What Obama Left Out of His IS Strategy: A Political Settlement in Syria

"Conducting airstrikes against IS in Syria without corresponding political steps could work to the advantage of the regime in Damascus." 

Three weeks ago in the National Interest, I proposed a five-step plan to destroy the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The plan called for the United States to: mobilize a major humanitarian-relief effort; catalyze political settlements to unify anti-IS groups in Iraq and Syria; field robust, supporting military operations; internationalize the anti-IS effort; and prepare the American people for a potentially costly, long-term mission.

President Obama last Wednesday unveiled his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. I applaud his message. The president’s strategy covers nearly all of the necessary steps. Mr. Obama did not specify a timeline for achieving his objective, but senior defense planners expect anti-IS operations to last at least three years. The strategy involves an intensification of the ongoing air campaign (with possible expansion into Syria); greater efforts to train, advise and/or equip various Iraqi forces, especially “National Guard” units in Sunni provinces and the Kurdish peshmerga; ramped up support for nationalist Syrian insurgents; an international effort to stem the flow of fighters and funds to ISIS; and an expanded humanitarian effort to ease the suffering of civilians trapped in the conflict.

The president’s declared strategy left out one critical component for success against IS: catalyzing a political settlement in Syria. He may prefer to focus on a political settlement at a later stage, calculating that air strikes against IS, along with the buildup of nationalist opposition forces, will spur progress in Iraq and bolster U.S. leverage in Syria. The president may also reason that an endgame solution for Syria will require regional consensus, which would be difficult to garner were Washington to announce U.S. political objectives at the outset. These are legitimate considerations. But the administration’s strategy to destroy IS will not succeed without a plan for a political settlement in Syria. Syria needs a leader who can unify all ethnic and sectarian groups against IS through power-sharing at the center and decentralization of the country’s political system. In other words, a settlement in Syria would resemble the political solution Washington is promoting in Iraq to unify Iraqis and motivate Iraqi Sunnis to fight against the IS army.

Syria is not Iraq, however, and the calculus of internal and external players may be quite different. In Iraq, replacing former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi did not undermine Shia power in Iraq, given that Shia comprise a majority of the country’s population, and that the new prime minister is from the same Da’wa party as his predecessor. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei supported the change, as did all other major regional players. Iran also has both helped and participated in the fight against IS in Iraq, including Kurdistan.

In Syria, however, where ruling Alawites are a minority, Iran has opposed the removal of Assad and helped the regime massively with weapons, personnel and economic support. The Iranian assistance has been decisive in sustaining the regime. Tehran has been complicit in the brutal tactics employed against the rebels and Sunni civilians by the Assad government. Eliciting Iranian support will entail a far-more-complicated solution that would involve not only a timeline for Assad’s departure and an agreement on a leader who can unify the Syrians and rally the Sunnis against IS, but would also reassure the Alawites. In essence, Washington and its allies need a roadmap for Syria that both Iran and Sunni states can endorse and accept.

Conducting airstrikes against IS in Syria without corresponding political steps could work to the advantage of the regime in Damascus. Assad might well devote more resources to attacking the nationalist opposition. This in turn could lead disaffected Sunnis to rally in support of IS against the Assad regime. He might calculate that if he can eliminate the nationalist opposition and the fight becomes sharply one between his regime and IS, the world will choose him and his regime.

A strategy sets the general direction for a campaign, but details will matter, too. The president’s strategy to destroy IS will encounter major, perhaps fatal, obstacles if it fails to deliver on the following items:

First, significant material support must be delivered urgently to the nationalist Syrian opposition to mitigate the risk of airstrikes inadvertently helping Assad or IS. This is also important for changing conditions on the ground to make them more favorable to a political settlement—undermining the regime’s hopes for victory and confronting Iran with increased costs of sustaining the regime.