Country Brief: Iraq and Syria

Syria And Iraq


While the conflicts in Iraq and Syria arose from two separate civil wars, their fates are now intertwined as a result of the rise of ISIS, which poses the greatest security threat to the region and the U.S. Neutralizing the threat from ISIS and restoring stability to Iraq and Syria requires a multi-pronged strategy to:

  • Defeat ISIS militarily through air strikes, special forces raids, and support for local forces;
  • Reach a lasting political settlement to end the war in Syria and bridge the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq; and
  • Prevent international ISIS attacks against the U.S. homeland.

Defeating ISIS and resolving the broader conflict in Syria and Iraq is vitally important to the United States. The 9/11 attacks happened because al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to recruit fighters, train them, and plan attacks. ISIS is a terrorist group that controls its own safe haven. It has the will to attack the West, and the November 2015 Paris attacks demonstrated its ability to do so. Moreover, the group’s ideology has spread, raising the specter of more homegrown terrorists which are very hard to detect.


Iraq in Context

Iraq and Syria declared independence in the 1940s, ejecting the European colonial powers who had established their boundaries.1 In the 1960s, a new political party called the Baathists seized power in Syria and then Iraq. The Baathist leader in Iraq was Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni government ruled over a Shia majority population.

After the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s Shia majority won Iraq’s first elections. These events unleashed sectarian tensions that had been kept in check by Hussein’s brutal rule. The Sunni minority that had been in charge was now ruled by the Shia. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired many of the best Iraqi military officers, often because they were Sunni, and replaced them with more loyal officers, most of whom were Shia.2

After his inauguration, President Obama pledged to leave 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline set by President Bush, but only if U.S. troops received legal immunity. The majority of Iraqis and representatives in parliament did not want U.S. troops to stay.3 In late 2011, Maliki withdrew from negotiations to provide U.S. forces immunity, forcing President Obama to bring U.S. troops home.4 A smaller number of American troops returned in 2014, however, after ISIS captured Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul. Under pressure for his sectarian policies, Maliki stepped down and was replaced by Haider al Abadi, who remains the Prime Minister. Abadi has promised to end corruption and mend ties between Iraq’s various ethnic groups.

Syria in Context

After Syria became independent in the 1960s, Baathist leader Hafez al Assad became Syria’s powerful dictator. Assad’s regime was Alawite, a Shia minority. Most Syrians were Sunni, not Shia, and many of them hated Alawites.5 After the United States deposed Hussein’s government in 2003, Iraqi Baathists fled to Syria, where Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, was now president. During the American occupation of Iraq, Assad became a chief adversary of the United States, allowing foreign fighters to travel through Syria to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.

After the 2011 Arab Spring protests toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian protesters took to the street to demand that Bashar al-Assad introduce democratic reforms in Syria. Assad’s troops soon began firing on unarmed protesters, and a popular rebellion rose up against the central Alawite government. This civil war has engulfed Syria for over five years, and has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Assad’s forces are responsible for the vast majority of deaths, killing civilians through indiscriminate carpet bombing, artillery barrages, and chemical weapons attacks.6

Despite a temporary Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) in February 2016 between the Syrian government and a large number of rebel groups, the conflict soon resumed. In September, a weeklong ceasefire was agreed to, but quickly unraveled again as reports came to surface of attacks on both sides. The ceasefire was to lead to joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes against ISIS and peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups. In addition, humanitarian aid was undeliverable to Syrians in need, particularly in the rebel-held town of Aleppo, during most of the weeklong ceasefire. The U.S. mistakenly attacked Syrian forces, killing 60. An aid convoy was attacked, killing 20 people and destroying 18 trucks containing humanitarian assistance. The U.S. has indicated that Russia was responsible for the attack.7 Secretary of State John Kerry called for a grounding of all military aircraft where aid needs to be delivered in Syria but the ceasefire has effectively collapsed for the time being.

The Rise of ISIS

ISIS has its roots in al Qaeda, which emerged in Iraq for the first time after the U.S. invaded in 2003. When the United States disbanded the Iraqi military in May 2003, thousands of former Iraqi soldiers joined the insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition.8 Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden sponsored a new Iraqi terrorist group led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who became leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Foreign fighters from outside Iraq flocked to join AQI, as did former Iraqi military officers. After U.S. forces killed Zarqawi in 2006, AQI reorganized as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).9 The forerunner of ISIS established itself well before U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq.

