Coalition’s half-baked ISIL strategy won’t work

Without the support of Syria’s moderate opposition or boots on the ground, ISIL will only grow stron

ISIL has moved against the more vulnerable region of Kobane in Syria, writes Ustun [Getty]

The US aerial campaign against ISIL around Kobane has intensified in the past few days. There are reports from Kurdish sources on the ground that the strikes are helping to some extent. The US strategy, so far, has entailed strikes against ISIL positions in Iraq to be supported by ground forces supplied by Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). While this strategy seems to have stemmed the advance of ISIL in Iraq to a certain degree, it is proving less effective and potentially counterproductive for the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Compared to Iraq, there is very little ground support in Syria to back the US military aerial efforts. Training and arming the moderate Syrian opposition to curb ISIL’s advances and produce effective results will take time. Unless it targets the regime, the coalition will not be able to enlist the full support of the moderate opposition forces to engage ISIL on the ground. Already, the Syrian opposition groups have criticised the strikes, as they are not directed against the Assad regime. Even while they are willing to fight ISIL, they want the coalition to also take on the Syrian regime. Their position is that if Assad is not dealt a blow, the coalition’s efforts to destroy ISIL will prove to be futile and strengthen the regime instead. As the US strategy involves no “boots on the ground” and intends to rely on opposition forces for the ground operations, it can only bring them into the fold by addressing their concerns and aligning priorities.

The rise of ISIL was borne out of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime left ungoverned spaces for extremist groups to take hold. Civilians were forced to bend and bow or break under their rule. The emerging danger shows that the coalition has failed, thus far, to devise a political strategy to address the plight of the millions of displaced civilians caught between the brutal Assad regime and violent militant groups, such as ISIL.

Narrow approach

The current strategy employs a narrow counterterrorism approach and avoids the difficult task of engineering a transition in Syria and convincing Sunnis in Iraq to disavow ISIL. For the air strikes to succeed, they need to be supported by the Syrian opposition and Turkey – both have promised to put boots on the ground if the Assad regime is targeted.

Although the US has attacked ISIL positions, the campaign needs to be far more robust and sweeping beyond air strikes. If not, ISIL will survive, reorganise, increase its internal cohesion, and expand its external appeal.

Fighting rages for Syria’s Kobane

ISIL has moved against the more vulnerable region of Kobane in Syria, as it accurately realised that the US was more concerned with ISIL’s presence in Iraq. The western powers, such as the UK and France, said they would only conduct operations in Iraq for the time being, which encourages ISIL to extend its reach into Syria.

This approach indicates a lack of commitment to countering ISIL in Syria and encourages ISIL to focus its operations there. The coalition’s half-measured aerial military attacks not supported by ground forces will fall woefully short of the intended goal to “degrade and destroy ISIL”.

In a matter of days, ISIL’s advance towards Kobane resulted in the flow of close to 180,000 Kurdish refugees into Turkey. Kurdish civilians have had to either flee the town, become refugees in Turkey or risk getting caught up in the middle of a street-to-street battle between the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) armed wing People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIL.

Pressure on civilians

Since the beginning of the civil war, the international community has failed to protect civilian populations in Syria – Kobane is only the latest example. Establishment of a safe zone by the coalition forces can stem the influx of refugees and protect civilians. While ISIL’s advances need to be rolled back militarily, the pressure on civilians has to be addressed. Otherwise, ISIL will find more breeding ground among civilian populations who feel desperate and abandoned by the international community. Part of ISIL’s success has depended on its ability to take advantage of the plight of civilians. If the strikes are not combined with a comprehensive plan to address this fact, they will inadvertently help ISIL.

The PYD has promoted itself as the protector of Kurdish civilians but their demands for autonomy in Syria and “de facto alliance” with the Assad regime has earned them distrust among the Syrian opposition and in Turkey. The PYD has recently signalled that they might drop their opposition to the safe zone idea and finally agree to the establishment of a safe zone if it is done by an international coalition. If the US agrees to broaden the mission, Turkey will be willing to be part of a coalition effort to protect civilians by creating a safe zone and a no fly zone. In the absence of such a commitment, Turkey’s posture will remain defensive, in which case the US strikes will achieve very little in the way of protecting civilians.

The current US strategy restricts itself to counterterrorism measures, and thus fails to address the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, which facilitated ISIL’s rise in the first place. It also seems to ignore the degree to which the Assad regime fuelled the rise of ISIL to prove that the regime was in a fight against terrorists.

ISIL has been instrumental to the success of the divide and rule tactics of the Assad regime against the moderate opposition. Air strikes alone are not enough to stop ISIL and they will likely create more refugees and produce civilian casualties. If the US bombs and walks away instead of committing to a broader longer term strategy of political transition in Syria, the conditions that strengthen ISIL will not change. In that case, the Syrian humanitarian crisis will only deepen and devolve into catastrophe.

Kadir Ustun is the Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC. He also serves as an Assistant Editor of Insight Turkey, an academic journal published by the SETA Foundation.