The Real Strategic Goal in Iraq and Syria: How Do You Bring Lasting Stability?

One of the ironies of a steadily more partisan Washington is that its politicians and policymakers continue to call for “strategy” without looking beyond the military dimension. One way to lose a war is to lose sight of the objective, and there seems to be an open contest between the administration and the Congress to see who can do the best job of ignoring the objective.

The key question in both Iraq and in Syria—and in what is far too often treated as a “war against ISIL”—is how do you bring any meaningful stability to either country? Military victories are at best a means to that end and can actually make things worse if they are not tied to a set of grand strategic goals.

It is important to seriously degrade the Islamic State—regardless of whether one wants to call it ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. A violent extremist protostate not only threatens the region immediately around it, it threatens to destabilize the Islamic world and spill over into terrorist attacks outside. Even total defeat of the Islamic State, however, will scarcely end the threat of jihadist violence or put an end to the divisions inside Iraq and Syria that helped empower the Islamic State in the first place.

This is also a case where the overall strategic objective is to bring stability to both Iraq and Syria, but bringing stability to each state involves very different challenges.

The Strategic Challenge in Iraq

Any meaningful and lasting form of “victory” in Iraq means that it must emerge from the current conflict with some solution to the deep divisions between Arab and Kurd, and Sunni and Shiite.
There must be a functioning level of government and security and the ability to move toward some workable path of development. A Shiite-led occupation of Sunni areas may be better than an Islamic State occupation, but it will not solve Iraq’s political, governance, security, and stability problems.

Driving the Islamic State out of the north, and exposing the tensions between Arab and Kurd, after the Kurds took advantage of the central government’s losses in the North to grab more territory around Kirkuk, and with a sharp rise in Sunni and Shiite tensions around a “liberated” Mosul, will create ethnic problems that may be as serious as the sectarian ones between Sunni and Shiite, as well as spill over into Kurdish areas in Turkey and Syria.

Using U.S. and allied airpower to create a situation where a divided, Shiite-led Iraq becomes steadily more dependent on Iran is equally dangerous. So is a situation where the Arab Sunni states around Iraq see even more reason to be hostile to Iran and the conflict in Iraq creates constant division between regional Sunni and Shiite. The same is true of any situation where Turkey sees Iraq’s Kurds as a threat or as an extension of its struggles against its own Kurds by other means—particularly because the past fighting has made it impossible for Turkey to separate the challenge it sees from Iraq’s Kurds from their ties to the Kurds in Syria.

Stability in Iraq also requires careful attention to the economic crisis that Iraq is entering because of the radical decline in its petroleum export revenues, the massive impact on its development and economic opportunities caused by yet another round of disrupting and fighting, and a broader structure of governance that the World Bank rates as one of the worst in the world—and that is so corrupt that Transparency International rates Iraq as the 170th most corrupt nation in world out of 175.

It means dealing with some 32 million people, millions of which have now been displaced or occupied by extremists, and which is one of the poorest states in the region. The CIA ranked Iraq’s per capita income at only $7,100 before the serious fighting began, and this compares with $12,800 for an Iran under sanctions, and $31,300 for a relatively stable Saudi Arabia. It is also an extremely young country, where more that 56% of the population is 24 years of age or younger, and 16% of the total population and over 25% of young men were directly or indirectly unemployed before the new round of fighting started.

“Train and assist” is not a strategy under these conditions, and neither is sending U.S. or other outside troops into a country who internal tensions were heading toward civil war before they created the power vacuum that the Islamic state exploited and where any major U.S. presence would be seen as taking sides. Warfighting is necessary, but it is only a means to an end and can only provide marginal benefits unless there is some meaningful strategy to bring broader stability in politics, governance, and development.

