Addressing the Gaps in Syria Policy in the Fight Against ISIS

A U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle flies over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria on September 23, 2014.

With the expansion of air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, into Syria in September, President Barack Obama exposed himself to a new round of criticism from armchair commanders at home and abroad. It is time for the Obama administration to clarify the Syria component of its strategy to combat ISIS.

The criticisms have come from all angles. Serious concerns came from the left that the administration would careen down a slippery slope into a war for regime change, trapping the United States in another quagmire in the region. From the right, critics panned the limited nature of the strikes as too little too late. Some conservatives, such as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called for U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and for an expansion of the war to directly target the Assad regime in Syria. Meanwhile, the international community is all over the map, with major players such as Iran and Russia nervous about any U.S.-backed move against Assad, while Gulf allies and Turkey remain frustrated by a lack of action against him.

In the fog of daily war headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the strategic goals set out by the White House; the administration has taken a highly nuanced and deliberate approach given the complex terrain of the Middle East. Today, some of the U.S. arms and matériel intended to defend Iraq are now in the hands of ISIS, enabling them to dismember two nations while beheading innocent civilians. This is both a reason Washington is right to lead the coalition fighting ISIS and a cautionary tale about just how much can go wrong in this kind of endeavor.

The administration is right to avoid slippery slopes and keep its sights set on ISIS. The plan to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group has four components. The first is to degrade ISIS through airstrikes conducted via an international coalition. The second is to assist the new Iraqi government in stabilizing the country through more-inclusive politics and security forces. The third is to strengthen partners on the ground—such as the Kurds, the Syrian opposition, and Iraqi security forces—to follow through against ISIS. The final component is a political process to end the civil war in Syria.

The Syria component remains the weakest link in the overall strategy. A big part of the problem stems from a lack of clarity amid competing pressures at home and abroad on both the ends and means to be pursued. Going forward, the administration must be clear about three things as it fights ISIS inside Syria.

1. Reject regime change through direct U.S. military action and define specific parameters for airstrikes in Syria

Broadening the current fight against ISIS into an international war to remove the Assad regime is a terrible idea. It would unleash greater chaos in Syria and lead to further collapse and fragmentation. Regime change by force would then require nation-building efforts akin to the costly endeavor in Iraq; without those efforts, the United States risks a chaotic vacuum similar to the one in Libya. Instead, coalition air power should continue to be used against ISIS, and it might be necessary to expand strikes against other terrorist groups. Strikes could be considered against Assad’s forces for very specific aims, such as protecting civilians from imminent attack, delivering humanitarian assistance, enforcing future ceasefire lines, or defending coalition aircraft from Syrian air defenses. But these strikes should be very limited.

It is impossible to imagine a unified and peaceful Syria with President Bashar al-Assad still at the helm. But a leadership transition is a political goal, not a military objective. Assad’s power base will have a role in any peace process and in the future governance of Syria. The lessons of the Iraq War are a reminder that state institutions should not be allowed to collapse and that political exclusion sows the seeds for future conflict. For example, some of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist supporters became indispensable partners for ISIS’s seizure of Iraqi territory. A similar dynamic awaits if President Assad’s supporters find themselves permanent losers in a future Syria.

2. Demonstrate serious commitment to restarting the political process

Syrian peace talks in Geneva collapsed in January, but the United States must work to renew negotiations. This requires a freeze in the civil war, similar to the idea recently recommended by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The current U.S. policy lacks any clear link to a long-term strategy to stabilize the country and restart a political transition. This is a problem for two reasons. First, the Syrian opposition forces needed to combat ISIS cannot take the fight to the terrorists if President Assad is simultaneously terrorizing them from the other side. Second, key members of the international coalition are likely to abandon the effort if they do not see a long-term path away from Assad’s rule.

Every day of fighting allows President Assad to further rebuild his control and brutalize civilians and opposition forces alike. Getting a political process off the ground will require a pause in the conflict. The United States must make this a priority in order to give a peace process half a chance and should publicly back the establishment of freeze zones in particular areas, including Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.

3. Build reliable and capable partners on the ground in Syria

Sustaining the opposition in Syria will be difficult. But ISIS and al-Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria, cannot be defeated without an armed partner on the ground. Nor can there be a peace process with President Assad without a viable political opposition. So the U.S. train-and-equip program must have both a military and political aim—to support groups willing to fight ISIS and to sustain those groups as part of future political process. There is much doubt about whether such a program can succeed, as demonstrated by al-Nusra Front’s defeat of U.S. backed groups in Idlib this month. But the coalition fighting ISIS should stand with the Syrian opposition forces, including through setbacks on the battlefield. The recent efforts to boost Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani need to be nested within a broader plan to create greater cohesion among all of the reliable anti-ISIS forces fighting on the ground.

Almost four years into the Syrian civil war, the worst possible outcome is looking more likely: President Assad holds onto power with state failure spreading across Syria. This would enable ISIS to expand its safe haven to attack Iraq and other nations in the region.

But as bad as the situation is, forcible regime change is not a viable option. The only lasting end to Syria’s civil war is a political settlement. Without it, the conflict could continue to destabilize the region for years and provide ISIS and its ilk with a permanent safe haven from which to pressure the region and launch terrorist strikes abroad. The Obama administration has taken important steps to deal with ISIS and has a framework for meeting the threat in Iraq. Now is the time to shore up the gaps in its approach to Syria and connect the near-term actions with a long-term strategy for ending the conflict.

Vikram Singh is the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Brian Katulis and Hardin Lang are Senior Fellows with the National Security team.