In the summer of 2011, civil war descended across Syria and threw the entire country into chaos. An al Qaeda offshoot called al Nusrah Front set up operations in Syria. After announcing that it was absorbing al Nusrah, the Islamic State in Iraq changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al Nusrah resisted this power grab, and al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan formally disavowed ISIS in February 2014.10 ISIS began attacking all militant groups across Syria, including al Nusrah, capturing vast territory and recruiting scores of foreign fighters.

ISIS seized control of Syrian territory adjacent to Iraq’s Anbar province, where Sunni tribes welcomed protection from brutal treatment by the Iraqi government.11 In 2014, former Iraqi officers, now ISIS commanders,12 used their relationships with Sunni tribes to capture two of Iraq’s largest cities,13 bulldozing the border between Iraq and Syria.

By late 2014, ISIS managed a large proto-state, a first for any similar terrorist group.14 The group received $80 million per month through oil smuggling, kidnapping, and other criminal activity.15 It commanded 25,000-35,000 fighters, including over 200 U.S. citizens,16 who are responsible for unspeakable atrocities. They have executed American journalists, conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Christians and Yazidis, set fire to a captured Jordanian pilot, bombed crowded markets, and shot down a Russian airliner over Egypt.

A tough and smart approach to Iraq and Syria

The U.S. is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to defeat ISIS and restore stability to Iraq and Syria by: (1) leading a coalition to strike ISIS from the air and mounting special forces raids; (2) arming and training Iraqi security forces; (3) arming and training moderate Syrian rebels; (4) cutting off ISIS financing; and (5) pursing lasting political reconciliation.

Airstrikes and Special Forces to Dismantle ISIS

In August 2014, the U.S. began conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and gathered a coalition of 66 countries to counter ISIS. As of September 2016, the United States and its coalition partners17 have launched over 15,000 precision air strikes against ISIS. The United States conducted 77% of the attacks, using over 20,000 bombs or missiles and hitting over 26,000 targets.18 Special operations forces in Iraq and Syria have also been raiding ISIS targets to gather intelligence and kill ISIS leaders.

Iraq: Train Security Forces

Some parts of the U.S. strategy must be tailored to each country. About 4,000 U.S. personnel are currently stationed in Iraq to train and share intelligence with Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and Iraqi tribal militias. This effort cost $1.6 billion in 2015.19 A coalition training center in northern Iraq has trained approximately 8,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and continues to train 800 more every 25 days.20 Congress has appropriated an additional $715 million to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces. This fund does not aid Shia militias sponsored by Iran.

These efforts have helped to turn the tide against ISIS in Iraq. Iraqi forces have retaken one of Iraq’s largest cities, Ramadi, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, and the Baiji oil refinery complex. The Kurdish Peshmerga have severed a key ISIS supply route connecting its headquarters in Syria with its secondary stronghold in Mosul, Iraq. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, believes Iraqi forces will be ready to begin the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS by October.21

Syria: Arm Syrian Arabs and Kurds

Since 2013, the Obama administration has provided assistance to some Syrian rebels.22 Adding to this, Congress in 2014 authorized $500 million to train and arm Syrian rebels who can fight ISIS. The Obama administration trained only those rebels who promised to fight ISIS alone, and not Assad, but the program failed to produce more than a handful of fighters. The U.S. has refocused on arming vetted groups already fighting inside Syria, delivering dozens of tons of ammunition and weapons to Syrian groups, who have retaken 550 square miles from ISIS.23 The Obama Administration sent up to 300 special operations forces to Syria to build on this momentum.24

Cut Off ISIS Financing

U.S. officials are working to cut off ISIS financing in several ways. Loss of territory has reduced ISIS tax revenue by 30%.25 U.S. airstrikes are targeting oil infrastructure used by ISIS, cutting the group’s oil revenue by over 30%.26 The Treasury Department has frozen assets of individuals associated with ISIS. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has expanded sanctions previously aimed at al Qaeda to include members of ISIS, vastly expanding the reach of counter-financing efforts. In addition, U.S. aircraft have mounted airstrikes to destroy ISIS cash reserves.

Achieve a Lasting Political Settlement

Preventing ISIS from rising again means achieving political reconciliation both in Syria and Iraq. The United States and Russia are leading international negotiations to end, or at least pause, the civil war in western Syria. In December 2015, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution endorsing a peace process,27 which led to a series of shaky ceasefires that have failed to take hold. Should UN peace talks progress, a political transition away from Assad’s rule will be necessary to ensure legitimacy of the central government.

