ILAN GOLDENBERG: CNAS has convened a group of former government officials and regional experts to discuss the challenges posed by ISIS. This presentation, the follow-on panel with a number of those experts and the report that we’ve recently released represent the culmination of that work. Importantly – it’s important to remember that the findings in this presentation and in the report are those of the authors alone and not necessarily the views of all of the folks in the ISIS study group.
So where do we stand today? Thirteen years after 9/11 and after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we found ourselves with an Islamic State in the heart of the Middle East. This territory became the basis from which to launch attacks against the United States and its partners. It also allowed ISIS to become a global vanguard and leader of this Islamist extremist movement, allowing it to recruit, allowing it to generate affiliates in other areas such as North Africa and the Middle East, and allowing it to also inspire homegrown extremists, like we saw recently in Orlando.
This area of territory is ultimately ISIS’s center of gravity. And any strategy must – that is aiming that ultimately stopping attacks against the United States and our partners must destroy the proto-state in Iraq and Syria and, very importantly, replace it with some kind of a sustainable alternative. We view this territory as actually having two separate theaters of conflict. One is ISIS-stan (sp), territory actually held by ISIS, as you can see here. The other is the Syrian civil war in Western Syria, which has a number of different complex actors associated with it, which creates many of the conditions which allow ISIS to thrive.
PAUL SCHARRE: And the current U.S. approach is making progress. We can see today – this year is ISIS at its fullest extent two years ago. ISIS has significantly lost territory over the last two years. This is ISIS today. Now, here’s the problem. This nascent Islamic State sits right in the middle of two very messy – (inaudible) – sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Our approach to date has relied predominantly on Kurdish groups in the north, in the dark blue, the Kurdish regional government of Iraq, and in the light blue, the predominantly Kurdish Sunni democratic forces in Northern Syria, as well as predominantly Shia forces coming from, in orange, the Shia dominated central government in Baghdad and associated Shia militias. And the problem is that there are limits to how far these mostly Kurdish and Shia groups can advance into traditional Sunni heartland areas without further exacerbating sectarian tensions that ultimately feed ISIS.
We’ve been too focused on rolling back ISIS’s gains and not enough on who replaces ISIS. How do we put in enduring security structures that are a bulwark against ISIS or another group returning in the future? This is the lesson of the Sunni awakening and its aftermath. It’s not enough to focus on rolling back extremists. We need to think about the political structures that replace them.
MR. GOLDENBERG: In Western Syria, we have a different situation. Here, we have the Assad regime in red, more moderate opposition groups in green, extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in yellow up there, as well as the Kurds in light blue and ISIS, all fighting for the same battle space. Thus far, the American approach has been to try to negotiate a political solution for this conflict but the basic assumption that we’ve taken is the Assad problem and the Syria problem are not as important for our national interests as the ISIS problem. That’s a mistake.
The reality is that the Iraqi and Syria civil wars, the governance vacuums they have created and the security vacuums that they have created are really the disease that is afflicting this territory. ISIS is simply the most problematic and dangerous of the symptoms that have come from it. But if you really want to address the disease, you have to deal with the core underlying problems.
For example, we could find that we pursue a strategy that overtime eliminates this big grey blob and destroys the ISIS proto-state. But if this yellow territory over there continues to extend, we’re going to have an al Qaeda affiliate in Western Syria which can still threaten the United States and its partners and it’s not something that is acceptable to our interests.
MR. SCHARRE: We propose a new strategy to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and replace it with sustainable governance structures. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to talk about the overall outlines of that strategy and then we’ll go region by region and talk about specific ways in which it will be implemented in this conflict.
The strategy has four main lines of effort. The first is increased support to local armed opposition groups. When we have used this approach of working with local groups in the past, it’s repeatedly shown successes from the Sunni awakening in Iraq to the southern front in Syria, to recent gains by Kurdish groups in Northern Syria.
Now, what this means is in Syria, we’ll be expanding the set of actors that we work with, beyond just those who are fighting ISIS to groups who are fighting ISIS and Assad. We’ve been too focused on who we are against. We need to think about who we are for, who we want to control this territory. In order to ensure that we’re not exacerbating sectarian tensions, we need to work with groups that are acceptable to the local population, which means we’ll be supporting different actors in different regions, building security from the bottom up.
The second main line of effort is increased military support to these groups that will take a number of reforms, embedding U.S. combat advisers alongside partner forces, increased U.S. raids against ISIS, increased authority for military operations inside Syria, more U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and a willingness to pursue military coercion against Assad to affect his behavior.
MR. GOLDENBERG: The third line of effort involves working with external actors and getting them all on the same page. This we view as a phased approach. First, if you take the steps that Paul outlined in terms of increasing the American commitment and engagement in the conflict, we should have the leverage to get key partners, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to play a more constructive role. We need those countries to be arming the same groups that we are arming and supporting and cease any support for extremist groups. We also need them to be able to help us secure the borders that go into Iraq and Syria, which are central for supplying and assisting ISIS.
The types of steps that we discussed are exactly the types of steps the Turks and the Saudis would like to see, and we think that relatively quickly we can get their support for such an effort.
The second, more difficult approach is trying to get the Russians and the Iranians on board. We don’t believe that the Russians and the Iranians will ever give up their core interests in Syria and Iraq and we don’t expect them to. But we do think that greater American engagement and a willingness to signal that we are going to get more involved will cause more pliability on their parts in terms of willingness to negotiate an outcome that can be acceptable to all parts.
