U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week planning exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. ISW and CTP are publishing the findings of this exercise in multiple reports in a series titled U.S Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda. The first report – Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe -- describes America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda. The second – Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition -- defines American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identifies the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compares U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. The third report -- Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength -- assesses the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS and al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria to serve as the basis for developing a robust and comprehensive strategy to destroy them. The fourth report -- America's Way Ahead in Syria -- details an action plan for the best possible path forward for the United States that the ISW-CTP team could identify based on an evaluation of American interests, the current political-security dynamics, and forecasts of various actors' plans. The key points from each report are below.
-- Salafi-jihadi military organizations, particularly ISIS and al Qaeda, are the greatest threat to the security and values of American and European citizens.
-- Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra poses one of the most significant long-term threats of any Salafi-jihadi group.
-- ISIS and al Qaeda are more than terrorist groups; they are insurgencies.
-- Current counter-ISIS and al Qaeda policies do not ensure the safety of the American people or the homeland.
-- American and Western security requires the elimination of ISIS and al Qaeda regional bases and safe-havens.
-- The U.S. must accomplish four strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria to achieve vital national interests and secure its people: 1) destroy enemy groups; 2) end the communal, sectarian civil wars; 3) set conditions to prevent the reconstitution of enemy groups; and 4) extricate Iraq and Syria from regional and global conflicts.
-- Any American strategy must take urgent measures to strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and prepare contingency efforts for his fall.
-- Ongoing international negotiations within the Vienna Framework are bypassing essential requirements for long-term success in Syria.
-- The Salafi-jihadi militant base in Syria poses a threat to the U.S., but the U.S. must not simply attack it because that would put the U.S. at war with many Sunnis who must be incorporated into a future, post-Assad inclusive government.
-- The superficial convergence of Iranian, Russian, Turkish, and Saudi strategic objectives with those of the U.S. on ISIS as a threat masks significant divergences that will undermine U.S. security requirements. Iran and Russia both seek to reduce and eliminate U.S. influence in the Middle East and are not pursuing strategies that will ultimately defeat al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
-- ISIS and al Qaeda are Salafi-jihadi military organizations with distinct sources of strength.
-- U.S. strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra simultaneously. Attacking the source of ISIS’s strength — its territorial caliphate — is relatively straightforward to describe. Expelling ISIS’s hybrid forces from terrain and setting conditions to prevent their return is a much more complicated task with which American and Western militaries are nevertheless familiar.
-- Current U.S. policy appears to assume that depriving ISIS of its control of Mosul or ar Raqqa will lead to the organization’s collapse. That assumption was likely valid in 2014 and early 2015, but it is no longer true.
-- Jabhat al Nusra draws strength from its intertwinement with Syrian Sunni opposition groups. The slow pace of U.S. strategy and its exclusive prioritization of ISIS are facilitating Jabhat al Nusra’s deeper entrenchment within the opposition.
-- All operations against Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS must be integrated into a single coherent strategic concept that takes account of the divergence of interests between the U.S. and its European partners, on the one hand, and Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other.
-- The U.S. and its Western partners will have to conduct multiple simultaneous and successive operations whose exact course cannot be described fully in advance.
-- To protect American interests, President Trump's goal cannot be a quick end to the war in Syria.
-- The US must stop bringing a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency fight.
-- Current US strategy empowers al Qaeda.
-- Iran's strategy in Syria is designed to prevent America from protecting its interests.
-- US leadership is needed to drive a multinational strategy that rallies regional powers capable of building the moderate Sunni Arab resistance essential to defeating the ISIS and al Qaeda insurgencies.
-- The US must act soon in Syria if it hopes to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda and prevent their reconstitution.
One-pager: America's Way Ahead in Syria