In one of his first acts as US president, Donald Trump lifted the restrictions imposed by his predecessor Barack Obama on the Pentagon’s ability to devise and implement strategies in Iraq and Syria as part of a reinvigorated war on terrorism. The lifting of restrictions was a welcome move, partly because the new Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis is a man with deep knowledge of the terrain in Iraq and the broader regional geostrategic landscape.
Since the lifting of restrictions, the US military, re-motivated by Mattis’ energy, has helped Iraqi national forces intensify the campaign to flush Daesh out of Mosul. That campaign may take a few more weeks before victory is achieved, but it has already punctured the myth about Daesh’s invincibility.
The group has always regarded the Syrian province of Raqqa, which it has controlled for years, as its fall-back position from Mosul, a kind of impregnable glacis against its many enemies in the region. This is perhaps why the US military has decided to bring forward the notional date it had fixed for the start of operations to liberate Raqqa from Daesh.
It is in this context that last week’s operations to the east of Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US, must be seen as the opening salvos in the final campaign to flush Daesh out of its self-declared “capital of the Caliphate.”
Those probing operations serve two purposes. First, they pave the way for a full-scale attack, perhaps by September, on Raqqa. Second, they oblige the “caliph” to recall his best units from the fight in Mosul to defend his “capital,” which could speed up the end of the battle for Iraq’s third most populous city.
Militarily, things seem to be going well in both Mosul and Raqqa. Daesh is not attracting as many foreign jihadis as it did a year ago, and has lost many sources of revenue, especially since Turkey has decided not to turn a blind eye to the black-market trade in oil and arms conducted by the “caliph.” Meanwhile, Daesh’s enemies, especially those on the battlefield, have recovered from the psychological shock of facing an adversary that recognized no limits in bestiality.
Throughout the region and beyond, a consensus has taken shape: Daesh is neither a terrorist organization in the classical sense of the term, nor another of those opportunist conquerors that have written the region’s history in blood for over 2,000 years. Daesh is an enemy of mankind, standing alone in its own category of cynical savagery.
More importantly, perhaps, it has lost a good part of the popular base it initially enjoyed among disgruntled and frightened segments of the Arab Sunni population of the Iraqi-Syrian patch of territory once known as “Jazeera.” In other words, there are objective reasons to hope that the nightmare of Daesh may be heading for its denouement.
So although it may sound premature, we now have to face the crucial question of the post-Daesh configuration in Syria and Iraq. That cannot be left to Mattis or the military in general. Fighting has always been a small, though obviously decisive, part of any war. But no war is ever won solely by coming on top in the fighting. The dictum about war being the continuation of politics by other means is as true today as it was at the dawn of history, when man discovered the horrors, and some might say the beauty, of war.
What sort of power-sharing might help Syria’s Sunni majority to lead a future state while allowing space for minorities, including the Alawites? And in Iraq, what arrangement might enable a Shiite-dominated state to also belong to the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities?
The task of politics is to translate the outcome of a war into realities on the ground. That fact was sadly ignored by the US under former President George W. Bush who, dazed by the easy and speedy battlefield victory against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, subcontracted the post-war political efforts needed to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Many of the problems that post-liberation Iraq has faced may be due to that initial mistake.
Today, winning the war in Mosul and Raqqa is no longer a distance aspiration; it could become a reality earlier than many of us hope. But unless there is a proper understanding of what the future may look like in Iraq and Syria — though very different, the two cases have many points in common — we risk repeating the mistake Bush made in 2003.
In that context, nations interested in the region for reasons of their own security and/or ambitions must pose a number of questions. Do we want to maintain Syria and Iraq intact as nation-states within the same borders fixed after World War I? How do we cope with the Kurdish appetite for independence that the US and some of its allies have whetted in exchange for great sacrifices by the Kurds in the war against Daesh?
What about Turkey’s ambition to carve out glacis inside Iraqi and Syrian borders, ostensibly to protect itself against Kurdish “terrorist” attacks? And what about Russia’s clear design to secure a permanent military presence on Syria’s Mediterranean coast? To all that, we must add Iran’s determination to protect its “corridor” to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, something for which it has spent billions and offered thousands of “martyrs.”
More importantly, what sort of power-sharing might help Syria’s Sunni majority to lead a future state while allowing space for minorities, including the Alawites? And in Iraq, what arrangement might enable a Shiite-dominated state to also belong to the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities?
These questions cannot be answered by Mattis or any outsider alone, although major powers have a crucial role to play. The answers must come from the political leaderships at all levels, both in government and in opposition, in Syria and Iraq. Right now, however, I see no sign that Iraqi and Syrian leaders are willing or able to face those questions.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
• Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.