Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015

President Obama’s decision to allow up to 50 Special Forces to deploy in northern Syria has triggered an almost inevitable debate over crossing the threshold from train and assist into deploying combat personnel. So far that debate has taken three forms. One has focused on the president’s past statements about not sending “boots on the ground.” The second has focused on the risk this could be the start of a major combat presence and lead to serious U.S. casualties. The third has focused on whether this step—and the other small increments in the U.S. effort announced after General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of staff, visited the region in October 2015—will still fall short of the levels necessary to have meaningful results.

The first form of this debate is political and irrelevant in military terms. It does not judge the merits of the decision and implies that a president should not react to changing conditions – the kind of “gotcha” issue that suits the politics of what have become election years. It is totally dysfunctional in national security terms because it assumes that the president can predict the future and make pledges regardless of how things change and the need to act in ways that serve the national interest.

The second form of the debate touches on a valid strategic issue: whether the United States should send major land combat units back to Iraq and/or into Syria. However, it focuses on an option the United States rejected long ago—a decision that seems even more valid today. Thrusting U.S. land combat units into the middle of the sectarian and ethnic quarrels and fighting in either Iraq or Syria seems almost certain to create new enemies and more divisions in both countries, and confront the U.S. with having to take sides in their internal struggles.

The third form of the debate is all too relevant. Deploying 50 Special Forces forward in Syria is probably a useful step, but it is scarcely a meaningful game changer. Ever since 2011, the United States has failed to develop any grand strategy for either Iraq or Syria, to cope with the emerging civil war in Syria and growing sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq, or to take decisive enough military action to make a major impact. The United States has not shown strategic patience. It has instead reacted to events with creeping incrementalism that is largely focused on ISIS and almost exclusively focused on security.

Once one looks beyond the conceptual rhetoric that the administration has issued with each new crisis in Iraq and Syria, it is remarkably hard to see anything approaching an effective level of execution. U.S. actions have never addressed the key issues involved in any meaningful way or shown the United States has a credible overall strategy for Iran and Syria other than simply degrading and destroying ISIS.

Any grand strategic success has to bring lasting security and stability to both Syria and Iraq. It has to go beyond security, and deal with the fundamental problems in politics, governance, economics and demographic pressures that have made both Iraq and Syria failed states.

So far, neither the United States nor anyone else has given an indication it has a strategy for looking beyond security and the use of force. The Obama Administration has focused on fighting ISIS in ways that have done little more than partially contain the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has had some reversals in Iraq and Syria but still advances in other areas, and increasingly competes with Al Qaeda on a broader regional level.

When it comes to the sectarian and ethnic conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the United States has not developed a clear path to creating a solution to either state’s worst security problems. And, as the later portions of this analysis show, it is far from clear that any measures that have come out of Chairman Dunford’s visit to the region – 50 Special Forces notwithstanding – will be anything more than another step in creeping incrementalism on a military level.

These issues are addressed in depth in a new analysis by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015.

The analysis includes the following major sections, as well as detailed maps, figures, and operational cost tables.

  • The “Impossible” American Grand Strategic Objective: Iraqi and Syrian Stability and Security: Addresses the fact that U.S. strategy and action -- as distinguished from conceptual rhetoric -- has focused almost exclusively on the security dimension of degrading and destroying ISIS rather than the broader grand strategic objective of bringing stability and security to Iraq and Syria.

It has failed to address both the sectarian and ethnic divisions that have brought both states to civil war, and the political, governance, economic and demographic dimensions of the conflict.

  • Mission “Possible?” -- Relying on Creeping Incrementalism for Security Aid: The mission of helping Iraq and Syria is less challenging, but as the following sections show, the United States has pursued a de facto strategy of minimizing most of its military efforts, reacting after the fact, and making each increment of additional action come too little and too late.
  • Strategic Incrementalism on the Ground: The United States has never attempted to create the kind of train and assist mission that is needed to develop effective combat capability, has put keeping costs and casualties before effectiveness, and acted in ways that may ultimately increase the level of tension between Arab and Kurd, and possibly sectarian tensions as well. It is unclear how the United States intended to come to grips with the fact that the land operation in Iraq cannot be separated from those in Syria.
  • Strategic Incrementalism in the Air: The United States has deployed significant air combat forces, but these too have made incremental increases in combat activity that seem largely reactive, and lacking in any public explanation of the strategic rationale for such operations, their impact on air-land operations, and how operations in Iraq and Syria are structured to produce some unified concept of operations.
  • The Lack of Meaningful Data on the Effectiveness and Ineffectiveness of Strategic Incrementalism: The administration and the Department of Defense have provide only limited largely meaningful data on the overall patterns and effectiveness of land and air operations. Some of these data are questionable at best and seem to deliberately exaggerate what has been accomplished to date.
  • No Land-Air Effectiveness Data: Just are there is no clear strategy for joint land and air warfare, there are no systematic effectiveness data tying air operations to program on the ground.
  • Creeping Incrementalism May Be Cheaper, But Is Anything But Cost-Effective: The cost data provided by the Department of Defense raise serious questions about their accuracy, and even more serious questions about the impact of limiting short terms costs in ways that may serious raise the total cost of operations.
  • The Need for a Broader Strategy for Defeating ISIS and Post-ISIS Security and Stability: This section highlights changes needed in the land and air aspects of U.S. military efforts, and the need to make a start at creating an international effort to help Iraq and Syria recover and build at the political, governance, economic, and demographic levels.

So far, a de facto U.S. strategy of creeping incrementalism has at best partially contained ISIS, has done nothing to reduce the growing internal divisions in either Syria or Iraq, has left Syria open to Russian intervention, and has failed to integrate U.S. security efforts effectively with those of Turkey and U.S. Arab allies. It has proved to be so reactive that events have consistently outpaced every new increment in U.S. military activity, and it at best addresses only part of the strategic challenge –leaving Iraqi and Syrian politics and governance to fracture, and corruption, the economy, and the impact of population pressures and the youth “bulge” to grow worse in both states.

If there are merits to creeping incrementalism, they largely consist of negatives. Creeping incrementalism is no worse than the strategies and actions of any of Iraq and Syria’s neighbors, it is less threatening to Syria’s people than that of Russia and Iran, and has been limited more by the internal divisions in Iraq and Syria than by the shortfalls in U.S. efforts.

One can also argue that it is far cheaper in the short-term than the cost of major military and civil intervention in Iraq from 2003-2011, or the ongoing intervention in Afghanistan. However, reducing the short-term cost of failure is no guarantee regarding future costs, and a cheaper form of failure is scarcely a metric of success.

This does not mean that leaping from creeping incrementalism to massive intervention and “shock and awe” is likely to be any more successful. Throwing massive amounts of U.S. ground forces into deeply divided Arab states, in the face of Iranian hostility, and in the middle of a major struggle for the future of Islam is no more likely to be successful in the future than it was in Iraq. The last few years have also made it all too clear are no good short-term solutions to the broader problems in Iraq and Syria.

The administration does not need to deploy major combat forces, but it does need to articulate a meaningful overall security strategy for air-land operations, for both Iraq and Syria, and for dealing with its allies in the region. It needs strategic communications to explain this strategy credibly and publicly to the American people, the Congress, and our allies. It needs to establish a clear level of conditionality for its military and aid efforts, but also to treat Iraq and its regional allies as real partners. It needs to accept the fact that the most it can hope for in dealing with Russia and Iran is a troubled coexistence and confront them as necessary.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy