The attacks in Paris were hardly necessary to demonstrate the brutality of ISIS. Its threat to regional stability in the Middle East has long been in evidence, and now we know that its terror can reach into Western capitals. But ISIS is hardly the only challenge to American power and the international order. Strategic thinking has to consider long term issues and not merely react to immediate events or even the most terrible headlines.
French President Francois Hollande has called for a grand coalition including both the US and Russia to combat ISIS. This would be a strategic error for several distinct reasons.
First, Russia’s primary goal in Syria is protecting the Assad regime which is based on Alawite supremacy and therefore tied to the regional hegemony of Shia Iran. Yet ISIS is nothing if not a Sunni reaction against Shia ascendancy. Supporting that ascendancy, implicit in the proposed Russian alliance, will only drive more of the Sunni Arab majority into the arms of ISIS and define the US as their enemy. The proposed alliance can therefore only be detrimental for US interests.
Second, under Putin, Russia has emerged as a competitor and antagonist to US interests. Russia also faces a Sunni insurgency along its southern flank, hence its aspirations for cooperation with Iran. The US has no interest in minimizing this challenge to Moscow’s power, and it would be irrational to take steps that would deflect Sunni anger away from Russia and toward America. If Russia chooses to engage in an anti-Sunni crusade and therefore become a target, we should not stand in its way.
Third, the proposed cooperation with Russia in Syria would effectively undermine the sanctions Moscow faces due to its annexation of Crimea and its destabilization of eastern Ukraine. Yet those aggressions are symptomatic of Russian efforts to flex its muscles in order to probe for weaknesses, from cyber warfare against Estonia to the recent overflight of Turkish territory. It is not in the strategic interest of the US to accept these systematic oversteps. Putin should back off before he gets any relief.
There is of course every reason to undertake some coordination with Russian aerial activity in Syria in order to avoid accidental collisions, but we should not overlook the fact that Russia and the US are fighting two different wars in the same place: Russia is trying to suppress the anti-Assad insurgency, while the US and its allies are fighting ISIS.
To succeed in its war, the US has to strengthen its alliances in two dimensions: with the Sunnis and with the Europeans.
It is urgent that the anti-ISIS war be waged visibly by Sunni allies, precisely to undercut the ISIS narrative. These allies include the Kurds of course, who, however, have little prospect of exercising power outside of their ethnic base. The US should therefore draw prominently on other Sunni support, especially from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, and possibly Jordan and Egypt. The US could be even more effective by relying on indigenous Syrian forces.
Yet this Sunni strategy faces the difficulty that the US has failed to provide significant support to moderate Sunnis in Syria; that reluctance obviously reflected the interest of the Obama administration to avoid antagonizing Tehran in the run-up to the JCPOA. We are now paying the price for that miscalculation. President Obama has recently promised to take back territory occupied by ISIS. Hopefully this is not another “red line” gaffe. He will not however be able to win a ground war with an aerial campaign. He will need soldiers on the ground, and unless he foresees deploying a significant American contingent, Sunni forces have to be built up rapidly. Those forces would also provide the linchpin for post-war planning (the missing element in the Iraq War).
Regarding the Europeans, after Paris and against the backdrop of their traditional interests in Syria, the French have demonstrated some backbone. There are also indications that German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be prepared to support Hollande in the war on ISIS. Yet ultimately the Europeans will not coordinate and intervene effectively unless there are clear signals from Washington. It is obviously in the interest of the US for the Europeans to take on significant responsibilities in the war on ISIS and, moreover, for the US to demonstrate to the Europeans our own commitment to the fight in order to prevent their drifting further into the Russian orbit, a permanent temptation in Berlin and Paris. The US should visibly up its commitment of resources and, of equal importance, the President has to make the case more effectively.
The US can wage the war against ISIS without falling into the Russian and Iranian trap of waging a war to protect Assad. This requires drawing some fine lines and skillful diplomacy. Yet eventually, and probably sooner than later, we will have to act effectively against Assad in order to retain credibility in the Sunni world, where American interests really lie. At that point, the fundamental strategic competitions with the regimes in Moscow and Tehran will come to the fore. Any steps we take now should be calculated to position ourselves better in those conflicts.