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Ending the War in Syria and Iraq: Strategic Steps

A responsible military and political plan to isolate ISIS geographically, militarily and diplomatically.

Credit: MattiaATH


  • A post-conflict political settlement framework cannot be designed unless ISIS is completely defeated.
  • A decisive defeat of Nusra & Sham means taking Turkey out of the military dimension of the game.
  • There is little that the United States can do to reconstitute a unitary Iraqi state.
  • The Obama administration has chosen the Sunni side. That is reckless and counter-productive.
  • The greater challenge is the still growing influence of Wahhabism in the Islamic world.

To bring the war in Syria and Iraq to a close and find a lasting solution for the two countries, a number of steps must be taken – and done in the proper order for maximum effect.

In many cases, they will require altering current U.S. policy significantly.

These measures cover first the military dimension and then a political dimension afterward. Success is not guaranteed, but it is likelier under this strategy than under the current course.

Military Dimension

1. Military success first, politics after

Military success on the ground must occur prior to a political agreement. Unless and until ISIS and al-Nusra & Associates (e.g. Saudi-backed Ahrar al-Sham) are defeated (or at least isolated), it will be impossible to reach agreement on the framework for a post-conflict political settlement.

The Fight Against ISIS: A Two-Part Analysis by Michael J. Brenner

Part I: Getting Real: Facing Necessary Facts in Syria and Iraq

Part II: Ending the War in Syria and Iraq: Strategic Steps

The Vienna peace talks involve only external parties. They have differing interpretations of the situation, different goals and different relationships with the main protagonists.

Above all, they do not speak for those latter parties. Their influence is potential; but that potential depends on a drastic narrowing of the gap between their divergent perspectives.

This, in turn, will only occur when the constellation of fighting forces tips decisively in one direction or another.

In any event, those talks are likely to come to an abrupt halt. Saudi Arabia is pressing hard to have Ansar al-Sham designated a “moderate” opposition force eligible to participate in deliberations on Syria’s political future.

Washington seems inclined to go along – since it already unofficially gives al-Nusra/al-Qaeda a free pass as a non-terrorist group.

Were that to occur, it is probable that Russia would refuse to proceed on those terms. Ahrar al-Sham’s ranks of Islamist fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Uzbekistan are the very people the Kremlin worries most about.

2. Eliminate Nusra first, then ISIS

The military campaign should focus first on al-Nusra & Associates. This is so for a number of reasons.

First, their forces are more concentrated in a restricted geographical area. Second, their arsenal of weapons does not include the armor that ISIS “acquired” from the Iraqi National Army.

Most important, there is an effective opposition force in a position to crush them: the Russian-coordinated R+4. This force includes the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, Iranian elements, Alawite Syrian paramilitaries and formidable Russian airpower (perhaps supplemented by their commando units – the Spetsnaz).

Their removal first also eliminates the possibility of an immediate filling of ISIS with something nearly as bad.

3. Remove Turkey from the war

Moreover, an early and decisive defeat of al-Nusra & Associates, means taking Turkey out of the military dimension of the game.

Al-Nusra & Associates is Erdogan’s primary instrument for fulfilling his ambitions of unseating Assad and establishing a Turkish zone of control in northern Syria. Once that proxy is eliminated, he is left with only the more tenuous ISIS link.

That latter entity is less susceptible to Turkish direction. The economic ties as manifest in their joint oil ventures are mainly to ISIS’s political advantage – not Turkey’s.

Therefore, it is hardly likely that Erdogan will fall back on ISIS as his last best hope to keep alive his ambitious plans.

Certainly he will not do so in the face of the external pressures that could be brought to bear on him and a concentrated assault on oil infrastructure and transport.

Drying up the tributary inflow of fighters via Turkey would be most critical in denying ISIS the experienced Chechens, Uighurs and Uzbeks whom Turkey has been escorting into Syria. They number far more than the kids from Bradford, St. Denis or Sydney.

4. De facto isolation of ISIS

Successful implementation of these pre-requisite steps will isolate ISIS geographically, militarily and diplomatically.

That would discourage Saudi Arabia, Qatar, et al from continuing their heavy financial and political investment in them.

Isolation would be achieved through a combination of cutting external lines of support and directing R+4 against ISIS positions in central Syria.

Pressure could be increased by simultaneous moves by the Kurds (however geographically limited), the Hashed, and whatever competent forces the Baghdad government can muster in Anbar – all in combination with a serious, sustained American air support campaign of the kind we have not as yet seen.

ISIS forces will be stressed and stretched with mobility reduced by the need to cover multiple fronts and by the air interdiction of troop movements.

5. Break the ISIS momentum

A series of setbacks will do much to break ISIS’s momentum – undercutting its image as an irresistible force and spearhead of a Salafist conquest.

That psychological aspect of the movement’s success is significant in terms of morale, recruits and its Gulf financiers’ readiness to double down on their risky bets.

The other proposed steps to dry up the inflow of foreign fighters and recruits would both put ISIS on short rations, increasing the odds on its suffering battlefield losses and reinforce the impact of those defeats once they register.

6. Turn off the lights in the Islamic State

An additional psychological weapon could be destruction of Raqqa’s power plants.

Turning out the lights could literally as well as figuratively dim ISIS’s lights. A blacked-out capital does not conform to the impression of a winner riding an irresistible wave.

It is not easy to posture as the Mahdi while groping about in the dark – and even during daytime under black clouds of smoke from smoldering oil fires.

There may be some price to pay in causing hardship for the city’s captive Sunni population. It is by no means evident, though, that the net effect would be to turn them into avid adherents to ISIS, given all their other grievances.

Elsewhere in the country, those empathetic pains would be overshadowed by the afflictions of the millions who have personally experienced far greater suffering during the war.

The Political Dimension

1. Reorganizing Iraq

As to Iraq, there is little that the United States can do to reconstitute a unitary Iraqi state.

It is up to the Iraqis to find their way to that measure of reconciliation among sectarian/ethnic groups that will permit stable and effective governmental structures of a confederal kind to put down roots.

The main contribution that could be made by the two outside powers, Iran and the United States, is to avoid working at cross purposes. That depends on the readiness of Tehran and Washington to talk candidly about a modus vivendi that will serve both parties’ interest.

Success in doing so depends on two things:

First is the establishment of a modicum of trust. Its sine qua non is bringing a halt to defamatory rhetoric. It serves the interests of neither side – except to score a few points with angry domestic constituencies.

The second is to dampen the wider sectarian war that is inflaming local conflicts across the Middle East.

2. Pulling Back from the Saudis

The Obama administration, through a number of witless incremental actions, in effect has chosen the Sunni side. That is reckless and counter-productive. It needs to reverse course.

That means withdrawing backing for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. Impress upon the current (impetuous) leadership of the royal family that the United States is not writing any blank checks in support of its ambition to become kingpin of the Gulf, if not the entire Arab world.

That entails driving home the fundamental truth that Saudi Arabia needs the United States much more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. (It is not yet clear how many U.S. policymakers have come to understand that point themselves.)

It also means Washington’s further committing itself to a low-key diplomatic effort aimed at facilitating co-existence between the Sunni states of the Gulf and Iran.

3. Reorganizing Syria

As to Syria, the best one can aim for is a gradual process of normalization – once al-Nusra & Associates has been eliminated as an organized force and ISIS has been reduced in terms of both capability and area of control.

Low-grade guerrilla activity will continue, of course, for some indefinite period and some provision must be made for forces that can handle it.

Once the military situation is stabilized to the point where fighting is limited to northeastern Syria, the opportunity opens for moving toward a permanent political settlement.

During this phase, external parties have a significant role to play. It would involve a collective effort to refrain from fomenting factions and instead encouraging them to reach a mutually acceptable outcome.

The particulars should be left mainly to the Syrians. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others can best serve the cause of peace and stability by acting as facilitators, honest brokers and underwriters.

A prior condition for a settlement, or even the opening of serious talks, is Assad’s removal from office. That notion, however, should be kept separate from the idea of an abdication of the entire present regime – a step that is a recipe for chaos.

Putin has stressed that Assad and his regime are not identical, while voicing a preference for keeping him in office for the time-being. However, even that probably is unworkable.

Selling to Iran the idea of cutting Assad himself loose will require Russia taking the lead in bringing Tehran around. That would be roughly analogous to the role it played is resolving some of the last stumbling blocks to the recent nuclear accord.

