6 Strategies for Syria and Iraq

July 7, 2014

In June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched a conventional offensive that caught the international community by surprise, temporarily conquering large amounts of territory, capturing the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and routing the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division in the northwest. Unsurprisingly, the first response in the United States was a cacophony of editorials and interviews providing “strategic” advice to the Obama administration.

Creating or conducting “strategy by op-ed” is a fundamentally flawed approach, but has become increasingly popular and influential inside the Beltway. In 750 words, one can generally lay out one interesting idea with modest detail, and shape it for partisan purposes and domestic political opinion. Op-eds do not, as a rule, consider other points of view — in fact, they often contemptuously dismiss them. Such is the nature of the beast. See, for example the recent broadside by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, which uses events in Iraq to attack the current administration, but offers nothing like an alternative vision, outside of bombing and “continued presence.”

Lost in the op-ed barrage are some of the nuances that characterize the ISIS challenge. First, the so-called “Islamic State” spans two different but related problem areas for the United States: Syria and Iraq. Second, the ISIS problem is not amenable to a quick U.S. solution. No combination of airstrikes or ground forces will make it go away (although they can kill a lot of ISIS members). Third, despite the fact that commentators routinely exaggerate the imminent threat to the homeland in the interest of spurring immediate action, ISIS constitutes a more distant threat to the United States and an immediate threat to the Middle East and Persian Gulf states, where we have allies, partners, and adversaries. Considering a variety of options — looking at the core assumptions, risks, and the potential consequences — is the best way to begin formulating a strategic approach to ISIS that can be coordinated with U.S. interests and regional stability.

In no particular order, below are six different options for the United States to consider in terms of an ISIS policy. The purpose is to encourage analysts and policymakers to look at a range of possible approaches, and begin assessing which of them is most promising, or perhaps, offers the most flexibility in dealing with a rapidly shifting situation.

1. Be prudent. Minimize the current (minimal) U.S. presence in both countries, and let events unfold.

Assumptions: ISIS is probably prone to self-defeating actions (as Al Qaeda has been), due to its violent nature and alien version of Islam. Both Syria and Iraq are strong enough to hold on to their own turf and eventually counterattack. The United States will not be able to fundamentally reform Iraq, regardless of our troop presence.

Risks: The United States will not look like a leader. There is some risk in allowing ISIS to consolidate, although it is not really clear what we could do to prevent that in the short term even with a massive commitment. This policy also tacitly supports two authoritarian leaders who we have now expressed active dislike for: Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad.

2. Intervene overtly or covertly to try to reform both states.

Assumptions: There are moderates in both countries who can be organized, become effective, and will behave more responsibly both to their own people and in efforts against ISIS. These moderates will be able not only to overthrow or replace existing regimes, but also will carry on a strong fight against radical extremists.

Risks: Assumes the regimes will continue to fight ISIS until they are replaced, when (as Syria indicates) regimes actually fight hardest against those who pose an immediate threat. It is also unclear whether these moderate factions that we hope for even exist, much less can become politically or militarily effective. Last but not least, intervening in both states is certain to further provoke Iran, which has strong interests in each. We might end up fighting ISIS and competing with Iran over regime survival in both places, which would require either escalation or an extended competition to ensure success.

3. Aid Iraq, leave Syria alone.

Assumptions: Modest U.S. intervention in Iraq will be sufficient to push ISIS back from its current position. U.S. aid will also toughen the Iraqi military, and may provide leverage for regime reform or replacement.

Risks: There is a risk of escalating involvement, particularly if the Iraqi forces do not improve rapidly. There are strong domestic objections to deploying forces to Iraq again, and the historical record of our effectiveness in understanding and reforming the Iraqi domestic political system is poor. There is a virtual certainty that Iraq will “free ride” and let the United States bear as much of the cost and burden as possible. And, lest we forget, the Maliki government that we now condemn was democratically elected, and quite recently. It may therefore be quite resistant to “reform” (as we define it).

4. Intervene in Syria.

Assumptions: U.S. intervention in Syria might overthrow Assad, and empower a moderate successor regime. It would also force ISIS to re-focus its efforts, reducing pressure on Iraq and (perhaps) allowing Iraq time to rebuild its military confidence and restore control.

Risks: Direct intervention in Syria has already been rejected (by the Obama administration and the U.K. parliament. The policy of intervention in the Middle East has not, so far, been proven effective, despite the massive loss of blood and treasure. In addition, direct intervention in Syria risks friction with Iran, as well as with Russia and perhaps even China, which has exercised its U.N. veto on Syrian intervention. It also may derail any chance of successful nuclear talks with Iran, which would certainly be linked to other Iranian interests.

5. Re-engage in the region with a focus on countering terrorism and prioritizing stability, recognizing that stable states may be better equipped to resist ISIS, but may not be regimes that we like.

Assumptions: ISIS is the main problem, and the quickest way to resolve it will be to work with the Maliki regime and, probably covertly or tacitly, with Assad. Authoritarian rule has been successful in suppressing militant extremism in the region, and has functioned successfully in both Iraq and Syria.

Risks: The costs of working with authoritarian rulers can be high, as U.S. relations in Egypt and Iran have demonstrated. This would also involve stepping back from rhetorical attacks on Maliki, and from public statements calling for the removal of Assad.

6. Engage with regional partners, seek opportunities to meet multiple interests.

Assumptions: ISIS is a regional threat with regional implications, affecting (among others) Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. Cooperation on ISIS may be more effective and enhance coordination, creating new opportunities to realize mutual interests. This may be a rare moment where strange partners share mutual concern; indeed, some have argued that Israel and Saudi Arabia are becoming “natural partners” in the face of the ISIS threat.

Risks: Each potential partner has interests that conflict with others. Working with Iran will enhance Iran’s long-term regional position, alienating others. It is a gamble, given U.S.-Iran relations, but may be an opportunity to shift that relationship on an issue of mutual interest. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have competing interests and perceptions of regional threats. Israel’s primary concern is not Syria, but Iran, and particularly Iran’s nuclear program (as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made very clear in a recent series of remarks). The Sunni-Shi’a dynamic in Iraq will resonate throughout the Persian Gulf, and is a particular concern for Bahrain and some parts of Saudi Arabia.

Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses, and perceptions of those strengths and weaknesses will differ depending on ideological assumptions, policy preferences, and partisan position. Nevertheless, our future policy in this region is important, and deserves greater analysis of consequences and outcomes than the current frenzied debate over intervention. Choosing among alternatives, or using those alternatives to come up with new options, is a better starting point than a hyperbolic debate over who lost Iraq or how many American troops it will take to make Maliki reform his government.


Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone, and not the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall (adapted by War on the Rocks)