The ghost of the 2003 Iraq war has hung over and shaped every decision the United States has made on the Syrian civil war since 2011 across two administrations. Now, the incoming administration of President Joe Biden will soon grapple with the same question Biden confronted as vice president: how to handle the Islamic State as it finds openings and regroups. As it looks ahead, the Biden administration would be wise to study how the U.S. worked to end the Islamic State’s territorial grip on Syria two years back—and who laid down their lives for it.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defeated ISIS in the spring of 2019 after a grueling half-decade fight—room by room, house by house, and town by town—in which 10,000 SDF members gave their lives. But it is much easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology, and once again ISIS is threatening moms and dads and children even as the world wants to wish away a fight that has not yet ended.
Today attacks are on the rise in Syria’s Deir al-Zour city, with the BBC noting that the Islamic State “has launched more than 100 attacks in north-eastern Syria over the last month alone.” ISIS is bringing its particular mix of hellish terror to the area once more: beheadings, abductions, suicide bombings, motorbike attacks, to name only a few of their tactics. The SDF is launching operations against ISIS today and targeting the places where ISIS fighters hide and prepare to launch their attacks.
What few know is that the ISIS fight on the ground is an American post-9/11 policy that achieved what it set out to: find a local partner with shared interests willing to fight to end ISIS’ territorial hold on the region. Women played a central role in this force and served as America’s interlocutors in the battle to retake the ISIS “capital" of Raqqa and the years of campaigns leading up to that fight.
The success of the US-SDF relationship isn’t well known, but it contains policy implications for President Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken: as the new administration considers Middle East policy, it now faces the question of whether to continue America’s limited presence in northeastern Syria and how to employ diplomacy to move toward an end to the war in Syria. What it can be clear on is that a nearly unseen U.S. presence created a fragile normalcy upon which people from the area could build, and that that endangered stability did not end even with the Turkish-backed incursion in October 2019.
I saw that stability firsthand, traveling every few months to the region in 2018 to write The Daughters of Kobani, a history of how, in order to stop ISIS, the United States ended up partnering with a little-known group of Syrian Kurds with women’s equality right at the center of its ideology. At first, as my colleagues and I traveled around, I marveled at the rickety normalcy in place—in every check point you saw only local forces, no one asked for money or bribes, and women were everywhere: standing guard at check points, checking your papers at local security offices, serving as members of the new local police. Then I grew accustomed to it and determined to share with America that U.S. forces had managed to serve as the entirely unseen, Oz-like presence of a post-9/11 war, providing a security umbrella that kept the Russians at bay, the Syrian regime out, the Turks from invading, and local forces launching raids against ISIS able to keep the pressure on the terrorists of the Islamic State. And it managed all this with fewer than two thousand U.S. service members on the ground—and none of them fighting on the front.
I asked U.S. officials I’d meet in Syria in 2018 and 2019 why no one at home knew that the policy was working, that northeastern Syria looked different than other U.S. efforts in the region, that you never saw the Americans, but you felt the fragile normalcy? I asked them why, if the Americans had found a partner that was hardly perfect but full of purpose, progressive in its politics, and determined to create stability for its citizens, it rarely talked about it? After all, the heartbreak of other post-9/11 interventions had shaped the outlines of this one and had made it imperative that no U.S. forces would lead the fight, and only a limited number would deploy at all.
Part of the answer was that NATO ally Turkey considered these Kurds leading the fight against terrorists to be terrorists themselves, a feeling that was heightened by America’s reliance upon and support for the People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units. Part of it was that the desolate narrative of defeat shaped how the entire nation sees all of its post-9/11 interventions. And another was that northeastern Syria was hard to access and harder still to visit.
Those who saw it did talk about it.
“The strategy has been, ‘Let’s defeat ISIS.’ And we’re well on our way there. And this really has happened against very long odds with very few Americans with very little money,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told 60 Minutes following a visit to Syria with Sen. Lindsey Graham. When asked what he wanted the American people to know “about America’s partners in Syria,” Graham answered, “They’ve done most of the fighting. They’ve done most of the dying. If they take over, they will work with us. This is a damn good deal. Take it.”
