The Manchester terrorist attack by an alleged Islamic State “soldier” will accelerate the push by the United States and its allies to capture the terrorist group’s strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. But it should also focus some urgent discussions about a post-Islamic State strategy for stabilizing the two countries.
For all of President Trump’s bombast about obliterating the Islamic State, the Raqqa campaign has been delayed for months while U.S. policymakers debated the wisdom of relying on a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG that Turkey regards as a terrorist group. That group and allied Sunni fighters have been poised less than 10 miles from Raqqa, waiting for a decision.
All the while, the clock has been ticking on terrorist plots hatched by the Islamic State and directed from Raqqa. U.S. officials told me a few weeks ago that they were aware of at least five Islamic State operations directed against targets in Europe. European allies have been urging the United States to finish the job in Raqqa as soon as possible.
The horrific bombing in Manchester, England, is a reminder of the difficulty of containing the plots hatched by the Islamic State — and the cost of waiting to strike the final blows. The Islamic State is battered and in retreat, and its caliphate is nearly destroyed on the ground. But a virtual caliphate survives in the network that spawned Salman Abedi, the alleged Manchester bomber, and others who seek to avenge the group’s slow eradication.
The Raqqa assault should move ahead quickly, now that the Trump administration has rejected Turkish protests and opted to back the YPG as the backbone of a broader coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. These are committed, well-led fighters, as I saw during a visit to a special forces training camp in northern Syria a year ago.
The Trump administration listened patiently to Turkish arguments for an alternative force backed by Ankara. But the Pentagon concluded that this force didn’t have a significant battlefield presence and that the real choice was either relying on the Kurdish-led coalition to clear Raqqa or sending in thousands of U.S. troops to do the job.
The White House rightly opted for the first approach several weeks ago. To ease Ankara’s worries, the United States is offering assurances that the Kurdish military presence will be contained and that newly recruited Sunni tribal forces will help manage security in Raqqa and nearby Deir al-Zour.
The endgame is near in Mosul, too. Commanders say only about 6 percent of the city remains to be captured, with 500 to 700 Islamic State fighters hunkered down in the old city west of the Tigris River.
Once Raqqa and Mosul are cleared, the challenge will be rebuilding the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq — with real governance and security — so that follow-on extremist groups don’t quickly emerge. This idea of preparing for the “day after” the Islamic State has gotten lip service from U.S. policymakers for three years but very little serious planning or funding. It should be an urgent priority for the United States and its key Sunni partners, such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Intelligence services from several key allies are said to have met in recent weeks with Sunni leaders from Iraq to form a core leadership that can take the initiative. But so far, this effort is said to have produced more internal bickering than clear strategy — a depressing rewind of failed efforts to build a coherent Sunni opposition in Syria.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo told me and several other journalists in an interview Tuesday that he plans to move the agency to a more aggressive, risk-taking stance. Here’s a place to start.
The Kurds are the wild cards in both Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Kurds are already governing the ethnic enclave they call “Rojava.” That should be an incentive for Syria’s Sunnis to develop similar strong government in their liberated areas. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have told U.S. officials that they plan to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence soon, perhaps as early as September.
U.S. officials feel a deep gratitude toward Iraqi Kurds, who have been reliable allies since the early 1990s. But the independence referendum is a potential flash point, and U.S. officials may try to defer the Kurdish question until well after Iraqi provincial elections scheduled in September.
Iraq and Syria need to be reimagined as looser, better-governed, more inclusive confederal states that give minorities room to breathe. The trick for policymakers is to make the post-Islamic State transition a pathway toward progress, rather than a continuation of the sectarian catastrophe that has befallen both nations.