A fourth line of effort focuses on governance. This also includes two parts. One is supporting local groups, local governance on the ground that really goes hand in hand with the arming of local opposition that Paul talked about. And this means really looking at municipal councils and other types of efforts that are ongoing already inside Syria and Iraq but expanding on those. In the long term, what we need to do is try to negotiate a political outcome for both these conflicts in Iraq and Syria. That’s not possible today but if over time you’re able to expand and increase the number of acceptable groups and their influence, if you’re able to increase American leverage through increased involvement, if you’re able to get external actors to be more pliable, we can try to come to national agreements that ideally end these conflicts where Syria and Iraq essentially remain whole but are highly decentralized through some kind of a power sharing arrangement in both states.
MR. SCHARRE: What we’re going to do now is move region by region and talk about specific ways in which this strategy would be implemented. In Western Iraq, we could see the limits of the current approach in the Fallujah offensive that is underway today. Iraqi government forces had been able to seize key points inside the city center, effectively breaking ISIS control of the city and the offensive is largely a mop op operation.
Now, they’ve been able to keep Shia militias outside of Fallujah proper but Shia militias had been operating on the outskirts of the city, where they’ve reportedly been abducting, torturing and murdering Sunni civilian men as they attempt to flee Fallujah. Not only are these atrocities horrific but they ultimately strengthen ISIS in the long run by playing into ISIS’s narrative that ISIS is the only protector of Iraq’s Sunni communities. The solution is to strengthen Sunni groups within Iraq to participate in these offenses and then secure these areas after the government has seized them so that ISIS doesn’t return and retake Fallujah in two or three years.
Now, the U.S. approach to date has been to work through the Iraqi government to try to build up these groups. That’s not working. The Shia dominated government in Baghdad is not interested in arming Sunni groups within its territory. Now, this is a delicate balancing act. We don’t want to push the Iraqi government too hard and risking something more sectarian in its place, but we need to be willing to lean further into this issue and make clear to the Iraqi government that arming these Sunni groups and growing them is essential to sustainable progress against ISIS in the long run and that we would prefer to work through the Iraqi government, but if they’re not willing, then we would seriously consider arming these Sunni groups directly ourselves, potentially using Kurdish held areas in the dark blue, in the north, as a beach head to train and arm these groups.
Now, in Eastern Syria, there’s a similar problem in that most of the gains have come in the light blue, from the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, and there are limits to how far they can and should push into Sunni Arab territories that ISIS holds. The role of the predominantly Kurdish SDF also is a problem for our ally, Turkey, in the north, who’s very concerned about this large swath of Kurdish held territory along their southern border.
Similarly, in Syria, we need to be working to support more Sunni Arab groups, groups that have been displaced from ISIS-held territory, helping tribes within ISIS-held territory stand up, and supporting the new Syrian Army in the southeast, that small green splash on the edge of the map on Syria and Iraq.
Now, in both these areas, in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria, in order to carry out this plan, we need additional military authorities and resources. We need to be willing to embed U.S. combat advisers alongside partner forces during combat operations, which we’ve not done to date. This will allow the closer integration with U.S. airpower and allow advisers to make partner forces more effective in their offenses. We need to step up the campaign of U.S. direct action – (inaudible) – raids against ISIS which we’ve done some up to date but we could do more, particularly in Syria.
We need additional authorities delegated to military commanders so that the same flexibility for operations in Eastern Syria as we do in Western Iraq. Now, what’s different in Western Syria, where you have Assad regime, Russian and Iranian forces all operating. But they’re not in the east and it doesn’t make sense to artificially constrain ourselves by the Syria-Iraq border. It certainly doesn’t constrain ISIS.
More U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq and Syria to carry out this plan beyond the current force levels of 300 U.S. troops in Syria and approximately 4,000 in Iraq. This would consist of additional combat advisers as well as supporting troops in the form of Medevac, fire support, close air support, Intel, and quick reaction forces. This would likely be several thousand additional troops in Iraq and Syria, potentially bringing total force levels to 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops across both countries combined. This would not require, however, a return to the large scale seen during the U.S. occupation of Iraq of 150,000 U.S. troops or more.
The U.S. military’s role will be to assist partners, not to seize and hold territory themselves.
MR. GOLDENBERG: In Southwest Syria, we have another interesting complex situation, one that has actually probably been the best news story in recent years in this conflict. What we have here is a group called the Southern Front. It’s that green area in the south that the United States has supported and, over time, allowed basically 40 to 50 different small individual groups to come together under one relatively moderate political umbrella and take and hold this territory and begin to govern it.
What has worked here is that we haven’t tried to artificially impose something from the outside. Instead, we’ve worked with the forces that were on the ground. We’ve also been patient, allowing this to take time. And, very importantly, we’ve worked very closely with the Jordanians, who are right there on the border, in terms of controlling the arms and supplies that go in and essentially only go to Southern Front affiliated groups now, which has allowed them over time, if you went back and looked at this map two or three years ago, you’d have a lot more extremist splotches down here in the south that have essentially been eliminated.
The biggest challenge that the Southern Front has and that many of these moderate opposition groups have is that they have no air cover. So even after they take territory from the Assad regime, they continue to face bombardment via air strikes either from the Russians or from the Assad regime which then are targeted not only making it more difficult for them to take more territory, but, importantly, in many cases, you’re talking about strategically bombing civilian targets in order to make it impossible to actually govern in that territory.
