The "Best Game in Town" - Five Key Risks of the President’s Strategy

It may seem unusual to criticize a strategy you have both suggested and endorse, and it is important to stress from the outset that President Obama has almost certainly chosen a strategy that is the “best game in town” — if he fully implements it, gives it the necessary resources, and sustains it over time.  The President has had to choose a strategy based on the “rules of the game” in the United States, in Iraq, in Syria, and allied states. They are rules that place major constraints on what the United States can do.

The Limited Choices That Shape the “Best Game” in Town

The United States had no choice other than to depend on regional allies for ground forces, training, bases, improvements in unity and governance, efforts to limit the Islamic State’s funding and its volunteers, and efforts to highlight its lack of religious legitimacy and horrifying departures from Islam.

The United States has no domestic political support for deploying its own ground combat units. It would take months to deploy and organize a major land force presence to cover the large areas involved, and U.S. ground troops would walk into Iraqi and Syrian civil wars where they would almost inevitably be seen as favoring one side and being seen as an enemy by the other.

The strategy the President announced also has a good chance of meeting half of his goals: seriously degrading the Islamic State/ISIL/ISIS, and “degrade” may well be enough to destroy its ability to function as a protostate and secure base for violent Jihadism and extremism.

“Destroy,” however, is probably far too ambitious a goal. A serious threat of violent Jihadism and extremism is likely to endure for years to come, and reemerge along with similar threats in an arc that reaches from Morocco to the Philippines and from Sub-Saharan Africa to Russia and China. This may not be a “long war” in any one place, but outbreaks of violent instability seem likely to be the rule and not the exception.

Leadership Means Motivating and Motivating Means Understating Risks

This is not a criticism of what President Obama chose to say. A President who wants to lead and shape a course of action cannot and should not point out all of the risks in the strategy he chooses. As this President has taken some years to learn, you do not catalyze your own country or your allies by focusing on complexity and risks.

You do not overcome partisanship, extreme criticism, allied distrust, and hostile confidence by doing so. At the same time, there is a need for balance and for caution, and to endorse the President’s choice with an honest statement of the risks and uncertainties involved.

Key Risk One: Iraq

The first and potentially most serious set of such risks and uncertainties is one the President did touch upon.  The strategy he proposed is dependent on Iraq having a government that actually seeks and achieves true functional unity between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites and Arabs and Kurds. The key ground force component in his strategy is a set of Iraqi forces where the United States can help recreate a functional and national Iraqi Army, limit and marginalize Shi’ite militias, create a Sunni national guard in Sunni-dominated areas, and make the peshmerga into a far more effective force.

However, sustaining and even achieving such Iraqi military progress requires far more national unity at the top. This means some new form of federalism, some degree of honesty and equity in using Iraq’s oil revenues, meaningful economic reform, and a major new approach to developing the nation’s petroleum sector. This is a one to three year effort for the military dimension and at least a three to five year effort for the political, governance, and solid start at the economic dimensions.

The chance of full success in Iraq probably less than one-in-three. As the failures after U.S. tactical success during 2005-2008 showed all too clearly, tactical victory does not defeat Islamic separatism or create national unity. Iraqi politics are a blood sport in sectarian, ethnic, and personal terms.

Far too much of the Maliki structure is still in place, and far too many other Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish political figures and factions operate on the basis of self-interest, corruption, and the search for power.  The grim reality is that for all the cultural and religious differences, Iraq’s political elites bear an amazing resemblance to the Bourbon dynasty in France. Like the Bourbon Kings, they forget nothing and they learn nothing.

The United States probably has much better odds of degrading the Islamic state than destroying it—even in Iraq. Iraq is likely to remain an unstable and divided mess in far too many ways. Even partial U.S. success may well mean having to back divided Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions and forces, and then living with an unstable Iraq indefinitely into the future.

Key Risk Two: Syria

Defeating the Islamic State on the ground in Syria may well be impossible. Airpower—and boosting moderate rebel factions like the Free Syrian Army, and the challenges the Islamic State faces from other “Islamic” rebel factions like the Al Nusra Front—may force the Islamic State to mutate or merge. The end result, however, is still likely to be a Syria divided between a murderously repressive Assad faction mixing Alawites and Sunnis in the coastal west and urban center of Syria, and a rebel dominated faction in the east that still has a strong islamist and jihadist character.

The odds that moderate rebels can take over the next few years— even with far more U.S., Saudi, Jordanian, and UAE support—are probably between one-in-three and one-in-four. The combined humanitarian and developmental disaster that has built up in Syria during the period before the start of the fighting in 2011, and turned into a nation-wide disaster during 2011 to the present, will probably take a decade at best to turn around on any stable basis.

