The announcement of a major Russian surge in its support for Syria still has Washington reeling. Combined with the announcement that Russia, Iraq, and Iran have entered an agreement to enhance intelligence-sharing to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, this confluence of events raised blood pressures among the Western press. Looking at these developments from a strategic standpoint, they may really be a blessing in disguise for U.S. foreign policy. Faced with overt challenges in the form of an aggressive Russia, combined with the chaos surrounding a disintegrating Syria and a functionally dismembered Iraq, the United States is watching its problems run headlong into each other. The Russian adventure in Syria is much more ambitious and fraught with peril than their subversion and occupation of Ukrainian territory. Given the distance from home and the ever-changing conditions in Syria, Russian involvement should be welcomed as a way for Russia to let off steam without running into a vital U.S. interest. We remain a distant power that is executing a de facto containment strategy against the Islamic State using airpower while the Russians are deploying troops, armor, and aviation to back up the Syrian regime, complementing the Iranian proxy forces in Iraq. This offers an attractive option for jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq to back off their fratricidal conflict while they have genuine foreigners to fight. For the United States, this presents an opportunity to tie down the Russians and force them to divert resources from Europe, while avoiding a radical upending of the existing balance of power in the Middle East. We can let the Russians bleed in Syria on behalf of the regime while we execute a containment strategy.
The Russian entry into the mix does not fundamentally change the U.S. strategic calculus, but does provide an opportunity for Washington to revise its objectives. We have long since passed the point where a strategy to defeat the Islamic State was feasible. By the time Mosul fell in June 2014, the Iraqis had been ignoring U.S. warnings for months, and despite warnings from the Kurdish Regional Government, U.S. policymakers were themselves late to understand the nature and imminence of the threat. The Islamic State’s capture of Mosul was an indication that the surviving radical Islamist elements left over after the invasion of Iraq were aggregating into a threat to neighboring countries.
Any chance to “defeat” the group collapsed when Iraqi government sectarianism crippled what little civil society survived the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. A vacuum left by the Islamic State will no doubt be filled with another force with policy goals that are inimical to U.S. interests in the region, and the replacement of the Islamic State with an Iranian proxy force would not be an improvement. Absent a viable opportunity to defeat the Islamic State and replace it with a friendly actor, a containment strategy is an attractive option which is unaffected by the Russian presence and which we can largely execute with proxy forces, supported by airpower.
A Containment Plan
A strategy to contain the Islamic State would involve a great deal more than just attacking its visible elements. The rise of the group is a symptom of a greater problem in the region, and what started as a civil war in Syria has morphed into a multipolar proxy war which has expanded beyond Syria and threatens to spread further. Accordingly, a containment strategy must seek to limit the conflict, and to avoid creating or allowing conditions that would require deeper U.S. or NATO involvement.
We envision three major elements of a revised strategy:
First, contain the battlefield to Syria and Iraq. Keep the jihadists flowing into a permissive battlespace where they can be struck and where their ability to attack Western interests is limited because there are few in proximity. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there have been constant opportunities for violent jihadists to go to fight someone in the Middle East. With U.S. ground forces out of the picture, we can let those jihadists fight the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, and the Russians.
Secondly, attempt to prevent a radical disruption of the regional balance of power. Turkey is a NATO member. We have strong relationships with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The United States has invested a great deal in Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan over the last 25 years. A defeat of the Islamic State that comes at the cost of destabilizing or exhausting these allies would open the door for Iranian hegemony — a cure arguably worse than the disease. Let the Iranians struggle with a sectarian fault line which is exacerbated by the Arab–Persian divide, while we encourage our partners in the Gulf to take on a leadership role that energizes a lot of wasta we’ll never have on our own.
Third, attempt to limit the proliferation of proxy forces, particularly the use of the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra (al Qaeda’s branch in Syria) by Qatar and Turkey. Turkey’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State, which effectively provided some level of tacit support, backfired badly in Kobani and has arguably contributed towards increasing political turmoil in Turkey itself. It will be challenging enough to contain the conflict without U.S. allies directly supporting violent jihadist organizations.
In the morass that is the modern Middle East, achieving these objectives is much easier said than done. Clarity of purpose by the United States, backed by a clear declaration of achievable strategy ends, is necessary if we are to attempt to align efforts both within the U.S. government and in cooperation with our allies. That need for clarity extends to campaign objectives, which must be reasonable and achievable, ideally with a whole-of-government effort that is not overly focused on the application of military force to achieve all of the objectives.
