Small Wars Journal

Rethinking Our Strategy in Iraq and Syria

Mon, 12/22/2014 - 2:11pm

Rethinking Our Strategy in Iraq and Syria

Gary Anderson

The war against the self-styled Islamic State is beginning to look more and more like the late, unlamented war in Vietnam. The Obama administration has placed self-imposed limitations on the use of ground forces, thereby creating the kind of sanctuary that North Viet Nam represented from 1963-75. Like President Johnson, Barak Obama had pledged no ground troops, but eventually sent in “advisors” and “defensive forces” to protect the advisors bases as well as the aircraft that were supporting the host nation government’s forces who were supposed to be doing the actual fighting; albeit poorly. This looks exactly like the Vietnam War in 1964-65 that I remember watching on TV and reading about in high school.

Since the Ivy League schools that produced the Obama Administration’s brain trust no longer require the serious study of history, the people who are planning the war effort don’t see the irony. It will take local political solutions to stabilize Syria and Iraq, but those political solutions will not happen until the conventional military power of the Islamic State is destroyed; that can be done in 3-4 months if we apply US-led western military forces in an overwhelming punitive campaign, to include ground forces, to crush the Islamic State’s army.

There are also two unexamined assumptions driving the current strategy. Both of these are rooted in Vietnam, a war that few in the administration seem to have seriously studied. The first is that there are no military solutions. The reality is that the Vietnam War ended with a tank-led conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese.  The end in Vietnam was a purely military solution; it was not a guerilla triumph. The unification of Vietnam under Communist rule was a strategy that Ho Chi Minh pursued relentlessly from 1945 to 1975; he vowed to use both military and political means, and he did so brilliantly. The romantic guerilla myth was perpetuated by aging American liberals, most of whom worked hard in their youth to stay as far away from Vietnam as possible; most of these arm chair revolutionaries learned to worship Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara , and Chairman Mao in college as somehow being morally superior to the American military as they saw it.

The second myth is that foreign ground intervention is always bad. In Vietnam, American intervention stymied North Vietnamese ambitions for a decade and built a South Vietnamese counterinsurgency capability that virtually annihilated the Viet Cong. By the early seventies, the only Viet Cong fighting formations were those that were effectively manned by North Vietnamese regulars who traded their uniforms for Viet Cong black pajamas. The North Vietnamese felt comfortable with a conventional invasion in 1975 because they knew that the 1974 class of Democrats, who dominated the Congress, would not allow the United States to intervene; the war in Vietnam was settled by the use of naked conventional force made possible by the withdrawal of foreign forces.

If we strip away those myths regarding intervention and the utility of military force, we can develop a strategy that will destroy the Islamic State’s occupation of the lands that it currently controls. This would allow room for political solutions to be devised by Iraqis and Syrians. A political solution is not possible if jihadist foreign fighters remain embedded in either country. It will take a temporary western foreign intervention to eliminate the malignant influence of the equally foreign jihadist infestation.

End State. A strategic end state is what we want the world to look like after the fighting stops. It almost always gets neglected in the rush to “do something” in the midst of a crisis. It generally requires a compromise between an ideal outcome and the art of the possible. To date, no-one has offered a coherent vision of what we want Iraq and Syria to look like under the present strategy. What we have now is a series of hastily cobbled together crisis response measures bundled under the rubric of strategy. If you don’t have a clear end-state vision, you don’t have a strategy.

In the best of all possible worlds, an Ideal end state would be a democratic Syria and Iraq free of Assad and the Jihadist factions, but particularly the Islamic State. That may happen someday; but probably not in the lifetime of anyone reading this piece given our current strategic approach. The administration is kicking the can down the road to 2016 in the hopes that Mr. Obama does not become remembered as the president who lost the Middle East. That is not an end state, it is a political platform plank.

A tolerable and achievable end state would be threefold:

(1)    The destruction of the conventional combat power of the self-styled Islamic State and related jihadist groups which would render them back to the status of fugitive terrorists.

(2)    A compromise to the Iraqi constitution that would allow some kind of power sharing agreement that would protect the rights of the Sunni and Kurdish populations but still maintain a nation called Iraq.

(3)    Some form of negotiated settlement that would allow the Alawite Baathists a role in Syrian government, but prevent the kind of total chaotic regime change that has caused so many problems in violent regime change in Iraq and Syria; the massacre of Christians and other minorities at the hand of vengeful Sunnis is not an acceptable end state. It will be years before the moderate rebels can achieve such change alone, but with American military pressure, we might be able to force a negotiated settlement.

