March 31, 2016

Syria and ISIS in the Wake of Brussels

By Amila Golic, Program Officer

With last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels serving as a backdrop to the somber conversation, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius talked with Council president Ivo Daalder on March 23 about ISIS and the ongoing war in Syria. 

Although the war in Syria arose out of the Arab Spring — and was thus first and foremost about the internal dynamics between a government and its people — its ravages have produced the monster of ISIS, which, Ignatius said, is now “metastasizing.”  
While ISIS has actually lost ground in Iraq and Syria, he argued that “as the territories shrink in Iraq and Syria, they are growing elsewhere.” ISIS now claims to be present and active in 40 countries, and is really “beginning to destabilize Europe,” he continued. 
But Brussels is also a lesson about fundamental intelligence failures. Drawing a parallel to the lack of communication between intelligence agencies in the United States before 9/11, Ignatius argued that the EU lacks a strong EU-wide intelligence service and the national intelligence services of EU countries do not coordinate well with each other.
“The fact that the Belgians were so unaware, that they couldn’t find, for four months, the chief logistician of the November Paris attacks — and [that] he was four blocks from where he grew up — and that they captured him on Friday and they didn’t have any clue about this significant plot — that should really be worrying,” Ignatius said. 
But where did the monster of ISIS come from?
The first starting point for this discussion, argued Ignatius, should be the Arab world’s own deep-rooted political culture. According to Ignatius, “This is a political culture that just didn’t give citizens a way to express themselves and so it’s been a fertile ground for the worst kinds of problems and movements.”
The Arab Spring — what Ignatius called “an ecstatic, revolutionary moment” — was a citizen-led rebuttal of that political culture, but it couldn’t last.  
Ignatius also drew a clear line between ISIS and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. “We kicked the pegs out from under the structure that was providing stability in this dominant Sunni government and set in motion a process that we’re still living through,” he said.
The instability that followed the invasion of Iraq led to the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group that would become ISIS. While General Petraeus led the surge in Iraq and efforts to eliminate the group, “there were a few toxic cells still left,” Ignatius noted. When US forces pulled out of Iraq, “those very tough, hardened cells began to multiply.”
But what happened in Syria to make the phenomenon of ISIS the threat it is today?
As Ignatius said, “In the beginning there was no ISIS [in Syria].” But by September 2012, it was clear that they were becoming the most important force in the north. It was also apparent, Ignatius said, that Bashar al-Assad would not control all of Syria ever again and that opposition forces the West hoped would prevail were doomed to remain disorganized and ineffective without support from the United States. 
These conclusions stand even now, nearly four years later.
Addressing the question of why the United States — and in particular President Obama — decided not to support this opposition in 2011 and 2012, Ignatius cautioned that, while he believes that would have been the right thing to do, “It’s important not to pretend that there were easy choices. The president’s reluctance to intervene in Syria reflected the genuine feelings of a country that was sick of wars in the Middle East, that felt that [it] had spent too much and gotten too little.”
The question of what to do next remains.
What is indisputable is that what has happened in Syria is utterly catastrophic, as Ignatius emphasized: “Catastrophic, tragically, for Syria — 300,000 dead, a country that’s completely shattered. But now, catastrophic for Europe.”
The important thing, Ignatius reiterated, is not to react wildly but purposefully: “It’s important that the campaign against Mosul, the ISIS capital in Iraq, and Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, not be launched until there are Sunni forces that can do the clearing. And at present there are not.”
The priority for the international community should be to ensure that the ceasefire agreed at the end of February continues to hold in Syria.  
On that score, at least, Ignatius is somewhat optimistic. Syrian rebel commanders have told him “that with the ceasefire in place, they are able to conduct operations against ISIS that have been fairly effective.” If this continues, “there is going to be a growing confidence among Syrians that this talk of a transition is real.”

About the Author

Amila Golic joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015 and serves as a program officer. She previously spent time at the OECD in Paris, working on private sector development projects in Southeast Europe; at the US Embassy in Montenegro, in its political and economic sections; and at Grant Thornton LLP in Chicago, where she was a marketing associate. She holds a BA in english literature from Yale University and an MA in eastern european studies from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.


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