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Research Report


Ilan Goldenberg
Nicholas A. Heras
Paul Scharre
Copyright Date: Jun. 1, 2016
Pages: 68

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. None)
  2. (pp. 1-2)
  3. (pp. 3-7)
  4. (pp. 8-14)

    Given the complexity of the situation in Syria and Iraq, the first challenge in developing an effective counter-ISIS strategy is to develop a coherent strategic framework. This chapter begins by briefly summarizing current policy and the challenges associated with it. It then describes key assessments and assumptions about the ISIS challenge, from which it derives an overall approach.

    Fifteen years after 9/11, al Qaeda has suffered significant losses, but the threat from Islamic extremism has morphed and metastasized in ways that remain dangerous to the United States. The rise of ISIS and the emergence of a proto-state in the heart...

  5. (pp. 15-23)

    Without a credible ground force acceptable to the local population it will be impossible to displace not only ISIS but also Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups that may threaten U.S. interests. A unified Arab force comprising the armies of multiple Middle Eastern states is probably not the answer. It is unlikely the states are willing or capable of performing such a function; they have a number of problems working together and are absorbed in other conflicts, such as Yemen.39 The Kurds have been effective partners in Iraq and Syria, but they will not be willing to retake and hold...

  6. (pp. 24-29)

    Building coherent regional opposition groups from the ground up will take time and additional support from the United States. In order to execute this strategy, some current limitations on U.S. military operations will need to change. Most of these changes will focus on the ISIS battlefield in eastern Syria and western Iraq. U.S. combat advisors should be embedded among front-line partner units to be most effective. U.S. unilateral direct-action counter-network operations should be expanded. Military commanders will need to be delegated increased authority for operations within Syria. Additional personnel will be needed to effectively resource this strategy, necessitating lifting the...

  7. (pp. 30-34)

    The third major challenge with addressing the situation in Iraq and Syria is the role of external actors. The parts of Iraq and Syria where U.S. policy has arguably had the most success are those where there are actors on the borders of the conflict zone who can play a constructive role. This is most pronounced in southern Syria, where the United States and Jordan have coordinated effectively to build up the Southern Front. It is also the case in the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq, where Kurdish partners in both countries have been mostly constructive partners who have...

  8. (pp. 35-40)

    The challenge of reestablishing effective governance in Iraq and Syria is twofold — a near-term approach to building governance structures at the local level from the bottom up combined with a long-term approach to try to forge national reconciliation, ensuring the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria through a decentralized governance system. This approach must be directly linked to U.S. security assistance and military strategies described in Chapters 2 and 3.

    In the near term the key is to empower acceptable local actors to outcompete and outgovern extremists, who are actively seeking to entrench themselves in the political and security...

  9. (pp. 41-45)

    Rolling back ISIS’ gains in Iraq and Syria and establishing effective local security structures to replace it with a sustainable alternative will take years. Indeed, even pursuing this strategy, it may be impossible to achieve the ideal desired end-state — one where ISIS and other extremist territorial control in Iraq and Syria is eliminated and replaced with local forces acceptable to the United States, its partners, and the local population. And given the deep divisions in Iraq and Syria, it may not be possible to get to political power-sharing arrangements that are acceptable to all sides. Therefore, it is vital...

  10. (pp. 46-62)
  11. (pp. 63-64)