If you want to understand how undirected American activities in Syria and Iraq are by a coherent policy, look at a map. (Map 1 starts the parade with what ISIS’s position looked like approximately 2 months ago.)
The U.S. began our current operations by putting in advisers with Iraqi and Kurdish troops, in and near Baghdad and in the Kurdish-held area in northern Iraq. We ramped up operations by deploying air assets and additional ground force and Special Forces advisers, in the same areas. We initially conducted air strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq, to try to beat back ISIS advances near Kurdish and Iraqi national force positions there. (Map 2)
Then came the “coalition” and the expansion of strikes to Syria. (Map 3) Although we and our coalition partners have attacked targets in the ISIS stronghold of the Euphrates corridor through eastern Syria (e.g., around Raqqa), we were informed in September that U.S. air strikes were concentrated further west, around Aleppo – where those strikes would have no effect on ISIS’s operational rear or its ability to hold territory or push for gains in Iraq.
Subsequent comments from administration officials indicated that the purpose of the strikes around Aleppo was to inflict injury on “core al Qaeda,” in the guise of the suddenly significant “Khorasan group” (also rendered “Khorosan”), which had put advisers in Syria to assist third-party jihadi rebels. It wasn’t clear how this related to anything else the public understood we were trying to do. (See an interesting treatment here, which among other things highlights the perils of heaving explosives into an ongoing 360-degree firefight.)
Now, U.S. air power is being used in the Kurdish enclave of Kobani, on the border of northern Syria and far from ISIS’s stronghold to the east. (Map 4) Kobani is even further from the Euphrates corridor in Iraq, west of Baghdad, where Iraqi national forces are on the ropes, near collapse and begging for air support. Kobani is a considerable distance from the Kurdish stronghold of northern Iraq as well. Holding Kobani has nothing to do with (a) defending Irbil (where there is now a concentration of U.S. personnel on the ground); (b) degrading ISIS’s operational rear in eastern Syria; or (c) defending Baghdad, where the fight for the city has begun.
Holding Kobani doesn’t even have anything to do with building up a coherent, unified rebel force in Syria: one that can control territory as an alternative to the Assad regime as well as to ISIS. I mention this because there has been much talk in the last three years of the U.S. supporting and strengthening such a force. The Free Syrian Army was supposed to be that force, at least until recently.
The Syrian Kurds, on the other hand, for all their undoubted fighting courage, have not been amenable over time to forming a part of that unified rebel force. In fact, they’ve been split among themselves, some working with Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani; some not. The Kurds’ long-term interest, in general, is less in reestablishing the borders and centralized rule of Syria and Iraq than in navigating toward a Kurdish state of their own.
The Kurdish question
The Kurdish question has to come up sooner or later in this fight, not only because Iraqi unity is all but a fiction at this point, but because the Kurdish question is already roiling Turkey internally –significantly – and now there is no way forward unless there’s a plan for the Kurds.
A key problem for Turkey is that no one knows what idea the U.S. has about the Kurds. Why is America focusing our air support on the defense of a Kurdish enclave, right on Turkey’s border, which has no strategic meaning to any purpose we have so far declared for our military operations? What is Turkey supposed to understand from that?
One need not hold any brief for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to recognize that the Kurdish problem is one Turkey is bound to be sensitive over, and will demand a seat at the table for. Nor need one oppose on principle an independent state for the Kurds. But one can be sympathetic to the Kurds’ aspirations and still understand that if the PKK existed inside the United States (or Russia, or France, or any other big nation), we would react to rioting and violence from the PKK the same way Turkey does. And we’d look with disfavor on outside powers dropping bombs right on our border where a fight involving Kurds was going on.
So the U.S. has achieved more than strategic incoherence by jumping erratically from northern Iraq to Aleppo to Kobani. We’ve increased the suspicion and hostility of Turkey, and made it less likely that we can find a way to genuinely cooperate.*
New depths of unreality: Force-building-for-defense
If only that were all. But there’s more. This came over the wire last week, and unfortunately has gotten no meaningful play in the mainstream media. According to John Allen, the retired Marine Corps general who has been put in charge of coordinating the Iraq-Syria coalition, the U.S. has decided to terminate our relationship with the Free Syrian Army. Instead of making common cause with the FSA, we’re going to build a new local ground force to fight ISIS.
On top of that – yes, it gets worse – our plan is to train this new force only to defend territory – not to take territory, only to defend it. Visit the article at the link if you don’t believe me. (See Allen West’s take here.)
