Seen from the United States, Syria and Iraq look very similar at the moment. In both countries, jihadist fanatics are capturing territory and resources and brutalizing anyone who resists. Unlike in Iraq, however, in Syria the United States has a good policy option – one that would help defeat the extremists in both countries. The Obama administration should finally give the moderate Syrian opposition the help it needs to fight and defeat the jihadists. Without their success in Syria, they could not have captured so much of Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, has succeeded stunningly in building its medieval state in Iraq and Syria. A group of a few thousand jihadists have captured territory the size of Jordan, sophisticated military hardware, and substantial oil resources and infrastructure.
It is not that ISIS is all-powerful, but that its opponents in Syria and Iraq – both regimes and rebels – are so weak and dysfunctional. The immediate U.S. priority is preventing the collapse of the armed forces in Iraq, but the antidote to ISIS is ultimately a successful moderate opposition in neighboring Syria, whose weakness made ISIS’ success in Iraq possible.
In Iraq, the United States is stuck with a bad option: defending the government despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ’s record of repressing Sunnis, which gave ISIS critical Iraqi Sunni support. Maliki has been so harmful that it is tempting to abandon him and the forces he commands altogether, but that would spell the end of Iraq ’s armed forces. Iran, fearing a growing Sunni threat next door, would respond by deploying its Shiite proxy militias to fight Sunnis, just as it is using Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Subcontracting the government’s war on a Sunni-led insurgency to Shiite sectarian militias would tear apart what remains of the Iraqi state, condemning the country to an indefinite civil war. In Iraq, the United States must go with the least-bad option – there is no alternative.
In Syria, however, there is a far more palatable option, and there are signs that the Obama administration is finally considering it: supporting moderate Syrian forces whose interests and agenda align far more closely with the United States’ than Maliki’ s do. Syria’s mainstream Sunni rebel groups – and not the Assad regime – are already fighting and dying in a war on ISIS, with little U.S. support and against tremendous odds, including the regime’s siege and starvation campaigns.
Only Syrian moderates can stop ISIS. While Maliki deserves his fair share of the blame, ISIS' success in Iraq resulted directly from its control of territory and resources in Syria. Unless Syrian moderates receive more robust U.S. support, including funding, arms and training, ISIS will win in Syria. Its rivals also desperately need relief from constant air strikes by the Assad regime, which make it impossible for them to fight the jihadists effectively.
As it captures more territory and resources, defeating ISIS will become far more costly. It is clear by now that, after three years of hand-wringing over what to do about Syria, the United States ’ strategy has failed to prevent the worst possible outcome, now playing out in both Syria and Iraq. Now is the time to finally get the strategy right and stop ISIS. This means ensuring the battle against ISIS in Iraq is not delegated to sectarian Shiite militias, and giving Syrian moderates the tools to destroy the jihadists’ heartland in Syria. Otherwise, ISIS is here to stay.