Post-ISIS Strategy Needed In Both Iraq And Syria

[ Posted Monday, July 10th, 2017 – 17:54 PDT ]

Within days, the Iraqi city of Mosul will be declared completely liberated from the Islamic State. Within weeks (a few months, at most), the battle for Raqqa in Syria will also be over, driving the Islamic State from their biggest strongholds within their self-proclaimed caliphate. Much will be made of these two victories on American television, no doubt. Both victories were long-planned and hard-fought, so the celebrations will indeed be well-earned. Today it was reported that the celebrations in Mosul have already begun. But the fall of Mosul and Raqqa mean that the fight against the Islamic State will have truly entered its end stage, in both Iraq and Syria. What Americans should be asking during this period is what are we going to do after the Islamic State becomes truly stateless? A military and diplomatic strategy needs to be in place when this happens, and so far few in Washington seem to want to address it.

While the fight against the Islamic State continues to rage, America has by default measured the contest in pretty binary terms: the Islamic State is our enemy, therefore any enemy of our enemy is our friend (for the moment). But without a common enemy, we're going to have to be ready to address what happens next, because while Americans would doubtlessly be happy to just stop fighting and head for home, the other forces in the region do not have such singleminded goals.

Before we get to the strategic choices America will face, though, a quick rundown is necessary of what remains to be done in both countries before the Islamic State can truly be said to be routed. As always, please refer to this Wikipedia conflict map, which shows the current status of forces of all the combatants, in great detail.



Mosul is on the brink of falling. But after the last Islamic State fighter in Mosul is killed and after the celebrations have ended, there is still work left to be done before the conquering forces can be deployed elsewhere. A sweep to mop up the last redoubts of the Islamic State will need to push westward through all villages still under the Islamic State's control until it liberates Tal Afar. This will be the culmination of two previous efforts to push back against the Islamic State territory west of Mosul -- the first from the Kurds who retook Sinjar and the border crossing with Syria, and the second which was more recent (it took place during the battle for Mosul), where government forces cleared out all the villages south of Sinjar, all the way to the border.

Taking back Tal Afar will eradicate the Islamic State from all of northern Iraq, essentially. Once this is done, there will be two big remaining military objectives. There is still an "island" of the Islamic State around the city of Hawija, in the northeast of the country (west of Kirkuk). This was bypassed as the government forces advanced northward from Baghdad to Mosul, but once Mosul falls the army will doubtlessly begin clearing this last remaining Iraqi city and the villages surrounding it.

The final objective will be the road reaching north to the Syrian border from Haditha, along the road to the northwest from Baghdad. The final push to Al Qa'im and the Syrian border will the Islamic State's last stand in terms of holding any meaningful territory in Iraq. There will still be mopping up to take care of in the desert hinterlands to the north and south of this road, but this will be the Islamic State's final battle to hold any towns in Iraq.



Syria is more complicated, mostly because there are more armies on the scene, and they're all busy fighting each other as well as fighting the Islamic State.

There are two small areas still under Islamic State control in the west of Syria -- one tiny one where the Syrian, Israeli, and Jordanian borders meet (the area of the new ceasefire), and a bigger concentration to the east of Hama and Homs. These may be the toughest to kick the Islamic State out of, because there are other battles happening in both areas, which divides the forces against them.

As in Iraq, the main territory under Islamic State control has been steadily shrinking. This has mostly been due to the Kurdish forces (aided by American air power) in the north, although recently the Assad forces have been making gains as well (the fight for Palmyra and what's been happening after the fall of Aleppo, which freed up the government forces to push eastward).

Once Raqqa falls, which should happen in the next few months, at the latest, the Islamic State will be reduced in Syria to a "Y" of roads in the eastern part of the country, with the city of Deir ez-Zor roughly at its center. The Kurds began successfully pushing back against the Islamic State on the northeastern leg of this Y long ago, when they retook the border crossing on the road heading to Sinjar and Mosul and pushed a little further south on the road on the Syrian side of the border. At some point, the Kurds halted their advance, and this battleline has not moved since. Assumably, the two sides are dug in while their efforts are focused elsewhere.

The southern leg of the Y ends at the border crossing into Iraq and the Syrian town of Abu Kamal. The Islamic State still has a buffer zone in Iraq on this route, until the Iraqi forces push north to the border.

