By: Doug Livermore, Columnist
Photo Credit: New York Times
While much remains for the world to do to bring about the ultimate destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a world in which ISIS no longer exists could pose a larger challenge to the United States and the region writ large. Without the common threat posed by ISIS, already escalating tensions between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the various Kurdish factions threaten to throw the entire region into a struggle with global implications. The absence of a clearly articulated vision for a post-ISIS Middle East makes it impossible for the US government to plan for or prepare to participate meaningfully in the post-conflict reordering of the region. Therefore, it is imperative that the new Trump administration quickly determine and clearly articulate a desired end state so that the agencies of the US government may better leverage all elements of national power to facilitate an orderly transition to a stable regional peace following the fall of the Islamic State. Failure to restore functional order after the elimination of ISIS as a functioning pseudo-state in Syria and Iraq could set off a cascading series of escalatory conflicts, redraw national borders, shift the regional balance of power, or even drag the United States and Russian Federation deeper into conflict.
The Middle East as it exists today is vastly different than that which existed prior to ISIS rising from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2013. Turkey is increasingly hostile toward the United States and the West, becoming even more so since the attempted coup d’état in July 2016.[i] Moreover, Turkish troops are pushing ever deeper into sovereign Syrian territory in an attempt to capture al-Bab—a move seen by many as intended to prevent the consolidation of Syrian Kurd rebel cantons. The Syrian regime’s Russian backers are coordinating air strikes in support of the Turkish offensive, even though the regime’s displeasure with the Turkish invasion is palpable in the fiery exchanges between Damascus and Ankara.[ii] Recently, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister stated that his country would not return al-Bab to Syrian regime control once Turkish-backed rebel forces rout ISIS.[iii] Iran is entrenching its influence in both Baghdad and Damascus by exercising de facto control of and providing massive amounts of material support to Shia militias, which human rights groups regularly accuse of grotesque violations against Sunni noncombatants.[iv] The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq’s north is increasingly indicating its intent to pursue either greater autonomy or outright independence once ISIS is destroyed, and now has the trained troops and military hardware—largely supplied by the West—to back such a move.[v] Turkey has increased direct bilateral military cooperation with the KRG, much to Baghdad’s chagrin.[vi] Finally, Russia is pursuing its own agenda and achieving widespread regional influence through cooperation with the Syrian regime, Iran, Iraq, and now even Turkey. While experts disagree on how the region will emerge after the fall of ISIS, few doubt that the post-ISIS Middle East will look significantly different than it did before.
In identifying a desired end state, the United States faces a challenge of competing values and priorities. On the one hand, the United States has an expressed interest in rebuilding the region as it existed prior to ISIS, or restoring the “status quo”. This was an order in which national borders were fixed and generally respected, in which the United States had good relations with Turkey and Iraq, tense but manageable relations with Syria and Iran, and Kurdish independence was not a significant consideration save for Turkey’s long-running conflict with its own separatist Kurds. However, it is likely impossible to restore this “old” order. The national boundaries of Syria and Iraq are highly contested, years of instability have drastically altered the US relationship with most of the major regional powers, and unpredictable new players have emerged in the form of the KRG and Syrian Kurd rebel groups. The Obama administration, aside from calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, largely withdrew from any sort of guiding role in the region.[vii] The United States must balance its existing commitments to restoring regional order with a realistic appreciation for how fundamentally that old order has been overturned. The alternative is a Middle East completely torn apart by the next wave of conflicts, which would have obvious catastrophic local effects but larger global implications.
Any post-ISIS order in the Middle East will have to reflect the choices and preferences of those who live there. However, the United States has an important role in helping to negotiate the “new” order for the region, and the first step to any successful negotiation is to identify one’s own position. That is why the Trump administration must work quickly to determine and clearly communicate a preferred outcome for the post-ISIS Middle East. A clearly defined end state will give a focal point against which to plan and prepare. Given the excruciatingly laborious bureaucratic processes of the US government, the Trump administration must allow maximum time for the development, analysis, approval, and implementation of policies that will advance its interests in the post-ISIS regional order. These policies should leverage the diplomatic, information messaging, military, and economic capabilities and resources from across the spectrum of US national power. Additionally, it is clear that other global and regional powers, first among them Iran and Russia, are determined to advance their own agendas in shaping the post-ISIS regional balance of power. Proactive development and implementation of a comprehensive plan will allow the United States to help shape regional conditions to ease the transition to a more peaceful order that better reflects its values. Failure to determine and communicate such a vision would leave the United States once again scrambling to catch up with the rapidly evolving reality of the post-ISIS Middle East.
[i] Victor Kotsev and John Dyer, “Turkey blames U.S. for coup attempt,” USA Today, July 18, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/07/18/turkey-blames-us-coup-attempt/87260612/
[ii] “ISIL fighters ‘besieged’ in Syria’s al-Bab in Aleppo,” al-Jazeera, February 6, 2017 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/isil-fighters-besieged-syria-al-bab-aleppo-170206172706993.html
[iii] “Turkey will not hand over al-Bab to Syrian government forces: deputy PM,” Reuters, January 24, 2017 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-idUSKBN1580OE
[iv] Rowan Scarborough, “Iran positioning Shiite militias in Iraq as regional expeditionary force,” The Washington Times, November 21, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/nov/21/iran-positioning-shiite-militias-in-iraq-as-region/
[v] Lally Weymouth, “Kurdish president: Independent Kurdistan is ‘neither a rumor nor a dream’,” The Washington Post, January 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/kurdish-president-independent-kurdistan-is-neither-a-rumor-nor-a-dream/2017/01/19/0a832f62-ddbb-11e6-acdf-14da832ae861_story.html?utm_term=.afc9998a9b02
[vi] Sinan Salaheddin, “Turkish PM visits Iraq amid spat over unauthorized troops,” US News and World Report, January 7, 2017, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-01-07/turkish-pm-visits-iraq-amid-spat-over-unauthorized-troops
[vii] Shadi Hamid, “Obama’s Good Intentions in the Middle East Meant Nothing,” Foreign Policy, January 19, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/19/obamas-good-intentions-in-the-middle-east-meant-nothing/