As 2017 draws to a close, the mood among leading pundits on the U.S.-led campaign to dislodge the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria might seem justifiably upbeat, even jubilant. After all, the accomplishments in the campaign’s first three years are many: eliminating key ISIS leaders, clearing the group from its so-called “dual capitals” of Mosul and Raqqa, and reducing the territorial safe havens from which it can plot attacks. It’s with some justification that, on December 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS in Iraq.
But it would be naïve to toast to victory as the new year dawns. That’s not just because the last mile of defeating a terrorist group can be the hardest one, as the United States learned all too well from the lingering remnants of ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s also because regional challenges that Washington has suppressed by cultivating strategic ambiguity—deliberate vagueness in policy formulation that allows for different audiences to understand the same policy differently, thus allowing flexibility down the road—will become impossible to ignore and difficult to manage.
There are four chief strategic ambiguities Washington has perpetuated, partly because they’ve proven useful—perhaps even essential—to the campaign against ISIS. While some predated the campaign and others arose from it, they’ve already proven victims of its success. As these ambiguities prove unsustainable, the United States may be forced to do something very hard where Middle East policy is concerned: disappoint some who thought they could rely on Washington, and prepare for confrontation with others with whom it has tried to delay outright conflict.