Adapting Counter Insurgency (COIN) to Coalition Warfare in Syria
On 30 October, President Barack Obama announced the deployment of American Special Forces to Syria to fight Daesh. While the number is capped at fifty soldiers to provide assistance to the Kurds and independent Syrian forces, it may not remain so, given the increase in U.S. troops in Iraq from 300 in 2014 to 3,500 in June 2015.
Obama’s decision comes as something of a surprise, as he pledged in 2013 not to put ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. It is likely a response to the challenge posed by the Russian intervention in Syria. Through sending Special Forces operators, the U.S. can also help its chosen ally, the Free Syrian Army rebels, which it claims are being attacked by Russian aircraft.
The new American deployment is part of a larger strategy to revitalize the coalition war effort against Daesh, up to this point based on air strikes, with some limited American Special Forces raids in both Syria and Iraq. Previous strategies aimed at arming the rebel forces in Syria failed spectacularly. The new strategy against Daesh is based on what U.S. Central Command calls ‘The Three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi and Raids’. The first is to help ‘moderate Syrian forces’ take Raqqa, the main headquarters of Daesh. In Iraq, the U.S. wants to help Iraqi forces retake the key city of Ramadi in the west, which is seen as a prerequisite for retaking Mosul. The Air Force Times highlighted several other elements of the American strategy, including hitting Daesh lines of communications, ‘securing the border between Syria and Turkey’, and making sure that Daesh does not establish an enduring presence in either Jordan or Lebanon.
This strategy is part of a larger redeployment of forces of the U.S. Army in both Europe and the Middle East. More soldiers and attack aircraft (including F-15s and A-10s) are being deployed to Incirlik airbase in Turkey. At the same time, the U.S. is halting its drawdown of forces in Europe to send increased heavy equipment to Europe’s eastern borders to counter a resurgent Russia.
If the U.S. is assuming a new active role in Syria, however, three fundamental questions are not being asked about its strategy. First, what kind of a war is Syria and the war against Daesh? Second, which ‘model’ of warfare has the coalition chosen? Third, what lessons from the ‘great debate’ over counterinsurgency warfare during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still relevant today?
Kosovo, Afghanistan or Libya? Which model of war?
The coalition, in using primarily air forces for the battle against Daesh, has experience with several recent models of this type of war. The Kosovo war was studied by American officials as a model in 2013 for an American response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons. The key problem was how to fight a conflict without a UN resolution. Allied forces in Libya did in fact have a UN resolution (1973) that allowed for the use of force, but that is not the case with current operations in Iraq and Syria. The initial military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 did not have a UN mandate, but the subsequent ISAF deployment was fully backed by a UN resolution.
It is important to consider the legal basis for conflict. The U.S. has tended to intervene even in the absence of UN support, whereas the other currently active Western power, France, generally chooses not to go to war without a UN resolution. The problem here with the comparisons to the previous three conflicts in question is that the adversary is not the same. In Kosovo, the target was the Serbian state, with the goal being to degrade Slobodan Milosevic’s military to a sufficient degree to prevent attacks on the Kosovar population. Libya was much the same, despite the continuing confusion of war aims throughout the conflict, in that the coalition sought to degrade Qaddafi’s ability to persecute the Libyans. If the target was only Syrian government forces under Assad, this comparison might work. The problem in Syria, however, is that the members of the coalition are choosing to fight independent terrorist groups spread across two countries. In Afghanistan, the chosen strategy was to bring down both a terrorist group and the state that was supporting it.
The attempt of the coalition in Syria to destroy a single armed non-state group in the midst of a complex civil war does not really have a clear precedent. The comparisons of 2013 between Syria and Kosovo were based on the assumption that the coalition was going to war with Assad, and predated the rise of Daesh. Fighting Daesh resembles much more the battle against the Iraqi insurgency, where the U.S. was targeting specific factions, Al Qaeda in Iraq in particular, or in the fight against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan after 2005. In both cases, however, the U.S. had large numbers of troops on the ground to support Special Forces and air operations.
Syria and Counterinsurgency
In a way, it might have been easier had the coalition decided to directly go to war against Assad. The U.S. and European militaries had as their primary mission for decades as the capacity to take on the Warsaw Pact forces. Assad’s military, due to manpower problems, has a tendency to rely on heavy firepower (conventional and non-conventional in the form of chemical weapons), and might have proved an easier target than Daesh. Of course, if Assad’s regime were to fall, the problem of his successor would need to be decided early on, as the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya demonstrate the problems with the lack of planning for periods following forced regime change.
The fight against Daesh is clearly not conventional warfare against a state – far from it – but is it counterinsurgency? Scott Englund has made a clear case that Daesh indeed constitutes an insurgency. It is a fairly advanced insurgency, which has mobile forces, and has succeeded in taking over a number of urban population centers to set up parallel government structures. At the same time, Daesh has had difficulties in providing even basic services for the populations under its control. Thus, the current campaign is counterinsurgency, but it looks very different from the definition given in the revised version of the American Army’s COIN Manual (2014), where counterinsurgency is defined as ‘comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain an insurgency and address its root causes’. The focus is ‘to aid a host nation or group in defeating an insurgency’. The problem of Syria, as was the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is that there are multiple insurgencies fighting each other as well as the state. The coalition wants to destroy one of the insurgencies by pitting other insurgent groups against it, in an ad hoc alliance called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, without the support of the host state.
After a sustained academic and military debate over a decade regarding COIN theory, many analysts argue that the U.S. Government and military lost interest in the subject. As the closest recent analogy for the Syrian conflict is probably the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which parts of COIN theory have been retained or thrown out in the fight against Daesh?
