Redefining Victory in America’s War Against the Islamic State in Syria
You could be forgiven for thinking that, in Syria, the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL) has succeeded. The militant group’s territorial “caliphate” in Syria and neighboring Iraq has been erased from the map. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. Mission accomplished, no? And yet the United States is still nowhere near the benchmark the Donald Trump administration adopted for counter-ISIL victory in Syria: the jihadist organization’s “enduring defeat.”
That’s because enduring defeat, as the Trump administration defined it, involves not only incapacitating ISIL in Syria in military and security terms, but also extensive political and social change across Syria to prevent the organization’s future return. The administration thus defined victory in such implausible-seeming terms that, for the deployment of U.S. forces in eastern Syria, there is no end in sight.
The presidential transition and first months of the Joe Biden administration are an opportunity to review America’s Syria policy, as well as the aims of the counter-ISIL campaign. As part of that review, the Biden team ought to scrutinize the chimeric-seeming goal of ISIL’s enduring defeat. It’s time for some hard thinking about what America needs to accomplish in Syria, and what it really means, for U.S. policy purposes, to “defeat” ISIL.
The Evolving Definition of Enduring Defeat
The United States originally set out to “degrade and ultimately destroy” (or “ultimately defeat”) ISIL, an aim President Barack Obama announced at the 2014 outset of the U.S.-led military intervention against the organization in Iraq and Syria. As the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIL came closer to achieving the group’s conventional military defeat in Iraq and Syria in late 2017 and early 2018, however, officials began to reframe U.S. aims in Syria in terms of ISIL’s enduring defeat.
The U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces had captured ISIL’s de facto Syrian capital, al-Raqqa, in October 2017. The same month, Iraqi forces and international partners took ISIL’s last territorial foothold in Iraq.
The shift in U.S. objectives to ISIL’s enduring defeat entailed a continuing presence in Syria to stabilize areas captured militarily from ISIL and to cultivate local security forces capable of pursuing the group’s remnants. Enduring defeat also provided a justification for the United States to remain in Syria amid calls by Russia and others for America to leave, now that ISIL had arguably been beaten. As the State Department’s David Satterfield told Congress in January 2018:
While Russia may consider the fight against [ISIL] in Syria over, the United States and our Coalition partners do not. [ISIL]’s loss of physical control over towns in Syria and Iraq does not mean the end of [ISIL], nor does it signal the end of the coalition. Hard work remains to ensure [ISIL]’s enduring defeat.
Among those who apparently needed to be convinced that the fight against ISIL wasn’t over was President Donald Trump himself. In April 2018, Trump’s cabinet had to talk him down from withdrawing from Syria, after Trump said the fight against ISIL was “almost completed.”
It was in fall 2018 that ISIL’s enduring defeat really became the all-purpose objective that it still is today. Veteran diplomat James Jeffrey became Syria envoy in August. In September, Jeffrey and other administration officials said they had won the president’s approval for an indefinite military effort in Syria, until ISIL’s “enduring defeat.”
Jeffrey and other Trump officials defined ISIL’s enduring defeat in sweeping terms, however. These officials argued that ISIL’s 2013 and 2014 surge in Syria and Iraq was produced by a combination of root causes, including the Syrian government’s violence against the Syrian people and Iranian expansionism regionally. Enduring defeat, therefore, required addressing all these root causes. U.S. withdrawal from Syria became contingent on conditions including the fundamental reordering of Syria’s political system and the exit of Iranian-commanded forces from Syria.
Jeffrey and other political officials thus turned enduring defeat into a sort of Swiss-Army-knife objective, one that incorporated all U.S. aims in Syria and could justify an open-ended troop presence.
