Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The War against ISIS: Just Beginning?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The War against ISIS: Just Beginning?

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama began his presidency promising to end America's wars in the Middle East. It's now almost certain that he will be transferring a new war-the fight against ISIS in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere-to his successor.

At a Jan. 21 Middle East Policy Council event on Capitol Hill titled "The ISIS Threat to U.S. National Security: Policy Choices," analysts warned that the war against ISIS is just in its infancy. "We are still at a very early stage in this effort, unfortunately," said William F. Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.

Wechsler said the U.S.-led effort to "degrade and destroy" ISIS has been hampered by a lack of focus. No important player involved in the anti-ISIS coalition, including the U.S., has made destroying the group their top priority, he argued. Wechsler pointed to the fight over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the sectarian battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia as two issues that are distracting from the fight against ISIS.

Despite the war's slow progress, Wechsler believes there are several positive signs. The U.S., he said, has wisely expanded the size and scope of its air campaign to include targets such as ISIS' caches of cash; increased the number of special operations personnel involved in the war; expanded the anti-ISIS battlefield to include Afghanistan; enhanced its diplomatic outreach; and worked to undermine ISIS' propaganda narrative.

Going forward, Wechsler stressed the importance of the U.S. continuing to focus on indirect action. This means Washington should work through and with partners, he explained, rather than taking direct action. Such an approach has proved successful in other counter-terrorism operations, he noted, citing Colombia, the Philippines and Somalia as examples.

In order for this approach to work, Wechsler said the U.S. needs to boost its knowledge of groups and individuals operating in Syria. He also encouraged Washington to focus on building small elite units of locals who can work with the U.S., instead of attempting to build new armies from scratch.

Above all, Wechsler cautioned, the indirect approach requires patience and long-term thinking. "This is a long slog ahead of us," he said. "This is going to be years, perhaps decades, worth of work."

Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, agreed with Wechsler's timeline for the war. Even though ISIS is under pressure and feeling more stretched than it has in quite some time, he said, the group is nowhere near the point of collapse.

ISIS' demise can be expedited if Washington improves its relationships with groups on the ground in Syria, he argued. Having spent ample time in Syria, Lister believes the U.S. has been too risk-averse in choosing its partners.

While the close U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) has been successful, he warned that this relationship has limits. This is particularly the case when it comes to geography, as the PYD's operations are limited to non-Arab territories, he said. The PYD's affiliation with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington, further complicates matters, he noted.

Lister argued that other Syrian groups could do as well or better than the PYD if they received the same level of support from Washington. In his experience, Lister has found that many of these groups strongly desire to work with the U. …

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