Middle East

Is Comey frenzy a distraction? Six questions about U.S. strategy and growing threats in the Middle East

Frederick W. Kagan

The media is abuzz with questions for President Trump, former FBI Director James Comey, and others about various scandals and investigations.  Those questions are important and require answers, but our domestic preoccupations are distracting us from other questions of equal import.  

The U.S. is at war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere with ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadi groups.  Our strategy in that war, particularly in Syria, is incoherent and internally contradictory, however.  As people demand answers to questions about domestic scandals, we must also demand answers to six key questions about how America can secure its people and interests against the large and growing threats from the Middle East. 

How will we defeat ISIS?  The U.S. military has been briefing steady progress in the war against ISIS.  It highlights ground retaken by Iraqi forces in Mosul and by Kurds in Syria.  It suggests that ISIS will basically collapse once it has lost Mosul and Raqqa, in Syria.  Assessments by the Institute for the Study of War contradict that view. ISIS still controls Deir ez-Zour, a sizable city southeast of Raqqa, to which it has already relocated leadership and resources.  Our Kurdish partners cannot drive that far south through Arab lands.  Our reliance on Kurds and refusal to fight the regime of Bashar al Assad have severely hindered the formation of an indigenous Arab force against ISIS in Syria, moreover.  How does the U.S. imagine that success against Raqqa will lead to clearing the rest of the Euphrates River Valley?  And even if the U.S. finds partners to retake the cities, ISIS is already reverting back to the insurgent-terrorist mode it used before it had seized them.  What is the plan to continue the pressure on ISIS to stop it from continuing in this mode while preparing its next comeback?

How will we defeat al Qaeda?  The U.S. has focused on ISIS in Syria, taking little action against the large and powerful forces closely associated with al Qaeda.  The Syrian al Qaeda affiliate has rebranded itself, but remains part of al Qaeda and pursues the same goals of establishing a global Caliphate.  It and its partners control Idlib Province in northwestern Syria and are strong elsewhere in central and southern Syria.  The U.S. military keeps saying that it will deal with al Qaeda after it has defeated ISIS.  What is the plan for doing that?  How do operations against ISIS support or hinder that plan?

How will we ensure that we won’t have to fight son of ISIS or son of al Qaeda?  Both ISIS and al Qaeda gained ground in Syria in response to the brutality of Bashar al Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.  The sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki created the Sunni Arab protest movement in that country that opened the door to the ISIS invasion in 2014.  Military success against these groups will not resolve the underlying political grievances that created support for them in the first place.  Yet the U.S. has not done remotely enough to address this problem in either Syria or Iraq.  The failure to form a sizable local Sunni Arab force in Syria suggests that the Sunni Arabs do not believe that their grievances will be redressed.  What is the U.S. doing to press Assad and the Iraqi government to resolve the political crises that allowed ISIS and al Qaeda to arise?

How will we contain Iran?  The Trump administration makes much of its plans to contain and pressure Iran.  Yet Iran is militarily stronger than it has ever been.  Tens of thousands of Iranian proxy forces, led by elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Qods Force, are the army keeping Assad in power and alive.  The removal of these forces without any replacements would open the door to al Qaeda and ISIS expansion.  The U.S. thus relies on the unprecedented forward deployment of Iranian military power to pursue its anti-ISIS campaign.  How can America depend on an Iranian-controlled army in Syria while containing Iranian military power in the region?

How will we come to terms with Turkey?  Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a troublesome ally.  Erdogan supports Islamist groups in Syria closely associated with al Qaeda.  He fears Kurdish efforts to form an autonomous region in Syria and to create a larger Kurdistan that would reach into Turkey’s Kurdish population.  He sees American support to Kurds fighting ISIS in Syria as U.S. backing for Kurdish terrorism in Turkey.  Yet Turkey is still a NATO ally.  It is also an essential player in any settlement in Syria.  Unequivocal and unrestricted American support for Kurds in Syria is driving the U.S. steadily toward conflict with Turkey—we’ve already had to deploy U.S. forces to stop the Turks from attacking our Kurdish allies twice.  How can the U.S. reconcile our dependence on Kurdish forces with the need to get Erdogan to work with us, stop backing Islamist groups, and accept a stable outcome in Syria? 

How will we reduce Russian influence?  Russia has established a massive airbase in Syria, giving it a major military position on the Mediterranean for the first time in decades.  Vladimir Putin has used that base to constrain American actions in Syria, to threaten Turkey, and as a hub for further expansion in the Mediterranean.  The hue-and-cry about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and the Russian threat to America has oddly ignored these developments.  How can the U.S. make the strong stand against Russia that many on both sides of the aisle now demand while tolerating this unprecedented expansion of Russian military power?  How can the U.S. hope to pressure Assad to stop his efforts to oppress Syria’s Sunni majority while Russia provides him an air force to do just that?

The Trump administration, Congress, and their critics on all sides must answer these questions if we are to arrive at any strategy in the Middle East that has a chance of securing our people and interests.  We must stop focusing on our own internal dramas so much that we ignore the increasingly dangerous world around us.

Frederick W. Kagan is the Christopher DeMuth Scholar and the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.