Contrary to many assertions, defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State may not be particularly complex in the parts of Iraq, Syria, Libya and other countries where the group has sought to hold terrain. If local armed forces get organized and receive air support, they will defeat the Islamic State on the battlefield, and in doing so they will tarnish the group’s reputation for success and limit its recruitment potential. But there is one thing standing in the way of this victory: the lack of unity and motivation of its opponents.
In the absence of a major international ground force deployment, the pace of the war will continue to be driven by local actors — meaning the fight will run on their timeline rather than ours. While defeating the Islamic State may be Washington’s top concern, it is not the over-riding priority of most local actors arrayed against the group on the ground. The reality is that there is no cohesive team of allies fighting against the Islamic State and this war is only one of a number of wars being fought or prepared for across the region. In many cases actors are fighting the Islamic State purely to better position themselves for these other conflicts.
The United States and the international coalition fighting the group in the Middle East has sought to keep the war against the Islamic State as simple as possible by stressing points of agreement between allies and avoiding the issue of nation-building. Coalition military planners has have been told to avoid considering the broader regional impact and interconnections of the war and have instead been blinkered. They are like carthorses only allowed to see the road ahead.
Useful as this goal might be for building a coalition of outsiders, the local players in Iraq, Syria, and other theaters where the Islamic State is flourishing (such as Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen) have always allowed themselves to take in the full strategic landscape of the region. All of our allies and rivals have far more complex goals than degrading and defeating the Islamic State. For them, the current battle is really a game of positioning for the truly decisive action that will begin as soon as the Islamic State is defeated.
The first priority of most actors is consolidating their control on the ground. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are staking out their long-term territorial claims. Iranian-backed groups like Badr are carving out principalities in Iraqi areas like Diyala and Tuz Khurmatu. Abu Mahdi al-Muhadis, the most senior Iranian proxy in Iraq and a U.S.-designated terrorist involved in the deaths of U.S. and British troops, is seeking to quickly build the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) into a new permanent institution akin to a ministry, complete with budgets and infrastructure, in order to stave off the risk of demobilization after the Islamic State is gone. His ambition is no less than to grow a new parallel army equivalent to and subservient to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, boosting Iran’s efforts to take over Iraq’s political and religious leadership.
The non-coalition players are also strengthening their relations with new external supporters. The Assad regime in Syria is integrating with the Russian military machine. Armed Syrian Kurdish groups are learning how to work with the U.S.-led coalition while keeping options open with Assad and the Russians. Syrian Sunni groups are tightening military ties to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Iranian-backed groups in Iraq continue to deepen their ties with Russia and Iran. The Iraqi Kurds are welcoming the international coalition’s presence in the Kurdish region and recently hosted new Turkish ground forces, spurring fierce rhetorical pushback from Baghdad.
Local actors’ preparations for the next war — or, likely, wars — helps explain the slow progress of the battle against the Islamic State so far. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are open about the coming clash with Shia militias and other Baghdad-backed forces along the disputed boundary with federal Iraq. The Baghdad Operations Command continues to hold around half of the offensive-capable Iraqi military units in reserve in the capital despite the declining risk of an Islamic State attack on Baghdad. Why? To offset the risk posed by the Shia militias. The Kurds in Syria are readying for a future war against Turkey to preserve their de facto statelet along the Turkish–Syrian border. All these actors will use the weapons provided or captured during today’s war against the Islamic State to fight tomorrow’s wars against each other.
This is hardly unprecedented. When Stalin halted his forces outside Warsaw in August 1944 and let the Nazis kill off the Polish resistance he was thinking forward to the next war: the occupation of Eastern Europe and the Cold War. On the other side, Nazi leaders continually hoped that a separate peace might be made with some Allied nations until the very end of the war. And as the war was ending both sides, West and East, were scrambling for terrain, technology and control of key local leaders with the coming Cold War in mind.
The Cold War analogy may be appropriate to today’s situation in the Middle East. Perhaps the clearest trend in recent years has been the tidying up of the sides in a potential Shia–Sunni conflict and the threading together of multiple conflicts into a single tapestry.
On one side is the “Axis of Resistance” — actors like Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Iraq like Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ Kataib Hezbollah. Russia has seemingly bet on that camp. This axis is aligned against the Sunni world writ large and determined to exclude the U.S. military from the region. Fighting the Islamic State is a means to an end for these groups: cover for operations against other Sunni groups and a means to build legitimacy in domestic politics. Defeating the Islamic State is not strictly necessary as long as the group stays in Sunni areas.