These goals are achievable in the relatively short run, but not without the temporary but decisive intervention of massive American force to include ground combat units and very close diplomatic engagement on the part of the United States.

Strategic Design. Once we have an end state, we can then craft a strategy to implement it. This strategy would comprise of three phases that would combine decisive military force with political-diplomatic-military suasion to achieve and acceptable end-state:

Phase I; the Destruction of al Baghdadi’s Army. Without a US/western corps sized intervention that will destroy the jihadist army in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State will dominate the political scene in Iraq and Syria for years to come while the west struggles to create a regional home grown force capable of confronting it. This is where the concept of a punitive expedition is useful. The British and Americans have long used punitive expeditions to solve oversees problems. When they work they can be very useful tools because they are, by nature, temporary; they are designed to get the job done and be gone. The second line of the Marine Corps Hymn; “to the Shores of Tripoli” refers to a punitive expedition during the wars with the Barbary Pirates. The British became masters at such expeditions to quickly extinguish 19th Century colonial uprisings before they got out of hand. A large-scale punitive expedition would save face for the administration in that it would not mean a long term reintroduction of American fighting forces. Almost everyone wants to avoid that.

A punitive expedition against the Islamic State would need to strike it and its allies in Syria and Iraq near- simultaneously. The current Obama Administration’s strategy of Iraq first can be likened to a half filled water balloon. If you squeeze the balloon where the water is, it will flow to the other half. The only way to get rid of the water is to burst the balloon. The Germany first strategy of World War II worked because Germany and Japan were separated by thousands of miles and could not mutually support each other; the Islamic State does not recognize the border between Syria and Iraq and treats it as permeable. Thus, the jihadists of the Islamic State would be denied sanctuary, their captured heavy equipment, and urban financial bases. If we can destroy the Islamic State’s army occupying the cities that they currently hold and exterminate the jihadist foreign fighters, the jihadists revert back to ISIL becoming just another terrorist group on the run. This would open the way for local political solutions, no matter how imperfect. The Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces, and the Syrian resistance may be very flawed mechanisms, but they should at least be capable of policing the liberated area once our forces redeploy.

Phase II (Iraqi) stabilization. This should probably be simultaneous with the third Phase in Syria, but it should not require continued long-term US military involvement in Iraq. This should be primarily a diplomatic-political effort. The Iraqis need to re-forge a constitution that gives more local say and amore even distribution of oil and mineral assets to the Kurds and Sunnis.  Whether this means more federalism or a confederation is less important than eliminating the grievances that allowed for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.

Phase III Stabilizing Syria. The third phase would be the most delicate, and the one requiring the most skillful combination of military suasion and diplomacy. It would be designed not to decapitate the Syrian regime, but to force it into a negotiated power sharing agreement with the rebels. Violent regime changes in that region have resulted in debacles. Iraq became a mess and Libya is going very badly. This is one of those times when pure use of airpower can have real efficacy. If we use American airpower to degrade the Assad government’s forces to a point where it is willing to talk, we steal a march on the Iranians, who are trying to become the regional power brokers. It may be harder to get the rebels to the table than the Syrian government given government atrocities; the rebels will be bloody minded, and this is where tough love American diplomacy can really help. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians will like that. Too bad; neither country has earned its spurs in the region. We earned influence with blood and treasure, President Obama tried to piddle it away; we need to reassert ourselves while there is still time.

For better or worse, the Assad regime is seen by religious minorities in Syria as their protectors; this is true especially for Assad’s Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) kinsmen. Massacres by Sunni Jihadists in Iraq, make these minorities very fearful. A power sharing agreement, no matter how distasteful for the largely Sunni rebels, is infinitely superior to ethnic cleansing of Alawites, Shiites, Christians, and other religious minorities. American politicians who demand that Assad must go have no idea what a sudden power vacuum in the country would mean, nor has the Obama Administration outlined a plan for rebuilding governance in Syria that is any better than the non-plan that led to the present messes in Libya and Iraq; we Americans are apparently slow learners in the world of regime change. We need to determine if we want peace and stability more than revenge.

A Second Chance for the Region. The proposed strategy outlined above will not destroy ISIL as a movement, but it will destroy the Islamic State as a regional player and buy some time for the Iraqis and Syrians to try to salvage something from the current mess in the region. Just as importantly, it will go a long way to restore the damaged prestige of the United States in a region where, since 2009, we have managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.

