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Arab tribal alliance in eastern Syria key to defeating Daesh

Drone strikes and night-time raids by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commandos will not suffice in defeating Daesh. Sustaining tactical gains against the terrorist organization requires a bottom-up approach and a dedicated local ground force. An elite strike force is necessary but not sufficient to disrupt Daesh operations in its strongholds in eastern Syria along the Euphrates river valley.

Holding territory once held by Daesh necessitates a fresh look at what strategies have worked in the past. Coalition airstrikes and US commando raids are gradually withering the operational capacity of Daesh units in Syria, as well as critical command-and-control leadership elements.

However, the anti-Daesh coalition began its campaign late in the game. Daesh was already firmly entrenched, and had been able to leverage its consolidation of territory in northern and eastern Syria to launch a lightning push into western Iraq that led to the capture of Mosul.

What lessons can be drawn from past counterinsurgency and anti-terror campaigns that are relevant to the ongoing fight against Daesh? One salient lesson learned in the fight against its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), is that establishing embedded forces with armed and motivated Sunni Arab tribal fighters turned the tide against a resilient terrorist threat.

The lessons that we have learned from the mistakes in Iraq is that without a local force to hold and sustain gains against extremists, those very extremists can reconstitute and return.

Oubai Shahbandar 

ISI was an effective adversary because it was able to operate as an insurgent force and develop networks that were connected with the local populace. No matter how many special-unit raids were launched against ISI leaders and operatives, it was the Sunni tribal Sahwa (Awakening) and the co-option of Sunni militants who turned their guns against ISI that had the greatest effect.

The result was that ISI was functionally decimated, local militia and tribal units (with US military support) took ownership of local security, and terrorist and extremist groups were no longer able to function effectively in key population centers that months prior they totally controlled.

A modified version of this blueprint can be adapted to the ongoing fight against Daesh and other extremist terror-insurgent groups operating in northern and eastern Syria. The fundamental building blocks for a successful counterinsurgency campaign against Daesh and extremist networks in Syria already exist. It is just a matter of fully leveraging them toward a coherent and clear objective.

The emergence of a viable Sunni Arab force in eastern Syria seems to be led by Ahmad Al-Assi Al-Jarba, a sheikh from the powerful Shammar tribal confederation that spans Syria, Iraq and parts of Saudi Arabia.

It was recently reported that he had gathered around 3,000 tribal fighters who were being trained by US special forces. Of further strategic benefit, he maintains long-standing ties to key mainstream Kurdish leaders such as Masoud Barazani from Iraqi Kurdistan.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Al-Jarba said his forces are preparing for a campaign to liberate Raqqa, the capital of Daesh’s so-called caliphate. He maintains positive ties with key partners in the Arab Coalition, and “good and balanced relations” with Russia.

His forces are separate from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are nominally a cover for the Kurdish secessionist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey rightfully views as being the same as the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

That said, Al-Jarba’s forces do de-conflict and fight along the same frontlines as the SDF. Nonetheless, enabling and supporting a viable Sunni Arab tribal force against extremists will ultimately require Ankara’s buy-in.

Is this the right formula for success? It is prudent to remain sober in any assessment of how long and what it will take to finally dislodge Daesh and transnational extremists from ungoverned territories in Syria.

To be effective, Al-Jarba’s forces will require heavy weaponry and greater operational coordination from the anti-Daesh international coalition. We learned another costly lesson from mistakes made in Iraq: Without a local force to hold and sustain gains against extremists, those very extremists can reconstitute and return.

Needed now is a political decision to choose a policy that goes beyond the standard tactical approach against Daesh and other extremists. Washington analysts such as Bassam Barabandi, a defected Syrian diplomat who co-authored an extensively researched paper on Syria for the Center for New American Security, have already detailed options for a strategy that can utilize local forces in Syria.

Policy-makers and war-fighters in the Pentagon and allied capitals worldwide involved in the ongoing campaign would do well to take a fresh look at how these options can be best put into action, before even more time and lives are lost.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a Fellow in New America's International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security.