Who will get to Raqqa first? What happens after Mosul falls? And what comes next for Syria and Iraq?
President Barack Obama is on the verge of seeing the central tenet of his Middle East strategy hit on-the-ground reality. After the U.S. special operations war against ISIS ends – the war thousands of American troops today are leading thousands more Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish locals to fight — who does the president think should hold, build, and govern those key cities that U.S. forces soon are expected to help liberate? And who actually will?
What’s to keep this from happening all over again after U.S. forces pull away and leave Iraq and Syria once again in the hands of Iraqis and Syrians?
There is a day after on the horizon and right now there is no sense a workable plan awaits it. If there is one, now would be an ideal time to share it with American voters. Because whomever we elect next – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – will inherit the special operators’ fight, and with it, the consequences of the Obama doctrine. Under Obama, the U.S. has made the Middle East fight for itself. Next, the U.S. must help the region – as much as its citizens and its leaders are willing – secure itself and govern its way out of this era of terrorism and extremism.
And not just for its own sake, but for ours as well.
In Syria, all sides are racing to Raqqa. U.S.-backed rebels are fighting ISIS alongside Turkish fighters while not far from Russians and the Russian-backed Syrian Army. The ‘caliphate’s’ capital will play a leading role in shaping that nation’s future. U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which include Kurdish and Arab fighters, want to be the city’s liberators. That happens only if the SDF can get there before the Russians. But the SDF is a casserole of ethnicities mashed into one militia with Kurds serving as the majority of the group’s leadership. Will these disparate forces stay together to form a federation of at least relative order that allows people to go to work and send their children to school? Who will do the governing? Under what authority? And what comes next if that doesn’t happen?
“Tell me how this ends,” retired Gen. David Petraeus famously said of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Poor Iraqi governance that failed to unify Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds after U.S. forces left in 2011 was part of what turned sections of Iraq into hospitable terrain for ISIS. What has changed that Mosul should expect better?
Similarly, in Syria, what will be different for the citizens of Raqqah? If U.S.-backed rebels take the city first, they can never be expected to live quietly under Assad’s rule. Recall the Pottery Barn rule of another Iraq war leader, Colin Powell. The U.S. will bear responsibly for Raqqa, even through surrogates. Whether it wants to or not.
In some ways, the Obama administration is getting what it had long sought – a fight turning in America’s favor with few American casualties whose central questions will be decided by the next administration. The White House had sought to avoid another full-scale military intervention in the Middle East, and it has, thus far. Today’s thousands of special operations forces advising, assisting and accompanying (and fighting) under a two-year air war pales when compared to the Iraq War toll. Decisive U.S. force to help end the Syrian civil war has not been in the cards since Congress balked on launching American missile strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons caches way back in the summer of 2013.
But Russia and Iran have taken a different tack and changed Obama’s calculus. Both countries are all-in on the side of Assad, and the military and diplomatic muscle they are showing make clear their commitment. Russia will help with a transition to another Syrian government — at some point. But President Vladimir Putin wants Raqqa for Assad and wants to help him retake as much terrain as possible before any diplomatic talks resume.
I had a conversation with one administration official close to Syria policy back in February, and I reread those notes, post-Brexit. “Who really wins the cold war if Russia now is not only able to acquire new territory and new air bases and new alliances in Georgia and Ukraine and Syria, but also break the EU and undermine NATO,” this official said. “That is a pretty big achievement and all they had to do was drop bombs in Syria.”
Another critical moment is coming. An America that would like to stay out of foreign entanglements is about to see its desire for distance tested. Obama, and the next U.S. president, must help to shape facts on the ground in support of those it has supported on the battlefield. The U.S-backed forces are determined to get to Raqqa first. But most importantly, they must arrive with a plan for the day after.