Defeating ISIL Requires US Leadership Now!

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

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I have written here before on Syria and radicalism in the Levant—once in September of 2013, and again in September of 2014. Nearly a year later, I am disheartened to see that US leadership continues to be timid in its struggle with ISIL and Syria, in spite of our warnings and prediction that if the US didn’t define and lead the effort in this fight, radical elements would take over against our interests. This didn’t have to be the case and doesn’t have to be in the future. However, the problem cannot be simply wished away and we can’t wait two long years for a new Administration to take action.

When the popular uprising in Syria began in 2011, the US had to confront just one threat: President Assad. Today, we have at least three others: ISIL threatening not only Syria, but Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with terrorist activities; a refugee problem that could overwhelm our friends in those countries; and finally, the Iranian arc of resistance which, stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and to Lebanon, is gaining ground as it firms up support in its fight against ISIL and its support for Syria.

In 2013, I suggested that if a rebel force could be armed under a central command control, with the US leading a coalition including Qatari, Saudi, and other Arabs and regional allies in this fight, we would be able to either defeat Assad or force him to the bargaining table, and as importantly, cut off the Iranian arc of resistance at its core in Syria. Today, the effort– although terribly more difficult– still requires American leadership, otherwise the situation will only get worse.

This is now a long-term problem that will require long-term solutions, which I believe should take into consideration the following:

• There can be no front line American boots on the ground. American advisers and military equipment and air support are necessary, but this effort must include 25,000-50,000 carefully vetted Syrian rebel forces, under a central command control, along with Iraqi, Kurdish and other Arab fighters committed to win over the long haul in Syria and the region.

• Territory must be secured from ISIL by US allied forces, with a mission of good governance and the formation of a new functioning government in the newly held territory.

• ISIL must first be defeated by this new rebel force with US and allied support, taking back ground once controlled by them. This will relieve the refugee problem and allow citizens to go back to protected zones in their home countries.

• Meanwhile, a better form of governance can be established on territory taken in Syria, as an alternative to the disastrous past faced by Syrian citizens. Immediate good deeds for its citizens will be a necessary first step for the new government organization established there.

• Assad also cannot be given a pass. If he remains the ruler of Syria, corruption and terrorism will only shift from ISIL to Assad. He has to know that the US will not make deals with him, and if he is unwilling to come to the negotiating table, this new force will give him no alternative but to negotiate or be defeated.

• With this same strategy applied in Iraq, together with US support and leadership and coordination with the Iraqi government and other Arab and regional allies, ISIL can be defeated from the west and east.

This approach has wide support from many Syrian experts on the right and left, and is thoroughly presented in a paper on this subject by Ambassador Fred Hof at the Atlantic Council who summarizes his thoughts, “time is our enemy, and incremental approaches produce too much time for the bad guys. ISIS has no voluntary constituency in Syria. But give it three years to sink roots and Obama’s successor will have mission impossible on his hands. We and our regional partners need to beat ISIS in Syria now.”

Half the population of Syria is now displaced, with Jordan and Lebanon bearing an enormous amount of the burden: Syrian displaced persons and refugees now make up 40% of Lebanon’s population, and 12-20% of Jordan’s. That is like all of Canada and most of Mexico flowing into the US within three years. This is extremely destabilizing and is surely too much to handle for both countries.

Assad has already lost and will not rule the new Syria, no matter what the outcome. Either ISIL or US allies will be the eventual winner. Our preferred choice is to win at the negotiating table once Assad and company see our resolve, or alternatively by putting in place a new government in former ISIL controlled areas.

When this is all over, the countries of the region will either see the US as a dependable partner, or abandon us for what they see as more reliable partners in Europe, Russia and China. Even after three years of timid leadership in the region, the choice is still ours.

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