ISIS and the Civil War in Syria: The Challenge for U.S. Foreign Policy

Few issues are now more urgent in the Middle East than defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It remains in control of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, commits atrocities with publicized fervor, and has recently cultivated new allies in Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. It poses a direct threat to the United States’ regional allies, as well as to Russian control of the Caucasus’ Muslim populations. ISIS’ involvement in the Syrian Civil War has exacerbated the conflict, leaving over 300,000 dead, two-thirds of the Syrian people in need of humanitarian aid, and some 11 million people uprooted (7 million internally displaced and 4 million refugees abroad). Despite widespread media coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe, neither European governments nor the current U.S. administration have been willing to deal with the root causes of the turmoil in Syria and Iraq.

Even before ISIS’ brutal attacks in Paris, the Obama administration was directing renewed attention toward the two countries. In light of the recent attacks, it has become clear that decisive action must be taken to confront ISIS — both to protect ourselves and to aid others. Obama’s policy of minimizing U.S. involvement in the Middle East, understandable after two long and inconclusive wars in the region, must now shift. In order to understand why the United States should confront ISIS, and why the situation in Syria is so complex, one must look at the deep roots underlying the Syrian conflict. The Syrian political structure has been fragmented since 1945, resulting in a barely functioning civilian government and a military that constantly interferes in the country’s politics. Hafiz al-Assad (1930-2000), father to and predecessor of Syria’s current president, came to power following a coup in 1971. Through the end of his reign in 2000, Hafiz al-Assad built up the country’s military and infrastructure with funding from Arab donors and international lending institutions. Dissenters were ruthlessly suppressed.

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the military to suppress peaceful demands for democratic change. The military now remains the only functioning institution in a country where an Alawite minority rules over a majority of Sunnis. Because the military acts as a stakeholder in close alliance with the state, the alternative to military-civilian rule is likely chaos and further political instability, with the potential for an extremist Sunni regime that provides a haven to terrorist groups. If the Syrian state collapses, minorities will be at risk. Even if Syria’s minority Alawites were to accept a power sharing agreement with the majority Sunnis, they are frightened by the precedent set by de-Ba’athification in Iraq, where Shiite repression of minority Sunnis fueled the unrest that strengthened ISIS. Minority groups understandably fight in defense of the Assad regime, despite the great civilian hardship decimating their nation. The conflict’s resemblance to Lebanon and Sri Lanka’s drawn out civil wars is unmistakable.

Meanwhile, the stances of key regional powers prolong the Syrian crisis. Sunni powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have long supported anti-Assad forces, but lack the resources and shared priorities to mount a decisive campaign on these forces’ behalf. Turkey, for example, has suppressed Kurdish militants despite the Kurds effectiveness. Turkey’s President Erdogan and his administration see the Kurds as a threat to southeastern (Kurdish) Turkey. As is well documented, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah back Assad. So too does Egypt’s President Sisi, if only because of the ongoing ISIS affiliated terrorism erupting in the Sinai Peninsula. Neither Egypt nor Iran has the ability to defeat ISIS, however. Israel mostly engages in watchful waiting, with the exception of several attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria when Israel deemed the groups to be jeopardizing its territory. The conflicting interests and approaches of regional powers make solving this humanitarian and security crisis an overwhelming challenge.

U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been equally ineffective at ending the Syrian crisis. In the immediate aftermath of Syria’s uprisings, several UN and U.S. plans to force Assad’s exit failed. However, when it became clear that Assad was unlikely to leave Syria, public antipathy to U.S. involvement limited the Obama administration to airstrikes aimed at containing, not resolving, the violence in the region.[i] The Obama team gave the parties no new incentives to bargain and compromise. Until very recently, it seemed that the Obama Administration was prepared to defer the problem until a new executive takes power in 2017.

