ISIS’s capital has been captured: Now what?

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Optimism – it’s an utterly American vice. We’ve rarely seen a problem we won’t try to solve.  

That said, after 16 years of indecisive wars across the greater Middle East, America’s warfighters have learned to temper their aspirations just a touch. Consider the mission statement for Operation Inherent Resolve, the ongoing intervention in Syria: “In conjunction with partner forces Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) defeats ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and sets conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.”

Sounds reasonable, no? Well, compared to the majestic ambitions at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it sort of is. Chew on that stated objective for a moment: “[U.S. forces] conduct combat, stability, and support operations in coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to secure the population, defeat terrorists … neutralize insurgent and militia groups, and transition responsibilities to the ISF in order to reduce violence, gain the support of the people, stabilize Iraq, and enable its security self-reliance … .”

Seems hard to believe units like mine could achieve such a tall order in many decades, let alone 15 months.

{mosads}Still, even today’s tapered down mission for U.S. forces in Syria conceals as much as it informs, and raises important questions: Who are America’s “partners” in the byzantine Syrian mosaic of actors? Can one conclusively “defeat” ISIS, as a fighting force or an ideology? Which “conditions” can or should U.S. forces set, and how much is enough to truly “increase stability?”


In Year 17 of an unsatisfying “war on terror,” American commanders at least try – to their credit – to define these objectives and not over-promise. Nevertheless, regional stability would require an acceptable end to Syria’s destabilizing nightmare of a civil war. Furthermore, the conditions conducive to such an outcome most certainly include diplomatic overtures, economic stability, humanitarian aid and numerous other prerequisites. Sounds like yet another case of societal restructuring and, on this front, Washington’s track record is far from stellar.

The U.S. military repeatedly tilts at windmills precisely because bipartisan policymakers overstate and ill-define desired outcomes. The contours of the Obama and the more muddled Trump strategies include a Syrian national transition, preferably without Assad; a sovereign, non-partitioned Syrian state; Iran weakened; Russia, at the least, not empowered; Turkey happy; and ISIS and other extremist groups decisively defeated.

Here’s the bad news: Many of those goals are contradictory, improbable or outright impossible and, considering the way things are going, U.S. actions may be counterproductive.

The problems begin with the various players – American “partners” and “adversaries” – in the complex Syrian debacle, our misunderstanding of their positions, and the knotty interactions between them.  

Those players and their respective complications are:

  • ISIS: down but not out; expect the ideology to live on, a Syrian insurgency to start, and international terror attacks to continue.
  • Bashar al Assad: empowered by Russian/Iranian allies, he’s winning – and coming for the rest of Syria.
  • The remaining Syrian “rebels”: weakened and, at best, stalemated; increasingly dominated by Islamists; not a friendly option for Washington – plus, they’re going to lose.
  • Turkey: never going to accept an autonomous Kurdish region on its southeast border; cozying up to Russia; increasingly Islamist and autocratic.
  • Russia: staying put until Assad’s position is secure; maintaining a permanent, warm-water military base on Syria’s coast; look for Putin to pressure U.S. forces and cut Washington out of any postwar settlement.
  • Iran: the biggest beneficiary of America’s counterproductive imbroglios in the neighborhood – empowered and battle-tested in Syria; ascendant in an Iraqi state dominated by friendly, chauvinist Shiite. The U.S. couldn’t have handed Iran a better gift if it tried.
  • The Kurds: alone, unafraid, doomed to gallant defeat without significant U.S. aid.

Beyond the intricate, often intractable relationships of the various parties, U.S. policymakers have failed to articulate answers to other questions about the Syrian civil war. For example, how long do U.S. forces stay? Recently, a Pentagon spokesman indicated U.S. troops may be in for the long haul, announcing: “We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.” That sounds pretty open-ended, disturbingly similar to U.S. rhetoric on Iraq, circa 2003. The Middle East: Easy to get in, impossible to get out.

All of which raises yet more questions. Who will occupy and administer the former ISIS territory? The Kurds? Assad? The United States? And, what if Russia, Iran or their Assadist proxies enter a U.S. sector to reestablish sovereignty in eastern Syria? Are we talking compromise, surrender or nuclear war?

If Assad’s troops – or Turkey’s, for that matter – attack the Kurds, what then? Abandon our only stalwart allies, or start shooting more Syrians or NATO allies? Perhaps we should rename the Syria mission Operation Certain Quagmire.

The bottom line is, national optimism translates into unachievable end-states and overestimation of military capabilities. Once the executive branch opens a war theater, an overtaxed, overstretched and (by its very nature) unsuitable military is left holding the proverbial bag.  

Washington needs to stop the never-ending charade of its Western-centric, exceptionalist framework and admit its substantial limitations in the region. The U.S. can’t “save” or “fix” Syria. Whatever follows Syria’s pitiless civil war will not be of America’s making; the only thing the U.S. can decide is how many lives to take and lose in the interim. In Syria’s twisted game, when the music stops, expect the United States to emerge alone, without a seat at the table.

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army officer, former history instructor at West Point, and served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Tags Bashar al-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Military Politics of Syria Syrian civil war

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