In the other corner is a less cohesive but strengthening alliance that comprises Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE. This group is focused on fighting the Shia Axis of Resistance first and foremost, and, in Turkey’s case, constraining the growth of Kurdish power in Syria and Turkey. This Sunni alliance views the Islamic State and other jihadist elements as a less serious threat than the Shia, and even views the Salafi militants as a tool in some circumstances, such as in Yemen where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fights a parallel war against the Iranian-backed Houthis and alongside the Saudi and UAE-led Arab alliance.
Where is the U.S.-led coalition in all of this? It is the odd man out, unaligned with — and determined not to see — the increasingly tidy line-up of local sectarian alliances. Though Washington may seek to play the role of the balancer between these camps, the U.S. government is faced with impossible choices between traditional Sunni allies and the up-and-coming Shia actors who are critical players in the war against the Islamic State.
How can Washington seek to earn and keep the trust of Shia in Iraq while at the same time working closely with traditional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the former which seems to be working to break up Iraq and support Salafi extremists in Syria, and the latter which is seen as indiscriminately bombing Shia Zaydi civilians in Yemen through a brutal air campaign, and suppressing Shia communities across the Gulf?
Alternately, can Washington maintain access and influence within the broader Sunni Arab world if it begins to cooperate, tacitly or explicitly, with Iranian and Russian actors in Syria, when these states are keeping the Assad regime in power and when Iranian-backed militias are ghettoizing Sunni populations in Iraq and trying to undermine the elected government?
Under such circumstances Washington’s focus on the Islamic State is somewhat understandable: The group presents a real threat to the U.S. homeland and citizens abroad, and it is the one issue on which all parties can rhetorically agree on and the least thorny of the region’s challenges. But the Islamic State will not last forever as a fig leaf to cover the yawning cracks that are opening up in the regional order. The United States needs to start preparing to deter or fight the next wars now because our opponents are already starting to act. This means clearly defining Washington’s long-term interests and fighting the war against the Islamic State in a manner that supports these long-term objectives.
In Syria, Washington’s baseline strategic interest is in the survival of a Syrian state that has basic legitimacy and which is no longer a safe haven for terrorist groups and an exporter of refugees. This can only be achieved through resolution to the civil war that is acceptable to all regional actors while denying a clear-cut win to any of them. The first step to negotiating such an outcome may be to stabilize the military balance in Syria in a manner that prevents the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda from overrunning the Sunni opposition in northwestern Syria. At the same time, the United States should build its influence over the Syrian–Kurdish PYD, help the Syrian Democratic Forces liberate Raqqa, and defeat the Islamic State in eastern Syria. Against a backdrop of mounting military pressure, the Axis of Resistance actors may be more willing to negotiate Assad’s departure. The United States might complement this effort with a parallel campaign to compel the Gulf states to support a sustainable ceasefire and peace deal in the Yemeni civil war.
In Iraq, the solution is arguably simpler, and Washington is already broadly on the right track. The United States needs to continue providing the strongest backing for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate and a reformer, and for the Iraqi Army, still the most respected national institution in Iraq and the key potential balancer to the Shia militias. Washington must not abandon Baghdad and attempt short-cut solutions that undermine Abadi and play into the hands of the militias, such as directly arming the Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. Washington can still help Iraq to put in place a strong military chief of staff under which command is increasingly unified. The United States can support Iraq in its quest to receive IMF and World Bank funding to weather the storm of its economic crisis. And the U.S. military can ramp up its airstrikes to visibly help Abadi to deliver further battlefield victories in Ramadi and Mosul.
If fighting the Islamic State were the only U.S. objective and interest in the Middle East then the current strategy could just about suffice. But we need to be mindful of the many wars within the war against the Islamic State that are already beginning. The regional states are keeping their eye on the ball: They have a balanced view of the geostrategic long game, not just the near-term issue of the Islamic State. To have any hope of deterring, limiting, or winning the coming conflicts in the Middle East, the United States needs to widen its view beyond the Islamic State in the manner that regional states are already doing.
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the hundred districts, including periods spent embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces, the Peshmerga, and most recently with Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.