The lesser risks are that degrading the Islamic State will produce some form of slow, even more agonizing Assad victory, or that Syria is so divisive that the Islamic State will remain intact in some form in Eastern Syria and be an ongoing threat to Iraq and the region. Say one-in-three to two-in-three odds of a divided Syria after even a successful campaign against the Islamic State. One-in-six to one-in-five odds of either some form of Assad victory or some form of Islamic State survival in Syria.

More violent power struggles are likely to come, no clear leaders have emerged to move Syria forward. While Libya seems to blend the very worst of secular authoritarianism, sectarian conflict, and and violent religious extremism, Syria may still lead the world in one of its most self-destructive contests.

Key Risk Three: Iran

Experts are deeply divided over the extent to which Iran can emerge as a pragmatic power willing and able to live with the United States and its neighbors, and will continue to seek security and power by expanding its regional ties to figures like Assad, non-state actors, deploying nuclear weapons, and confronting the Arab Gulf States.

So far, it has been in Iran’s interest to operate in parallel with the United States. At some point, however, Iran is likely to resist growing U.S. influence and a growing role in Iraq and even more so in Syria. Moreover, progress in the P5+1 talks is not going well, and their partial or full failure could coincide with a critical period in the U.S. role in fighting the Islamic State. The end result could be Iranian efforts to create clashes between Iraqi Shi’ite forces and U.S.-supported elements, third party attacks on U.S. advisors and enablers, and/or to systematically insert Al Quds advisors and trainers into Iraq forces and Shi’ite areas.

Iran’s politics are so divided and probably so opaque and uncertain even to Iran’s leaders, however, that it is dangerous to be too pessimistic. Iran’s broader pragmatism may yet outweigh its ideological extremism in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and around the Supreme Leader.

Iran may also choose a different path. It may calculate that U.S. and Arab efforts to support the Syrian rebels will pose little real threat to Assad and having the United States weaken the Islamic State will help him to some degree. It may conclude that Iran can safely wait out the U.S. support of Iraqi forces, keep up their influence over Iraq’s Shi’ites, and simply wait until the United States has largely left.

Iran may also conclude that it will ultimately be better off with a somewhat divided Sunni Iraqi West and Kurds that stay in the Iraqi state but remain divided from Arabs. Both forms of internal tension in Iraq would pressure a still Shi’ite dominated Iraqi regime to be somewhat more dependent on Iran.

Best prognosis: Messy, uncertain, a growing struggle for influence, but not open conflict or major clashes. Anybody’s odds.

Key Risk Four: U.S. Allies

The United States will be highly dependent on its European, Arab, and Turkish allies for support in money, aid to the Syrian rebels and Iraq (if it becomes national and Sunnis are properly empowered). Each presents risks.

U.S., European, and regional solidarity is critical to limiting Russia’s ability to play a spoiler role. Britain and France are the key Western European allies in terms of air power, arms, and advisory support. Britain faces the risk of a massive political crisis and Scottish separatism on September 18th and France is in financial crisis.

Turkey is a European and regional power, but does not yet seem fully committed to dealing with the Islamic State. It fears any form of Kurdish separatism, has hostage issues, has major problems in securing its southern border, and does not want more of a Syrian or Iraqi crisis on its southern borders. At least some elements in Turkey also seem to benefit from trade with the Islamic State and others are happy to support the Iraqi Kurds in their separatist efforts.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have emerged as steadily stronger partners in dealing with Syria, but had every reason to see Maliki as a de facto enemy and have as yet had no reason to trust the new Iraqi government. They can be trusted to support the United States in trying to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, but they need the Iraqi government to earn their trust and support. Qatar and Kuwait have given the United States access to air bases, but have not controlled the flow of money to the Islamic State and other extremist movements.

More broadly, a key question is whether key Arab allies can make the ideological and religious arguments necessary to counter violent extremism and reassert the mainstream and far more moderate values of Islam. The key war is to some extent a religious war, and this is a war that only Muslims can win.

One-chance-in-four to one-chance-in-three of a truly effective alliance or coalition. A solid probability, however, of important support from many key members.

Final Risk: The United States

No U.S. strategy can ever ignore the threat the United States poses to the United States. The United States now faces three immediate threats. First, underreacting in terms of using airpower, arms transfer, and advisory efforts decisively. This is a President who overvalues avoiding the risk of decisive action and the importance of cost over effectiveness, and undervalues the importance of timely decisions.

Second, the United States has not yet shown in two wars that it can create and maintain the kind of integrated civil-military efforts needed to maximize the chance of success. The civil side in particular is erratic and dysfunctional, and both sides lack continuity and consistent realism in using resources and their area expertise.

Third, this “war” or “battle” is extremely complex, uncertain, subject to reversals, and requires patience through the life of this Administration and beyond. Partisan interest and public frustration present serious threats to a consistent and effective effort.

A 99.9% probability that some aspects of these risks will become a reality.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy