Global HotSpots

Rethinking the U.S. Strategy Against IS in Syria

Why the U.S. government should use mercenaries in Syria.

Map of approximate IS control in Syria and Iraq, May 22, 2015. (Wikimedia)


  • The US should focus on containment of IS forces in Iraq and hire mercenaries to eradicate IS in Syria.
  • The US should hire a mercenary ground force of Chechens and Saudis to roll IS up the Euphrates Valley.
  • To defeat IS, the US has to sacrifice what was long considered a sacred cow -- the integrity of Iraq.

For its strategy on Islamic State (IS) to work, the United States has to sacrifice what was long considered a sacred cow — the integrity of Iraq. But success in that endeavor requires the sacrifice of another sacred cow – the supposed U.S. reluctance to recruit mercenaries.

The Bush Administration was willing to outsource logistics to private companies. Indeed, it was adamant about doing so, despite the self-inflicted damage many thought would result.

Related essay

The U.S. Strategy on IS in Iraq Has It Backwards
Why the U.S. government must rethink Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Some worried that the extensive use of Halliburton, a firm over which the then Vice President Dick Cheney had presided, would reek of corruption and undermine the strategic and moral case (such as it was) for war.

Others worried that private security firms like Blackwater had no margin for error and risked failing in their mission, harming innocent bystanders, or both. The predictions held up.

Conversely, the Bush Administration was not willing to pay for locally sourced mercenaries in a region well accustomed to the use of proxies and hired guns.

This was a surprising choice, given that the mere presence of U.S. citizens, corporate or otherwise, always helps extremists find recruits to their cause.

No choice in Syria

In Syria, however, the United States has no realistic alternative that it should be willing to accept. It becomes especially important to defeat the Islamic State in Syria if it is unrealistic – as the first part of this article argued – to defeat IS in Iraq.

The Islamic State practices its barbarism outside of its home bases in Iraq to extract resources to defeat the Iraqi Army in Baghdad. It will be a destabilizing force in Iraq, as long as it can extract those resources from Syria.

And it will practice atrocities within Syria as long as that is the cheapest way to recruit, keep order and repress rebellion on alien turf.

The use of U.S. ground forces – or any non-Muslim forces – risks inciting a backlash that would eventually force a calamitous withdrawal. The use of local Sunnis in the Euphrates valley and other willing Sunni mercenaries, in contrast, would make sense for the same reason. It would be hard or impossible to defeat IS military commanders on their home turf in northern Iraq.

But viable local options are few and far between. The Assad government has bombed and starved the Sunni population to the point where its home-grown rebellion has long since fragmented and is now collapsing or ceding command to foreign fighters that the United States opposes.

The use of Shia forces would be counterproductive, because it would convince Syria’s besieged Sunnis that the United States is secretly conspiring with Shia Iran.

And the only close Sunni neighbors who would have a reason to fight in Syria alongside besieged locals are from Iraq – the very people providing a formidable command and control structure to IS.

There are nevertheless two groups of non-Syrian Sunnis with motivations of their own to resist the (literal) dismemberment of Syria.

Sunni Chechens are dismayed at the support their cynical government in Moscow has given to the genocidal campaign of the Assad government in Syria against its Sunni majority. Many would jump at the opportunity to staunch the bloodshed with the U.S. Air Force at their back.

Conservative Sunnis from the poorer parts of Saudi Arabia are dismayed at the support their government gave to Egypt’s secular counter-revolution. The coup in Egypt crushed hope in the Middle East, even as it crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, which speaks in whispers for many in Saudi Arabia who are not princelings of the royal family.

Three advantages

Hiring a mercenary ground force of Chechens and Saudis to roll IS up the Euphrates Valley from the Iraqi border through Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa to Aleppo would have three clear-cut advantages:

1. It would remove a mostly alien occupying force from a region of Sunnis who have suffered almost as much under the Assads as the Shia of southern Iraq suffered under Saddam.

2. It is militarily feasible. Significant populations in the Syrian territory occupied by IS live within a very narrow band of the river stretching from the middle of the border with Iraq to Aleppo in the northwest. They do not support the foreign jihadists. A concentrated assault starting at the Iraqi border would leave IS nowhere to go.

