General John Allen

The former Presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL discusses the military and political strategy in Iraq and Syria, Russia’s entry into the conflict, the implications of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the challenge of ISIL’s “distant provinces”, and the potential for countering the ideological appeal of the “Caliphate”. He argues that Coalition, Iraqi, and Syrian forces have proven ISIL can be beaten and that its invincibility, and thus its inevitability, has been shattered.

How would you assess the coalition’s military strategy one year on? Can it be successful without the use of ground troops?

The military strategy has effectively halted the expansion of core ISIL in Iraq and Syria and is beginning to roll back ISIL’s initial military gains. Coalition initiated “Building Partner Capacity” activities among the Iraqi security and tribal forces have produced something over 15,000 fighters in addition to other previously existing elements. Tikrit in Salah ad Din Province and areas in Diyala Province have been recovered. The Baiji refinery complex is in the hands of Iraqi forces. Ramadi is encircled. Mosul is under pressure. The Kurdish Peshmerga have recovered all of their original losses and have pushed well south of Sinjar cutting the vital Route 47 that connects Mosul with Raqqa in Syria.

In Syria, Syrian resistance elements have recovered all of the Syrian/Turkish border from Iraq to the Euphrates River and pushed ISIL well back from the border, closing Tal Abyad, ISIL’s principal crossing point from Turkey to Raqqa. In eastern Syria, opposition forces have pushed ISIL out of Hasaka and captured Al Hawl to the south, another important node on the east/west lines of communications. West of the Euphrates, the US and Turkey are working with Syrian Arab partners to close the remaining 98 kilometers of the border still in the hands of ISIL. Elements of the opposition are moving on Raqqa and will position themselves to pressure this administrative center of ISIL in the coming months.

These measures, taken together, constitute the emergence of a regional pressure strategy against “core” ISIL intended to contain ISIL and shrink its surface area while a concerted attack is conducted against its leadership network. This comprehensive pressure will characterize and define this year’s efforts to shrink, dismantle, and degrade ISIL.

ISIL’s extra-regional expansion this year creates an additional challenge we must confront with the emergence of the “distant provinces” and a global network tying them to the core in Iraq and Syria. The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL will need to adapt its strategy and its activities to shrink and degrade the core, neutralize the provinces, and attack the network, which operationalizes the connection of the core to the outside reaches of the organization.

Have you seen advances on the political front?

Overall, the political advances have been limited.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi continues his attempt to implement a series of political reforms, receiving the support of the Marjaiyah and Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. While these reforms were widely applauded by the Iraqi public, the implementation was poorly coordinated, surprising and alienating many of the Iraqi stakeholders whose support for the reforms was important. PM Abadi now faces opposing pressure vectors from the stakeholders in the Iraqi government who are resisting the reforms as well as from Najaf which is pushing for their acceleration. His current challenge is navigating between these two groups.

Meanwhile, PM Abadi continues his policy of “functioning federalism”, the divestiture of political power to the provinces as he seeks legislation that can work toward reconciliation within the Iraqi society.

In Syria, the Russian intervention created the opportunity to discuss a political transition that could end the rule of Bashar al Assad and place the political future of the country in the hands of Syrians. The signals from the Russians and the Iranians are mixed on their commitment to end Assad’s role in the government. Meetings in Vienna have sought to bring together the external actors to the conflict in an effort to create agreement on a roadmap for political transition and agreement on which Syrian voices will speak for the Syrian people in the political process. That process remains ongoing.

The Russian intervention in Syria has sought to bolster President Assad rather than degrade Daesh. How much is the Russian-Iranian goal of keeping Assad in power at odds with the coalition’s political aims? Do you see the strategies of the coalition and Russia converge eventually?

It’s not clear the Russian/Iranian strategy is to bolster or sustain Assad, as much as it’sintent on maintaining a compliant, intact Alawi regime in Damascus; conceivably without Assad, if need be. In the short term, Assad will undoubtedly benefit from the Russian intervention, but the Russians may well not be specifically wedded to Assad. This is likely the case with the Iranians as well. That said, the Russian/Iranian cooperation would favor sustaining Assad if that were something the Western states would countenance. Given Assad’s hand in the war upon his people, it’s unlikely Western and Russian/Iranian political aims will ever converge except in the ultimate removal of Assad. This is complicated by Assad himself being utterly anathema to the many Syrian opposition groups that have emerged in this civil war and are fighting Assad for the future of Syria.

Russian propaganda is reinforcing the idea across Europe that it is the West led by the United States who is responsible for the chaos in Libya, Iraq, and Syria that is now producing an uncontrolled flow of migrants. What would you say to that?

