War without politics won’t work

Yesterday’s Brookings Institution event addressed the ongoing challenges faced by the US in Syria and Iraq. Will it Work? Examining the Coalition’s Iraq and Syria Strategy brought together Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings, and Salman Shaikh, Director of the Brookings Doha Center, with Michael O’Hanlon, Co-Director at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.

Pollack drew attention to positive developments in Iraq in recent months. The increasingly sectarian Nouri al-Maliki has left office, replaced by a less toxic Prime Minister. A new political process is developing in Baghdad as rival groups compromise in the face of the threat of ISIS and pressure from the Obama administration. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly progress.

The situation in Sunni parts of Iraq remains fraught. Though the ISIS offensives have been slowed across the north, expelling the group from its newly captured territory will require Iraqi military offensives. Herein lies a problem. Military action cannot be disentangled from politics. Many Sunnis believe that Maliki has left the Iraqi Army as little more than a Shi’a militia. They are unlikely to view an Iraqi Army liberating force as legitimate. But raising regional Sunni forces (a so called National Guard) could have far-reaching implications for the future of Iraq – not only in terms of its future military, but also in terms of its political structure.

This raises the question of what the future Iraqi government will look like. Many Shi’ites want to return to a Maliki era without Maliki:  a Shi’ite dominated government absent the former PM’s autocratic tendencies. Many Sunnis, whose tribal leaders will be especially important in expelling ISIS, will not accept this: their preference is a decentralized autonomous zone, similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds themselves want still more autonomy – if not outright independence.

Complex political manoeuvres to further these objectives will accompany any military steps against ISIS. Discussion about the makeup of Iraq’s future government cannot be put off until after a military resolution has been achieved. Military resolution against ISIS must come from political resolution in Baghdad. Western policy towards driving out ISIS must therefore pay careful attention to the importance of Iraqi political and sectarian issues.

In Syria, the situation is more complex. While Salman Shaikh sees the achievement of the US in building a coalition of Arab states to take on ISIS as important, he notes that local communities on the ground in Syria have the best chance of effectively marginalizing ISIS and the ideology it espouses. There have already been local successes against the group. Six or seven thousand Syrians have been killed fighting against ISIS. Local opposition formations have managed to expel the jihadists from cities and towns across Syria.

The US coalition has overlooked the importance of such local groups. Opposition fighters complain of a lack of coordination between combatants on the ground and the coalition air campaign. As a result, ground forces have been unable to take advantage of opportunities opened by the air strikes.

More concerning is the anger felt by anti-regime groups at the failure to target Assad’s forces. Many see the airstrikes as directly aiding the regime. Drawing attention to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimations, which put the war’s death-toll at over 200,000 (the majority killed by regime actions), Shaikh suggests that the moral argument used by the US and its allies as part of the justification for attacking ISIS will fail if the focus falls only on this one group, while ignoring Assad’s crimes. This approach will not only lose the battle for hearts and minds on the ground in Syria, but will also threaten the coherence of the coalition itself. Many of the countries now dropping bombs on behalf of the US joined the alliance not just to take on ISIS, but to remove Assad and his regime.

There is, however, a greater threat to long-term success in Syria. Both Shaikh and Pollack drew attention to the importance of working to build a political process in Syria in order to eventually rebuild the country. As in Iraq, this process cannot be an afterthought, to be made up once a military solution has been achieved. Pollack believes that Obama’s plan to degrade and destroy ISIS has missed the point. ISIS is symptomatic of the underlying problems that have been engendered by three years of civil war: deal only with ISIS and a new group will take its place. Any solution must address Assad and include a conversation about the reconstruction of the country after his departure.

Done right, Pollack envisions Syrian reconstruction, led by the UN, undertaken by preexisting Syrian civil society groups, with the US providing security and the Gulf states providing money. Lessons may be learned from successes in Bosnia, and failings in Afghanistan and in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. State building through engaging with Syrian groups in a bottom-up approach will lay the framework for a political transition. Shaikh by contrast holds that national dialogue among the many actors in Syria is the necessary precursor to reconstruction. Through such a dialogue, Syrians should decide – and agree on – their goals for the country’s future. Encouraging and enabling this conversation will also be vital to find a way towards a lasting resolution.

Without a plan to address Assad and reconstruction, Shaikh envisions a conflict that will intensify, becoming an unpalatable contest between the regime and ISIS. The US is now involved in the Syria and Iraq conflicts. Doing nothing is no longer an option. The only question will be whether US policies will lead to a lasting solution.

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