Unfortunately, the lack of U.S. involvement in the region has heralded a new era of insecurity and anxiety in an area characterized by weak, failed, and failing states. Failed political dynamics have provided an excuse for both the ruling elites and sectarian leaders to exploit religious tensions and mobilize their followers for increased violence. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah now have an opportunity to alter the region’s balance of power, while reducing the threat of Sunni radicals in Russia’s Muslim areas such as Chechnya and Dagestan.

Recent developments suggest a renewed U.S. willingness to deploy small numbers of specialized ground troops in Iraq and to reinvigorate diplomacy between key regional actors, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United States and Russia, regarding a phased transition in Syria to pave the way for the departure of the Assad regime. Important to note is that this strategy does not compromise longstanding U.S. priorities — including U.S. support for Israel, counterterrorism, the nuclear deal with Iran, and ensuring the stability of oil producing Arab monarchies. A willingness to live with Assad in the short run is consistent with Obama’s earlier decision to delay pushing for political reform, democracy, and human rights in places like Egypt. Of course, absent reform, there will always be more uprisings, failed states, civil wars, insurgencies, and terrorism in states like Egypt and Syria. Still, current pressures tend to supplant long-term considerations.

While it is true that troublesome regional dynamics make international agreement on the future of Syria a major challenge, the Obama administration must take additional measures to confront ISIS. New multilateral diplomacy must be a priority for Obama. Involving all leading outside actors is especially important because relying exclusively on limited military action via a U.S.-led coalition has proven utterly ineffective in meeting the challenge of terrorism in a post-September 11th world. Russia’s deepening unilateral military involvement on behalf of the weakened Assad regime has actually increased obstacles to a solution and encouraged the Syrian president to remain in power. As long as the various fighting factions believe they can attain their goals by force, diplomacy will not succeed, making it increasingly important for the Obama administration to commit to increased and well-considered military action as a precursor to diplomacy.

The Balkan War of 1992-1995 came to a diplomatic close with the Dayton Accord, but only after the United States organized an effective Bosniak-Croat fighting force on the ground to check Serbian ambitions. Then Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, recognized the game was up, particularly because he knew Russia was not going to come to Serbia’s rescue. The same purposeful military action is required in Syria if successful diplomacy is to be realized.

After the shocking events in Paris on November 13th, it will be easier to escalate coalition air attacks on ISIS. France, in fact, has already done so. There will also be increased security policies in other domains, such as in refugee screening and in cooperation among Western intelligence agencies. But problems remain. One is how to construct an effective and sizable ground force to hold territory once it is taken from ISIS; the present Kurdish forces seem too small in size. The Syrian Kurdish militia, as well as their Iraqi counterparts known as Peshmerga, are capable of fighting, although they are not well armed and tend to be heavily dependent on outside military support. Another issue is how to roll back ISIS in northern Syria without reaffirming Assad’s belief that he can hold on and defeat his opponents, including the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra, and even ISIS itself. Yet another problem is how to satisfy the Kurdish desire for independence in both Iraq and Syria without destabilizing pro-Western Turkey. For all these questions and more, multilateral diplomacy is crucial. Clearly, the United States cannot simply continue with a containment policy that gives ISIS a sanctuary and access to money and volunteers — all of which have allowed ISIS to further its agenda well beyond Iraq and Syria. However, any response must be well planned out with an understanding of the region’s politics, so as to prevent a repeat of the Bush administration’s mistakes in attempting to re-make the Middle East.

In formulating a strategy to defeat ISIS, however, the United States and other key states must take care not to undermine fundamental international human rights laws and norms. These include the principles of civilian immunity from attack, the rights of refugees fleeing war and persecution, and the long-term view of creating a sustainable democracy that maintains the political and economic rights of the populations of Iraq and Syria. The new form of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) enshrines these norms and should not be weakened by selectively using force only when convenient to stronger powers. State sovereignty cannot be an excuse for genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. All states have a duty to see that no authority allows these atrocities, only underscoring the importance of the United States acting to confront both ISIS and the Syrian crisis. Both of these issues have become more than just regional flashpoints. They are major tests of the wisdom and leadership of the United States and other powers in an era when the future of U.S. global leadership is no longer unquestioned.