The northwestern leg of this Y is where the recent fighting has been. Islamic State territory in this direction used to not only reach all the way to the border with Turkey, but contained a long stretch of that border (on the Syrian side) as well. But in the past few years, they have steadily been rolled back, no matter which forces were doing the fighting (as you can tell from the map, there are several armies that have been slugging it out here). The final push began from the north, as the Kurdish fighters first surrounded and then attacked Raqqa, the self-proclaimed "capital of the caliphate." Along the remaining Islamic State territory (the last leg of the Y), the Kurds surrounded Raqqa on the north side of the Euphrates River and then pushed miles beyond the city, heading eastward. They retook the entire north bank of the river, but eventually halted their advance.

The Kurds were then airlifted in across a huge reservoir (Lake Assad, behind the Tabqa Dam) and swiftly retook the dam and the town of Tabqa. They then began marching towards Raqqa, retaking territory on the southern bank of the river. This effort continues, even while the fight for Raqqa is going on, and will assumably match the territory taken by the Kurds on the northern bank. At this point, though, the Kurds will likely stop their advance.

As this push was happening, the Assad forces began clearing out the Islamic State from Aleppo heading south and east. They have fairly swiftly retaken all territory not already liberated by the Kurds around Tabqa. This is where a Syrian plane was shot down, but Russia and America have now agreed to a line dividing the forces which has since held firm. The heart of this bargain was that the Kurds would be the ones to retake Raqqa, while the Assad forces would bypass it and head towards Deir ez-Zor. At some point, they may join up with a push from the Assad forces heading north from Palmyra, before the final push to Deir ez-Zor.

Some experts have predicted that Abu Kamal will be the final stand for the Islamic State, as it is rumored to be where the Islamic State leaders have fled to, from both Raqqa and Mosul. So the real end of the fight might happen at the Syrian/Iraqi border.


What next?

While all of that sounds complicated, in reality it is the simplified version. Saying "Assad's forces" or the "Iraqi governmental forces" doesn't differentiate among what groups comprise those forces. On the map, both are shown in red. But in both cases, this doesn't address the difference between members of the official Iraqi and Syrian militaries and militias who are fighting alongside them. Also in both cases, these militias have ties to Iran. What this means is that on one side of the border, American forces are essentially fighting alongside Iranian-backed forces, while on the other side, we're fighting against them. Even this is an oversimplification, however.

The remaining fight to deny the Islamic State any territorial claims whatsoever in Iraq and Syria is still going to take awhile, of course. But put all of that aside, and assume that all of the above takes place at some point in the not-too-distant future. Iraq eradicates the Islamic State from all its villages and cities, and retakes all territory once held by them. In Syria, the Kurds and Assad's forces retake not only Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor but also that whole Y-shaped crossroads. What happens next? What should the United States do then?

People are already getting worried about Iran's influence on who holds what territory after the Islamic State battles have all been won. It is said that they are trying to construct a "land bridge" (or a "Shi'ite crescent") between Iran and Lebanon, so they'll have easy access to Hezbollah and a complete path to the Mediterranean Sea. This would require them to hold a large chunk of Iraq and a larger chunk of Syria. Iranian-backed militias are reportedly trying to move in to Abu Kamal and the surrounding region before any of the other forces can get there. If the Iranians wind up controlling most of that Y when the dust settles, then they'll be in a much stronger regional position.

In Iraq, politics will figure heavily on what happens after the Islamic State is eradicated. There are multiple possibilities for how this might all play out. In the first place, the Iraqi Kurds are reportedly considering (once again) claiming their total independence from Iraq. It might be the best time to do so, when the country is in such chaos after a protracted war. But this is very likely to cause an immediate reaction from not just Iraq but also Iran and Turkey (who both have their own Kurdish populations who have long dreamed of joining a new Kurdish state). If the Iraqi Kurds do choose this route, they might face the same mix of Iraqi national forces and Iranian-backed militias who -- having nothing else to do after eradicating the Islamic State -- began attacking the Kurds in force.

What, at this point, will America do? We've backed both the Kurds and the Iraqi government in the fight against the Islamic State, but in the past we have abandoned the Kurds on numerous occasions when backing them would have been too complicated. Will we do so again? Will we refuse to recognize Kurdistan, and look the other way while the government forces and/or the militias crack down?

Even if the Kurds decide not to take the statehood route, there is still a simmering political divide between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq. If the government neglects the Sunnis yet again (and keeps them out of both the government and the armed forces), then what will inevitably happen is the resentment will simmer in the hinterlands until the next iteration of extremists coalesces. This has already happened at least three separate times, with the initial Sunni Triangle insurgency, the rise of Al Qaeda in the country, and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. If the political sectarian problems are not adequately addressed, we could see the start of this cycle within a few years' time. The extremists will fade into the desert and the general population, regroup, and rise again under a different name.

