Post-ISIS Iraq & Syria

Event Information

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 89th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 14th. Days after Iraqi forces announced regaining control of Mosul, “Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos” examined what comes after the liberation of ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. The panelists reflected on how to best understand the overlapping regional and international interests in the region, the continued fragmentation of populations beyond simplistic Shia-Sunni lines, and the tenuous hold of national governments on their territory. Amidst these complexities, the U.S. is faced with limited policy options, with some panelists questioning whether Washington can influence events to avoid chaos at all.


Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included James Jeffrey (former Ambassador to Turkey, Iraq); Denise Natali (Distinguished Research Fellow, National Defense University); Wa’el Alzayat (CEO, Emgage Foundation); and Paul Salem (Vice President, the Middle East Institute).


Ambassador Jeffrey suggested that greater U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria could make the situation more chaotic. He recalled the Cold War era, when the U.S. often acted in arenas where they had no chance to win, simply to counter Soviet influence, and the more recent 2006 war in Lebanon, where the Lebanese government and Hezbollah often undermined U.S. interests. According to Ambassador Jeffrey, U.S. policy should be formulated with an eye towards thwarting increased Iranian domination. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump one understands this and views the Middle East as a struggle for influence against Iran and its Russian backers. Given the existence of “enclaves” of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria that the U.S. military will likely want to maintain as ISIS’ territorial control continues to dissipate, he recommended beginning reconstruction efforts slowly and deliberately with a long-term view about how they can be sustainable and effective in countering Iranian influence.


Dr. Natali disputed the idea that the region is post-ISIS or that it will be in the event that both Mosul and Raqqa fall. She also suggested proceeding cautiously and formulating policy while cognizant of the fragmented and localized condition of each country. To do this, U.S. policy makers should avoid overly simplistic narratives, to have a clear view of the situation on the ground. For example, she does not see Iraq or Syria “breaking up” into smaller autonomous states. Rather, she sees states that have “broken down” but will still require a central authority to provide security, coordinate reconstruction, and manage regional and international relations. Some dynamics on the ground that policy makers should be aware of include: the reality that Kurds have gained significant territory amidst the fight against ISIS (and host numerous internally displaced Arabs on this land); the sharp demographic changes that conflict in the region has produced; and the more recent financial limitations on the Iraqi state imposed by the sharp drop in global oil prices.


Mr. Alzayat argued that the lack of freedom in the region continues to be the primary source of instability. The region lacks basic rights, and citizens with family and associated social networks continue to be the most important factors for success. Prime Minster al-Maliki—once exiled by Saddam Hussein—continued to operate with a sectarian mentality once he came to power, viewing opposition in Anbar province similarly to how Assad viewed rebels in Homs. Without recognizing this underlying problem in the region, groups like ISIS will continue to exist. Thus, Mr. Alzayat suggests the U.S. push a “freedom agenda” in Iraq, working with the central government to weaken identity-based local politics and tether Sunni areas to the national government. In Syria, Mr. Alzayat recommends that the U.S. expand the territory it controls and continue to deliver clear deterrence measures when human-rights violations occur. By viewing the region as a “long-term project,” the U.S. can gain international partners as well as local ones, and these can counter groups like ISIS that may emerge in the future.


Mr. Salem believes that the Arab order has broken down and that there is now the emergence of an Iranian-Arab disorder that will take a long time to resolve. U.S. passivity during the Obama administration allowed Iran to gain new footholds in the Levant and Yemen, and this influence may eventually be extended to Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, Mr. Salem sees some hope for stability, given the relative functioning of political institutions, its ability to export oil, and the stable ties Iraq enjoys both regionally and internationally. In Syria, these strengths don’t exist, and ISIS and Al Qaeda have a much stronger presence. So while Mr. Salem is hopeful that Iraq can begin to slowly rebuild, Syria presents a much greater challenge. The focus for the U.S. there must be continuing efforts to find common ground with Russia in order to de-escalate the conflict. Staying the course and supporting reconciliation is the only option for the U.S., even as it remains unlikely that the Syrian people would accept Assad’s remaining in power.


The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event, will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Ambassador James Jeffrey

Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Former Ambassador, Turkey and Iraq
Former Deputy National Security Adviser, President George W. Bush

Dr. Denise Natali

Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
Adjunct Associate Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Former Disaster Assistance Relief Team Officer, USAID, Northern Iraq

Mr. Wa’el Alzayat

CEO, Emgage Foundation
Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Former Senior Policy Adviser on Iraq and Syria to Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Department of State

Dr. Paul Salem

Vice President, Policy Analysis, Research & Programs, The Middle East Institute
Founding Director, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon
Former Director, Fares Foundation


Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer

Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman




Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council


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