If you went back to 2011, at the start of the Arab Spring, and tried to talk through the worst case scenario 5 years later, you would be pretty close to what we are dealing with today. The hope that change was finally coming to Syria after so many years of the Assad reign has been replaced with chaos and despair. Syria cannot be called a country anymore but a series of unincorporated territories ruled by groups that have no legitimacy to rule. The situation is truly terrible, and could become worse. After Iraq and Afghanistan, the desire to continue to engage in conflicts in the Middle East seems like a pointless exercise where we will continue to sacrifice so much for so little gain. But some type of limited coordinated action is required to destroy ISIL and prevent further destabilization in the region.
Tracing back how we got to the current reality can be like pulling a never-ending piece of string. The political and cultural history of Syria and the greater Levant is nothing but complicated. The big points are the failure of the Ottoman state to build the local institutions, French and British colonialism, and the cold war militarization of the region. Couple that with large oil depositories that allow governments to act irresponsibly without having to develop a diverse economy with a strong middle-class, and the too easy excuse of blaming Israel and western powers for all their problems. These factors supported an environment where the Assad family could rule for decades on end.
What sparked the recent turn of events was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The US policy of dual-containment throughout the 1990s, of playing Iraq and Iran off each other, had maintained quasi-stability. Removing Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, shifted the balance of power of tilter. With Shiites taking over in a very divvied post-invasion Iraq, instability and insecurity began to spread. Saudi Arabia feared a larger Shiite crescent with Iran and Iraq trying to control the gulf. Iran extended its military in to Iraq funding militias that fought US troops. The years 2004 to 2007 were some of the bloodiest of the war, more then 100,000 Iraqi’s were killed and the population was terrorized by a sectarian war. During this time there was a great influx of foreign fighters to support al-Qaeda’s fight against US troops including a Jordanian Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
al-Zarqawi was so awful that his indiscreet killing of civilians prompted al-Qaeda’s senior leaders to ask him to tone it down. The group he ran, al-Qaeda in the Mesopotamia, became the number one target for US Special Forces. His death in June of 2006 was hailed as a milestone in the war, but it was five months later that his group merged with another group to from the Islamic State of Iraq. As US policy shifted to greater engagement with tribal chiefs in Anbar province, with the Sunni Awakening, and with the troop surge, the tide of war began to change. It was in 2008 that President Bush signed the status of forces agreement that would lead to the eventual US troop withdrawal. While the Bush administration claims they hoped the next president would reengage and try to leave US troops, the politics in Iraq would not allow that to happen. A prominent Shiite cleric and Iran both made demands of president Maliki that made it next to impossible to have forces stationed past 2010.
This also was aligned with the narrative that President Barack Obama ran on in 2008. He was a vocal opponent of the war and wanted to bring home all US troops. When in office he stepped up drone strikes, going after al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s core leadership. It was these perceived successes of taking out the terrorist groups leaders that he announced the withdrawal of US troops in 2010. Iraq was still viewed as on the right track and becoming stable in 2010, but in reality ISI was carrying out numerous attacks and building as its plans to become the state it is today. In 2010 Vice-president Joe Biden made some effort to rethink troop leaves, but the US couldn’t get the Iraqi’s to budge on granting immunity to US troops in country. As US troops left Iraq the president addressed the nation that our work there was done, and it was time to come home. Soon after we left, Iraqi politics was thrown in to a furor with President Maliki trying to arrest prominent Sunni and Kurd politicians. The country became more divided as Maliki became more paranoid and was pursuing policies that only benefited the Shiites.
The Arab Spring was sparked in Tunisia in December of 2010 when a fruit seller burned himself in protest to the corrupt state. Protests soon spread throughout the region. Some of the protests were put down quickly, while other governments soon fell. The instability heightened fears of the gulf states of a melding Iran. The Syrian protests started in 2011 as peaceful demonstrations against the corrupt Assad regime but soon descended into government suppression and violence. Militias were formed and soon the country was engulfed in a Civil War. The killing soon escalated as the Syrian government used barbaric tactics to target civilian populations. Gulf states started to fund Sunni militias, not worrying whether they were radical or not. Despite numerous attempts to broker a peace deal in 2012-2013 the sides couldn’t agree on any of the basic points. Sunni states and the rebels wanted Assad to step down before any resolution could occur, while the government and its allies held furiously to power. In June of 2013 the government with Iranian and Hezbollah backed supported started to push back the rebels and shifted the fighting to the stalemate we have today. The Islamic State troops in Syria up until this point showed little interest in fighting the government. They fought other rebel groups and tried to hold land.
The almost involvement of the US military in 2013, after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line,” showed the real apprehension to get dragged into another war. After President Obama requested Air Strikes, he quickly asked Congress support, then shifted to a brokered deal with Russia over exported the chemical weapons out of the country. US involvement up until this point was only diplomatic, trying to foster a peaceful resolution and covert with some CIA action on the group. Calls for arming vetted rebel groups and no fly zones were dismissed as only leading to more instability.
In late 2013 and early 2014 ISI began to march on Fallujah and across Iraq. They had easily expanded their land in Syria as well. Still at this time the US downplayed their significance, with the president infamously referring to them as the JV team in an interview with the New Yorker. In June ISI took Mosul and were a day’s drive outside of Baghdad. The Islamic State declared itself a caliphate and began to use slick promotional material to attract Muslims from around the world to fight. Sunni’s in Iraq often commented they would rather have ISI than the Shiite Iraqi army. The US trained Iraq army fled as the armies of ISI approached. In this crisis the US had the leverage to force a political resolution in Iraq, with Maliki stepping down in favor of a more inclusive government. Through the summer of 2014 the US carried out airstrikes to help Kurdish and Iraq forces in the pursuit to push back ISI. It was also during this time that ISI started to execute British and American prisoners. The videos of Americans having their heads chopped struck fear in the minds of country. In the fall of 2014 the president addressed the country with a plan for a coalition of Arab states to attack ISI, though US planes carry out the vast majority of attacks. We have been bombing them for over a year with limited success. The conflict in Syria is at a stalemate with Assad sequestered to the north west, free Syrian army in Homs, the Kurds in the north, and ISI controlling most of the west. The Russians got involved in the fall of 2015 to defend Assad and their interests. Their bombing has been largely of non-ISI rebels. Our attempts to arm Syria rebels in 2014-2015 have been a worthless endeavor. The Pentagon has spent $500 million trying to build and train a force to take on ISIS, but has ran into numerous obstacles. They have received thousands of potential applicants, but a little over 50 have made it through the vetting and training process. One criterion is that the fighters can only fight the Islamic State, and not the Assad regime. There are not many non-Islamist rebels left in the almost 5 year conflict. In July, 54 graduated the training program and were soon attacked by the Nursa front, an al Qeada backed group. The Pentagon sent drones for back up, but the group, referred to as Division 30, faced losses. A reassessment of the program is ongoing.
What changed the fight was the string of attacks directed outside Syria. In November, 2015 ISIL blew up a Russian airline in the Sinai killing over 200, bombed Beirut killing dozens and carried, out a coordinated attack in Paris that left over 130 dead. The Europeans seem ready to fight, after recognizing the risk that the Islamic State represents. The attack in San Bernardino, California by a married couple at a company potluck represents a new low. Unlike 9/11, which was planned over years and vastly financed to attack larger symbolic targets, the new terrorism is more terrifying.
So what is there to be done? The Presidents remarks on December 6, only days after the terrorist attacks in California were needed to try to address the fear. The reality of the new phase of global terrorism is not if another attack occurs, but when. After the Paris attacks I read about witnesses, whom when first hearing the shooting, assumed it was kids playing with guns. That innocence has left us, at least for the time being. Greater vigilance and engagement is needed from everyone. A great burden rests on the Islamic community to try to identify elements of radicalism amongst them and address it. With that, we as a nation, as the President said, must not fall back into the worst patterns when fear overwhelms us. Attacking all Muslims will make the fighter harder, and will destroy the lives of so many people that deserve better.
It is unclear if the President’s plan to stop ISI in Syria and Iraq is working. There are limitations to having an airstrike only campaign. On the ground we are only as good as the troops fighting. The battle will be won when Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians decide the fight against ISIS is an extensional battle and worth dying for. Assad will have to go for greater involvement from the Gulf States. ISIS should be looked at as a cancer that everyone wants to destroy, and until certain political obstacles are removed that wont happen. If the crisis continues there is the potential for other countries to fall. Jordan has hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps as big as cities. If a year from now ISIS controls much of the same land it controls today, then the current strategy should be viewed as a failure.
In 2011, a reason for the US not to get involved was that it could become what we have today. The only situation of worse implications would have been if thousands of US soldiers lost their lives, and we spent another trillion to arrive at this present point. After almost 15 years in Afghanistan, it is apparent that US troops cannot solve all the problems of another country. Coordinated action with Arab and NATO nations is the only solution to create a sustainable peace in Syria and the region.