Containing Syria's Chaos

October 20, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: SyriaWarIslamic State

Containing Syria's Chaos

Washington should focus on more than just the Islamic State. It should also work to contain the violence in Iraq and Syria to prevent it from spilling over into the wider Middle East.

Counterterrorism efforts should prioritize the Syrian refugee community. The large numbers of angry and unemployed young men are natural targets of terrorist recruitment. Building up nonviolent community organizations and political bodies in the camp—and backing them against potentially violent groups—is vital. Better integration can also help with counterterrorism, as it will reduce the number of people in refugee camps where they can be more easily recruited.

To better oppose the Islamic State, Washington should step up its efforts to train the military forces of regional states, particularly Jordan and Lebanon but also Saudi Arabia. The militaries of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are not likely to melt away as the Iraqi army did in the face of the Islamic State, but better training and support will help them stand their ground. The United States should also develop contingency plans so it can rapidly deploy support to these countries to repel any incursions from the Islamic State or other jihadist groups.


THE UNITED STATES is working with regional allies to contain, and ideally roll back and defeat, the Islamic State. Washington has provided Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with munitions, intelligence and coordinated airstrikes as those countries have joined U.S. forces in bombing Islamic State targets in Syria. The United States has also conducted military exercises and training for missions for improving internal security and counterinsurgency. U.S. strategy should also prioritize anti-Islamic State operations near border crossings to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to hinder Islamic State cross-border attacks.

Setbacks on the battlefield are likely to prove especially effective in reducing the risk of spillover related to the Islamic State. Part of the Islamic State’s appeal is that it is a winner and is successfully standing up to Iran, supposed apostate regimes and the United States. In addition, it taxes, extorts and otherwise extracts resources from the territory it controls. Pushing it back will both require it to focus resources on the immediate conflict and diminish its appeal abroad, though it may lash out with terrorism in revenge or to demonstrate its relevance.

Thwarting terrorism is likely to prove especially difficult in Lebanon, where Hezbollah—a terrorist organization as well as a guerrilla group and political movement—actually controls part of the government. Given the enmity between Hezbollah and the United States, the United States will not and should not give any support directly to Hezbollah. However, Washington has given Lebanon tens of millions in military financing, including guided antitank missiles and counterterrorism funding. Hezbollah would ostensibly benefit from a more direct U.S. effort to stamp out the Sunni jihadists in its midst, but the Lebanese group is not likely to accept a significant U.S. counterterrorism effort in Lebanon in general, believing (with some reason) that the United States would eventually like to turn it against Hezbollah itself. Any information sharing with the Lebanese military and security forces should be done with the recognition that information may also be leaked to Hezbollah.


THE SPREAD of radicalization is an especially tough problem. It is difficult for the United States and other outside actors to attenuate the radicalizing politics directly, especially given the deep unpopularity of the United States in much of the Muslim world. Much of the U.S. role will be working with regional governments to shore them up, bolstering their economies and otherwise trying to decrease discontent. The United States should also foster conflict resolution where possible in order to reduce the risk that limited grievances within these countries will spin out of control.

One dilemma concerns political reform. Long-term reform is vital to ensure stability as a way to prevent spillover. In the short term, however, reform can be destabilizing—as the fallout from the Arab Spring makes so clear. Pressure from spillover makes any reform project even less likely to succeed. Another sticky issue is that by enhancing the security services’ ability to fight terrorism and police refugee camps, the United States may also inadvertently be strengthening the forces tasked with suppressing democratic dissent in these countries. Finally, the collapse of the Arab Spring has left the reformist camp demoralized and with little popular support in most countries. Counterradicalization efforts cannot depend on political reform, at least in the short term.

In countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, counterradicalization will require pushing the regimes to reduce sectarian hatemongering. The Islamic State has successfully portrayed itself as the defender of the Sunni people against the Shia-Iranian menace. When Riyadh and others play up that menace, it indirectly benefits the Islamic State. Regimes should use their influence with local religious officials not only to condemn the Islamic State but also to counter the narrative it champions. Still, the U.S. role in fostering this will be indirect and limited at best.


A FINAL component of containing spillover is to put diplomatic pressure on allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia—and coercive pressure on adversaries like Iran—to discourage them from intervening further in Iraq and Syria in ways that are opposed to U.S. goals. Turkey may share U.S. opposition to jihadist terrorism, but it sees fighting the Islamic State as less of a priority than changing the regime in Damascus. In addition, Ankara worries that Syria’s Kurds could strengthen Turkey’s own Kurdish movement.

The Gulf states themselves have often worked at cross-purposes, with Qatar backing Muslim Brotherhood-linked figures and more radical groups as Saudi Arabia backs others, often in concert with Jordan. The Obama administration has opposed much of this aid, believing that some of it went to more radical groups and that the funding of multiple factions was weakening overall unity. In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden complained that “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria” and that they were contributing to a “proxy Sunni-Shia war.” There is progress. In 2015, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey are working with the United States to train and equip several thousand troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria.

In addition, the United States wants to prevent interventions from creating a tit-for-tat spiral where a small deployment of, say, a dozen military advisors alarms the neighbors and escalates into large-scale conventional force deployments. At times this may involve offers of military sales, joint exercises and other shows of force that do little in practice but can reassure a jittery ally and highlight U.S. military power to any foes.

Some containment must also be done through proxy efforts in Iraq and Syria itself. The United States should bolster forces to fight groups like the Islamic State locally in order to consume the radicals’ energies and focus them at home. Ideally, this process would involve building local and national capacity to reduce the territorial holdings and eventually the capabilities of the radical groups. In Iraq, the United States has already gone down this road by working with Sunni tribes and the Kurdish peshmerga—initiatives that have grown in importance as the U.S. effort to rebuild the Iraqi army is moving fitfully at best. The United States needs to be sure that those facing the Islamic State directly are strong, so it should stop interfering with Kurdish efforts to sell oil and recognize that arms sales and military training will continue for the long term, even if this angers the central government in Baghdad. It should also relax vetting practices for the opposition in Syria (which would require both congressional action and some degree of bipartisan support given the political risks), recognizing that the price for greater opposition effectiveness will be direct or indirect U.S. aid to unsavory anti-Assad groups.


IN SYRIA, the United States faces another challenge. Washington is engaged in military and other efforts to degrade and defeat the Islamic State, yet it is also opposed to the Assad regime. Weakening the Islamic State does not solve the spillover problem: the continued ferocity of the Syrian war will ensure that it remains acute.

So far Washington has failed to persuade Tehran to end or reduce its support for Damascus. Obama administration officials have criticized Iran’s role and excluded it from peace negotiations because Tehran does not appear willing to support concessions by the Assad government. Indeed, when the Assad regime stumbles, Iran helps pick it up. In 2015, for example, Iran sent more of its own forces and its proxies into Syria after the Assad regime lost territory to a coalition of rebel groups. The United States should continue to press Iran to cut support but not expect any significant change.

The United States has provided Saudi Arabia with munitions, intelligence and aerial-refueling assistance for its campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Such aid is an easy “gimme” to Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi intervention has little chance of significant long-term success and may be worsening Yemen’s civil war. Washington should try to discourage the kingdom escalating and ideally to reduce its intervention there. At the very least, the United States should push Saudi Arabia for more coordination in Iraq and Syria as a price for this cooperation.