In my blogposts over the past couple of years, I have been very critical of President Obama’s foreign policy, and in particular his handling of the Syrian civil war. When the smoke clears, the American policy in Syria will stand as the previous administration’s most glaring failure. The Middle East has confounded most American presidents, but there is now some good news amidst the seemingly endless stream of bad.
The American strategy in fighting Islamic State (ISIS) in Northern Iraq and Syria seems to be working. President Obama deserves some credit for this success, along with the US military and President Trump. Like Bush before him, though lacking in his predecessor’s contrition, Obama did privately repent of his mistakes, which allowed this new strategy to emerge. Much like Obama taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, Trump will reap the praise of Obama’s strategic adjustments that brought about the retaking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the crown jewel of ISIS’s hoped-for Caliphate.
When Obama left office, the new strategy was well underway and succeeding. The American-led coalition, working in support of Iraqi ground forces, is now in the final battle for Raqqa, the declared capital of the Caliphate. In this campaign the US military may have found a winning formula for fighting and winning battles and wars in the Middle East. Unlike previous Iraq wars, where Americans did most of the heavy lifting, the new strategy puts the indigenous forces on the frontline with American Special Operations Forces (SOF) and airpower providing crucial support, guidance, and training. In the 2003 Iraq War, Americans pounded the Iraqi army into smithereens only to have those gains lost by incompetence and lack of planning, plus scandals that turned the population against them (remember Abu Ghraib?).
David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist at the Washington Post, summed up this new strategy in a recent column. What, precisely, is it? He cites the work of the Rand Corporation’s Linda Robinson, who spent a couple weeks in Iraq analyzing the strategy. She describes it this way:
[T]he most notable feature of the expanded U.S. SOF role in the Middle East has been its work alongside indigenous forces in Iraq and Syria. Conventional and coalition forces provide additional numbers of troops. What makes this campaign so unusual is that U.S. forces are not providing the muscle of the frontline combat troops. Instead, the campaign is conducted “by, with, and through” others, a Special Forces phrase that the CENTCOM commander, General Joseph Votel, has adopted to call attention to this new way of warfighting. If the counter-ISIS campaign succeeds in dislodging ISIS from Iraq and Syria, this approach is more likely to be considered for other, similar conflicts.
The “by, with, and through” policy has become a mantra among SOF’s on the ground. This new model of fighting has many distinct advantages. For the US military, the lighter footprint greatly reduces the hostility towards American forces and the war effort as a whole. American public support for this campaign is still relatively high, in part because the public is not paying attention. The costs to American forces have been miniscule, with only five casualties over the last three years. Iraqis have taken the lead in fighting ISIS, so there is a level of ownership and responsibility for securing the peace that was not there in the past. These gains are significant and are bringing together hard-won lessons into a coherent strategy for future conflicts. Military commanders seem to have found the sweet spot between over- and under-committing US forces.
The Iraqi and Syrian forces have been doing the bulk of frontline fighting and have suffered major causalities. Civilian populations have suffered devastating losses as well. But the progress of the Iraqi and Syrian forces has been significant. “The surprise has been how motivated and disciplined the Iraqi and Syrian forces have been,” writes Ignatius. “They’ve fought bravely, taking significant casualties. And for the most part, they have cooperated across sectarian lines.”
In addition to the heavy casualties, significant future problems will have to be addressed before these gains can be solidified. Most pressing is the lack of a credible political solution to compliment the military shift. The tensions between Turkey and Kurdish forces assisting the Americans are real and volatile. There are also tensions between other Sunni nations in the region, and of course there is Iran, who has significant influence in Iraq and is intent on reasserting its influence over the region.
While these other problems are more intractable and potentially devastating, the current coalition and strategy are holding together. The biggest challenges are still ahead, but these developments give some hope that perhaps some long term solution to the massive instability in the region might be reached.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: An Iraqi army soldier aims down the sights of his weapon system during the combined arms training activity at Camp Taji, Iraq, Aug. 9, 2017. Camp Taji is one of four Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve building partner capacity locations dedicated to training partner forces and enhancing their effectiveness on the battlefield. CJTF – OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Torrance Saunders.