The Coalition’s Flawed Endgame Strategy for the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 6, 2016

After some (perhaps wilful) confusion over the timing, the operation to expel the Islamic State (IS) from Raqqa City, its Syrian capital, got underway this morning, running concurrent with the effort to evict IS from its Iraqi capital, Mosul. There are deep concerns about the methods adopted in both cases. The ground forces the U.S.-led Coalition has chosen to support in Raqqa cannot lead to sustainable stability in Syria, something that is essential to defeat IS. While the Mosul operation has proceeded generally to plan, there are increasing signs of trouble within the operation itself and the most troubling aspect—the aftermath—still appears to be unplanned. Beyond this is the continued assault on Aleppo City by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons that is systematically destroying the forces needed if there is to be any settlement to Syria’s war that ends the space given to international terrorists.


Nearly exactly three weeks ago, the operation to restore the Iraqi government’s control over Mosul was launched, led on the ground by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, with a role for the Iranian-run Shi’a militias, backed by air support from the U.S.-led Coalition. The offensive has proceeded roughly to plan but, as pointed out in this space a week ago, there have been problems. A lot of the early optimism and expectations have given way as the death toll has mounted, and this was only the beginning, a foretaste of the change of strategy as IS relinquishes overt control of its statelet and reverts to insurgency. Yesterday, IS added, to the major diversions in Kirkuk and Rutba, an attack in Shirqat, a key gateway to Mosul that was ostensibly manumitted from the hold of the takfiris in September, but which has remained a victim of harrying attacks ever since.

When faced with an overwhelming foe, IS often begins with a show of resistance, then draws the bulk of its forces out of cities quickly, leaving a skeleton crew of snipers, inghimasiyeen, and suiciders, behind layers of barriers, made up of everything from trenches and barbed wire to t-walls and embankments, and scattered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In this way, IS exercises strict force-preservation and inflicts so much harm on its foes over such a long period for such minimal gains that victories seem pyrrhic. This is why it was possible to predict that the attack against IS in Sirte, Libya, would not succeed as quickly as was believed six months ago.

In Mosul, however, IS’s operating method had seemed different. Anti-IS commanders on the ground spoke of a level of IS resistance heretofore unknown. IS claims to have carried out 120 suicide bombings in October, two-thirds of them around Mosul, which tallies with independent estimates. And there were reports of hundreds of IS jihadists moving into Mosul since this operation began. Now the caliph has confirmed it.

IS’s leader, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), released an audio message on Wednesday, the first since 26 December 2015. Eulogies were given for Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan), two extremely senior IS figures killed two months ago, with assurances that “the caliphate did not stumble on account of their deaths”. Saudi Arabia was blamed for “every calamity” that has befallen the jihadi-salafists and, as usual, threatened. Internal terrorism was incited against Turkey. The foreign “provinces” were exhorted to continue on god’s path and Libya was singled out for praise—and as a destination, should jihadi-salafist volunteers to IS have difficulty getting to Syria and Iraq. Above all though, al-Badri’s message was for his troops to stand firm in Mosul and fight to the last.

Estimates for IS jihadists in Mosul City run from 3,000 to 10,000 and the fight for the city itself has barely begun. Perhaps IS will expend all of these men, and it will certainly increase the diversionary raids to increase the cost even further for its enemies. Or perhaps at some point a retreat will be ordered. If IS manages to prolong the battle enough to wear down the professional Iraqi forces and draw the Shi’a militias into the city, for example, it might pocket the political victory and preserve its forces into the bargain. In either case, it will be IS’s decision and then comes the next phase of trying to uproot IS’s entrenched networks—or, as happened after the surge, not. There is still no agreed plan for the aftermath of IS’s rule in Mosul. If Western attention wanes after IS’s overt control is removed and its underground infrastructure is allowed to endure, in combination with the persistence—indeed worsening—of the political conditions that allowed IS’s rise in the first place, revival might be shorter than last time.


The Raqqa operation is currently in the shaping and isolation phase, with the anti-IS forces twenty-five miles away at their closest, in Ayn Issa, so the assault on Raqqa City itself is still a while away. But it is clear what the ground component of the Raqqa operation will be: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who claim to be devoting 30,000 troops to clearing IS’s spiritual headquarters.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. representative to the global anti-IS Coalition, recently explained: “The fundamental premise of this campaign against ISIL … is [for] locally-based forces to hold ground after ISIL is gone.” This is essential to long-term stability, and is the reason the Iranian-controlled sectarian Shi’a militias that dominate al-Hashd al-Shabi have been kept out of Mosul City and diverted to Tal Afar. On paper, the U.S. is replicating this strategy in Syria by attaching local Arab units who will be a “hold” force to the SDF, but the progress on this front is distinctly incomplete, and the nature of the SDF makes it questionable that this will improve.