The proposal apparently is that some yet-to-be-formed force will confine itself to defending whatever ground is held now by the forces that aren’t Assad’s and aren’t ISIS. What the purpose of this could be, given that Syria is riven by war and currently without unified governance, is all but unfathomable. (I suspect the purpose is to create enclaves for refugees.) It can have no geopolitical sense to it, at any rate.
Any student of military operations can tell you that it is unsustainable over time to merely defend territory against a determined attacker with a strategy. There has to be a positive political motivation animating your activities: some idea of a livable political end-state. Otherwise, your static position will grow more vulnerable with time and will inevitably be eroded. The attacker (or attackers) can plot rings around you. He doesn’t have to conquer your little slice of territory; he just has to get you to abandon it.
But the U.S. is planning to build, from scratch, a force dedicated to that hopeless proposition.
Now, it was never actually a good idea to throw in with the FSA. But the FSA at least had an offensive plan. It’s an even worse idea, in the situation as it now exists, to start from scratch and try to force-build, in the middle of two civil wars, a guerrilla maneuver war, and a modern “great game” involving Islamists on every side, plus Russia.
It would be a bad enough idea to do this if we had an end-state in view. But we don’t have one. Nor do we seem to be taking into account the fact that ISIS does have one, and as time goes by, all of Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, the Saudis, the Assad regime, Russia, and evanescent alliances of motivated tribes and jihadis will have end-states in view. Wherever any of them is battling for or against something, we will find our efforts buffeted by theirs, whether our project is being shaped, corrupted, or endangered.
This force-building-for-defense course seems to beg a new definition of insanity. We left behind some time ago the context in which it might have been intemperate to say that, and more appropriate to discuss Obama’s plans as if they merit credulous or sober consideration. The truth now is more nearly the opposite. It is evidence of blinkered foolishness – literally, the quality of behaving like a fool – to try to divine strategic clarity in what Obama is doing in Syria and Iraq. There isn’t any.
The defensive triangulation approach
For what it’s worth, I do see a consistent thread in some of Obama’s policies. This is not the same thing as seeing strategic clarity, but it does make some level of analysis possible. The consistent thread is an animus against proactive, offensive operations: a sort of perpetual triangulation to remain on defense, no matter what. Where this thread has been most pronounced is in Libya (in 2011) and Syria in 2014.
In 2011, Obama’s top advisors – flogging a theme associated with Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and others – characterized our operations in Libya as a “non-hostile” use of “kinetic military” force. At one point, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called it a “kinetic military action.” This was not in the context of the Libya operation having a larger political purpose; the carefully framed message was that a “non-hostile kinetic military action” was all it was. (I promptly dubbed it the NHKMA, or “nakma,” in Libya.)
It was clear that they wanted to convey the sense of military force having only the narrowest – we might say the most politically blind – of purposes. This thread of thought went along with the appeal made by Power in the UN to the concept of a “responsibility to protect,” or R2P. The R2P idea is that powerful nations are obligated to deploy force to protect the vulnerable who become victims in military conflicts. But in exercising that responsibility, the powerful nations are to confine their use of force to protection only. The force must not be used to pursue a political settlement that would end the conflict.
The animus thus is against using force for political purposes: for securing political end-states that give people hope and a future (e.g., removing Muammar Qadhafi from power and supporting a new government). Basil H. Liddell-Hart, one of the 20th century’s best-known historians and theorists of military matters, proposed that the purpose of war is to secure “a better peace.” But Obama’s top advisors have been determined that war cannot and must not be used with that in view – at least not war waged by American forces. U.S. military force cannot be what draws the political outlines of a peace. (As many commentators have argued, the “avoidance” approach is also designed for domestic politics: not attaching your name to anything that might fail.)
The approach is, in fact, wholly negative. Its driving principle is what must not be. It has no organized vision beyond that, precisely because no such vision is possible, when you are determined not to impose or affect the political outcome. There’s nothing to have vision about.
Military force, meanwhile, doesn’t just “work” regardless of how you use it. It’s a specific tool, suited to certain purposes. If you don’t have those purposes, you might as well be trying to drive a screw with a backhoe. There’s no mental framework for approaching your task. You can take the backhoe and dig up plenty of dirt, but you’re not going to have the desired effect on the screw, and anyone who’s watching will think you’re crazy.