What we propose is something that is pretty much the exact same proposal put out just this weekend by 51 American diplomats in the cable that was leaked – the dissent cable that was leaked to the “New York Times.” We’d argue for a no bombing zone in this area. The good news at least in this area has been since the cessation of hostilities over the past few months, there’s been less action in the south. But we would propose, if the cessation breaks down or in some other areas too, is a no bombing zone. Basically go to the Russians and say to them, if you strike our proxies and groups that we are supporting, we will strike your proxies, that is the Assad regime. You can do that with standoff weapons. Standoff weapons can be launched via – basically do not require you to actually fly planes into Syria, which means you don’t have to take out Syrian air defenses, which is the biggest concern with using military action.
The idea is to deter the Russians or the Assad regime from taking action against these groups in certain areas and allow them to coalesce, allow them to govern. It also has the additional advantage of allowing these groups, signaling actually to everyone – the Russians, the Iranians, every actor inside and outside Syria – that the U.S. is willing to get more engaged, which then gives you a lot of leverage at the negotiating table. And, importantly, you have to make sure that as you do this, you target areas where we do not believe there are a large number of Russian forces. There are areas like that. You can look at fixed targets in Damascus. You can also look at Dera’a, where the Russians are not really deployed, which is that little red slither between the two green pieces. So there are options there and target sets that you can use to try to execute the strategy.
Moving up to the northwest, I would argue if things aren’t complicated enough, this is probably the most complicated region in Syria and Iraq. We have – the biggest challenge here is you have these moderate opposition groups but they’re all marbled up with extremists, what you see in the yellow, which sometimes we call the al Qaeda tumor in the middle of Western Syria, and this is a heavily populated important area of Syria, not that’s very big but this is one of the most populated areas of the country.
Here what we would argue for is trying to pursue a strategy similar to what we did in the southwest – look for specific moderate groups and try to arm them and try to over time allow them to gain more influence and marginalize the extremists. It’s going to be more complicated here. It’s going to take more time. But, importantly, if you find that a moderate group is, for example, working with a more extreme group and coordinating their efforts, don’t immediately cut off money for the moderate group. All you do then is enable the extremists. And there’s really a competition among these groups both to go after Assad but also to outcompete each other. And, importantly, as part of this, this is where you really need to focus on local governance and trying to empower local municipal councils because a lot of the work that Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate, has done well here has involved using the Sharia court system that exists to provide government and services.
Now, moving on, the other big challenge in the northwest is the border in the area around the Manbij pocket. Here we have a challenge. This is the only part of Syria that is still controlled by ISIS on the Syria-Turkey border. And so this is the main supply line in for ISIS and for other extremist groups who are looking to get things into Syria and Iraq. So we have to shut this down. Now, recently, we’ve had an offensive that’s begun by the Syrian Democratic Forces to take Manbij and start closing this pocket.
The challenge is, again, we’re trying to support Kurdish forces primarily here, which is anathema to the Turks, especially since – let’s be realistic, many of the Kurdish forces we are supporting here are lined with the PKK, which the Turks justifiably view as a terrorist organization. And so the question is how do you address this in the long term? We would argue going to the Turks and saying to them very clearly, one, we’re going to get much more serious about arming groups in Northwest Syria and dealing with this problem here; we need your help with that. Two, we’re willing to consider no bombing zones around the Turkish border in order to deter Russian strengths, which is very meaningful for the Turks. And, three, our intention is not to have the Kurds take over all this ISIS-held territory because they can’t do it anyway. They’re going to hold a territory that they hold but we need your help.
And so we assure them through those steps and then expect from the Turks better coordination, much better coordination who are arming and support, and a more serious effort at closing down this border. And also make clear to the Turks that if this is not something that they’re willing to do, the U.S. will have no choice but to pursue alternatives, which means working with the Kurds, if that’s necessary to defeat ISIS.
MR. SCHARRE: Now, there are some risks associated with approach. Increased U.S. military involvement will mean more U.S. troops in harm’s way. But the threat from ISIS and other extremist groups to U.S. citizens and interests at home and abroad is real. And doing nothing and allowing this safe haven to exist in the heart of the Middle East also threatens American lives.
Declaring and enforcing a no-bombing zone also risks escalation with Russia, but we should remember that neither Russia nor the United States wants direct military conflict with a long history of brinkmanship with Russia that’s been able to avoid direct conflict. And, ultimately, we agree with 51 State Department officials that we need to be able to put credible military coercive options on the table to affect Assad’s behavior.
MR. GOLDENBERG: Another major risk is the political risk that as you arm all these different groups and support different areas, you’re no longer able to put Syria and Iraq back together again. That is a real risk. We might never get to a political agreement that ultimately keeps these countries whole. But we would argue that the greater risk is allowing extremists to continue to hold territory and sooner have a more fragmented Syria with more acceptable groups holding territory than a more put together Syria and Iraq where extremists hold larger chunks of territory that they can use to threaten the United States and its partners.
Another risk is that this is a long-term strategy and so, in the meantime, we’re going to have to deal with the other threats posed by ISIS. That means continuing to counter transnational threat network, that means continuing to deal with the question of self-radicalization here at home; it also means continuing to address other ISIS affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan or the Sinai. But we do believe that this is ultimately the heart of the ISIS problem and one that needs to be tackled centrally.
In the end, we believe that this approach can work. After 9/11, we tried a heavy counterinsurgency approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. It didn’t work. It was not political sustainable here and the costs were just too high given our national interests. We then went to a different approach of trying to disengage from the Middle East, eventually going to zero troops in Iraq. That also didn’t work. It left us vulnerable and surprised when ISIS reemerged.
What we are arguing for is a third way. Work with local groups on the ground, provide the necessary but limited military support they need, coordinate with external actors, and then try to forge political arrangements to end these conflicts. We believe this approach can work. We believe that the costs associated with this approach are proportionate to our national interests and allow us to also focus on other things and other challenges we’ve been hearing about all day. And, ultimately, we believe that this approach can keep the American people and the United States safer from the threats like ISIS and other extremist groups.
