ISIS and President Obama’s Uncertain Legacy in Iraq and Syria

By Robert S. Ford | Senior Fellow - The Middle East Institute | Nov 07, 2014
ISIS and President Obama’s Uncertain Legacy in Iraq and Syria
A scene from Kfar Derian, Syria, after a coalition airstrike

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

The Current Situation

The Islamic State's blitzkrieg advances in Iraq last summer, coupled with those in Syria, are the biggest threat ever to the post-1919 borders in the lands of ancient Mesopotamia. Many don't want to characterize Abu Bakr's caliphate as a state, but it has an army, controls territory, and operates administrative structures, even schools and hospitals. And in the broad conflict stretching from eastern Iraq to western Syria and even Lebanon, the caliphate is not going away soon. The grievances and fears of the Sunni Arabs that boost the Islamic State, and the grievances and fears of neighboring communities, run very deep.

On the eastern front, the Islamic State’s territorial gains have probably peaked. With direct assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shi‘i militias, Kurdish Peshmerga irregulars, and some Iraqi regular security forces blunted the ISIS advances into Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad Provinces. Moreover, the Islamic State was never going to take Baghdad; Sadr City alone has more than a million inhabitants, many of whom have arms. However, sustainable progress against the caliphate in Salah ad-Din, Nineveh and Anbar Provinces is impossible without most of the local Sunni inhabitants turning against the Islamic State.

Winning their loyalty will not be easy. The appointment as interior minister of Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, the deputy commander of the Badr Corps, a Shi‘i militia that murdered thousands of Sunnis during the worst of the civil war in 2005-2007, will not reassure Sunni Arabs. (Notably, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently issued detailed reports condemning sectarian murders of Sunni Arab civilians by Shi‘i militias during the counteroffensives against the Islamic State in the late summer of 2014.[1]) Not surprisingly, the Sunni Arab communities generally don't want the Iraqi Army, dominated by Shi‘a, to reenter their lands. Friction between Iraqi soldiers and the Mosul populace helped the Islamic State conquer Mosul easily last June.

Instead, the Iraqi Sunni Arabs want funds and arms to mobilize local forces, perhaps under the rubric of a national guard. In the Baghdad parliament, however, legislation to establish a national guard is stalled, and so far there have been few arms or funds flowing to build up potential Sunni Arab forces to fight the Islamic State. The delays are due at least in part to lasting concerns among many in the central government about arming Sunni Arabs; former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's suspicions were not unique to him. Also problematic is that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in October withdrew his pledge not to reinsert the Iraqi Army into Sunni Arab areas. On a more hopeful note, Abadi in early November promised the Sunni Arab governor of Mosul help in constituting local defense forces in Nineveh. Even more positive was the welcome given by a beleaguered Sunni Arab tribe in western Anbar to the arrival of Shi‘i tribal levies and Iraqi security units after grisly massacres committed against the Sunni tribe, which the Islamic State had suspected of disloyalty. The Islamic State's brutality unchecked will be a major help in efforts to contain it.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional government in Iraq has used the Islamic State's advances to consolidate its own position and relationships; it is the biggest beneficiary on the eastern front of the establishment of the caliphate. The first place its Peshmerga moved on was Kirkuk, a city the Kurds have long sought to secure. The Kurds also have reestablished a military relationship with Western powers, and they have reinforced their standing in the new cabinet in Baghdad, notably securing the finance minister slot and seeing a friend emplaced in the oil minister position. However, that enhanced standing in Baghdad has not yet secured long overdue budget support payments from Iraq’s central government. Thus, tension between the Kurds and Baghdad remains serious. The Kurds communicated their Kurdistan consolidation strategy again when a top Kurdish official in early November stressed that the Peshmerga would not be directly involved in recapturing Mosul from the Islamic State.

On the western front of the conflict in Syria, there is a three-sided civil war between the regime on one side, the Islamic State on another, and the other opposition fighters, including the various armed groups operating under the rubric of the Free Syrian Army as well as the Nusra Front, on the third side and with all receiving various levels of external support.

The regime depends on Russia and especially Iran, which has organized fighters from Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi‘i militias, and even Afghan Shi‘a to fight against Free Syrian Army units and Nusra. This manpower is ever more vital, as the 2.5 million strong Alawi community, the bedrock of the Assad regime, is tiring after tens of thousands of casualties. Reverses in the summer of 2014 caused a spike in Alawi casualties, and new anti-regime opposition appeared in the Alawi heartland. The regime responded with arrests as well as enhanced measures to find draft dodgers to dispatch immediately into security forces.

The regime's forces are tiring, but the non-jihadi armed opposition forces in northern and western Syria are tiring more quickly. They are squeezed in the symbolically vital city of Aleppo between the regime and the Islamic State. Perhaps unintentionally, powerful American airstrikes in Deir Ezzour Province in eastern Syria compelled the Islamic State to halt its siege of surrounded regime forces. Assad’s troops regained the initiative there, reopened supply routes, and also shifted scarce regime air assets away from Deir Ezzour to redouble attacks against struggling Free Syrian Army units.

Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari support for the armed opposition is steady but nowhere near enough to bring down the Assad regime with its abundant Russian and Iranian aid. The Turks keep pushing for a buffer zone covered by a no-fly zone, but NATO countries have no appetite for this. The American position on the opposition has confused and angered allied states and the opposition itself. While they indirectly helped the regime in eastern Syria, the Americans have studiously avoided Islamic State targets near Aleppo that are facing the moderate opposition. The Americans, thus, did nothing to relieve pressure on the moderates. There appears to have been no coordination between the Americans and the moderate opposition about strategy and no visible increase in supplies to the moderates even as the regime and Islamic State pressure has grown. Moreover, by hitting a Nusra target in the initial airstrikes, the Americans managed to make the moderates look like either tools or stooges of a West that ignores tens of thousands of Syrian civilian casualties. Hence the American airstrike campaign disempowered the moderate armed groups whom the United States had promised to help.