Of course, all this might be too pessimistic. Perhaps the Iraqi government has learned the lesson of what happened under Maliki's rule, and perhaps Shi'ites can come to some power-sharing agreement which truly respects the Sunni population. But if this doesn't happen, the United States should be prepared to deal with it in one way or another, because the alternative is to just let it happen all over again. This problem might even be an easier one than if the Kurds declared their own state, but it still will require some forethought as to where American interests truly lie.

In Syria the problems are even more complicated. If the Kurds retake Raqqa and the rest of the Islamic State territory falls to Assad's forces (or Iranian militias), then America's main objective in the struggle will have been met. We've moved steadily away from demanding Assad's ouster, in order to focus in on the fight against the Islamic State. But once that fight is over, what are we going to do? It will be at this point we will be required to make a commitment in Syria beyond just removing the Islamic State. Will we keep arming rebels and the Kurds? Will we continue to offer air support for the groups we approve of? Will we continue to have American forces aiding these groups? The sticky problem with this scenario is Russia, of course.

If Russia continues to back Assad and we continue backing the rebels, then once the Islamic State is defeated it would become nothing short of a proxy war between two superpowers. It would hearken back to the days of the U.S. in Vietnam and Korea, and Russia in Afghanistan. Will we insist on Assad's removal from power as our end goal? Or at some point will American decide to cut and run? How hard will we push back if Iran attempts a de facto land grab? Will Russian and American aircraft continue to avoid each other, by mutual agreement?

These are all very tough questions to answer. But as we enter the real endgame of the war against the Islamic State, they certainly bear thinking about. At this point, it's easy to see how the total annihilation of the Islamic State territory will be accomplished. But it gets a lot murkier the day after that is achieved. The United States needs an overall strategy for whatever happens next. What are our longterm military and political objectives in Iraq and Syria? How high a price will we be willing to pay to achieve these goals? Which of our current allies will we continue to arm and continue to back militarily? Which will become our enemies if we don't? What happens if two of them meet on a battlefield and begin fighting each other?

Not easy questions, admittedly, but questions that really need answering before we get to that point. Because: "We'll just wing it when we get there" is seldom the best answer, especially in the Middle East.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


28 Comments on “Post-ISIS Strategy Needed In Both Iraq And Syria”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    All of those questions and a post-IS strategy will have to wait until the post-Trump era.

    I hope Iraq can wait that long. There is far less hope for Syria.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "Is there anybody out there!"

  3. [3] 
    neilm wrote:

    When we have a president who has pretend plans (eliminating ISIS, healthcare, etc.) we can have no expectation that he is leading at this point in time.

    A U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East will cause a power shift towards Iran, in my opinion. Saudi Arabia have been in luxury cruise control since the 1970's, benefiting from being able to buy military coverage from us. They must be looking at the unfolding situation and realize that one day their army is going to have to stand up alone against Iran's and it isn't going to go well for them. Iran has battle hardened troops and decades of experience in active warfare. Saudi has a lot of practice buying Ferraris and private jets.

    Israel, of course, is going to be the big loser. Bibi is going to rue the day he celebrated Hillary's loss - she had the strength to handle the Middle East - it looks like 45's regime is going to spend the next three years trying to battle scandal after scandal in D.C.

    On the larger stage, Putin pretty much has a free hand, and after 2018 (he won't want to do anything that might cause a boycott of his World Cup next year) I expect agitation in Russian enclaves in the Baltics and other surrounding states coupled with propaganda showing the victimization of ethnic Russians to justify his adventures.

    China will aim to create a trading empire without having to compete with the U.S. The abandonment of the TPP is a long term disaster for us - you may not like the fact of globalization, but you are going to really dislike globalization when we have no seat at the table to represent our interests.

    America will survive and thrive of course, but we will lose a lot of power in the interim. The point of our military power is to get people to listen to our diplomats, but if our diplomats are mute then we may as well save ourselves a lot of money by trimming the military into a local defense force - something we can achieve with about 10-20% of our current expenditure.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Just sort of riffing off of CW's latest piece (which is fully up to his exacting snuff, IMHO).

    The "Islamic State" never met the generally accepted benchmarks of a sovereign state: permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. You can draw a line around a sovereign state, and the line means something.

    That said, neither "Syria" or "Iraq" currently qualify as sovereign states either. They certainly didn't qualify in the not so distant past: they are both post World War One political inventions (along with many others) intended to deal with the problem of "how do we deal with the fall of the Turkish Empire?"

