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Ignoring the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant

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By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

American strategy to first detect and now neutralize the rise of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) has allowed for the creation of a 21st century caliphate in Syria and Iraq as well as the erosion of boundaries between them.

As far as American involvement can be understood, there are many failures, missed opportunities and lessons yet to be learned. Here are a few:

Failure to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq in 2011, the inability to politically remain and compete with Iran and even Saudi Arabia for larger political influences within Iraq; the failure to influence reform or replacement Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki and the mistreatment and marginalization of the Sunni minority; missed clandestine and tactical opportunities to slow down earlier ISIL momentum; failure of assist in the fullest capacity, the Syrian Civil War refugees; failure to gain international and public diplomacy credits for humanitarian assistance; and failure to view Iraq as three fundamentally distinct political entities (on-going).

There are many more lessons here but the biggest lesson that must be learned at this critical state is that Washington’s Syria and Iraq policy is absent a strategy of tangible victory.

In other words, if positive outcomes and objectives appear to be useless, there is an apathetic decision-making process. Maybe by ignoring it, the problem will go away? The threats are not bad enough yet to affect the U.S. directly.

This is an obstacle at the highest levels of national political debate. So far, there has been a tremendous lack of commitment and resources and nothing at the ready; everyone wants to do 10 different things and there is in place right now a ‘wait-and-see’ policy from the U.S. for the region.

First Americans tried diplomacy to get the Syrian Opposition in conference with President Bashar al Assad’s regime. They assisted the rebels in a limited capacity. Jihadists from all over the world arrived, but especially from the Arab states, which is where the most extreme groups received their training and funding. Washington refused to give these incoming jihadists anything but now the war was with Russia, Iran and Syria. At the time, a faint memory, Russia kept insisting they were terrorists and we downplayed but eventually conceded to that point. A military strike sent Syria to the negotiations table to halt and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles there. That was a great success and should not be overlooked.

Now, in regards to Syria, everybody loses; including President Assad. They have not proven capable, even with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, to stop ISIL. Even today, in Raqqa province, they lost a military base and ISIL seized more light and heavy weapons.

To be sure, there are no good options for Washington right now. There were no good options just last week, last month or last year. But the previous ‘wait-to-long’ policy and the present ‘wait-and-see’ policy will not get the America anything or benefit the region right now.

U.S. Driven and Inspired Solutions Can Help:

Stop treating the Syrian Civil War and the disintegration of Iraq as two separate crises. Syria and Iraq must be considered a single critical event (i.e., the Civil War, ISIL the massive 9 million refugee/displacement problem; diplomacy and military and other factors crunched altogether).

Stop wearing wishful blinders. See what is there and what is real. Do not transpose objectives or values over the present reality. Previous efforts have relied on faulty old misperceptions of the state, the actors and the overall situation at hand. Misperception and ignorance is rampant all-around and it is natural that decision makers would be hesitant, but this stems from a continued inability to grasp the realistic picture and develop a mind that perceives rightly.

Take radical and serious action. The problem is compounded with further inaction and lack of genuine solutions or interim gains. Move with certainty. Become the defender of refugees and the champion of displaced persons. Work with Russia and Iran in regards to a mutual regime change in Syria. Work with all actors, Sunni, Shia and otherwise to defeat ISIL. Support tolerant Islam. Two key methodological activators: massive human terrain and information dominance campaign. When facing radicals, all counteraction must be radical and extreme; while using superior methodologies and liberal American principles to achieve.

Stop reacting and start directing the actions on the ground and the movement of players. The American advantage is so great in comparison and there are so many potential areas that it is reticent to attempt or continue to be neglected in favor of firepower. Stop using economic, paramilitary and military reactionary options and deploy forward thinking diplomacy, humanitarian, civil affairs, information and intelligence operations. Think of the long-haul. Use your imagination.

Create the presence of the benign unrivaled power. Win by being the global and regional saint. Put on the new American face. The perception of righteousness is everything in regards to political legitimacy and low resistance operability. Focus on taking care of the people of Syria and Iraq as a primary objective. Utilize the massive resource commitments, partnerships and secure the spaces needed to lead.

Reassess. Continually reconsider statecraft options and new capabilities. Intelligence activities must be in full motion to wrest “Caliphate” controlled territories from militants using locals and guerrilla warfare. In Iraq, for example, recruiting female agents that now face punishment if they do not wear the full veil.

Push and pull more players into a solution matrix. Work harder to maneuver close and regional allies and the international community toward common stabilization and humanitarian objectives. More and more states are worried about their own stability and possible survival. Start with them and create a larger circle of playable pieces from the most interested to least. Integrate them into a plan that takes the reality of operational political environment and go from there. Organize U.N. and regional allied military security forces as needed around the larger ‘human effort.’

Formulate radical ideas. One idea that came to mind a while back was to create an island state of and for political refugees where they would be transported, allowed to recuperate and experience Western political values in a safe and secure environment. Penetration of foreign jihadists, foreign regional interests and a lack of strong liberal political influence was the failure in Iraq. The most successful liberal democracies in the world until China in the last several decades were US occupied states of Japan and Germany. From a liberal safe-haven on a newly created experimental island state, the millions of refugees from wars and natural disasters make up a place of desperation and opportunity—a ‘little America.’ They could eventually go back as modern liberal missionaries to their own state, remain or eventually become Americans or Europeans, for example.

That could be a foolish idea or it might be the best idea since the New World experimental colonies. The point is to think of radical, big and dreamy, long-term, political solutions in order to find some workable and realistic compromise for particular and regional disasters. Once a mission can be believed in, it can be fought hard for to achieve.

Without a grand vision, there can be no strategy worthwhile, no real motivation and there can be little satisfaction in accomplishing America’s more noble long-term objectives. Always to keep in mind, should be that the best solutions are usually the most expensive; especially when a state has waited too long to execute the best of fading of the cheaper ones.


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