The SDF is functionally controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state using tactics that have led to its designation as a terrorist entity by the U.S., E.U., and Turkey. The SDF already has Arab detachments, theoretically numerically significant, but the constant complaint is that these forces are kept deliberately weak and dependent on the PKK. Additionally, Ankara has begun training Arab rebels for the Raqqa operation, and there is some hope these will be meaningful by the time the operation for the Raqqa City itself begins. There is every reason to doubt this, though. The SDF’s formal platform might be democratic and liberal, but the PKK remains deeply authoritarian, exclusivist, and anti-Turkish, making it unlikely it will allow the SDF banner to become genuinely pluralist, least of all with forces aligned with Turkey.

The U.S. support for the PKK—under any of its guises—in Syria has caused serious tensions with NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian opposition. Turkey tried, in late 2015 and over the Minbij offensive earlier this year, to put some restraints on the PKK’s maximalist behaviour via diplomacy, and found that the U.S. would not even rhetorically condemn its favoured proxy when the PKK called in Russian airstrikes to attack U.S. and Turkish assets among the Syrian rebels. So Turkey intervened directly in Syria in August, clearing IS from its border and shutting down IS’s access to the outside world, while blocking the formation of a PKK statelet all along its border.

Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD (OES), involving its own troops and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded rebels, pushed south with a stated goal to (ultimately) move on Raqqa City. Meanwhile, the PKK stated that it, too, was heading to Raqqa. In this race, Turkey was hampered by having to go through al-Bab, the last major urban stronghold IS has in eastern Aleppo Province, where the deeper roots of IS and some of the limitations of the OES rebels made (and make) it likely that there will be a costly and protracted fight. Still, the Turks would be able to offer forces recognized as legitimate by the local population, if the U.S. would delay the Raqqa offensive. The PKK, which said Turkey could not be involved in an operation it was part of, can go more quickly but is vehemently rejected by even the most sternly anti-IS actors in Arab-majority areas of eastern Syria. The U.S. sided with the PKK—again.

The U.S. itself acknowledges that the PKK cannot govern Raqqa in the aftermath. It might be that the U.S. has a program in place to produce an Arab force over the next six months that it has failed to come up with in five years of war. Given that eradicating IS fundamentally relies on out-governing it—something its enemies have frequently not managed—this would be most welcome. Assuming not, it leaves two options: (1) the PKK will not withdraw, and over time a feeling of occupation will allow IS a way back in; or (2) the PKK does withdraw and leaves in place a weak governing structure that allows IS a way back in.

The U.S. has clearly decided the Raqqa operation has to begin now, when it is true that only the PKK are positioned to act. One explanation for this is the reports of urgent threats to the West originating in the caliphal capital. It might even be true, as it surely has been for more than two years. Given that it is going to be months before U.S.-backed forces even reach Raqqa City limits, however, it is tempting to see this as an administration “try[ing] to shape their legacy,” as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it. IS will almost certainly be militarily defeated in Raqqa City, but IS will likely obtain a political victory from this setback, which in the model of revolutionary warfare it is waging is far more important.


At least since IS’s conquests in mid-2014 it has been painfully obvious that building up a rebel army in Syria was necessary, even in narrow counter-terrorism terms. To say that the PKK are the “only force that is capable” of attacking IS in Raqqa is not to justify sending the PKK in. It is to lay bare the calamitous failure of the West’s Syria policy that expended the energy necessary for building up alternatives on strategic messaging explaining why that wasn’t necessary or feasible, leaving only another terrorist organization as a viable option for immediate action to dislodge IS.

There are tens of thousands of U.S.-vetted, CIA-supported Syrian rebels in Syria, but they have never been supplied with support to make a qualitative difference on the battlefield. The Russian intervention picked up where the Assad regime left off by systematically trying to eliminate these workable rebels, so that the only forces left against Assad are al-Qaeda and IS. Moscow has been preparing for a final assault on the rebellion in Aleppo City, and on Friday its deadline for the population and rebels to quit the city ran out. Not a single person left, fearing arrest if they did so, knowing that ending up in Assad’s prisons death is the very least of the torments, and now Aleppo awaits a renewal of the unmerciful assault the pro-regime coalition has subjected it to on-and-off all year.

The West’s failure to do anything to even complicate the ability of the pro-Assad coalition to massacre civilians and destroy the moderate opposition in Aleppo is pushing opposition populations into greater dependence on al-Qaeda, which remains, despite the Western monomania about IS and al-Qaeda’s own efforts at rebranding, a serious threat to the West. Securing the mainstream rebels in Aleppo, bolstering this force to be able to defend itself and disentangle from al-Qaeda, is the urgent priority for Western policy in Syria. Altering the balance in this way would help de-escalate the atrocities and chaos in the short-term, and lay the groundwork for a Raqqa operation to be done properly later.


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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