    The politics of the Levant, and the Middle East in general, are tribal. The tribes are fractal, they don't live within compact, easily defined borders. The "Islamic State" was a Sunni political movement lead by religious brigands and implemented by local militia plus outside adventurers from the Sunni Diaspora. It was not a "Blitzkrieg" in the sense that it overran territory - it was already in place, it ignited and sucked in additional fighters.

    The only diplomatic power wielded by "The Islamic State" was terrorism and the fear of terrorism. It effectively spread terror, it can still spread more/better terror, but the terror was not decisive. It wasn't even original-the PLO did basically same thing for decades. All the tribes in question proved adept at striking covert or not so covert deals with regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, Turkey etc. = the usual gang of suspects).

    Bottom line, nobody has found a substitute for the Old Turkish Empire, which understood the game, was willing to hunker down for a few centuries and keep order by being extremely firm and reasonably fair to the many tribes.

    In place of the Turks, we now have a variation of what is classically known as "Balance of Power." That is, whenever any one player in the Game of Levant becomes dominant, the other sphere of influence players restructure their allegiances to level the field. All in all, the US played the game fairly well under Obama. I think the US military command gets it. Maybe Trump can too, if he's smarter than he acts/talks.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Nice review ... have you read Trumpist Vacuum in World Politics, another good summation of how China, Russia, France, Germany, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and California step into their various Trump-era roles?

    I'm not so sure anymore if (the idea of) America survives and thrives after Trump is finished with it, especially if there is a second Trump term or another Trump-like administration.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    All in all, the US played the game fairly well under Obama. I think the US military command gets it. Maybe Trump can too, if he's smarter than he acts/talks.

    I'm not sure what you are basing that last bit on??

    President Trump has done nothing to indicate that he gets any of this or ever will.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Neilm, Liz-

    I don't see Trump as an activist in matters Middle East. The fact that oil man T. Rex heads up State suggest to me that Trump will be very deferential and conventional when it comes to Middle East policies.

    Saudi Arabia is well aware of how weak it is militarily. It relies on outside protection, and can reasonably expect to get it. Iran understands the balance of power game well, and prefers proxy offensive war to the straight up option. The carnage of Iran/Iraq is still fairly fresh.

  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:


    Everybody, myself included, has payed WAY too much attention to Trump's mouth. Watch his fingers, his mouth is a deliberate distraction. His base is focused on his mouth.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I am focused on the mess Trump leaves in his wake, wherever he goes.

    To be clear, Trump is not smarter than he acts or talks. He is a very dangerous president.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I don't see Trump as an activist in matters Middle East. The fact that oil man T. Rex heads up State suggest to me that Trump will be very deferential and conventional when it comes to Middle East policies.

    I've noticed that applies equally to the rest of the world outside of the Middle East as well as domestically. And, that points up the problem in a nutshell.

    Donald Trump is out of his league, if he even has one. He is a classic know-nothing who has been quickly ceding America's global leadership role since he took office ... with every breath, hand-flip and action he has taken.

    Here's a piece you may be interested in that sets out the Trumpist vacuum in world politics ...

    Chris is right to draw attention to the very serious questions and answers that must inform US policy on Iraq and Syria and the importance of a post-IS strategy.

    Unfortunately, and Chris knows this, Donald Trump is a non-serious American president who is not even necessarily listening to the few serious advisors he has installed on his national security team.

    Iraq is probably going to be the biggest loser in TrumpWorld.

  11. [11] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Liz -10

    I completely agree with your assessment of Trump. He's a screw up and utterly out of his depth as Prez.

    That said, Trump is an accomplished grifter. Much of what he says as President is simply NYC real estate sales patter applied to his new job. The gobbledygook he spouts is a deliberate distraction while he goes about his business of picking pockets. Ignore the patter and watch his fingers. Trump has spent a lifetime debasing information in the service of The Trump Organization and family precursors. Everybody is on to his con, the messaging should be ignored, like junk mail or spam.

    So far, and Thank God for it, Trump seems to be fairly conventional with respect to the Middle East. He could have gone nuts on the Syria Sarin event, but he didn't. He listened to his generals and opted for expensive fireworks. This may not hold, but let's take any good news we can get about this rancid administration.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So far, and Thank God for it, Trump seems to be fairly conventional with respect to the Middle East.

    His trip to Saudi Arabia was disturbing in that he is essentially pitting one religious group against another AND taking sides in the Sunni-Shi'a divide.

    When did that dangerous behavior become conventional US policy?

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Here is what most concerns me about Trump administration Middle East policy ...

    I am very afraid that Trump intends to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that would be applauded by Netanyahu and the House of Saud.