Officials who shaped Syria policy at the time are now returning to office. Some have been trying for years to share that this outcome was critical to the U.S. effort to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. America needs “to distinguish between, for example, these endless wars with the large-scale, open-ended deployment of U.S. forces with… discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations, maybe led by Special Forces to support local actors,” incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken told CBS last September. "This is something we worked on… through strategy in the Obama-Biden administration, and it actually worked very effectively in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS.”
Four years ago, as President Donald Trump’s new administration weighed whether to directly arm the SDF in advance of retaking the ISIS self-styled capital of Raqqa, Blinken wrote that “the only fighters capable of seizing Raqqa belong to our most effective partner on the ground—the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mixture of Arabs and Kurds dominated by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia.”
From 2014, and the made-for-TV battle for the town of Kobani, where the Kurds, with help from Iraqi Peshmerga and Free Syrian Army force on the ground and the U.S. from the air, handed ISIS its very first defeat, until 2019 and the apocalyptic end of the Islamic State in the town of Baghouz, the women and men of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) served as America’s and the world’s infantry. The SDF fought the Islamic State house by house, street by street and town by town, every day for more than five straight years until at last the Islamic State no longer held claim to a shred of territory.
Their commitment to stopping ISIS was equal to, if not greater, than America’s; their losses demonstrate their resolve. Consider these numbers: At the height of its territorial strength, ISIS ruled a swath of land across Iraq and Syria roughly the size of Virginia or Ohio. It reigned in the populated Syrian towns of Raqqa and Manbij and Tabqa, kept girls out of school, sold women on its streets, beheaded and chopped off limbs of opponents in town squares, and hosted foreign fighters from more than 100 nations who came to form a wildly distorted United Nations of ISIS. It blared its aspirations of ruling from Raqqa to Rome and beyond and plotted attacks in the United States and Europe and around the globe.
Every Gold Star family is a true tragedy, and time inside this community has shaped my perspective on war. To rid the world of ISIS as a force that held terrain and terrorized citizens across borders, the U.S. military endured fewer than ten combat deaths, according to U.S. military officials. America’s partner lost 10,000 women and men.
Yet Americans know little of this story. Indeed, all of America’s post-9/11 wars get tossed in the same manila file no one wants to revisit with the label “failure” written out in block letters across its top. In part that is because both policy makers and people far from Washington share an exhaustion with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both have become synonymous with endlessness, loss, lives shattered, grief endured, and an America that can no longer define or decide how a conflict is won. The shame of this is that America also hasn’t seen when its policy has worked.
As those who shaped the U.S. policy on Syria—including Blinken and Brett McGurk, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS—return to governing, they must decide whether and then how to ensure that America’s partners in the ISIS fight endure long enough to build on the gains achieved. This is critical now, as ISIS attacks mount and the Syrian regime has proven itself unable to strongly counter the ISIS threat.
“Protecting the homeland while letting pockets of the developing world fall irretrievably into terrorists’ control guarantees far greater problems down the line,” the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister noted. “The U.S. needs to learn from the recent anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq, where a light footprint approach fronted by special operations forces and focused on enhancing the ability of allied local partners in their local fight against terrorists was met with success.”
I traveled to northeastern Syria in December 2019, just weeks after the Turkish-backed incursion into northeastern Syria. I expected to see a great deal of change, and I did see some—a drive that used to take three hours now took six as we avoided the highway controlled by Turkish-backed forces—but far less than I had imagined. Security was largely in hand thanks to these local partners who had never abandoned America's priorities, including holding ISIS prisoners, even while America withdrew from key towns. It surprised many in the U.S. to hear after I returned what I saw firsthand: that the limited U.S. presence in the region was helping to give America’s partners in the ISIS fight a bit of room to maneuver when dealing with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers. And, urgently, it was offering to moms and dads some room, an endangered stability provided to them by local forces. The goal must be to remove the U.S. troop presence in Syria, but the “how” matters. America can play a key role in exerting muscular diplomacy while maintaining the pressure on ISIS.
There are always conflicting priorities in the first 100 days of any administration, but as those who crafted the counter-ISIS policy return to government, ensuring ISIS does not return to power—even while it strives to—should be among the top.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of The Daughters of Kobani as well as the New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She regularly appears on CNN, PBS, MSNBC, and NPR, and has spoken on national security topics at the Aspen Security Forum, Clinton Global Initiative, and TED. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she serves on the board of Mercy Corps and is a member of the Bretton Woods Committee.