About the Author(s)



Tue, 12/23/2014 - 12:01pm

Gary, just picking a small nit...

"...the war in Vietnam was settled by the use of naked conventional force made possible by the withdrawal of foreign forces."

While foreign (nee' US) forces remaining in S. Vietnam would have forestalled a NVA invasion, the fact was that the ARVN had credibly turned back a NVA invasion in 1972 (the Easter Offensive); albeit with US air support. Only when the US refused to support the SVN government with troops, air support or supplies (IMO, logistics being the most debilitating denial) did the 72-73 invasion by the NVA succeed.

The lesson to be learned here is key to your Phase II (Stabilization) proposal. Stabilization is a long-term process with many ups and downs. Unfortunately, the American people have no patience and it is up to our political and military leadership to carry such through. Alas, I have no confidence in this despite that it would be in our country's best interest.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:46am

Turkey is also becoming a staging ground for both IS as well as their opponents, and battle ground as well right now.

So exactly just what is Turkey's end game since they still support IS?

Whoa Security cameras capture assassination of #Uzbek dissident in #Istanbul


Wed, 12/24/2014 - 7:50pm

In reply to by Morgan

Good points,

The US is certainly an amateur in the game of politics and negotiation when compared with the Iranians, Saudis, or other Arabs.

That said, the Turks, Iranians, and Saudis to varying degrees, are all limited in their ability to do anything to ISIS from a military standpoint while there are simply too many conflicting interests at play as well. Simultaneously, ISIS's battle with the Assad regime and Iraqi government indirectly benefits Saudi and Turkish interests. When combined with ISIS's ability to damage both regimes, it only makes sense neither is that willing to make much of an attempt to do anything. The Kurds are another issue.

I think the big problem with us not doing anything is it leaves open the possibility that we will end up dealing with something much worse when we do finally go back. Abandoning the region would also cause us to lose credibility with real allies and us being perceived as weak, a death sentence in the Middle East. We would then be in much less of a position to influence events.

There is also the oil issue and various ways which a perception of weakness in the Middle East could influence Western interests in other parts of the World.


Wed, 12/24/2014 - 9:07am

In reply to by Fred82


Agreed..the Saudis are a joke. The Iranians probably are too. Not sure about the Turks. So what? For this part of the world, all three are probably good enough.

But even if they're not, why do we (US, UK, westerners in general) need to play? It's their game, let them enjoy it. We can come back when they're finished.


Tue, 12/23/2014 - 8:02pm

In reply to by Morgan

I don't think the Saudis or Iranians are capable of managing ISIS.

The Saudi military is a joke, the Iranian military is very overrated, and neither would be welcome in Iraq in large numbers, particularly in the Sunni areas.The Saudis and Iranians would get bloodied badly if they tried to send troops into ISIS areas.

The Turks, IMO, are the most powerful military in the Middle East and would be much more capable. That said, the Turks struggled with PKK guerrillas and would not be welcome on Iraqi soil either. The Turks are likely to get bloodied by ISIS, particularly in the Sunni areas, and do not seem to have the desire or will to fight ISIS.

Though no supporter of ISIL / ISIS and their barbarity, when it comes to US intervention in the IS conflict, I must ask “why?” Why do we need to fight them? Why do we need to stop them?

Iraq kicked us out (after 7+ years of occupation), essentially telling us that they’re capable of taking care of their house… it, we’re gone. ISIL, while dangerous, does not threaten the US or any key US allies. While Iraq is an ally of sorts, I don’t think we negotiated an agreement with them that stipulated that we would jump back into their country if their government were under dire threat. We did this with South Vietnam and ignored it. What’s different now?

As for strategy (and I admit I am no strategist), perhaps our strategy ought to be predicated on ensuring that no power, state or non-state, amasses enough capability (think DIME) to directly threaten or attack us, our interests, or our key allies. With that in mind, our strategy towards the IS matter ought to be to let it play out….let them (IS, Iraq, Syria, Iran) duke it out, causing the region to remain fragmented, suspicious of each other, unable to unify against us or our key allies, while we continue on our merry way. Not only will staying out of their self-generated quagmire keep them focused on each other VS coalescing against us, it might help our economy by generating a buying spree of US / western defense equipment….jobs!! Those of you about to retire may want to think about that.

The Saudis, Iranians, and Turks are strong enough to manage this backyard crisis. Besides, I suspect any calls by them for US intervention is related to their preference to blame us when things don’t go their way. Screw them. They want to be treated as “big boys”, then let them handle “big boy” issues.

