An ISIS expert claims there is a glaring “Achilles heel” present in the US strategy in Iraq and Syria, stating that the lack of any planning for the political future of the region after the terrorist group is wiped out will nullify the military gains made against the group.
And while the fall of ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria might mark a significant gain against the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State, there is much work left to be done.
“Only a fool would call this a victory,” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” told The New Yorker. “It’s only the expulsion of ISIS fighters from a wasteland. It’s not a victory, not only because of the destruction. It’s also not a victory because there’s a shameless lack of a political track to supplement the military track. That’s the Achilles heel of Operation Inherent Resolve. They don’t have a political vision about what will happen after ISIS.”
The destruction Hassan mentions is almost total in Raqqa. The activist journalism group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently claims that 90% of the city has been destroyed by the months of fighting between ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the US coalition.
The group has documented more than 3,829 airstrikes and 1,873 civilian deaths throughout the urban battle, and says 450,000 people remain displaced from the city.
Yet Hassan’s main argument is that the main threat to the success of the US-led mission is that there is no political plan for what will come after ISIS’s territorial defeat.
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Professor Robert Pape, the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago, said he agrees.
“When we invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003 we created ungoverned space for Sunni Arabs in Iraq which then spilled over in nearby Syria,” Pape says. “The worry here is that as that area of Iraq and Syria now could remain ungoverned space from the perspective of the Sunni Arabs, this problem may just simply fester and continue.”
ISIS, and the war to defeat it, has inflicted enormous violence upon the Sunni Arabs of the region, and its effects will stick with the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria for generations.
And throughout the campaign to liberate Sunni regions previously under the the rule of ISIS, Iraq has employed Shiite militias with ties to Iran, called the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have been suspicious of Sunni villagers in conquered ISIS territory. Iraq’s own security forces have also frequently resorted to brutality against civilians in places like Mosul, which was an ISIS stronghold until recently.
Meanwhile, vast swaths of eastern Syria remain controlled by Kurdish-led militias in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or by the Shiite-led Syrian government.
An additional yet significant ethnic challenge lies in how to divide power between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq after the dust settles. Already, Iraq’s central government is asserting itself in regions controlled by Kurds around Kirkuk and Mosul, where clashes have occurred.
Such post-conflict realities in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria have led to widespread distrust between locals and the governments and militaries that now control them and have deepened the same feelings of political isolation among Sunnis that led to the rise of ISIS between 2007 and 2013.
According to Hassan, the “Achilles heel” of the US-led coalition’s strategy is that it makes no preparations to resolve these complex problems, and focuses solely on a military victory over ISIS. In his view, such a limited approach will only hasten the return of another Sunni insurgent movement in the region.