In Iraq, defeating ISIS for good will require building trust between Iraqi security forces and the Sunni tribes who currently live under ISIS. As the 2007 “Sunni Awakening” demonstrated, Sunnis should know that if they rise up against ISIS, Iraqi forces will back them up. Going forward, Iraq’s central government must prevent sectarian divides by enforcing inclusive policies that don’t alienate its Sunni and Kurdish population. Iraqi security forces must continue training to better defend Iraq from internal and external forces. The U.S. must use its diplomatic leverage to ensure that foreign actors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran do not exacerbate the sectarian tensions that will allow insurgent groups like ISIS to revive itself.

Stopping ISIS from hitting the Homeland

Terrorist groups across the world have sworn allegiance to ISIS. The November 2015 Paris attacks, the March 2016 Brussels attacks, the ISIS-inspired San Bernardino attacks, and other ISIS plots show the group has the will and capability to hit the U.S. homeland.28

Protect Communities

Our local agencies need to be fully prepared, trained, coordinated, and funded to protect Americans against ISIS and other terrorist threats on the homeland. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is on the frontlines at the federal level, protecting Americans from these threats, and will require increased funding as the threat continues. The Department must work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the National Counterterrorism Center to ensure all levels of first responders and agents have the information and training necessary to prevent and respond to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Congress will need to continue providing increased funding to these agencies to make sure the U.S. is not vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Governors Association should establish a joint task force on counterterrorism that works with the federal government to address gaps in security. This would allow local leaders and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to share best practices in strengthening communities, identify and address shortfalls in funding and training, enhance training of local law enforcement, and further develop federal-city relationships.

These measures taken together will enable our local agencies to avert an attack while preparing for the worst. This short-term plan will lessen the immediate threat that ISIS and other terrorists pose to Americans on the homeland.

Stop Terrorists from Entering the U.S.

Until recently, the Visa Waiver Program allowed citizens of 38 participating countries to enter the United States without a visa.29 The heinous terrorist attacks in Paris revealed how foreign terrorists might exploit the Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States undetected. The administration worked with Congress to fix this vulnerability, changing the program to require that any citizen of a participating country who is also a citizen of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen must now apply for a visa before traveling to the United States.30 Those who have been to any of these countries in the last five years are also now required to apply for a visa. These applicants will undergo an interview, fingerprinting, and screening by the U.S. State Department to determine if they should be allowed to enter the United States. In addition, there are now tighter information-sharing requirements between the U.S. and the 38 participating countries. Changing this program was essential, adding another layer in travel regulations to prevent potential terrorists from reaching our shores.

Early media reports suggested that Syrian refugees were involved in the Paris attacks, and although this was not confirmed, it sparked a debate in the United States to ban the entry of refugees. The U.S. has an incredibly robust vetting system in place for processing refugee applications compared to Europe. For the United States, applicants go through the most thorough and stringent vetting, with an 18 to 24 month screening process before arriving to the country. Syrian refugees in particular go through a heightened level of screening.31 Several agencies are involved in reviewing each applicant, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center.32 Interviews are conducted, biometric data is compiled, and background information is cross-checked against terrorist databases. A year after they arrive to the U.S. – if they are approved by U.S. agencies through this vetting process – refugees are required to apply for a green card, beginning another round of security vetting.33 A foreign terrorist is unlikely to try to use this stringent process to enter the United States.

One of the San Bernardino terrorists arrived to the United States through a K-1 visa, or the “fiancée visa.” The screening process for these visas typically takes about six to nine months, and involves an extensive background check and security investigation.34 The administration has ordered a review of the K-1 visa program at the U.S. Homeland Security and State Departments to address gaps in this program. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun a pilot program to review K-1 visa applicants’ social media accounts as part of the vetting process.35

Going forward, more can be done to ensure terrorists are unable to enter the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security should send agents to countries at high-risk of terrorist activity to provide advanced screening of visa applicants. Increased information-sharing between intelligence agencies will give countries a better grasp of the foreign terrorist fighter problem, their movements, and how to stop them from entering the United States. To address potential security gaps in the visa application process, Congress can task the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the programs, including the fiancée visa, and provide an assessment to identify ways for Congress to address any shortcomings.

  • Foreign Relations123


  1. According to the territorial boundaries established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British occupied Iraq and the French occupied Syria.