As your question implies, Russian propaganda on these matters is designed to create the context and the opening for a Russian role in the region. It also ignores the Russian/Soviet role in igniting the global jihadist movement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The radicalization that resulted from that conflict has in many ways produced the lineal descendants we’re now fighting across the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Russians have landed in Syria firmly on the side of a murderous regime; the Iranians, the single greatest source of sectarian instability in the region; Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy organization; and multiple Shi’a extremist militias. It’s doubtful with this list of allies the Russians can do much to solve the problems in the region as opposed to fanning them into greater volatility.

The terrorist attacks in Paris, claimed by and attributed to Daesh, demonstrated an enhanced capability to strike targets in the West. Is this a fundamental shift in strategy or a complement to it? What does it mean for the coalition’s effort in Syria and Iraq?

It’s neither a shift nor a complement, but rather an evolution of ISIL’s strategy. As the so-called Caliphate expanded through the adoption of “distant provinces”, ISIL extended its reach through these platforms and through the use of returned or locally recruited fighters. Attacks against Coalitions capitals and populations are designed to create an appearance of omnipotence and influence that can intimidate populations, shake the resolve of Coalition partners, and increase recruiting. Sadly, for ISIL, its attack against the French has only strengthened the Coalition and given it fresh purpose to attack the core ISIL with greater purpose and to adapt the Coalition to account for this operational evolution.

You and others have argued that Daesh cannot be defeated unless and until the underlying idea of the “Caliphate” is defeated. Do you see indications that Daesh is losing its ideological appeal? Do you see efforts on behalf of the worldwide Muslim authorities that would raise hopes for such an outcome?

The move by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (aka – Abu Du’a) to declare his movement a Caliphate and to assume the role of Caliph, redefined ISIL from being a criminal terrorist gang into a religious, spiritual movement and in so doing created an air of legitimacy it could not have otherwise attained. In response, Al Qaeda leadership believed Abu Du’a had moved too soon in the direction of a Caliphate, creating vulnerabilities that might spell its demise and thus harm the worldwide jihadist movement.

The so-called Caliphate relies on a doctrine of relentless war and irresistible expansion in fulfilling its “inevitability”. In that context, the emergence of the Caliphate created a recruiting opportunity for ISIL it might not have otherwise attained. Foreign fighters and other supporters moved to the Middle East seeking to serve the Caliph and the Caliphate. As the battle against ISIL continues to evolve in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is shrinking both in terms of the physical area it controls and the population it dominates.

Coalition, Iraqi, and Syrian forces have proven ISIL can be beaten and its invincibility, and thus its inevitability, has been shattered. Determining whether ISIL is losing its ideological appeal has been complicated by the recent attacks by ISIL outside Iraq and Syria, and by the intervention of Russia. In the first case, ISIL’s expansion has created both extra-regional “reach” into Coalition capitals and population centers, and additional recruiting opportunities. In the second case, Russia’s growing presence on the side of Shi’a elements in the Syrian civil war sharpens even further a sectarian conflict that will enflame Sunni jihadist recruiting.

These factors complicate the judgment of whether the Caliphate and ISIL are losing their appeal as both an organizing concept and recruiting base for the global jihad. While many Muslim voices have been raised against ISIL, the overall absence of coherence in the messaging, and the absence of the aggregate influence of these voices, has had limited impact against the idea of ISIL and the Caliphate, and have yet to administer the singularly, unified blow necessary to reduce its attractiveness as a movement and as a source for recruiting.

Is there an idea or narrative about the conflict that you see missing in the Western discourse?

The West is not, and cannot be the source for the narrative which counters ISIL, an extremist Sunni Muslim movement. As His Majesty, King Abdullah II of Jordan has often said, the message that can most effectively counter ISIL must have an Arab face and a Muslim voice. Taking that one step further, that applies as well to the West, to Africa, to South Asia, and to Southeast Asia. The narrative must have an indigenous face and a Muslim voice.

In this first year of the campaign, the Coalition has struggled to create coherence and strategic direction in its counter messaging efforts. Under the leadership of the UK and the UAE this is improving, and with the emergence of the UAE messaging center, the Sawab Center (“Right Path” Center), in Abu Dhabi, and with the potential for other centers in Western Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia, the creation of a global network of centers offers the Coalition the opportunity to act strategically, while messaging locally. This will create the kind of global platform necessary for the coherence necessary to counter ISIL toxic ideology.

The interview was conducted by Mário Nicolini.

General (Ret) John Allen is Co-Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence of the Brookings Institution.