America's Way Ahead in Syria

This report is part of the series, 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-month planning exercise beginning in November 2015 to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in 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. The first report described America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda. The second report defined American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identified the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compared U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. The third report assessed 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.

This fourth report recommends a course of action (COA) that represents 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 ISW-CTP team tested 15 different courses of action to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda without jeopardizing wider American interests or accepting undue cost or risk. Download the PDF to read the full report. 

Executive Summary

Defining the Problem

  • The US is fighting the wrong war in the Middle East. ISIS and al Qaeda are waging population-centric insurgencies while we conduct counterterrorism operations by proxy. Defeating these groups requires the US to pursue population-centric counterinsurgency by, with, and through acceptable and viable partners in Syria’s and Iraq’s Sunni Arab communities.
  • Current US strategy empowers al Qaeda, which has an army in Syria, is preparing to replace ISIS, and exploits a vulnerable Sunni Arab community. The US has delayed defeating al Qaeda until after it has defeated ISIS. But al Qaeda is consolidating in northwestern Syria after withdrawing from Aleppo and is preparing a counteroffensive in Syria as it simultaneously reconstitutes in Iraq.
  • Current US military operations impale our local partners against the strongest points of the enemy’s prepared defensive position and make little use of American asymmetric capabilities. We can and should operate in the enemy’s rear areas while also attacking its front so as to disrupt its defense and confront it with multiple dilemmas to which it cannot adequately respond.
  • Sunni Arabs view the US as aligned with the deepening Russo-Iranian coalition and complicit in its atrocities.
  • The US must regain the initiative and drive the multinational strategy. No regional actor can or will develop the moderate Sunni Arab resistance needed to defeat the ISIS and al Qaeda insurgencies. Turkey supports the al Qaeda–penetrated Ahrar al Sham. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are embroiled in Yemen and have given up on the idea of a moderate opposition in Syria. Jordan faces a major internal Salafi-jihadi threat and has few resources.
  • The US must de-escalate the underlying Turkish-Kurdish political dispute in Syria to gain leverage on both actors. Syrian Kurdish political aims threaten US interests. The US must halt these forces’ progress after they secure the Tabqa Dam, the Syrian Democratic Forces’ natural limit of advance.
  • Russia and Iran deny the US freedom of action in Syria and the Mediterranean and can threaten three of seven major global maritime trade chokepoints—the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait—in the next five years.
  • A major US-Iran conflict is likely in the next five years. Iran has developed a functioning, interoperable, and deployable coalition of its proxies with Russia’s help, which will invalidate US planning assumptions. Iran seeks conventional capabilities as well. It will counter US pressure on nonnuclear issues, resist efforts to control Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and escalate in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and elsewhere, using its own forces and its proxies.
  • The US must develop a plan to achieve American interests with limited or no ability to base in Iraq. Iran and Iraqis aligned with Tehran are preparing to use the 2018 elections to replace Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi with a pro-Iranian candidate, who will likely order US and coalition forces out of Iraq or curtail their actions below levels required to destroy ISIS and other jihadists.

Operational Concept: Mission

The US, with willing and acceptable partners, seizes and secures a base of operations in southeastern Syria to expand American freedom of action in the region and build a new Syrian Sunni Arab partner by, with, and through which to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda, set conditions to prevent their reconstitution, and eventually resettle refugees.

Recommended Course of Action: Phase One in a Series of Multiphase Campaigns

The US and acceptable partners seize and secure a base in southeastern Syria, such as Abu Kamal, and create a de facto safe zone. They then recruit, train, equip, and partner with local Sunni Arab anti-ISIS forces to conduct an offensive against ISIS. This independent Sunni Arab force forms the basis of a movement to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria over many years. Building a Sunni Arab anti-ISIS partner must be the rate-determining step in the advance along the Euphrates River Valley (ERV). American forces must fight alongside their partners to reduce the trust deficit between the US and potential Sunni allies. Potential partners must not support Salafi-jihadists, Iranian proxies, or Kurdish separatism.

An operation in southeastern Syria—instead of Raqqa—is advantageous because it would:

  1. Reduce near-term escalation risks with Russia and Bashar al Assad by focusing on terrain not critical to either;
  2. Establish a US force posture in other terrain independent of current proxies;
  3. Position the US to de-escalate the Turkish-Kurdish war;
  4. Mitigate the risk of losing basing privileges in Iraq;
  5. Set conditions to win the urban fight in ISIS-held cities by targeting ISIS’s rear area;
  6. Enable the US to compete for legitimacy in Sunni Arab areas; and
  7. Reduce the ISIS threat to Jordan.

Next Phases

  • The US launches clearing operations along the Euphrates River Valley toward Raqqa, using US forces and the new Sunni Arab partner at Abu Kamal, and in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
  • The US brokers a peace deal between Turkey and the Syrian-Kurdish “People’s Defense Forces” (YPG), focused on the contact line in Aleppo Province.
  • The US implements a no-fly zone in Dera’a Province, demonstrating US commitment to addressing the grievances of populations under jihadist control and facilitating a local cessation of hostilities with Russia and between pro-Assad and US-backed anti-Assad forces. The US must also help partner forces in Dera’a destroy ISIS and al Qaeda, which would help facilitate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian war. The US should execute this step after the first phase and coincident with clearing operations in southeastern Syria.
  • The US should try to stitch together the new force with existing US-backed fighters to create a single partner that can secure terrain from jihadists, defend against pro-Assad attacks, and uphold a settlement against the Assad regime.

These follow-on operations set conditions that favor broader US interests in Syria, but they do not achieve those interests. Subsequent phases will be necessary and will require a significant counter-Iranian component in Iraq and Syria.

This course of action is the first step in the initial campaign to achieve our overarching aims. It is a limited counteroffensive designed to regain American freedom of action and set conditions for halting and then reversing our current steady movement toward defeat.