No more separation of the insurgent from the population. The much criticized population-centered concepts contained in COIN theory from Afghanistan have not found any proponents in the fight against Daesh. The concept was to engage with the population to get their help in flushing out elusive insurgents as well as to convince the undecided part of the population to join the counterinsurgent. Major proponents of this strategy, David Kilcullen in particular, have argued that Daesh’s structure and political control make it necessary to fight the group conventionally. The theoretical problem is that Kilcullen emphatically stated that it was not an ‘occupation or a counterinsurgency campaign’, but as Daesh is an insurgency, by definition the fight against it is counterinsurgency, even if it is more conventional and enemy-centric than the way we came to understand the term over the last fifteen years.
The lessons of the Iraq and Afghan surges that indicate that numbers on the ground matter have been largely thrown out. The surge was seen as successful due in part to the 30,000 supplemental U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq to combat the insurgency. The most in-depth research, however, suggests that the increased number of soldiers interacted with the phenomenon of the Sunni Awakening (discussed below) to produce a favorable result. The Afghan Surge, on the other hand, was largely considered a failure, which may explain in part the reluctance to engage large numbers of ground troops in Syria.
Separating the ‘reconciliable’ insurgents from extremist groups does not work. One of Kilcullen’s key claims in his important book, The Accidental Guerilla, was that a large part of the fighters in terrorist groups were not there because of real ideological conviction, but because of the ‘backlash’ against Western intervention provoked by the core extremist groups. These fighters could thus be separated from the main group. General David Petraeus asked the U.S. Government in summer 2015 to try to separate less extremist members of Al-Nusra from the group to ally with the U.S. to fight Daesh. His proposals were not taken seriously, and the fact that much of the Free Syrian Army’s U.S.-provided equipment was lost to Al-Nusra did not help this argument.
Allying with more moderate insurgent groups to fight the enemy is still an important part of U.S. strategy, especially in the absence of host state support. The above reluctance to use members of Al Qaeda to fight Daesh does not apply to all groups, however. In Iraq in 2006, the U.S. was able to successfully co-opt Sunni groups to fight AQI in the Sunni Awakening. The strategy of alliances with moderate groups in the form of the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army very much indicates that U.S. officials think this phenomenon (which was key to the tactical successes of the 2007 Surge) can be replicated in Syria. The problem is that there may be only a few remaining moderate elements involved in the war.
Drone warfare and decapitation strikes are still seen as very useful. The Washington Post reported in September 2015 that the CIA was conducting a campaign of ‘targeted killing’ with drones against Daesh. This campaign is consistent with the larger U.S. drone campaign against terrorism. The British are also involved in drone strikes in Syria and in Iraq, but strikes from manned aircraft greatly outnumber those by drones.
Special Forces had considerable success in Iraq and Afghanistan and are the weapon of choice with airpower in Syria. The usefulness of Special Forces was discussed above, and another key aspect of this strategy is that the commandos help with target identification and selection, which was important in Libya in 2011 as well.
The lessons regarding ‘Phase IV operations’, or the end-state of the war, appear to have been forgotten. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the coalitions involved were all criticized for largely ignoring the question of how to stabilize the country after the war, which led to many problems and extensive COIN campaigns. It is very difficult to find any sources that give possibilities for how to stabilize a post-Assad, post-Daesh Syria, other than preparing for another long COIN campaign. This lack of a postwar strategy suggests that the errors of the past 15 years may be repeated if the coalition is able to bring the conflict to an acceptable conclusion.
The new, more extensive American involvement in Syria should be seen in the context of a progressive adaptation of the theory of counterinsurgency warfare as developed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. It is alarming to see that important lessons regarding the usefulness of massed combat force and the importance of Phase IV planning have largely been ignored. The coalition is also operating without host nation support, which is problematic, in that Assad is carrying out a different, and more brutal, version of counterinsurgency strategy against coalition allies and enemies alike. A larger, conventional ground campaign by the coalition, however, will certainly result in fighting both against a highly mobile and combat-hardened insurgency as well as against a state that indiscriminately uses massed firepower to separate the population from the insurgents. The Russian support for Assad’s regime makes this an even more hazardous proposition.
 In one of the more notable raids, American Special Forces freed 70 prisoners in a Daesh prison. One American soldier was killed in the raid. The operation was undertaken as support for Kurdish commandos, who were disappointed to find that the Kurdish fighters that they intended to liberate were not the prisoners in fact held at the prison in question.
 A large part of the equipment provided by the U.S. was turned over by the rebels to the Al Nusra Front, the local Al Qaeda branch.
 The extent to which the French and British governments actively sought regime change in Libya is debatable. See a useful analysis in Jason W. Davidson, ‘France, Britain and the intervention in Libya: An integrated analysis’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 26:2 (June 2013), 310-329.
 A useful introduction to Al Qaeda in Iraq from 2011 from the Center for Strategic and International Studies can be found at their website. Detailed narratives of American operations against insurgents in Iraq can be found in Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (New York: Pantheon, 2012), and the U.S. military’s On Point II, which deals with events from May 2003 to January 2005.
 On the Taliban resurgence, two books by Antonio Giustozzi are very helpful: Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, 2002-2007 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), and Decoding the New Taliban (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
 David Ucko, ‘Counterinsurgency after Afghanistan’, Prism 3:1 (2011), 3-20.
 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big Ones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1-38.
 Jean-Christophe Notin, La Vérité sur notre guerre en Libye (Paris: Fayard, 2012), 304-315.