The Strategic Challenge in Syria

The situation in Syria is far worse and presents the additional problem as to whether Iraq can ever be secured if Syria remains caught up in one of the modern world’s civil wars. Estimates of Syria’s population differ, but the CIA puts it at very close to 18 million and the World Bank at around 20.4 million. There are no reliable estimates of the numbers killed in the fighting, but even the most conservative estimates put the total at over 220,000. Wounded normally are at least three times the numbers killed, which would put the number of wounded at 660,000 and create a total of at least 880,000 casualties by January 2015.

The real human tragedy, however, is much broader and involves more than half the population. Estimates by the U.S. Agency for International Development put the total number of Syrians needing assistance at 12.2 million as of December 2014. Some 7.6 million of these Syrians had been displaced inside Syria away from their homes, schools, businesses, and jobs. Another 3.8 million had been driven out of the country by January 2015. Estimates of Syrians in combat areas where they could not receive aid reached as high as 4.6 million.

Like Iraq, the World Bank ranked Syria as a badly governed country long before the current fighting, and Transparency International ranks Syria close to Iraq in corruption. The CIA ranked its per capita income at only $5,100 in 2011 before the fighting began—a level so low that Syria ranked only 159th in the world in per capita income. Syria too is an extremely young country, where more that 53% of the population is 24 years of age or younger, and at least 20% of Syria’s youth were directly or indirectly unemployed before the new round of fighting started.

The end result is all too clear from the kind of satellite photos on the New York Times website. Syria has literally gone dark as both a country and in every major city. Satellite photos do an equally grim job of showing the physical damage to populated areas where combat has occurred.

Unlike Iraq, however, Syria shows no signs of moving toward any military progress or solution. Various rebel factions and exiles make claims, but the one “moderate” faction the United States seriously tried to support and arm has suffered two catastrophic defeats at the hands of the al Nusra Front. Syria is now divided into three armed sections—all of them vicious and violent.

There is an Assad-Alawite dominated government in the western coastal areas, which seems to be making slow gains. There is a mix of rebel factions fighting for control of Allepo and the urban and agricultural belt to the east, where the al Nusra Front and Khorasan group—both tied to al Qaeda—dominate a mix of rebel factions. The Islamic State controls the less populated areas from Raqqa and further east into the area around Hasakah and down along the Euphrates to Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal, but much of the area shown as being under its control in media maps is a actually an empty desert.

When one looks at this security situation in Syria, the “train and assist” mission and air campaign in Iraq almost seem to make sense. What does not make sense is either the Obama administration’s declared strategy to date or the variations on that strategy by the administration’s most severe critics.

No major element of Syria’s three main groups of warring factions offers hope, security, and stability through a military option. Training some 5,000 rebels a year for an unknown mission to support an unknown faction to end in an unknown government seems to make no sense at all, and the more moderate rebel groups in exile seem too weak to be more than a forlorn hope.

As for military options, a buffer zone in the north? For what? It might ease the strain of Syrian refugees in Turkey, but how would it create a winning faction that could govern and with what goal?

Expand the air campaign to attack Assad’s forces? To benefit what faction? The al Nusra Front? The same Islamic State groups the U.S.-led coalition is bombing to the east?

Send in U.S. troops? To support what side? To deal with another war where Iran and Iranian-backed factions present a challenge that can only be solved by an outcome that creates a strong and unifying government?

The Need for a Real Strategy

Seen from this perspective, the Obama administration and its sharpest congressional critics have taken a bitter partisan approach that has ended in creating a bipartisan strategic intellectual vacuum. Neither side has focused on the objectives that can really make a difference.

Neither side has advanced a public plan that really goes beyond competing approaches to the use of force. Both sides have ignored the need to provide some clear path to lasting stability—or at least a path that goes beyond the usual vacuous political statement of noble intentions. There are no real plans for a meaningful post-conflict outcome, no real assessments of risks and probabilities, and no real effort to define and provide credible resources.

These are all key elements of a meaningful strategy, and the use of force is at best a partial means to such an end. They are goals that both the Obama administration and Congress must address in order to have any lasting success, and so far they both are dismal failures.

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

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy