Monday, November 16, 2015

Josh Marshall on Syria and ISIS

Josh Marshall analyzes the Syria/ISIS conundrum on Talking Points Memo.

I wanted to share a few thoughts on Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris and where this leaves the United States in terms of Syria, Iraq and the entirety of the Middle East where, with all our withdrawals, we still remain involved and at war in various ways. I do not believe we can properly assess what happened in Paris without noting that it is less the product of an organization or statelet on the march than one under threat. ISIS has managed to hold on in the face of significant Western military intervention over the last year. But the physical footprint of ISIS has been reduced by roughly 25%.

Over the last few weeks ISIS appears (we're not certain about claims of responsibility in every case) to have launched major terror attacks in Beirut, Ankara, Paris and on a Russian jetliner over Sinai. This is a dramatic turnabout for ISIS which has generally been content to operate within Syria and Iraq. We cannot know precisely why this change has happened. But the most straightforward explanation is that as it loses ground in its territorial area of control it has decided to open a new front, launching asymmetric attacks on the territory of countries fighting it from the air in Syria. The downing of the Russian jetliner, just weeks after the Russian military entered the conflict to prop up Assad really could not be clearer.

I don't know what the precise best policies here are. But I do have a clear idea of several of the building blocks. The first recalls something I said a few weeks ago, which is that it is folly to be actively engaged against both sides in a civil war, which is effectively what we are now doing. Such a policy may have a cynical logic when you have two hostile entities which you want to see wear each other down and pulverize each other - much as we did during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s. That is not the current situation. The Assad regime, while bloody, does not in any way pose an immediate threat to the United States.

We need to redefine our Syria policy around the goal of the physical elimination of ISIS as a territorial entity and the physical destruction of its top leaders. If that means accepting the continuance of Assad family rule in at least rump Syria than we need to accept that - even though he's backed by regional adversaries Russia and Iran. Again, how serious are we about eliminating ISIS? I'd say not very serious if we're still hung up on Assad.

The real challenge we face - and it's an immense one - is that even if you pulverize the ISIS state you have a continuing structural problem, which is a restive, aggrieved Sunni population which feels, accurately, disenfranchised by non-Sunni governments in Baghdad and Damascus. To achieve even a modicum of a post ISIS solution, that reality has to be addressed. Though I am not proposing we do so, the US and/or NATO could certainly destroy ISIS as a state by invading its territory. But that would only leave us occupying an aggrieved and resentful population where our presence would further intensify the sort of religious/nationalist sentiments which created ISIS in the first place. That is at best only a step in a solution. It is not a solution in itself.

Here's what I see as the real conundrum we currently face. Yes, at a minimum, we popped the cork off this hell storm when we overthrew the Iraqi regime. But saying that doesn't address the immediate situation. We are pressed up against the unresolved and quite possibly unsustainable borders drawn after World War I, based on the wartime Sykes-Picot Agreement. Quite simply, after destroying ISIS, it's not clear to me how the Sunni population in the ISIS zone is going to be governed by a Iran-leaning Shia dominated Iraqi state to the southeast or an Alewite-dominated Shia and Iran-leaning state to the West. Absent some change in that equation, I think the region inevitably slips back into the hands of Sunni militancy - much as it did in the middle years of the US presence in Iraq.

So only destroying ISIS seems unrealistic, unworkable. If there were already strong states in place, it could likely contain these discontents. But you have state collapse in both cases. It's hard for me to see how you can stand up not a democratic or perhaps even a wholesome state structure in that region if it is not independent or at least autonomous from Baghdad and Damascus and run by Sunni Muslims.

What I do know is this. ISIS is a genuine threat to us and our allies. In recent weeks, they've killed more than a hundred people in Paris, downed a Russian jetliner and appear to have carried out major attacks in Beirut and Ankara. They are a real and present threat. Assad is not a clear or present threat to us. Our policy is a contradiction and a losing one. We can deal with Assad later. In Washington circles it's become a conceit. Our policy in Syria should be to destroy ISIS. Everything else can come after that.

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