3. It may look at first like a disadvantage because recent history in the Middle East and North Africa shows mercenaries hired to fight away from home tend to cause trouble when they return.

But Chechens and Saudis at least have homes where they could easily blend back into society after a moderate mercenary adventure — unlike, for example, the mercenaries who helped topple Gaddafi, who had nothing better to do afterward than spread mayhem throughout the Sahel.

Strategic blowback?

It is true that many fighters would be tempted to put their new trade to use back home in Chechnya and Saudi Arabia. But it matters that Russia has contributed to the problem in Syria through its cynical support of Assad.

And it matters that Saudi Arabia has made things worse by cynically financing the coup that ended the Arab Spring in Egypt – destroying hope in the region and guaranteeing plenty of recruits for IS.

The third advantage of hiring Chechen and Saudi mercenaries to roll up the IS occupiers in Syria, in other words, is that cynicism should have consequences.

In sum, the United States should reverse itself, focusing on containment of IS forces in the parts of Iraq where many of them were born and hiring mercenaries to eradicate IS in Syria.

The resulting partition of Iraq, as argued in the first part of this article, will stabilize the region by reducing conflict within the country’s old borders and providing a counterweight to Iran.

And the careful selection of mercenaries to end the IS occupation of Syria could turn blowback in appropriate directions.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About David Apgar

David Apgar is the author of the book "Risk Intelligence: Learning to Manage What We Don’t Know."

Responses to “Rethinking the U.S. Strategy Against IS in Syria”

Archived Comments.

  1. On May 26, 2015 at 12:14 pm Edward responded with... #

    This is an amazing piece. In order to fight ISIS, the US should hire fundamentalists whose homicidal ideology is not that different from ISIS, i.e. Salafism! And what makes you think such would-be mercenaries exist? Worse still, in order to defeat the fanatics, you propose that foreigners, rather than Syrians and Iraqis do the job. What would they do if they were to miraculously succeed? Hold on to the territory indefinitely? Hand it back? To whom? Once again, a foreign-imposed solution excluding those whose land is in question!

  2. On May 26, 2015 at 8:10 pm slackdammit responded with... #

    Fine article! …a lot to think about here. Recall that VP Biden proposed a three-way split of Irak some years ago.

  3. On May 26, 2015 at 8:39 pm David P. Apgar responded with... #

    Here are some quibbling replies and then a more encompassing response. Salafist ideology is about as close to IS as Greek orthodoxy is to the crusades. We know that about 20,000 such mercenaries from the Middle East already exist in Syria. As to who should “do the job”, Syrians are overwhelmed and Iraqis are perpetrators (in Syria) — there are times when self-help isn’t realistic, call them the political equivalents of Collier’s poverty traps. As for incentives, mercenaries tend to be more interested in paychecks than homesteading.

    But despite these quibbles, Edward is surely right that one must be desperate to propose yet more convoluted interventions in the spider pit that the Middle East has become thanks to plenty of earlier convoluted interventions. The larger point of this piece is that we really are desperate if the US Air Force is conducting Laos-style unauthorized bombing runs without even ground intelligence to keep the pilots away from civilians. Something must change.

  4. On May 30, 2015 at 4:23 am Dennis Rodwell responded with... #

    ISIS cannot be defeated without the cooperation of the established governments in the near and wider region. This requires the US and its camp followers to come out of the GW Bush regime-change mind-set. Cooperation with Bashar Al Assad in Syria is a pre-condition, alongside China, Iran and Russia. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must take the lead: to bring sides together without preconditions of regime change. GW Bush disturbed a hornet’s nest of potentially earth-shattering proportions. The US has a lot of ground to recover unless it wishes to carry present and future responsibility for WW3.

  5. On May 31, 2015 at 2:48 am Hot Blubber responded with... #

    If you pay ISIS the Jawijwa then you get off scot-free. This is the way to think about it. Its far more sensible to pay this modest tribute than attempt to stage a battle. There are no resources available for that kind of adventurism. Keep it real.