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.