Prospects for Success?

The strategic plan outlined here, or any similar plan along these lines, faces long odds. That is obvious.

Looked at from the American perspective, the concern that immediately jumps to mind is the formidable requirements it places on imaginative thinking, comprehensive planning, diplomatic skill and political fortitude.

Frankly, none of these ingredients is evident in adequate amounts in the Obama administration. The Republican leadership, such as it is, also does not seem to offer much wise thinking on this conflict either.

The shortfall is apparent at all levels. Whoever pursued such a strategy would have to face down the intense opposition that embarking on such an approach would engender. President Obama, in particular, already seems to be coasting into his lame duck period and is not likely to expend political energy on this.

It is also clear that even this strategy could not achieve an end to violent jihadist Islam and terrorism. Everything won’t be coming up roses.

There is a very big difference, though, between what we confront now and an ISIS that’s been cut down to size. Today we have a threat from a proto-state propagating a fanatical, violent creed that has won adherents around the world.

That is different by several orders of magnitude from a shadowy rump network that operates without the tangible, if veiled, backing of supporters with deep pockets.

Ultimately, the greater challenge is the still growing influence of Wahhabism in the Islamic world. Its wellspring, promoter and paymaster is Saudi Arabia – along with like-minded persons elsewhere in the Gulf.

This is the problem that must be addressed frontally if the tide of Islamic terrorism is to ebb. At present, the United States is doing absolutely nothing to pressure those whose hands are on the helm.

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [Texas, United States]

Responses to “Ending the War in Syria and Iraq: Strategic Steps”

Archived Comments.

  1. On December 27, 2015 at 8:30 am William Petro responded with... #

    pure BS
    Just keep killing the terrorists, and taking back land.
    Start building a fence along the turkey border, with 1 km of landmines and barb wire in side that. Assad is not going anywhere until the elections in 2017, and he will win those!
    driving the saudis and the dogman nuts! :)
    Assad will have the last laugh!

  2. On December 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm hhour responded with... #

    Again, an excellent article.

  3. On December 28, 2015 at 12:40 pm Ali1727 responded with... #

    Ali H. Alyami, CDHR

    Only an arrangement similar to what was done in Japan following WWII will work in Syria. Arab and Muslim despots will not consider this idea because they are opposed to liberal democracy and non-sectarian constitutional polity. Russia can go along with this idea if Putin can be included and reassured that a new arrangement in Syria will not be

    The real targets of Muslim terrorism (ISIS et al) are not Arab and Muslim dictators, but the superpowers, especially Western democracies. Trying to reconcile differences among or convince the current combatant terror groups that it’s in the Syrian people’s best interest to end the killings and destruction are futile and will only prolong the carnage in Syria and increase terrorism activities throughout the world.

  4. On December 28, 2015 at 2:41 pm Lorenzo - Laurent E. Goerg responded with... #

    The story begins with the Balfour Declaration 1916 and goes on with treaties dismantling the Ottoman empire at the end of WW1 and the Yalta conference 1945 to mention the main reasons of the disorders in the Middle East (keeping in mind to all other reasons like religion, natural ressources, ethnics and so on).
    Therefore I believe that only a new political vision (and its implementation) would be able to stabilize the ME… but how to achieve that?!
    I fear it will be an Utopia for long.
    Nevertheless every action reducing the pain is welcome and the steps discussed by the author are going the right way, would I mean.
    Lets hope.
    PS. When did religions wars end in Europe after how many centuries?

  5. On December 28, 2015 at 3:34 pm Kevin Hobbs responded with... #

    Mr Brenner, I’m sure you are better informed than I & being from Down Under where media informs me that Russia is only striking non-ISIS Syrian rebels – please tell me how your 2nd military dimension can work ie R+4 attacking ISIS? Where Russia has apparently refused to tackle ISIS after entering the Syrian conflict Months ago? How can R+4 be convinced to do so?

  6. On December 28, 2015 at 3:51 pm bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Can’t speak for the author, but I would note that in that specific section you refer to in the piece, the argument is actually the opposite: that Russia+4 should NOT be attacking ISIS and instead should be attacking the non-ISIS rebels exclusively until they are defeated BEFORE moving on to ISIS, for reasons outlined in this piece and part 1.