Jeffrey laid out the logic in November 2018 testimony to Congress:
First of all, you cannot ensure the enduring defeat of [ISIL] — that’s what we experienced, including me personally in Iraq in 2010 to 2012, of any terrorist organization if you don’t deal with the root causes of it. Well, the root causes of [ISIL], mainly in Syria but to some degree in Iraq, have been, first of all, the horrific behavior of the [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime against its own people, giving those people no other chance but to turn to whomever would take up arms against Assad, and that was, unfortunately, including terrorists. Secondly, it is the role of Iran, spreading its tentacles around the Arabic Sunni world. This is an outside force that creates malignant antibodies if we — that is, the international community — do not respond in a proper way. We did not respond in a proper way to Iran’s encroachment into these areas so the peoples of the area, in desperation, fell victim to the false claims, the false promises of [ISIL] and other terrorist organizations. So we do have to do all three, we cannot just rely upon the military defeat of the Caliphate right now along the Mesopotamia, the Euphrates, along the Iraqi border. We have to go after the root causes, and our policy is aimed at that.
Jeffrey has continued to advance that same integrative logic following his departure from government in November 2020. “We saw this all as one thing,” he told Al-Monitor in December.
The Obama administration and the early Trump administration had pursued a political solution to the Syrian conflict in parallel with the counter-ISIL military campaign, and had said that a resolution to the country’s civil war was important to ultimately defeating ISIL. Yet they had not so directly linked the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Syria — for which the counter-ISIL campaign provides the legal basis — to Syrian political change, as Trump administration officials did. Meanwhile, the new Trump team’s additional demand that all Iranian-commanded forces leave Syria was a novelty.
Of course, this new definition of enduring defeat and its multiplying requirements seem never to have had Trump’s buy-in. Enduring defeat didn’t stop Trump from ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria in December 2018 and again in October 2019. Officials and advisers eventually managed to convince Trump to keep a contingent of troops in far eastern Syria to “secure the oil.” Days later, U.S. special operations forces carried out a raid in northwest Syria that killed ISIL leader al-Baghdadi — further punctuating ISIL’s apparent defeat, if not its enduring defeat.
For all Trump’s talk of “securing oil,” though, the U.S. government remains committed to enduring defeat. The official purpose of the continued U.S. military presence in a rump section of eastern Syria is still ISIL’s enduring defeat. The more conventional military battle against ISIL is over. Yet the U.S. military continues to train and advise local Syrian partner forces, to accompany those Syrians on arrests and raids targeting suspected ISIL members, and to help those partners secure prisons holding foreign and local ISIL detainees. This U.S. support for Syrian partners’ counter-terrorism and security activities is meant to limit ISIL’s ability to reconstitute itself and to keep the group’s ongoing insurgency at a low, manageable level. Even securing the oil is justified in terms of ISIL’s enduring defeat, as a way of denying the organization oil revenues. Meanwhile, the expansive political aims in Syria that Jeffrey and other officials married to enduring defeat have remained unchanged.
Enduring Defeat Out of Reach
Yet that type of all-purpose enduring defeat seems impossible. There is still no indication that Damascus can be induced to offer the type of negotiated concessions that Jeffrey’s team sought, something that will be abundantly clear to the Biden team when it reviews the non-progress of U.N.-sponsored political talks. Before his departure late this year, Jeffrey said that U.S. aims include an “irreversible political solution” to Syria’s war negotiated under U.N. auspices, the release of political prisoners, and “meaningful accountability for perpetrators of war crimes” — demands that, in aggregate, are tantamount to regime change. Unsurprisingly, Damascus refuses to negotiate its own suicide.
Likewise, there is no reason to think the Syrian government will turn on Iran — the longtime ally that played an invaluable role helping Damascus survive a decade of U.S.-backed insurgency — and expel Iran-led forces from Syria.
Even if one takes the narrower, more functional definition of enduring defeat that U.S. defense officials often articulate — that is, leaving counter-ISIL efforts in the hands of capable local police and security forces — it is unclear how the United States can accomplish it.
That is because Washington has bonded in Syria to a non-state partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, that is surrounded by enemies. Neighboring Turkey regards the Syrian Democratic Forces’ leading Kurdish component as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Ankara seemingly remains determined to extirpate what it considers a Kurdistan Workers’ Party statelet south of its border — already, it has twice intervened militarily in Syria against this perceived enemy. Damascus, meanwhile, considers the Syrian Democratic Forces a U.S.-sponsored separatist threat to Syria’s territorial integrity. America’s stated commitment to enduring defeat — which entails indefinite U.S. sponsorship of its Syrian partners — seems only to have further motivated Turkey, Damascus, and the latter’s allies Russia and Iran to coordinate to target those partners and the U.S. presence in eastern Syria. If the United States just withdraws now, these hostile forces seem certain to try to dismantle the local counter-ISIL force America leaves behind.
