Job #1 in post-war Syria and Iraq

Not everyone will be as interested as I was in this detailed, hour-long briefing Friday on the war against ISIS, done by Special Presidential Envoy (for the global coalition to defeat ISIS) Brett McGurk:

Compliments to Brett for doing this in such a professional and informative way.

Some highlights in Syria:

  • The ground war is going well, led by capable and effective (Kurdish-led) Syrian Democratic Forces moving towards Raqqa. President Trump’s delegation of tactical authority to field commanders has hastened the process. ISIS is losing territory rapidly.
  • Deconfliction of SDF forces with Russian and  Syrian government forces is functioning well near Raqqa and in the southwest, where the ceasefire is working.
  • Displaced people in Syria are returning to their homes fairly quickly, once demining takes place. They flee towards the SDF, not towards ISIS-controlled territory.
  • Humanitarian supplies have been pre-positioned and are proving adequate to meet demand, albeit with the usual logistical difficulties.
  • The US will do “stabilization,” but not reconstruction or nationbuilding. Stabilization includes demining, rubble removal, restoring basic electricity and water supplies but no education or health services, which will be local responsibilities.
  • The war against ISIS is part of a two-phase process, which includes political transition in Syria.
  • The international community will not be prepared to fund the $200 billion (or multiples of that number) in reconstruction needs until President Assad is gone.

In Iraq:

  • The Iraqi Security Forces have “not lost a battle” in the current campaign against ISIS.
  • Mosul is a much larger challenge than Raqqa, involving more than ten times as many people.
  • The US will not do long-term reconstruction; the Iraqi government will get funding from the IMF and World Bank. Kuwait will host a donor conference.
  • The next battle will be for Tal Afar, then Hawija, then Al Qaim on the border with Syria.
  • The US opposes the “ill-timed” and “ill-prepared” referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan scheduled for September 25.

Plans are being laid for opening key border crossings between Syria and Jordan as well as between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. ISIS finances are drying up, and it can no long recruit or deploy significant numbers of foreign fighters.

I doubt the notion that big parts of Syria can be liberated with Bashar al Assad still in power in Damascus. His regime, with its Russian, Iranian and Shia militia allies, has been more than willing to attack any area outside government control, declaring it infested by terrorists. Will Moscow be ready, willing and able to restrain Bashar once Raqqa is in SDF control? Or will the Americans, anxious to depart as quickly as possible, negotiate its turnover to the Damascus?

We’ll have to wait and see whether the “no more than stabilization” approach Brett advocates, based he says on experience in Iraq after the US collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, will work. No doubt devolving as much responsibility to local councils in Syria, which I gather are already operating for Tabqa and Raqqa, and to the Iraqi government is a good idea in theory. Local people know the social terrain far better than foreigners. The question is whether it will work in practice.

There are two big, immediate challenges: security (including keeping ISIS fighters from embedding in the local communities and preventing revenge killings) and property rights. Some local security forces have been trained, but it is not yet clear how effective they will be. Even if they are close to perfection, a major issue remains: where will miscreants be tried? A police force without a court system is an instrument of repression, not justice. The same issue arises with respect to property rights: who will decide who is the rightful owner of the apartments that remain standing? What property rights remain, if any, to those whose apartments have been destroyed?

Odds are the post-war period in Syria will be particularly messy, since not everyone is agreed on who holds legitimate authority. In Iraq, there is more consensus, but if Prime Minister Abadi fails to establish more inclusive governance, or allows the Shia popular mobilization forces involved in the liberation of  Mosul to ride herd over the non-Shia populations of Ninewa, continuing insurgency could well be the outcome.

The Islamic State 2.0 (I count its original incarnation in Iraq as 1.0, before the migration to Syria) is close to defeat. Job #1 now is to prevent the emergence of Islamic State 3.0.

PS: One other thing. I’m concerned about Brett’s repeated indications that the coalition forces will take no prisoners but instead kill as many Islamic Staters as possible. There are laws of war that need to be observed, even if opponents don’t.

 

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