So with that, we’ll turn it over to David Ignatius and our panel who can respond and lead the discussion. Thank you.
MR. SCHARRE: Thanks very much.
DAVID IGNATIUS: So I want to thank Ilan and Paul for laying out what is really an extraordinary report. Anybody who wants to try to understand this immensely difficult problem, I commend you to read it, think about the issues in it.
We have a very strong group to help us unpack the ideas that are in this report. Let me just introduce them briefly. To my immediate right, Michèle Flournoy was undersecretary of defense for policy. She was co-founder of the CNAS. If you read any political gossip at all, you know that she is on the short, short list as a possible future secretary of defense.
Ryan Crocker is, I want to say, what most people who follow diplomacy would say, is a national treasure for the United States. Ryan has served with great distinction as our ambassador in Iraq, in Afghanistan in the most difficult times. I first met Ryan I think in 1981, in Beirut. I’ve seen Ryan – I remember Ryan I think on the day that the American embassy was hit in Beirut. But he has been just a remarkable figure in our country’s life.
Dr. Kimberly Kagan is the head of the Institute for the Study of War, teaches military history at West Point and other universities. If you look at the ISW website, again, if you want to follow these issues, that’s really a must, you’ll see a meticulous examination of what’s happening on the ground. It’s a rare resource.
And, finally, Will McCants, who is a fellow of the Brookings Institution, directs a project there, and also the Center for Middle East Policy. Will is a particular resource for me because of the book that he wrote about ISIS called “The ISIS Apocalypse,” in which he used his knowledge of Arabic, his knowledge of the part of the world from which ISIS emerged. And if you haven’t looked at the book, I’d urge you to do so.
So that’s our panel. I want to start first by asking Michele and Kim to talk about the military issues that are raised in the report. And I’ll turn to Ryan for the diplomatic and political military aspects and then turn to Will for a look ahead at what the future of ISIS may be.
But, Michele, let start with you by asking about an issue that came squarely to my attention when I traveled in May with General Votel, who’s the new CENTCOM commander, and we were in Syrian on an unusual visit to American military advisers training the proxy forces that we’re working with, the Syrian Democratic Forces, so called. And I asked General Votel if he would speak for a moment about what had been the American approach to training these forces, the so-called train and equip program that was run by General Nagata, in which we really did try this bottom-up effort, much like what Ilan and Paul described, trying to start de novo. And General Votel said basically, I think we’ve got to go with what we have, that we don’t have the time to create the ideal force in terms of demography, its various attributes.
So, Michele, let me ask you about that. The report argues for being patient, being careful in getting the force right, yet here’s a very experienced four star saying we’ve got to go with what we have.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Well, I think – you know, there’s a lot of consensus around this idea that the way forward is a strategy that focuses on supporting and enabling partners, that this is not something that a large scale U.S. military intervention can solve by itself. And so the question is how to do a partner-focused strategy effectively?
And I think one of the things that was learned in the previous DOD train and equip effort is when you try to create units from whole cloth, you identify leaders, you identify individuals, you try to put them together and build them into effective military units and then send them – you know, take them out of Syria, do that in Jordan or Turkey or where have you and then send them back in, they have trouble reintegrating and having any kind of legitimacy with the folks who’d stayed in place and continued to fight.
And so the new approach is to find existing groups, imperfect as they may be, who are in the fight, who are relatively more moderate, who are willing to work with us, and enable them to be more effective. So work with the groups that already have some basic local legitimacy that are fighting for their home territory and so forth.
The two best examples, as Ilan and Paul mentioned, are, first, the Southern Front, which is a group of, you know, 40, 50 groups in Southern Syria, right along the border with Jordan. Jordanians and the United States have been working with them since, you know, February of 2014. And we’ve gotten – it started out with individual groups and then we got them to start working together in a network. Then we got them to pledge certain allegiance to a sort of covenant, you know, for a more inclusive, democratic Syria. And they are now about 30,000 strong and doing a pretty good job holding territory.
You’ve seen a similar approach with our Special Operations Forces working with the YPG Kurds along the Turkish border in the northeast and a smaller group of Arab militias as well, again, trying to get them to cohere, hold territory and so forth. So it’s sort of a patchwork approach right now but it is more effective than the previous effort because you are dealing with groups that are defending their home territory, that have some legitimacy locally, and, you know, have some capacity to start with.
MR. IGNATIUS: So one key, central argument of the document that was prepared by the 51 State Department officers who were communicating in the dissent channel their unhappiness with U.S. policy, but their basic argument was that we need to use military power to increase the cost for the regime, and, by implication, for Russia, of attacking our proxy forces, that we need to make this a more balanced conflict so as to find eventually a path toward negotiation. And I’m wondering whether you share that basic feeling, that this is a time when the United States needs to use military leverage more in that very complicated northwestern part of this theater.
MS. FLOURNOY: I do generally support that argument because I think what we’ve seen is – you know, we have to put military pressure on ISIS to disrupt their plotting, external plotting, to take their leaders off the battlefield, to shrink the caliphate. But, ultimately, you can’t sustain the gains we’ve made unless you deal with the more fundamental situation in Syria. And you’re never going to solve that by purely military means. You have to get to a negotiated solution.
But what I think we’ve seen since the Russian intervention is that the conditions on the ground do not support the kind of negotiated solution that we’d like to get to. And so you have to invest in changing some of the conditions on the ground using some limited military coercion to make your diplomacy more effective by addressing some of those conditions. And I think that’s what they’re arguing for. So efforts to enforce the cessation of hostilities in some areas, efforts to ensure that Russia and Syria don’t actually bomb opposition – you know, forces that are, you know, busy fighting ISIS and, you know, are not terrorists in and of themselves and so forth.
