Defeating ISIL Requires US Leadership Now
As a member of the Council of American Ambassadors, I have written before in CAA publications on Syria and radicalism in the Levant—once in September of 2013, and again in September of 2014. Nearly a year later, I am disheartened to see that US leadership continues to be timid in its struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Syria, in spite of our warnings and prediction that if the United States didn’t define and lead the effort in this fight, radical elements would take over against our interests. This didn’t have to be the case and doesn’t have to be in the future. However, the problem cannot simply be wished away and we can’t wait two long years for a new administration to take action.
When the popular uprising in Syria began in 2011, the United States had to confront just one threat: President Assad. Today, we have at least three others: ISIL threatening not only Syria, but Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey with terrorist activities; a refugee problem that could overwhelm our friends in those countries and Europe; and finally, the Iranian arc of resistance which, stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and to Lebanon, is gaining ground as it firms up support in its fight against ISIL and its support for Syria.
Further complicating the situation, Russia seems to be taking new, meddlesome moves to support Assad. Lack of decisive and strong American determination opens a door to further Russian and Iranian cooperation that can only be detrimental to our interests and those of our allies in the Arab world.
In 2013, I suggested that if a rebel force could be armed under a central command control, with the United States leading a coalition including Qatari, Saudi, and other Arab and regional allies in this fight, we would be able to either defeat Assad or force him to the bargaining table, and as importantly, cut off the Iranian arc of resistance at its core in Syria. Today, the effort—although terribly more difficult—still requires American leadership, otherwise the situation will only get worse.
We are now faced with a long-term problem that will require long-term solutions, and a two-step process, which I believe should take into consideration the following:
- Any strategy should not have to be conducted with front line American boots on the ground. American advisers, military equipment, and air support are necessary, but this effort must include 25,000 to 50,000 carefully vetted Syrian rebel forces, under a trusted central command control, along with Iraqi, Kurdish, and other Arab fighters committed to win over the long haul in Syria and the region.
- ISIL must first be defeated by rebel forces with US and allied support, taking back ground once controlled by them, with a mission of good governance and the formation of a new functioning government in the newly held territory, as an alternative to the disastrous past faced by Syrian citizens. This will not only allow for military staging areas but help relieve the refugee problem and allow citizens to go back to protected zones in their home countries. Immediate good deeds for citizens in this newly held ground will be a necessary first step for the new government organization established there.
- A similar military effort in Iraq, combined with US support and leadership, and in coordination with the Iraqi government and other Arab and regional allies, will defeat ISIL from the west and east.
- Assad cannot be given a pass, but dealing with Assad and forcing him out through a negotiated process will have to wait until we first deal with ISIL, given the deterioration of legitimate Syrian opposition over the past four years. It should be understood that if Assad remains the ruler of Syria, corruption and terrorism will only shift from ISIL to Assad. He has to know that the United States will not make deals with him as we first focus our attention on ISIL. And when the time comes, if he is unwilling to come to the negotiating table, this new effort will give him no alternative but to negotiate or be defeated.
This approach has wide support from many Syrian experts on the right and left, and is thoroughly outlined in a paper on this subject by Ambassador Frederic Hof at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador Hof summarizes his thoughts, “Time is our enemy, and incremental approaches produce too much time for the bad guys. ISIS has no voluntary constituency in Syria. But give it three years to sink roots and Obama’s successor will have mission impossible on his hands. We and our regional partners need to beat ISIS in Syria now.”
Half the population of Syria is now displaced, with Jordan and Lebanon bearing an enormous amount of the burden: Syrian displaced persons and refugees now make up 35 percent of Lebanon’s population, and 20 percent of Jordan’s. This situation is extremely destabilizing and is surely too much to handle for both countries.
Assad has already lost and will not rule the new Syria, no matter what the outcome. Either ISIL or US allies will be the eventual winner. Our preferred choice is to win at the negotiating table once Assad and company see our resolve, or alternatively by putting in place a new government in former ISIL-controlled areas.
When this is over, countries in the region will either see the United States as a dependable partner, or abandon us for what they perceive as more reliable partners in Europe, Russia, or China. Even after four years of timid leadership in the region, the choice is still ours.
 Edward M. Gabriel, “The United States Has a Strategic and Humanitarian Interest in Syria,” The Ambassadors REVIEW, Fall 2013, 6.
 Gabriel, “Countering ISIL,” Ambassadors Perspectives, September 29, 2014.
 Frederic C. Hof, Bassma Kodman, and Jeffrey White, “Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria: The Case for a Syrian National Stabilization Force,” The Atlantic Council, April 2015. The full report is available at http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/Syria-SNSF-Report-WEB.pdf.
United States Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001