The irreducible fact of human life is that politics is the first motivator of military force. It’s not a form of dysfunction to use force for political purposes; it’s a natural, logical, and regrettably frequent political choice. As with all political choices, it can be made wisely or foolishly, and managed poorly or well. But it’s impossible to use military force coherently – let alone effectively – without having a political motive. The two things are inherently linked, and the life of man can never be so deconstructed that this aspect of it will be amenable to experiment.
If you are worried about our men and women in uniform being put into an astoundingly vulnerable and strategically incoherent situation in Syria and Iraq, you should be. I have a very bad feeling about this.
* A footnote discussion for those with the interest.
The structure of what’s missing
It’s worth taking a brief moment to point out that if we had a coherent purpose of actually defeating and destroying ISIS, the outlines of how to do that are clearly there. It would be harder on the Syrian side of things, but not impossible to frame a strategy for.
First, ISIS has to be geographically surrounded and annihilated. Call it the kesselschlacht (“cauldron battle”) approach favored by the Helmut von Moltke, the military genius behind Otto von Bismarck’s political triumphs in late 19th-century Prussia and Germany.
The means to accomplish this are most efficiently established by strengthening Baghdad and the Iraqi regime, at the eastern edge of ISIS’s holdings, and ensuring that Damascus commands the interior of Syria from the western edge. Implied in the latter point is that Syria ultimately remains, entirely or mostly, a single entity, and is to be unified under a force which the U.S. will support.
That doesn’t mean there needs to be an assault on Damascus or the Alawite stronghold in the immediate future. But it does mean that U.S.-friendly Sunnis (which would form most of a unity force) should not have to find themselves squeezed in a vulnerable position between Damascus and ISIS’s stronghold in eastern Syria. The use of U.S.-backed power in Syria should ensure, initially, that neither ISIS nor Assad’s forces can establish command of the line of communication (LOC) from Damascus to the interior. (See Map 5.)
Whoever holds that LOC will have the upper hand over time, and it has the key advantages of being directly accessible from Jordan, being flanked to the southwest by Israel (meaning the ability to creep up on it from that direction can be quickly suppressed), and lying outside the most heavily contested areas where most of the fighting has been, in the north. The LOC is more than a beachhead, however; it’s a central, strategically unique position from which to block both sides, and consolidate, pivot, and expand. (Call this the “Napoleon in the Apennines” dynamic, if you like.) One element of its attractiveness is that it hits ISIS’s Euphrates corridor LOC on the perpendicular.
In the far north, it is most important and raises the fewest political questions to strengthen the Iraqi Kurds in their stronghold. Eccentric excursions into other Kurdish-held territory, without careful political preparation – i.e., without stating what the political goal is – only create divisive questions and more confusion for everyone. (That said, I believe the dialogue on the long-term arrangement for the Kurds would have to start quickly. The Kurds can’t be expected to cooperate with a coalition plan if there is no movement on their main concern.)
In the south, it is essential to prevent ISIS from using the thinly populated hinterland of Anbar Province, and southern Hims (Homs) Province in Syria, as a transit corridor or a maneuver route for flanking forces to the east or west.
If the U.S. wants the local forces to do the great majority of the fighting, the important factors in executing a kesselschlacht strategy against ISIS are Baghdad, the Damascus-interior LOC in Syria, and the Iraqi Kurd stronghold. All must be invulnerable, so that ISIS is channeled into an ever-narrowing box. ISIS can be systematically cut off from outside support by this method, with no sea access, and air and land access relatively simple to police.
Political “cover” for this strategy would both shape and be shaped by it – and wouldn’t be easy to design at this point. The strategy is an outline, not a finished product. It would require the key elements missing from Obama’s posture: policy and leadership. Unfortunately, Obama has evinced nothing even approaching such a systematic strategy, let alone the vision to execute it.
An important feature of the kesselschlacht strategy is that it proposes to rely on and enforce the geographic realities of the current political disposition in the area – an Iraq and Syria existing in their current borders, with their existing capitals – while setting aside for consensual diplomacy the Kurdish question. In that sense, it is politically conservative and rational: “Westphalian,” as Kissinger would call it.
What Obama has been doing, by contrast, can have no Westphalian purpose. He’s not doing what you would obviously do if your objective were to navigate toward a political solution in the framework of the status quo ante and the UN Charter. But he has offered no alternative political vision either. He’s just creating giant explosions across the landscape, with no stated, positive purpose at all.