I realize this is rather cynical but they need to sort out their own mess. Only when US interests (whatever they are) become directly threatened should we send in a corps-sized “punitive expedition”. Until then, Merry Christmas.


Tue, 12/23/2014 - 9:09am

I think the author misses a central point about the nature of ISIS and the regional dynamic. What began as a rebellion against Assad in Syria merged with a Sunni reaction to Maliki’s Shia heavy-handedness into a general Sunni-Shia war. The Sunni world watched Iran expand its power into Iraq and saw a threat. With Syria and Hezbollah already reliable Iranian proxies, the Sunnis saw expansion into Iraq as an alarmingly dangerous growth. Iraq, which had been a reliable buffer against Tehran, suddenly became a platform for Iranian expansion and a source of manpower for their conventional and unconventional forces. ISIS quickly expanded as soon as indigenous Sunnis saw an opportunity to strike back against Maliki. Following the departure of the only effective counter-balance to Iranian power, the US Army, Iraqi security forces quickly dissolved into Sunni, Shia and Kurd militias. ISIS today is the hard edge of the Sunni response to Tehran. The Sunni world will not publicly embrace ISIS, but will not fight them either and will quietly sustain them. If we degrade ISIS sufficiently to shut down its claim for success based on historical Sunni prophecy and thus, its recruiting and funding, we simultaneously consolidate Iran’s hold over the region. Just think, Iranian military forces now openly operate in Iraq. Any strategy that doesn’t address Sunni concern about Tehran and doesn’t include measures to force Iranian intervention back within its borders, will bear the long-term result of merely expanding continued Sunni-Shia conflict. Checking Iranian power and securing the Sunnis of Western Iraq must be goals of a successful strategy. This implies long-term engagement with Iraq and a marked (and unlikely) stiffening of our policy toward Tehran. For the second time, “Mission Complete” has failed as a strategy.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 3:59am

And we have now a strategy? We are reinventing VN and the past failures in Iraq.

‘Only Arabs can stop #ISIS, the western countries will never stop them’ – Jürgen Todenhöfer after his visit

Really listen to the interview with Todenhoefer who knows ISI and now IS well.

He views as I do IS is a ME threat not a threat to the US---has some interesting insights.


Mon, 12/22/2014 - 3:36pm

Colonel Anderson,

First, I agree with most of your argument. It is clear that there are no clear "endgame" goals in the current campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and I think most everyone would agree that it is difficult to achieve much success in any operation without clear objectives. I also believe that the current extent of foreign military intervention is lacking. While US and British airstrikes, arms deliveries, training, and intelligence assistance are all having a noticeable effect on the battlefield (especially in Kobani, Sinjar, and near Mosul), ISIS is obviously still more than just a force to be reckoned with.

However, I disagree with your assertion that the best solution needs to come in the form of a direct, corps-sized foreign military intervention. For one, this would be virtually politically impossible; the U.S. public is too wary of another US military ground campaign in the Middle East. I think this is reasonable, considering the massive human and financial losses we have sustained in the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. We fought many of the same individuals who are now fighting for ISIS in places like Fallujah using conventional forces, and yet after so many years they remain. I believe that sending in a foreign, conventional force would only resort in them developing into a long-term insurgency that would grind-away at our forces (and political will) over the long term. In recent months we have seen a similar change in tactics by ISIS brought about by pressure from airstrikes (…).

Instead of another quagmire for our troops, I hope that the administration would adopt the same kind of campaign that we used to initially topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Using a local force of anti-Taliban warlords (note, these guys weren't perfect either) backed, aggressively, by relatively small numbers of US special forces and heavy airstrikes, we annihilated their conventional military capabilities (their mobile units, small air capabilities,command & control, etc). This kind of strategy is both more aggressive than our current one (which still forbids a more direct, frontline use of special forces that would rapidly degrade ISIS on the battlefield) and less risky for the US politically and in terms of casualties.

Additionally, we really need to ramp up training and coordination with the Iraqi Army, the Kurds (especially, as they have proven time and time again to be extremely competent in the field in their areas), and the moderate Syrian rebels. The US is no doubt focusing on expanding these efforts, and it will take time more than anything.

In short, I think there's a strategy that lies somewhere between the current US approach and your proposed solution. This approach is more aggressive than the current one, but less susceptible to become yet another US "Vietnam" type scenario in this ever war-torn region.