So I think better integration of the military instrument to actually create conditions that will make the negotiations more effective, that is something we need to look at more closely.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask Kimberly Kagan for her take on this question of whether additional military force against the Assad regime will lead in a direction towards the de-escalation of the conflict, will put that process that Secretary Kerry has worked on so hard back on track, what you think the dangers of it are. And I think we’ve talked about Syria so far to the exclusion of Iraq. Just talk generally about how we’re doing in both parts of this theater in working with proxies. How would you rate that? It’s central to the argument of this report. Are those arguments realistic?
KIMBERLY KAGAN: As we take a look at the situation inside of Syria and Iraq, I think we recognize that the Geneva process, about which we were also hopeful, has proved to be less effective than we might actually want or desire, that the Russian intervention into the conflict in such a direct way in September, in October actually changed the situation on the ground and that the Russians are changing the situation on the ground on an irregular basis. We have lost the initiative. And the United States needs to be able to regain the initiative on the ground in some way in order to gain that initiative within diplomacy. We can’t negotiate from a position of weakness that is then being eroded constantly by Russian aggression.
Now, nobody wants to have a large-scale military intervention inside of Syria. It is absolutely important to find and to work with local forces with whom we can partner. And one of the differences I think that would truly affect our partnership capacity is our willingness to take the gloves off a little bit when it comes to Assad and actually recognize that the Sunni population is actually fighting for some very important interests and that until we actually recognize that their top priority is Assad and our top priority is ISIS, we may not have a convergence of interest.
Again, what that concretely means is that any advise-and-assist effort that we actually undertake needs to be able to help to reset the conditions on the ground sufficiently to make that negotiated settlement come about and to make it come about on terms that the Sunni population will actually agree to, because, in the end, the problem that we’re facing is the Sunni population won’t agree to the very principles that we’re trying to negotiate at the table and that Assad and Russia will not agree to do the same principles.
MR. IGNATIUS: So let me ask you to shift on the map that we were looking at before to Iraq and in particular to the Euphrates Valley, stretching west from Baghdad. And we’ve just had several weeks of reporting from Fallujah about the offensive there by the elite units of the Iraqi military against ISIS well entrenched in Fallujah. As so often happens in these conflicts, the reports we get are pretty optimistic, and, gee, it’s going great. And you follow this very, very carefully. And I want to ask you for your assessment based on all the information that you see of how the Fallujah campaign is going and what the danger points are ahead.
MS. KAGAN: I believe that the Euphrates River Valley is key terrain for ISIS, from Iraq all the way into Syria. But it’s also key terrain for another group that we actually haven’t mentioned very much in this discussion, namely al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate that exists in Syria, that is actually poised most to gain as ISIS loses territory.
And it’s poised most to gain in two different locations. One is in the northwest, not of Syria, and the other is in the Euphrates River Valley, where, in fact, Nusra had control before ISIS actually declared itself in Syria. So the report’s identification of this key terrain is extremely important and its willingness to look at the swatch of terrain from Syria into Iraq coherently is actually I think one of its great strengths.
But we really must not overestimate the successes that we’re seeing against ISIS in Iraq or successes against ISIS in Syria for several reasons. First of all, the armed opposition is intertwined with Nusra and Nusra is intertwined with it. As we actually move ISIS out, we may actually see a hyper-empowered Nusra that is more ready to take control of structures and faster to take – of structures and institutions than we are.
I don’t think Nusra will confine itself to Syria. I actually think that it has ambitions for Iraq, for Mosul, and I think it has ambitions also in the West. We’ve seen indicators of that. And, therefore, we actually have to wrestle with what comes after ISIS on the extremist front. Then, we also have a very deep and abiding challenge in the Iranian-backed proxy forces that have taken lead for some of the operations inside of Fallujah. Nothing can make the Mosul operation more difficult than the failures of the Iraqi central government or the abuses of the Iranian proxy militias inside of Fallujah. I actually think that we’re at a tipping point right now on whether or not there can be an Iraqi security force that emerges at the end of these operations. And the jury is still out. So what we need to do as the United States is invest in building these institutions such as the Iraqi security forces, embedding with them in order to create the kinds of conditions that will permit political settlement over the long term. And this is going to be a long term problem.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you just one more question before I turn to Ryan. You just said something that was new to me and is disturbing, which is the idea that Nusra could benefit in this post-ISIS environment and in particular could move east into Iraq. So I need to ask you if that warning is accurate, what should we do about it.
MS. KAGAN: I have been working with my team at ISW on an assessment that’s similar to the one that the fantastic team here at CNAS put together. And it’s been really interesting. There’s so much convergence. But the issue of what to do about Nusra and how to time it is actually I think really one of the big problems that we all need to grapple with. Nusra is not a problem for later.
The operations that begin whatever the next administration comes in and however they actually proceed need to start addressing the Nusra threat at the same time that they address the ISIS threat. That doesn’t mean that we can defeat Nusra quickly, rather that the operations that we undertake against ISIS in places such as the northwest need to lead us to an understanding with fidelity of what kinds of groups are there in Northwestern Syria that we can work with, where are the spoilers, which structures are actually coopted. And we need to leverage our own presence to create a choice for the acceptable opposition, for the opposition as a whole. Do you actually want to achieve your political objectives and are you willing to work with the United States and its regional partners to do so? And if you are, then you actually do need to give up Nusra.