The moderate armed opposition in the north suffered another sharp setback when the al-Qa‘ida-affiliated Nusra Front decided that the moderates represent an American fifth column and drove them out of Idlib Province, threatening key supply lines from Turkey. Reports November 5, widely believed, that the Americans again had struck Nusra as well as another Salafi fighting group—when these two groups were visibly engaged in the desperate effort to repel regime attacks in and near Aleppo—will boost growing anti-American sentiment in the opposition street and further undermine groups with whom the United States has worked. Unless something changes dramatically in the current dynamic, the moderate armed groups won’t remain a significant force in northern Syria far into 2015. They will keep fighting in southern Syria, where they have scored small gains, but jihadis allied to hard-line Salafis more and more will dominate opposition ranks.     

Looking Ahead: Drivers, Dynamics, and President Obama’s Legacy

In Syria, the jihadis’ domination of the opposition will impede already very dim future prospects for a national political settlement; they pledge no negotiation with the regime. UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has spoken publicly about trying a "local freeze" in Aleppo to facilitate aid deliveries to devastated civilian communities and perhaps unblock avenues to local political deals. Local freezes probably will be like the local ceasefires that the regime has extracted from towns it had besieged and starved. So far, in the dozens of towns where such ceasefires went into effect there have been no significant political achievements and even the implementation of ceasefire terms has been extremely problematic. Most ceasefires broke down because there were no enforcement mechanisms and uneven implementation built no local trust. Moreover, American airstrikes against forces fighting Assad in and around Aleppo reduce the advantage to Assad to accept any kind of freeze or ceasefire.

Even if there were successful local freezes or ceasefires, surviving moderate armed groups' members will not join with the Assad regime against the Islamic State, much less the hard-line Islamists. After all of the regime's brutal acts (labeled war crimes by UN and other investigators), fighters across the political spectrum have emphasized that the regime, not the Islamic State, is their primary enemy. It is fantasy to think they can be convinced to fight alongside the same forces responsible for large-scale atrocities. CENTCOM and Special Operations hope to train a force from moderates to confront the Islamic State, but 5,000 or even 10,000 won't be enough to recapture ground from the caliphate. It is worth remembering that when the Americans finally largely secured the Iraq-Syria border in 2008, they deployed over 20,000 U.S. soldiers with air assets as well as four Iraqi divisions with about 40,000 soldiers.

By his last year in office, Obama can expect to face a Syrian civil war in which the regime confronts the Islamic caliphate, perhaps allied with the Nusra Front, entrenched in northern, eastern, and central Syria. It is hard to see how a no-fly zone or buffer zone will much alter jihadi ambitions or the Assad regime’s determination to grind on; the buffer zone only would give Turkey a place to dump unwanted Syrian refugees. Only if outside powers could all agree to shut off aid flows to their clients on all sides could these states start to dial down the conflict. There are few signs that Russia and Iran on one side and the regional Sunni camp on the other share enough of a vision about the future of Syria to make such a deal. And even then, there would be the question of what to do with the Islamic State.

Some in Washington will be tempted to hold their noses and help the Assad regime against the Islamic State. The administration will have to coldly assess whether the Assad regime has enough manpower to actually roll back the caliphate.

The administration will also have to calculate whether backing, even indirectly, the deployment of Alawi-regime forces, likely with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, into Islamic State territories in eastern Syria would bother Iraqi Sunni Arabs in Anbar and Nineveh who intensely distrust the Shi‘a and Iranians but whose support is vital against the Islamic State. Iraq's Sunni Arabs, like their fellow Sunnis in Syria, must make a bitter choice: do their communities have a better chance to live, and perhaps even rebuild, under the caliphate or under an Iranian-backed regime that distrusts them and will discriminate against them.

The administration already now must accept a Shi‘i militiaman as interior minister. It remains to be seen if it would make good on the president's warning in July 2014 that without a sustained, inclusive political arrangement in Baghdad the American military won’t help against the caliphate. To make good on that threat, the administration would have to do what it has not done since 2006 in Baghdad: insist on genuine acceptance of power-sharing and decentralization so that Kurds and most Sunni Arabs would resist the caliphate in Iraq and give a decentralized but unified Iraqi state a chance to survive.

In Iraq we may yet after much tumult see that viable but largely decentralized Iraqi state. The administration's stern conditionality did help secure a more politically sensitive central government in Baghdad, and its rushing of material help to that new Baghdad government and friendly Kurdish Peshmerga against the Islamic State have bought some time. Success is by no means assured, especially if the administration blinks when confronting Shi‘i militia excesses and if the Islamic State adapts less brutal measures to consolidate Sunni Arab support in the face of Shi‘i threats. In Syria, the administration's legacy will be a policy that combined with regime brutality to undermine opposition moderates and generated no options to confront either the Islamic State or the root cause of the Syrian conflict, that is, the Assad regime's rejection of serious reform and accountability. The strategic depth the Islamic State will continue to enjoy in Syria ensures that it will be a potent threat across Iraq and Syria when the next administration takes office.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East


[1] Tirana Hassan, “The Gangs of Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, November 4, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/04/gangs-Iraq; Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Survivors Describe Mosque Massacre,” November 2, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/01/iraq-survivors-describe-mosque-massacre;  Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Pro-Government Militias Trail of Death,” July 31, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/31/iraq-pro-government-militias-trail-death; Amnesty International, “Iraq: Evidence of Spiralling Sectarian Killings and Abductions,” July 14, 2014, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/iraq-evidence-spiralling-sectarian-killings-and-abductions-2014-07-14.