  14. [14] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Liz- 13

    Nixon and every President since him have visited Saudi Arabia. This is bound to viewed unfavorably on the Shi'a side of the divide. The same gaggle of Presidents has also visited Israel, which probably annoys all Arab states, at least publicly.

    The Presidential trip to SA is roughly equivalent parents taking their kids to've gotta do it, it's part of the job, even though it's hot, culturally jarring and expensive. (CW Disney fans, please don't be haters!)


    I have to agree with you on the prospects of El Trump snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Flipping on the Iran accord would be a very disturbing precedent...from a very disturbing and quite possibly disturbed President.

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    You are ignoring the context of the situation which makes it much different from the actions of any other admin ... we're not talking about just another visit to SA or just another arms deal, in other words. Contest, as always, means everything.

    The Saudi visit has much deeper implications. Did you see the special treatment Trump received when he was there?

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Btw, TS, I think you would really like the William Bradley pieces - they are a great compliment to all of Chris's analyses.

  17. [17] 
    TheStig wrote:


    Your prediction is correct, i do like William Bradley columns - although sometimes he sets their volume at 11 :). When 8 or 9 would do.

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Let there be light ... and, the louder the better!

  19. [19] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Trump tweeted this in response to people's outrage that Ivanka sat in for him at the G-20 conferences meeting on Africa:

    If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother,as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES!

    Is Trump admitting that he was busy "giving (sic) our country away" and that is why Ivanka was asked to take his place??? He is claiming that IF Hillary did what he had just done, this would be the media's response, so I don't see any other explanation for what he meant by it.

    And this was the G-20 conference, not a movie theater; Trump did not need anyone to hold his seat for him -- it was assigned seating!

    After his love-fest with Putin, I half expected to read a tweet from Trump saying something like:

    Just flipped Alaska back to Russia for 2x the price we paid them for it! #ARToftheDEAL #MAGA #PUTIN'sBFF

  20. [20] 
    LeaningBlue wrote:

    [19] - ...the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES!

    Capitol Steps earlier this year broke the story of Hillary's plan to run as VP in 2020 behind her daughter, and, after their election, have her daughter impeached.

    also [19] - Just flipped Alaska back to Russia for 2x the price we paid them for it! #ARToftheDEAL #MAGA #PUTIN'sBFF


    More seriously, now Russian interest in the Trump presidential run shows up publicly back to before the Escalator, thanks to a cartoon character taller than, but otherwise seeming quite comparable to, the agent who was kept at bay by patriotic moose and squirrel.

    Why the Russian were too damned loud from the get-go isn't at all clear yet, and until it is, we have to be very cautious.

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Why the Russian were too damned loud from the get-go isn't at all clear yet, and until it is, we have to be very cautious.

    Cautious about what?

  22. [22] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    LWYH [19]: Chelsea responded:

    Good morning Mr. President. It would never have occurred to my mother or my father to ask me. Were you giving our country away? Hoping not.

    LB [20]: My imagination these days is captured by the femme fatale/spy/mob lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, now at the center of the Secret Meeting scandal, who is actually superior to the hapless Natasha, and surely belongs in a Bond film.

    Theories have been put out as to why the Russians wouldn't hide their tracks better: one is that they're simply too crude to be any subtler. Another theory is that it's a deliberate intimidation tactic by Putin: "look vat I can do". A third, which incorporates the other two is that it's hubris: like Trump, Putin thinks he's able to do whatever he wants without consequence.

    Hard to say either man is wrong in that assessment, so far.

  23. [23] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ... and surely belongs in a Bond film.

    I hope that was sarcasm I detected. Because, none of this belongs in a Bond film.

  24. [24] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    I hope that was sarcasm I detected. Because, none of this belongs in a Bond film.

    Be fair, Liz. I grew up on Bond, and I can assure you that Putin has some character traits that keep reminding me of Bond villains. Like his propensity to have opponents thrown off roofs, or dramatically killed in some other fashion.

    One has to keep a sense, after all, of just how surreal this has all become.

  25. [25] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Surreal? Oh, yes.

    Bond villain like? Not even close. Trumpists don't rise to that level of competence. Heh.

  26. [26] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    let's not confuse characters. putin would make an outstanding bond villian. it's just donald who's less double-o-seven and more inspector clouseau. nonetheless, clouseau did consistently end up bungling his way to the most improbably of victories.

    I don't deserve to have this autographed picture of Sean Connery!
    ~jacques clouseau

  27. [27] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    "most improbably?" sheesh, where was my grammar check!

  28. [28] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The rest of us perfectionists here knew what you meant. :)

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