But that’s not a simple bifurcation. That is a multi-year strategy of engagement, enticement and coercion that we need to start to put in place as soon as possible, otherwise we will be dealing with an empowered Nusra and we’ll come late to that fight. That’s a danger.
MR. IGNATIUS: Well, that’s provocative and we’ll all reflect on that. Let me turn to Ryan Crocker. I was thinking today that I have been talking off and on with Ryan Crocker about the fragmentation and disarray of the Middle East for more than half of my life. What an appalling thought.
But, Ryan, let me ask you to begin by talking about an institution that you know as well as anyone and love, the State Department, and the unusual action by these 51 officers in their dissent channel, not publicly initially but they must have known that it would become public, to express fundamental disagreement with the policies of the president.
Do you think that’s appropriate? Do you think they did in the right way? And then, more fundamentally, do you think they’re right?
RYAN CROCKER: I’ve used a dissent channel myself, no doubt influenced by you because it was back in those early days in Lebanon.
MR. IGNATIUS: Do you want to describe what you dissented on? That would be interesting for the audience.
MR. CROCKER: Well, it was so far in ancient history but during the Lebanese civil war version 4.0 by that time, after the Israeli invasion with the Marines ashore, in 1982, 1983, we found ourselves getting drawn closer and closer to the Gemayel regime, which really was one faction in the civil war. And one day in September, 1983, the presidential envoy for Lebanon, Mr. McFarlane, sent a message back to Washington saying that the Syrian-backed militias were at the gates of Baabda Palace, the presidential palace, and if we did not intervene with naval gunfire in their support, the palace would fall. Well, no such thing was the case. The Druze had slightly overplayed their hand but they weren’t about to march on Baabda while the introduction of naval gunfire by us would put us squarely on one side of the Lebanese forces, the Marinite side of this vicious civil war.
So I dissented to absolutely no effect whatsoever. Within 48 hours, our war ships were firing into the Chouf Mountains with their 16-inch guns. We used to talk then about these shells weighing as much as a Volkswagen. Some of my Druze contacts on the receiving end of this, when they came down the mountain, said they weigh about as much as a Volkswagens and they have about as much destructive impact as a Volkswagen. And the rest is history. October 1983, six weeks later, the Marine barracks was bombed, 244 dead Americans. And by early 1984, Lebanon was in our rearview mirror.
MR. IGNATIUS: So that was dissent properly made but not effective in that case. Clearly, you think that using the dissent channel is right. About the specifics of what they’re arguing?
MR. CROCKER: Well, this is what Paul and Ilan were talking about and what Michele and Kim have been talking about, the use of judicious, direct military force to change the political dynamics, not force to solve a problem but force to create a diplomatic or political context that is more favorable than the current one is to negotiation. We’re not going to negotiate anything with Damascus, Tehran or Moscow. They’re on a roll. So the question is whether a menu of force application can be developed that might change that dynamic.
I would add one thing to what Michele and Kim said. There’s also a very important humanitarian dimension here. We are somewhere north of 400,000 dead Syrians, the significant majority dead at the hands of their own government, the Assad regime. And as bad as it’s been, it may just be getting worse. I’m on the board of Mercy Corps. We have the biggest operation in Syria of any organization second only to the United Nations itself. Part of it it’s centered on Aleppo. We get emergency supplies to about 75,000 Syrians in the Aleppo area every month. But for a month, we haven’t been able to move a convoy into the city. We put out a statement last week saying this is approaching yet another catastrophe within a catastrophe.
And right now, with our frequent consultations with the Russians, with Lavrov, comments, such as we heard just this afternoon, well, maybe the agreement with Tehran can lead to other steps, all this has fostered an impression in Syria and in the region that it isn’t just a Tehran-Moscow-Damascus axis. It’s Tehran-Moscow-Damascus and implicitly Washington because we’re not doing anything to stop it. So in addition to the reshaping of the political space, I think there is a huge humanitarian imperative to stop Assad and his Russia and Iranian allies from inflicting yet more death on his population, and that’s what we’re about to see in Aleppo.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you, Ryan, to think about the longer term shape of this part of the world. We just in April celebrated an unlikely anniversary. It was the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
MR. CROCKER: You celebrated.
MR. IGNATIUS: Yes. Not widely celebrated.
MR. CROCKER: The rest of us observed with a moment of silence.
MR. IGNATIUS: So I was struck thinking of that anniversary that, in 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and Mr. Francois Picot were instruments of the scheming colonial powers of Europe. Today, as we’re thinking about what will follow Sykes-Picot world, the scheming powers are regional. They’re Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. They’re operating as cleverly and, you know, with as many different levers as the colonial powers of old. And I’d like to ask you to think about what’s ahead for the region, whether you really do think the borders of Sykes-Picot are gone, gone, gone, and how we should think about these regional powers as they fight for each little square kilometer of that future?
MR. CROCKER: It’s a great point. As I look at the history of the modern Middle East, which really I would date to Sykes-Picot or three years later, the Versailles Treaty, I see a successive failure of isms, a failure of governance if you will. You know, it started with colonialism. The British and particularly the French did not move into the Middle East post-World War One to prepare the peoples of the area for self-governance, absolutely not at all. They built no stable institutions so that when colonialism gave way to colonial-backed monarchism, places like Iraq, Libya, Egypt, as other isms emerged, Nasr-ism, Arab nationalism, just undiluted authoritarianism, Baath-ism in Syria and Iraq, communism in South Asia, all these isms fail pretty much in the same way. They failed to provide good governance. They failed to provide security, stability, prosperity for their peoples. And one after another, these isms all collapsed.
