on the outskirts of Erbil have nothing to do with protecting the religious minority, which is trapped on a mountain 250 kilometers away. The White House has bravely tried to couple the two operations and justified both by a obligation to protect a beleaguered minority the media can love. This is baloney.

The airdrops were certainly prompted by humanitarian concerns for the Yazidis. American C-130 transport planes have delivered significant amounts of food and water in the past two days. The C-130s are flanked by the navy’s F-18 fighters, which indicates that the US is using naval assets in the Mediterranean for the mission. The airstrikes outside Erbil on the other hand, were carried out by drones launched from the Iraqi interior (although the US denies that it has air bases inside Iraq, that is a hard pill to swallow), or more likely from air bases in Turkey. In either case, the two operations are totally distinct military missions run by different components of the military apparatus. The fighters accompanying the transport planes carrying humanitarian aid are only tasked with protecting the planes themselves. The United States is not attacking Isis targets around Mosul.

American airstrikes outside Erbil are, for now, meant to push back the menacing Isis fighters threatening the Kurdish capital. The White House has announced that the airstrikes may last for months. This can only mean that the United States intends to attack the Islamic State in earnest. This is good news. A complicating factor is the capture of the Mosul dam by the Isis. This is a tremendous strategic asset: threatened with the recapture of Mosul, the Isis could destroy the dam by detonating a bomb or shelling it with artillery. The unraveling of the dam would unleash a 65-foot Tsunami down the Tigris. It would completely destroy Mosul and a number of other towns downstream. Even Baghdad would be hit by a 15-foot wave. The capital of the Iraqi rump state would be submerged within three days. Mosul would utterly disappear under 25 meters of water. The Islamic State is also engaged in combat to gain control of Haditha dam on the Euphrates. They seem to be negotiating a surrender of the town with Sunni tribal leaders and militant groups. The Haditha dam powers Baghdad and would be an even more potent strategic asset in the hands of the Islamic State. They could use it as an offensive weapon—unlike the Mosul dam which can only be used as a defensive weapon—since its rupture would threaten the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, without affecting much of the territory controlled by the Islamic State.

It would have been far easier to crush the Islamic State before it acquired control over significant power resources. Since the policy tensor first recommended kinetic action, the Islamic State has wrestled control of strategic highways, dams, airfields, oilfields, and arsenals. It has also established a functioning administrative apparatus in areas under its control. Towns which had hitherto been sites of constant fighting have been stabilized as a result of the establishment of the Islamic State’s monopoly of violence. By endowing areas under its control with a modicum of security, the Islamic State has purchased legitimacy in the eyes of the conquered. This has further increased the Islamic State’s mobilization capacity and made it harder to dislodge. The recent rout of Peshmerga forces at the hands of the Islamic State imply that the Islamic State must now be reckoned to be at least as strong as the KRG, if not stronger. State formation always implies a sharp increase in war-making capabilities, so this should come as no surprise.

The Islamic State is now in a good position to hold on to its territory, perhaps even against a joint effort by the KRG and Baghdad. The United States has ruled out the introduction of American ground forces, whilst promising an open-ended air campaign. American air power can contain the Islamic State. Airstrikes, by themselves however, are incapable of destroying the Islamic State. But neither Baghdad nor Erbil is in any position to mount a major land campaign for now. Perhaps with Maliki out of power by next week and the establishment of a more inclusive government in Baghdad, the political and confessional underpinnings of the Sunni rebellion may be undermined. Even then, it would take a while before Iraqi ground forces are effective enough to retake territory in concert with American air support. The Maliki government is close to Tehran. This is part of the reason why Washington has refused to provide air support until he is ousted (American strategists also believe that the Sunni rebellion is driven by Maliki’s sectarianism and cannot be thwarted without political accommodation by Baghdad). But Iranian influence in Baghdad is much deeper than Maliki: any viable Shi’a leader will reach out for Iranian support against opponents in domestic Iraqi politics. There isn’t must Washington can do about that. Cutting a deal with Iran would make the task of defeating the Islamic State considerably easier.

American airstrikes outside Erbil have clarified US policy with respect to the KRG: whatever happens in Baghdad, the United States will not allow the defacto Kurdish state to knuckle under. Degrading the Islamic State’s capabilities is going to prove harder to achieve; getting Baghdad or Erbil to mount a credible land campaign against the Islamic State harder still.


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