  2. Mark Thompson, “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS,” Time, May 28, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2016. Available at:; See also: Joshua Partlow, “Maliki’s Office Is Seen Behind Purge in Forces,” The Washington Post, April 30, 2007. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  3. Yochi J. Dreazen, “U.S. Troops Are Leaving Because Iraq Doesn’t Want Them There,” The Atlantic, October 21, 2011. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  4. Tony Karon, “Iraq Not Obama Called Time on the U.S. Troop Presence,” Time, October 21, 2011. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  5. Chris Zambelis, “Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, May 28, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  6. Hugh Naylor, “Islamic State Has Killed Many Syrians, but Assad’s Forces Have Killed More,” The Washington Post, Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  7. “Syria Conflict: Air Strike Kills Five Medical Workers,” BBC, September 21, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2016. Available at:

  8. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” Regan Arts: New York, 2015, p. 36-37, Print.

  9. Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters, “The Islamic State,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 22, 2016. Accessed May 17, 2016. Available at:

  10. Liz Sly, “Al-Qaeda Disavows Any Ties with Radical Islamist ISIS Group in Syria, Iraq,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2016. Available at:

  11. James F. Jeffrey, “How Maliki Broke Iraq,” Politico, August 13, 2014. Accessed October 19, 2015. Available at:

  12. Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand Behind the Islamic State Militants,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  13. Hamza Hendawi & Qassim Abdul-zahra, “IS Top Command Dominated by Ex-officers in Saddam’s Army,” Business Insider, August 8, 2015. Accessed October 19, 2015. Available at:

  14. Christopher M. Blanchard & Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, December 9, 2015, p. 5-6. Accessed May 16, 2016. Available at:

  15. “Islamic State Monthly Revenue Totals $80 million, IHS Says,” IHS Janes, December 7, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  16. “Final Report of the Task Force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel,” U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, September 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015. Available at:

  17. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, and the United Kingdom are involved in conducting or supporting air operations over Iraq and/or Syria.

  18. “Operation Inherent Resolve,” U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed May 4, 2016. Available at:

  19. Public Law 113-235, 128 STAT. 2290 (appropriating 1.618 billion),

  20. Jim Garamone, “Peshmerga Training Effort Moves into High Gear,” DoD News, December 18, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  21. Aaron Mehta, “Dunford Says Mosul Operation Could Begin in October,” Defense News, September 21, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2016. Available at:

  22. Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali, “U.S. Weaponry Is Turning Syria into Proxy War With Russia,” The New York Times, October 12, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  23. Christopher M. Blanchard & Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, December 9, 2015, p. 22-23. Available at:; See also: Felicia Swartz, “U.S. Airdrops Ammunition to Syrian Arab Groups,” The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  24. Barbara Starr and Kevin Liptak, “Obama Announces an Additional 250 Special Operations Forces to Syria,” CNN, April 25, 2016. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  25. “ISIS Revenue Drops Nearly a Third after Loss of Territory Shrinks Tax Base,” The Guardian, April 17, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2016. Available at:

  26. Matthew Rosenberg, Helene Cooper and Nicholas Kulish, “U.S. Military Campaign Takes Toll on ISIS’ Cash Flow,” The New York Times, April 12, 2016. Accessed April 13, 2016. Available at:

  27. Elise Labott, “U.N. Security Council Approves Peace Plan for Syria,” CNN, December 19, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Available at:

  28. Christopher M. Blanchard & Carla E. Humud, “The Islamic State and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, December 9, 2015, Accessed May 16, 2016. Available at:

  29. The United States, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Visa Waiver Program.” Accessed March 7, 2016. Available at:

  30. United States, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Press Office, “United States Begins Implementation of Changes to the Visa Waiver Program,” January 21, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2016. Available at:

  31. United States, U.S. Department of State, “Myths and Facts: Resettling Syrian Refugees,” Fact Sheet, November 25, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2016. Available at:

  32. The White House, “Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States,” November 20, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2016. Available at:

  33. The White House, “Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States,” November 20, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2016. Available at:

  34. Matt Pearce, “A Look at the K-1 Visa That Gave San Bernardino Shooter Entry Into U.S.,” The Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2015. Accessed March 3, 2016. Available at:

  35. Ron Nixon, “U.S. to Further Scour Social Media Use of Visa and Asylum Seekers,” The New York Times, February 23, 2016. Accessed March 4, 2016. Available at: