Brookings Scholars Examine US Intervention in Iraq and Syria

On October 8, Brookings scholars from the Center for 21st Century Security and IntelligenceCenter for Middle East Policy and Brookings Doha Center  discussed the challenges facing U.S. policy makers in formulating a successful strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL, IS or, in Arabic, Daesh). Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack,  co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence Michael O’Hanlon, and Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, spoke at the event entitled Will it Work? Examining the Coalition’s Iraq and Syria Strategy; recommending possible paths that the administration could take moving forward.

Pollack authored a new analysis paper released at the event, “Building a Better Syrian Army: The How and The Why,” and he started off the discussion by praising developments in Iraq. “Iraqis are talking about their political process in ways we haven’t heard or seen since 2010.” Pollack suggested several visions for Iraq’s future, with Shias looking for a “Maliki era without Maliki,” and Sunnis hoping for decentralization and autonomy similar to that of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. Pollack added that Iraq’s Sunni community is fragmented, and that it is hard to say who speaks for the whole population. Pollack concluded by questioning, “How can the U.S. train, arm, and equip moderate Sunnis when the Daesh controls their territory?” 

Like Pollack, Shaikh argued that “an open ended military strategy without a political strategy is not going to work” in Syria or in Iraq. Until the United States develops a framework that incorporates both dimensions, he foresaw difficulties filling the vacuum that is currently occupied by extremists. Shaikh called on Washington to recognize that Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad’s forces are responsible for the majority of the 2,500 Syrian deaths last month, and stressed that a successful U.S. strategy must include taking action against Assad. Shaikh also questioned the rationale for the new U.S. approach, asking “What about the moral argument about what Assad is doing? The barbarism doesn’t stop with Daesh.” He proposed that Washington immediately impose a no-fly zone in Syria and launch a national dialogue within the country to create pathways to a better future.

On Iraq, O’Hanlon argued that the United States “doesn’t quite have it right yet.” He noted that the Obama administration has enacted “artificial firewalls,” and recommended that Washington deploy additional advisory teams to train Iraqi forces. O’Hanlon advocated allowing U.S. special forces to conduct raids in conjunction with Iraqi special forces to increase the operations’ intensity and pace. These raids, according to O’Hanlon, can lead to valuable information on ISIS resources and leadership, which in turn will enhance U.S. and Iraqi strategy against the group.

Regarding Iran’s role in the crisis, Pollack argued that Iraq has demonstrated that “a strong political process marginalizes Iranian influence,” and that persuading former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was to step down represented a good first step in Iraq. In Syria, he noted, “it’s a matter of sequencing,” adding that “(u)ltimately it’s going to come down to convincing Iran that Assad is finished. If Iran is convinced that Assad is done, then they will have a strong incentive to participate in a new political process and press the Alawi community to do the same as the only way to preserve their safety and their role in a new Syrian political process. It will then be up to the Syrians to decide what type of relationship they want to have with Iran.”

All three scholars stressed the need to avoid the missteps experienced in post-war efforts at state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In addition, the panel encouraged the Obama administration to “do it right” by fully embracing a comprehensive political and military solution in both Iraq and Syria to strike at the root of the problem, not just its symptoms.