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Destroying Islamic State, Defeating Assad: A Strategy for Syria lays out how the Assad regime aided the growth of the Islamic State, which now threatens the West, and deflected attention away from war crimes committed by Damascus against its own citizens.
It examines the current realities in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and makes a number of key recommendations for Western policy-makers. The US led Coalition should thus:
Ignore the Iraq–Syria border. For the anti-IS Coalition to accomplish its mission of degrading and ultimately destroying IS, it has to attack IS in Syria, where it has its most valued territory and much of its command structure.
Emphasise regime change in Syria. The formal policy of the Western governments in the anti IS Coalition is the ousting of Bashar al-Assad. But the nuclear deal and other actions on the ground have moved the West into ever closer alignment with Iran’s regional ambitions, which is leading to Allied States de-prioritising the anti-IS campaign in order to take their own steps to counter Iran. Inside Syria these policy errors have allowed IS to claim vindication for its assertion of an Iranian–American conspiracy against Sunnis, from which only IS can defend them. By publicly stressing that Assad must be removed to allow a political transition to begin, the Coalition can mitigate some of the harm that has already been done.
To fight IS effectively it is therefore vital that the Coalition restrain and where possible reverse Iranian power. Iran is projecting power in Syria and Iraq through radical sectarian Shi’a militias that are US- and European-registered terrorist organisations. In Tikrit, these groups received US air support to push IS out of the city. Iran’s proxies committed atrocities during the Tikrit campaign and afterwards, convincing many Sunnis that IS rule is the lesser evil if the alternative is domination by sectarian forces beholden to Iran. That the US acted against the Khorasan Group but doesn’t act against tens of thousands of Shi’ite jihadists in Syria offers IS further fuel for its propaganda. Iran is also a threat in its own right, one that is more sophisticated and global in its reach than IS.
Despite a delay in recognising the importance of Kurdish forces as key Coalition allies, the Coalition should not overly rely on these forces outside Kurdish areas. The dynamics that make the expansion of Iran’s power helpful to IS also apply to Kurdish forces. If Kurds end up in control of Arab zones, there may be a reaction that will see Arab Sunnis move into the IS camp. More importantly, encouraging the PYD to move into Arab areas may overstretch them and open up opportunities for IS militarily. Helping the PYD to protect the Kurdish areas is desirable, but must be accompanied by an effort to build democratic institutions that reflect the aspirations of the Kurds over the PYD’s authoritarian tendencies.
The Coalition must continue to increase support to vetted rebel groups, including testing the proposition that certain groups can be separated from Jabhat al-Nusra, and it must engage with the tribes. The only sustainable solution to the IS crisis is for Sunni Arabs to take control of their local security and be able to defend themselves against both IS and Iran’s assets.