As the military campaign against ISIL approached its conclusion in 2017 and 2018, some U.S. officials entertained the idea of encouraging the Syrian Democratic Forces to reach a deal with Damascus, and thus at least secure Russian protection from Turkish attack. But after several years of the Kurdish-led force resisting Damascus’ unpalatable terms and instead siding with Washington, it is not clear that any real compromise is still possible, if it ever was.
Redefining U.S. Counter-ISIL Aims in Syria
As the incoming Biden administration carries out its initial review of America’s counter-terrorism and Syria posture, it should consider whether enduring defeat still makes sense as a U.S. policy aim — or, at least, think carefully about how to define it.
Presuming the Biden administration wants its counter-ISIL aims to actually be about counter-ISIL — and not just an excuse to occupy part of Syria — the Biden team ought to get back to analytical and definitional basics. First and foremost, it should ask: What does it really mean to “defeat” ISIL in Syria? If we assume that ISIL cannot be totally eradicated in either Syria or Iraq, at what point is the organization “defeated” enough, at least for U.S. national security purposes?
Then there are other important questions that follow from that central definitional issue: What real threat does ISIL currently pose, either to the U.S. homeland or to America’s allies and friends? How thoroughly does “defeat” require the United States to degrade ISIL — does it need to disrupt the organization’s more developed functions like leadership cadres and external operations units, or does it have to work all the way down the ranks to Syrians planting roadside bombs and other local collaborators? If the answer is the former, those ISIL leaders and specialist cadres may not even be located in areas of U.S. troop presence in Syria — al-Baghdadi wasn’t. What kind of military footprint, then, does the United States need on the ground in Syria to pursue minimum counter-ISIL objectives?
Pursuing ISIL down to its lowermost tiers — going after small guerrilla units, clandestine urban cells, and local collaborators — is arguably more feasible in neighboring Iraq. So long as the United States and international partners can avoid a confrontation with local Iraqi paramilitaries, they can support the Iraqi state and security forces’ counter-ISIL efforts on a basically indefinite basis. That type of open-ended, full-scope counter-insurgency is less viable when working by, with, and through a controversial non-state actor like the Syrian Democratic Forces. In Syria, the United States also has to worry about local antibodies that include harassment by collocated Russian forces, Syrian government-encouraged “popular resistance,” and potential new Turkish military action. What the United States can accomplish in Syria, therefore, is likely not what it can accomplish in Iraq. U.S. policy aims ought to be calibrated accordingly.
In any case, it makes no sense to incorporate maximalist regime change and counter-Iran objectives into enduring defeat, as the Trump administration did. That is a surefire recipe for failure. And there is another question the Biden team should ask, if it is worried about “root causes”: What factors do we really think helped produce this iteration of ISIL? Because the organization seems, this time, to have been empowered mainly by the near-collapse of the Syrian state. That means the assumptions on which the Trump administration has based its definition of enduring defeat don’t even make sense in the narrowest counter-ISIL terms.
So, what type of counter-ISIL objectives can the United States really accomplish now in Syria? And what to call them — enduring defeat, or something new?
The United States has few attractive options now in Syria. Realistically, the Biden administration may now face a choice between an indefinite half-in, half-out military presence in northeast Syria and a withdrawal that leaves America’s local counter-ISIL partners to waiting predators.
Still, the first step to rationalizing counter-ISIL efforts in Syria, and U.S. Syria policy broadly, is more realistically defining what the United States hopes to achieve. The Trump administration’s enduring defeat is a mirage — it’s time to come back to reality.
Sam Heller is an independent researcher and analyst focused on Syria and the broader Levant. He is based in Beirut. The views expressed here are his own. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.