Now, we have Islamism. Well, my guess, that’s going to go the same route as all the isms before it did. But it’s not going to solve the problem. Just as Islamic State is al Qaeda in Iraq 2.0, there will be some new equally awful or more awful ism to move into that space unless something or someone steps in and starts to build the foundations of good governance. What do you think the chances of that are in this environment?
So I go back to something Senator Graham said earlier. It is clear, hold, build. Well, we haven’t got the clear part figured out. Kurds around Raqqa, not exactly the clearing force you want in a Sunni area; the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilization Forces, circles around Fallujah, and both the Kurds and the Popular Mobilization making clear they’re going to be part of the Mosul fight.
So we haven’t got clear figured out. I think this excellent report may be a roadmap for attempting to at least get a blueprint down. And if we haven’t got that figured out, we certainly haven’t got hold figured out. And nobody really has succeeded in these areas for the last century in building for the long term. So the task is beyond immense.
MR. IGNATIUS: That’s for all of us really valuable. I want to turn to Will McCants. Will, one of the strengths of your book, “ISIS Apocalypse,” is that it reminds us that ISIS didn’t just emerge and sweep through Mosul in 2014. It was built year by year on the frame of al Qaeda in Iraq and on the deep Sunni sense of rage and dispossession. And following really from some of the comments of Ryan Crocker, I’m going to ask you about what’s next.
Can you begin to think about a post-ISIS world as their caliphate seems to collapse? What do you make of the reports that I hear almost every time I talk to a government official who follows this that their problem of demoralization is now serious. They’ve got people, you know, running away from Raqqa. They’re just there in – and, finally, people in our government will tell you that basic cleavages in ISIS between Syrian and Iraqis and the foreign fighters who come in to try to help them or take over, between the more religious and less religious, that those cleavages are getting much more serious. So walk us through those issues with the special perspective you have on ISIS.
WILLIAM MCCANTS: Sure. From its early days, the main cleavage in the Islamic State and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, has been between the foreign fighters and the local fighters. And with the success of JSOC and U.S. military eliminating the Islamic State’s leadership, they got rid of all the foreign fighters who used to control the organization. It was the Raqqis who came to the fore and the man who made that transition is the current so-called caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And this cleavage between the foreigners and the locals was smoothed over because of the political success over the past few years, the influx of money which soothed a lot of hurt feelings. And they use this money to great effect, not just to bridge this gap between foreigners and locals but also to buy the allegiance of many of the tribes and sub-tribes in the area.
With the shrinking of the Islamic State’s territory, they are losing that source of revenue, much of which comes from taxes. So all of these tensions within the organization are starting to come to the fore. With successful U.S. airstrikes and Special Operations raids into Islamic State territory, it’s also creating a great deal of paranoia in the organization and their counter-intelligence apparatus is in high gear trying to ferret out moles and collaborates which is increasing fear among the foot soldiers.
So all of these tensions then are coming to the fore. Really, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the Islamic State’s government in Syria and Iraq. But I didn’t say the end of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and there’s a distinction between those two things. We’ve gotten very good, as my fellow panelists have said, at eliminating Jihadist groups that control territory and seek to govern it. We saw this in Yemen, in Somalia as well, and then, again, in Mali. The same thing is going to happen to the Islamic State’s government.
But to go back to Ambassador Crocker’s point, it’s what comes next that is the hardest thing. And I think the report is right to underline that the focus has to be on developing local forces that can hold. But my question and the one I haven’t been able to answer for myself because I agree with that general approach but what I haven’t been able to answer is can those forces be effective absent a major military on the ground that is not sectarian or so ethnically different that it will agitate the locals?
In other words, in absence of 100,000 American troops on the ground, as we had in the previous decade, can the strategy of empowering Sunni Arab tribes work? And I am skeptical. Those tribes are fractious. The forces they tend to put in the field are not very good. I don’t know what kind of investment, long-term investment would take to stand them up because even those that were stood up in the previous decade were not very effective, particularly when they lost the support of the government in Baghdad and when they encountered the Islamic State. Even when the Islamic State was defeated in 2008, it spent the next three years assassinating hundreds of the leaders of the Anbar awakening to ensure that they would have no effective leadership.
MR. IGNATIUS: So that neatly and scarily describes the question that the next president will confront, which is what is there between the policy that President Obama has followed, of working through proxy forces, which had some success, but, according to his report, certainly I think the view of all four of our panelists is not sufficient.
What is there between that and the level of commitment we saw in Iraq in 2003 to 2009, at its peak, 150,000 U.S. troops, expenditure in the trillions, which the American people clearly are not in a mood to embrace. So is there a middle point or a point further on that would be politically acceptable that you will or any of our panelists would like to address? Let’s start with you, Will.
MR. MCCANTS: I’m going to kick this one over the Kim because I can’t see it. You might think it would be a regional effort by some of our partners in the region but they are too discordant with one another and I don’t know, frankly, if their militaries are up to the task of providing some sort of stabilizing force. I can’t see that there’s an appetite in Europe or the United States to do it. So I can’t see who’s going to fill that force but I can see that absent it, ISIS or a group like it is going to come roaring back.
MR. IGNATIUS: Kim?
MS. KAGAN: I share Will’s concerns. But I think it’s really important to focus first on the question of what the requirements are, what the objectives need to be. It’s something that this team in compiling this excellent report has really looked at. We are so quickly searching for a middle way and we are so quickly discussing our strategic objectives in terms of numbers of troops rather than in terms of objectives and the tasks required to achieve those objectives.
