On Sept. 23, the United States and its coalition partners attacked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria for the first time. The strikes follow President Barack Obama’s announcement on Sept. 10 that the U.S. would expand its airstrikes against ISIL from Iraq to Syria. The administration’s determination to stay out of the Syrian conflict and withdraw from Iraq has ultimately proved untenable.
Obama might not admit this, but as former Secretary of State Colin Powell might say, the U.S. broke Iraq but remains reluctant to own it. The same holds true for Syria: Having supported the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Obama administration failed to provide game-changing military and political support to Syrian opposition groups when they needed it most.
In an attempt to roll back the clock, the U.S. and its allies have now launched another war without really owning the mistake or addressing what is essentially a political question. To be sure, in both Syria and Iraq, the ISIL threat is an urgent security challenge that needs to be tackled on the ground. But the crucial question is, What comes next? Without a clear-eyed strategy for putting Iraq and Syria back together, the conditions that paved a way for the group’s rise after U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (and blithely turned aside at the height of the Syrian civil war) will exist long after ISIL is defeated.
In other words, Obama’s response to U.S. missteps in Iraq and Syria appears to be, “Let’s break some more stuff.”
There’s little doubt that U.S. airstrikes have been effective in rolling back some of ISIL’s gains in northern Iraq. The supply of Western arms to Iraqi Kurds has been key to halting ISIL’s advance and has strengthened the Iraqi government’s hold on Baghdad. But ISIL’s inevitable defeat is not a prescription for victory, particularly if in its aftermath, Iraq’s Sunni heartland remains disaffected and Syria’s northeast stays ungovernable.
Moreover, Obama’s purely military response has unforeseen consequences that could further complicate political problems in the region. For one, the U.S.-led intervention may increase ISIL’s internal cohesion and broaden its regional appeal despite the political cover provided by Gulf allies. It may also deepen the exasperation of Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which were promised a broader role in the new government in Baghdad but have yet to see that materialize. While Obama’s campaign will certainly degrade and may even destroy ISIL, it will do nothing to resolve the growing disenfranchisement in Iraq’s Anbar province, which fed ISIL’s growth and success. Empowering Baghdad militarily may even be counterproductive to achieving reconciliation among Iraq’s political groups. And without a political solution, the disconnect between the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Sunni tribes will only deepen. The U.S. needs to ensure that Iraq’s new leaders will not repeat former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s mistakes by failing to create an inclusive government.
The lack of political strategy is also obvious in Syria. As in Iraq, Syria lacks an inclusive central government willing to accommodate the diversity of its nation. The chaos in northern and eastern Syria is a result of the divide-and-rule strategies pursued by the Assad regime against the opposition. The disenchantment of the Sunni population in Iraq’s far west that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion created favorable conditions for ISIL. Similarly, the Obama administration’s failure to arm and support the Free Syrian Army emboldened ISIL and other extremist elements within Syria’s armed opposition. Washington’s new strategy does not acknowledge this fact and offers no solutions for addressing the larger (political) problem: how to bring about an inclusive transitional government.
Some U.S. allies such as Turkey have been hesitant, in part because they see the latest effort as insufficient to address this core political problem. Washington’s Middle East allies are providing cover for the latest campaign against ISIL, perhaps hoping for a broadening of U.S. effort in the future. However, there are reasons to fear a scenario similar to post–Saddam Hussein Iraq, characterized by U.S. reluctance to stay the course and take on the challenging task of political reconciliation.
The Obama administration still has time to shape a comprehensive political strategy that could apply to both Syria and Iraq while strengthening the shaky coalition it has enlisted. In order to ensure the total annihilation of ISIL, the U.S. should commit to building a nonsectarian and inclusive government in Baghdad that can help peel Sunni tribes away from ISIL. This has to be accompanied by a political road map to create a broad-based transitional government in Syria.
Any serious strategy should constitute a substantive and long-term accommodation among Iraq’s Sunnis and a genuine political change in Syria. Without such a strategy, no military intervention can possibly succeed. It is time for the U.S. to own the problems that it helped create.