A containment campaign would have multiple objectives:
(1) Prevent further territorial gains by the Islamic State’s ground forces within Iraq or into Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan.
(2) Support Kurdish forces within Iraq and Syria and protect the Kurdish population from hostile action.
(3) Encourage regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to starve radical Islamist groups of resources.
(4) Harass Islamic State military forces, logistical support, force training and revenue-generating operations from the air. Neutralize any attempt to mass forces or to redeploy combat power.
(5) Counter Iranian adventurism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by denying military, logistical and intelligence support to Iranian proxy forces, up to and including Iraqi militias.
(6) Succor civilian populations, including displaced persons, in areas not under control of Damascus, the Islamic State, or other jihadist or terrorist organizations.
(7) Commit U.S. military and support personnel to build partnership capacity among friendly governments, with a focus on aviation, command and control, improved training, increased combat effectiveness, and robust logistics.
The primary military means of supporting most of these objectives would necessarily be airpower, which maximizes flexibility, controls costs, and limits U.S. and NATO casualties. To date, airpower has provided the United States and our allies with measurable success, from providing critical humanitarian support to Yazidis facing obliteration to decisively defeating the Islamic State in Kobani. The United States should continue to employ airpower from neighboring countries and carrier strike groups, supported by proxy observers on the ground (including Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq) and airborne forward air controllers in support of specified objectives. Allocation of national resources towards sustaining, maintaining, and improving airpower has proven not only effective, but far more cost-effective than other means of power projection. Ironically, it may be that the Russians are following the U.S. example in this respect.
We have successfully employed a mix of airpower, indigenous forces, and special operations forces before, with a good record of success. In portions of Syria and Iraq, we have an advantage when supporting proxy forces. The Kurds have indigenous governance structures (in both Iraq and Syria) that pass legitimacy tests and which we treat as local governments. This cooperative relationship simplifies our burden of proof for positive identification of hostile forces and provides local knowledge regarding the proper application of “no-strike” protection. For example, during the siege of Kobani, local Kurdish government officials wrote to the theater commander to describe conditions and recommend suspension of no-strike list protections on most of south and eastern Kobani. The recommendations came with reliable intelligence that included sweeping statements like “there are no civilians in eastern Kobani” and “schools, hospitals and cultural centers in eastern Kobani should not be considered protected sites.” The recommendations were accurate, explicit, and eased legal concerns for both deliberate and dynamic targeting. This kind of coordination has been common with Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria, and notably lacking with the government of Iraq.
Living With A Russian Presence
The Russian presence in support of the Assad regime is an unexpected development that will probably extend the survival of the regime, which certainly runs counter to U.S. desires and explicit policy. The regime in Damascus has exhibited a surprising resilience despite substantial loss of territory and population, benefitting from support from Iran, Iranian proxy Hezbollah, and Russia. The elimination of the Assad regime is still desirable, but has slipped down the priority list as other more pressing considerations have gained prominence. The continuing threat of extremely violent jihadist elements is a far more serious problem with wider international implications than the survival of the remnants of long-time adversary that has largely had its teeth pulled.
Today, policy objectives should shift from focusing on the defeat of the Islamic State to attempting to contain the damage that the disintegration of Syria is doing to the greater Middle East. Making a virtue out of necessity, the Russian presence in Syria provides an opportunity to tie the Russians down, drain resources that might otherwise be employed in Europe, and exacerbate existing stresses in the Russian military, all without any U.S. or NATO effort to enhance the natural effects of involvement in the region. The Russian deployment also offers the possibility of attriting jihadist organizations essentially for free. While in a perfect world it would be vastly preferable to not have either Russian or Iranian influence in Syria, those conditions are not under our control. A focus on tipping the scales may be preferable to an attempt to upend the scales entirely. We should avoid reacting to the Russian presence by deepening our involvement, understanding that events have long since moved past the ability of the United States to reliably influence them, much less control them. The United States can pursue its most important objectives from a useful distance while the Russians expand their physical presence on the ground. Let the Russians bleed for a while.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Col. Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Jeremy “Maestro” Renken is an instructor pilot in the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 170 combat missions in three combat deployments to OIF and OEF. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons Instructor Course and recently returned from AFCENT where he contributed to the design of the counter-ISIS air campaign.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force