And I think we’re gotten our whole national discourse off kilter and that one of the incredible things that everyone here in this room can do is actually prioritize the discussion of what is the threat, what do we need to undertake, how do we need to go about doing that, and then, what does that actually entail before we actually rush to a judgment about force requirements. It’s really a strength of this report that we should be very grateful for.
MR. IGNATIUS: Ryan, I want to ask you to take your powerful comments about lack of governance a step further in this sense of what the next president should think about. And I want to set it up by using a phrase that I’ve used occasionally recently in my writing which is that we ought to have a 1944 moment. And by that, I mean, in 1944, President Roosevelt knew that there was a lot of really tough fighting ahead against both Germany and Japan, but he began to think carefully about how you would order the world after the conflict was won.
So in 1944, he began to encourage his aides to think about the Brenton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank that would look precisely at the questions of economic welfare, social stability, governance in a world he knew was going to be post-colonialist, that he began encouraging with the Atlantic Charter the shape of future alliances. Early work was done about – thinking about what the United Nations would look like so that well before the war ended, there was a vision of precisely the issue that we’re talking about, stability in this region of conflict.
So if you were going to have a 1944 moment today, in 2016, what would you put in that basket?
MR. CROCKER: Well, it’s a terrific question and that kind of sums up the totality of what we’ve been trying to get at here and, indeed, much of the rest of the day. Is there a 1944 moment out there? And if so, what would it look like?
In terms of Syria, Iraq, several things. First, just as Roosevelt was committed to the defeat of the Nazis and the defeat of imperial Japan, he wasn’t declaring the war over. We need to stay focused on the fact that we have got a mortal enemy out there in the form of al Qaeda and Islamic State and we need to be darn sure that they are so off balance and on the run that they are not in a position to formulate and then execute complex attacks into this country. That’s imperative one. You’ve got to do that. And Kim’s point is very good, we don’t do that if we get rid of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra benefits.
The second point is, again, change the political dynamics through judicious use of American direct force. That does several things. It get the attention of the Russians and the Iranians as well as al-Assad but it also gets the attention of our regional allies who are pretty darn skeptical of what U.S. intentions are in this whole conflict. With the former, to see if you can then start to build a Geneva process that may actually work. If Assad and his allies don’t think they’re on a roll anymore, then maybe talking becomes possible.
Equally important if you’re going to try and structure a ’44 moment for the region, you have a different basis to talk to Riyadh, to the rest of the Gulf – Jordan, Israel, Turkey – because we will have changed the dynamic. So right now it’s been a kind of a dialogue of the deaf, trying to tug on the Turks’ sleeve to say, Islamic State is the number one enemy. Well, it isn’t, not for them. It’s the PKK and the YPG, the guys we’re supporting. So we’re going to have a little problem getting to yes in the current dynamic.
MR. IGNATIUS: So I want to close our session by turning to Michele Flournoy. And, Michele, I want to ask you to offer concluding thoughts with this particular focus perhaps. We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign. You know, it’s been a noisy process but it has not focused the country’s attention on the kinds of issues that we’re talking about, even in the way that the general public – I wouldn’t ask the general public to read through CNAS or even “Washington Post” reports on things, but how do you think this campaign should push these choices that our country faces to the American people more clearly so that they’re making choices that have some chance of enduring, of having popular support and staying power?
MS. FLOURNOY: It’s really hard in a political campaign season. You know, I think ISIS definitely has the attention of the American people. Most of the polling suggests that it is sort of at the top of the threat list, that when people do think about national security, they are worried about ISIS. And yet, you know, I think the conversation too often devolves into a sort of exchange of mud slinging or soundbite slinging.
You know, what’s interesting to me though in the wake of the terrible tragedy and the horrific attack in Orlando, you know, you have the two candidates make very different speeches in terms of laying out how they think we should deal with ISIS. And I hope the electorate really pays attention to that because there’s a very stark choice in terms of how they laid it out.
But I think it takes – I think the truth is the right time for this conversation is with a new administration. It’s very hard to have it fully and, you know, dispassionately in the heat of a campaign season. But I think, you know, a new president is going to have to lay out, make the case, fresh, you know, why do we consider this a threat, what are the stakes involved, what are our interests, our objectives, what do we think is a strategy that can work very much along the lines of what Kim was saying, before we even get to, you know, how are we going to deploy in numbers and such.
I think this report – you know, the authors bit off a lot to chew in this report but I think it was – and they referenced this but they couldn’t go into it in depth. Beyond dealing with the Islamic State as a caliphate in the Middle East, we have to deal with it as a global movement as well. And part of the strategy has to be getting ahead of it so trying to ensure that, you know, in places where it doesn’t yet have a firm foothold, how do we use the various instruments of our power, mostly non-military, to try to prevent them from getting a toe hold, whether it’s Southeast Asia, whether it’s parts of Africa, whether it’s Afghanistan and elsewhere. So how do we, you know, slow or prevent the multiplication of the problem in other locations?
And then, here at home, we have to take a much closer look at our own efforts to build resilience and counter-radicalization here at home through a variety of – you know, there’s some very good models now of community-based programs that are actually working very well. And we need to look at that more closely. So I think we need a much more wholesome strategy. I don’t think the heat of the campaign season – you know, we can do some academic work and some, you know, ideas development but I think that’s really going to be the job of the next president is to really lay off the problem, lay out the stakes and then put forward a multi-faced long-term strategy for going after this problem in all of its dimensions, not just the military dimension in Iraq and Syria.
MR. IGNATIUS: So that brings our panel to a close. I hope you share my view that this was an usually rich discussion of really hard issues. Thanks to all of our panelists for doing this. (Applause.)